Photo credit: Soong-Chan Rah (center) causes his fellow participants to laugh during a humorous moment on a panel discussion at Christ Community Church’s Converge 2:14 conference. (Photo by Allen Allnoch)
I was preparing to speak at the closing of FMx in Southern California. The topic was the current racial tensions in our country. That week Charlotte erupted, and Tulsa was mourning. This new wave of death pulled me toward despair. It seemed that the racial tensions in America were threatening to tear us apart. As the speaking date drew closer, I wanted to throw up my hands and say, “What’s the point?” I wondered if, when the sensationalism died down and the fresh blood dried on the lips of the media, wouldn’t everyone just go back to business as usual? Would anything change except that another daughter lost her father, another mother her son? Another wife would raise her children in another fatherless household in a black community. And, for a moment, I thought about calling in sick. It wouldn’t have been a lie. My soul was weary of this. My soul cried out to the Lord, “How long?!”
“How long, Lord? Will you forget [us] forever? How long will you hide your face from [us]? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken. But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me” (Psalm 13 ESV).
I am African-American. Before they were slaves, my ancestors came from western Nigeria, and from Benin/Togo. Before they were slave owners, my ancestors came from Scandinavia, Western Europe and the Iberian Peninsula. In the 1700s, my third-great-grandfather’s family found a gold mine on their property in Georgia. With this newfound wealth, they thought it would be a good thing to buy slaves. So I hold in my very body the racial tension of this country.
I would address an audience of pastors and people of God who I believed deeply wanted to be instruments of healing and peace. People whose hearts break at the things that break Jesus’ heart. As Free Methodists, we are a people that from the time of slavery have stood against injustice. And we are still working to free people from the current bondages of our time, whether it be sexism, classism, immigration issues, human trafficking or racism – we stand for justice and freedom. Superintendent and Pastor Larry Walkemeyer says we are “free people who free people.” That’s who we are. Yet to move more fully into the truth of us, we are called to raise not only our voices to God but to rise up as followers of Jesus and help lead the way. This is our heritage.
So I took to the podium. I encouraged myself to begin what I would ask others to do; bravely begin a discourse with the hope of becoming safe holders of one another’s stories, with the hope of moving from faux intimacy to true intimacy by building trust, with the hope of moving more deeply into community.
I’ve had many people come to me asking what we should do in the midst of all that’s happening around us? How do we engage? I believe that the conversations we have with one another where God is invited to shape us will lead us into authentic action spurred by love.
Sharing narratives will be an important next step in this journey. We can’t love and care for people if we don’t know their stories. People’s stories reveal who they are, where they came from, what shaped them, what they hope for and where healing is needed.
In the current climate, it will be important to make space for the sharing of narratives and perspectives. In doing that, we’ll likely find that our own perspectives have not been fully shaped in holiness but inherited from our families, passed down in our communities, and modified by the images and sound bites we’ve seen and heard in the media. But as children of God, we are to be shaped first and foremost by God’s Word and God’s Spirit.
This is important in creating communities that listen deeply and who are willing to rejoice and to lament with one another. It’s a listening that invites healing into each other’s hurts. As we enter these conversations, there will be times when we we’ll feel unsure. We’ll have questions and we’ll have doubts. We will have differences of opinion. We may feel uncomfortable. Let’s find the courage to sit with the discomfort — because being uncomfortable is not the same thing as being unsafe.
Though we are anxious to move beyond our church walls, this is work we must first do with each other. We become safe holders of the stories of the larger community when we first become safe holders of each other’s stories.
Before we take to the streets in protest, we first take to our knees in prayer crying out Abba, letting our request be made known to God. This is a difficult conversation, and these are difficult times, but we are family and learning to be safe together is important work. Galatians 3:28-29 says, “In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous ‘descendant,’ heirs according to the covenant promises” (MSG).
So I want to encourage us to continue to listen to each other’s stories, to share the narratives that have shaped us. And pay attention. Pay attention not only to the stories but to the discomfort, to the resistance, to the sorrow or the anger that arises. Be willing to hear how racism, prejudices and bigotry are tearing our lives apart. Create sacred spaces for storytelling and ask God, by God’s Spirit, to enter in and shape our hearts. Make room for pastors, leaders and laity from different ethnicities and genders to share their stories. Make this kind of storytelling a spiritual practice. Let us learn how to be uncomfortable while still knowing we’re safe. Let us learn to listen with our hearts even when our minds can’t quite make sense of it all, even when our own experiences are very different.
So let us share our stories, our hopes and our fears. Let us come alongside one another and listen. Really listen. Then let us end each conversation as family around a loving table. We are welcomed to the Lord’s Table in all our differences and we our cherished. At the Lord’s Table, we are invited to make room in our hearts even for those whom we have differences with – and we are set free by the liberating power of the body and blood of Jesus and by the love and power of Christ’s resurrection.
It took hundreds of years of racism, of bigotry, of prejudices to arrive at this moment in time. It will take compassion, commitment and contrition to undue the harm that’s been done. It will take changed hearts and renewed minds. It will take the love and power of Jesus Christ. It will take a narrative more majestic than our individual stories. Yet our individual stories are woven into that metanarrative. Let us lay down the weight of our prejudices so we can hold the power of our stories. The world is hurting. We are hurting, but we can’t just call in “sick.” Let us find the strength each day to move more fully into the truth of who we are. We are free people who free people – because of the true and powerful story of our Lord, Jesus Christ. A story that lives in and through us.
Debra Williams is the lead pastor of the Table in Altadena, California.5