Just a Few of Us: Being Black in the ELCA and SC Synod

First appeared at Love Sees Color

I came back to the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in 2012 after having a conversation with a professor that would later become a mentor. At his prompting, along with many others, I made a decision to enter into the ordination process of the ELCA. For me that brought mass levels of trepidation because of the horror stories I heard about the process. It became another process in my life that would become a part of my redemptive story. I knew the commitment would be stringent and I decided to make that plunge.

My journey was completely different because I already had pastoral experience and two master degrees- one from Liberty University and the other from the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary (the seminary of Lenoir-Rhyne University). It was a step into a world that was foreign to my world – the “Black Church.” Yes, we serve the same God but my experience in life was vastly different than most of the Lutherans that I had met. Then on June 17, 2015 my life and work was flipped upside down as 9 black bodies were massacred while attending a Bible Study at Mother Emmanuel AME Church. Honestly, my quest to finish the ordination process almost came to a squelching halt as I debated becoming a pastor in the AME church. I wanted to show my solidarity with the good people of the AME and the black community in general, and being a part of the ELCA seemed counter-cultural.

Yes, I wrestled with how can I be a part of a denomination that would produce a murderer of beautiful black people? How would the ELCA respond to such a tragedy? How would the SC Synod respond to such an atrocity? These are the existential questions that pummeled my mind daily. The queries that stood as constant reminders that as much as I try to ignore it…color does matter.

My being a part of the ELCA in the SC Synod heightened my awareness of the lack of cultural competency that we have in America. I watched as white Lutherans tried to make sense of this terrorist act and to find answers. I watched as black people mourned yet again, wrestling with the constant reminders that there are no safe spaces; tired of forgiving white folks for their senseless hate at the expense of their black bodies. And, here I was in the beginning stages of being a part of this denomination.

Reflecting on the past three months has brought me to strange places in my faith. I wish I could say that I have it all figured out and I am comfortable in all the confines of the ELCA and SC Synod but I can’t. I see the stares, not sure if they are disbelief, utter rejection or simply shock, but they are noticeable. I still feel the overcompensation because of the overtly racist atmosphere that is cultivated in the south. It is understandable, but it also resonates with my soul that we still have so much work to do. There are many beautiful people in the SC Synod of the ELCA that I have met in the last three months. We have talked and broke bread as well as visited with each other during a Sunday service, but, I state again, we have such a long road ahead.

I have been asked, “Why would a black man decide to become a part of the ELCA –the whitest denomination in America.” (according to Pew Research) Then on top of that become a part of a synod that has only ordained one black clergy member.

How does one really reconcile that in their mind?

God is up to something a lot bigger than me…

The day beauty was robbed…

charleston shooting

The past week has rocked the black community and people-at-large at such an unbelievable magnitude. It has penetrated the healed wounds of old and enfleshed a reality that embarks upon hatred. A mere word in the wind or passing does not ease the sullen anxiety that awakes the project called the black experience in these yet to be united states of america.

Mere words are futile in trying to comprehend what would make a person destroy such beauty in Mother Emanuel AME Church. The beauty that is housed in black essence serving a beautiful God while engaged in fellowship in a beautiful site of resistance. This day when beauty was robbed, and left to others to refashion, changed the face of nation. Black people did what we have always done…we persevered. The families of the murdered 9 beautiful people forgave and we lay to rest these saints these week.

Answers, I have none but thoughts I have plenty. Questions I have for God…. I feel like God continues to let the black folks suffer at the expense of white America. But then I am eased by the harmonious tune of grace that illuminates the beauty of the Father in spite of my confusion. As the great educator Dr. Tony Everett asks, “Where is God in all of this?” (WIGIAT) I don’t know, but he is somewhere in the midst. He has been in the midst. Maybe he is in riots of the oppressed; maybe he is in the protest in other cities; maybe in was in the hearts of those folks saying take down the confederate flag; he was in the hearts of the families who forgave the young boy; he was in Sharonda Coleman-Singleton; he was in Cynthia Hurd; he was in Rev. Clementa Pickney; he was in Susie Jackson; he was in Twanyza Sanders; he was in Myra Thompson; he was in Ethel Lee Lance; he was in Rev. Daniel Simmons; he was in Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor.

I salute those Saints who were robbed of their beauty….

 

 

When “Homeplace” Becomes Death Space

First published at Rhetoric Race and Religion

It is the great social critic, bell hooks, who uses the space of home as a site of resistance. Within that framework you can also place the church as a place of resistance.  This homeplace, as she so aptly calls it, operates as a place where we can recover from all of the bruises of the world –racism, sexism, classism, ageism. Homeplace was that place of resistance. Church was homeplace for the black Christians.  In the place of safety, the church –our homeplace, where do we find solace to build resistance and community.  bell hooks states in her essay Homeplace: Site of Resistance  that “when a people no longer have the space to construct homeplace, we cannot build a meaningful community of resistance.” The church has been a place where black folks went to simply find refuge and peace as far back as I can remember. Most black Christians took it seriously and looked for any opportunity to invite others to fellowship. Color was not a prerequisite for an invitation.

Now enters the events of June 17, 2015 where nine black people (two fellow alums; another, a classmate from Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Dr. Simmons and Clementa Pickney) were murdered in an AME church by a white terrorist, Dylann Roof. This young man was at the bible study and when it was over, opened fire on the congregation in attendance.

charleston shooting

What does evangelism look like in a black world where white terrorism is the norm?

The meaning of church starts to reshape when terror is brought to bear in the lives of the church; the danger that arises from a normal invitation to discipleship avails itself to the potentiality of death.  In the case of Mother Emmanuel AME Church, we see black folks in their homeplace displaying love and fellowship only to suffer such an utter demise. An act of evangelism and fellowship is kidnapped by hate and evil.

This was not the will of God, it was a cowardice act of terrorism that is not foreign to the black church. Church burnings and bombings have taken the lives of many in menial attempts to render blacks humanity irrelevant. Our homeplace has always been on constant alert but for those of my generation we, extended the luxury of the benefit of the doubt when it came to terrorism in the church.  Now, that, our place of resistance has been infiltrated with hate, we are now left in a spin cycle grasping for hope.

As I reflect back on the life of Pastor/Senator Clementa Pickney (the essence of what church and state resembles) and how those on our seminary campus speak about him, I am stuck in a place of inexplicable tiredness. I start to wonder when the mis-valuing of black life will harness the need to make sure it is protected at all cost. As many esteemed him as a soft spoken brother of honor. I remember him as a brother that always packed a smile but stood strong on the shoulders of justice for those trapped in the margins. Just weeks ago the brother in his state senator position, stood to propose a bill that would have outlawed guns in churches…

May the Lord be with us all

Parallel Crossings: Reparations and Reconciliation

It is sensible to declare that the end of reparations is to assist with the efforts of reconciliation. The economic good from such an operation would reinvent the myth of America.[1] A myth previously predicated on a social construct of destruction known as slavery; a myth that used stolen people from Africa to change the landscape of this “extraordinary drama which is America.”[2] Reparations would be a place to start the healing or the change but there must be a clear understanding that it is a “limited remedy.”[3] The idea of reparations is not the summation of reconciliation but a loyal symbol of authentic steps in the right direction.

Many have relegated the simple payment of funds as the answer without asking serious questions about change. The need should be focused more on “righteousness, true social justice and a civilized state of African –Americans in our total quest for freedom than in trying to justify if we are owed something or not.”[4] The question that must be answered is, “can America ever be right for the African-American? Will African –Americans really benefit from the American legal system? Can reparations even be argued fairly in America’s court?[5]” Reparations does appear as the ending solution, but the only way that it becomes a reality is that we first answer such profound questions. The process of answering such questions will ultimately provide an infrastructure for change. Yes the economic issue is serious and needs to be addressed but money without justice is just fashionable poverty.

The mere fact that we must have a dialogue about the necessity of reparations unfolds the issue that we are not civil enough to embark upon reconciliation.[6] When we are able to identify that our neighbor’s pain is just as real as our own pain the process of reconciliation becomes plausible. But if my main objective is to declare that the improvement of the disenfranchised –African-Americans –then the myth of America becomes a reality. James Baldwin denotes this myth:

There is an illusion about America, a myth about America to which we are clinging which has nothing to do with the lives we lead and I don’t believe that anybody in this country who has really thought about it or really almost anybody who has been brought up against it–and almost all of us have one way or another–this collision between one’s image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and try and become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish.[7] (Nobody Knows My Name)

Baldwin suggests that many are consumed with living their own lives so to engage in any form of reparation jeopardizes their particular way of living –change becomes something that speak about but are reluctant to actually participate in the work. This reinforces the notion and the need that the principle of reparations in human affairs requires for those who are wronged and for those who have wronged to participate in the process of reconciliation.[8]

Civility

What is the point of getting a large sum of money in a corrupt society?[9] Reparations are useless if the image of African-Americans is not changed. Joseph Boston writes,

As long as America and its counterparts continue to operate under this most delusional of pathologies they must consistently cast their gaze to the East because it is there that it can fulfill the notions it believes about self –its ideals of freedom, equality, justice, democracy, superior morality, “civilisation” and it is by these virtues that it can position itself as savior. The negro, being many things to America, is by mere presence most troublesome as a symbolic representation of all that America is not, juxtaposed to all that it positions itself to be.[10]

Reparations are just mere drops in the bucket if civility lacks in the everyday interactions with each other.

There is a story line in the movie Fly by Night, where the lead actor who plays this flyboy rapper (King Rich) states he wants to make a lot of money. The other rapper in the group is a Pan-African rapper (I tick) who is about activism. They are having a conversation about obtaining wealth through the making of music. Rich is saying how they need to get money and get paid so they can buy all kinds of material things. I tick responds with, “Yeah, we can get all the money that they ever made and then they (white people) will say you need cat pee to buy food…and they will own all the cats.”

My point is that money becomes useless in an uncivil society that still deems African-Americans as quasi-citizens –American enough to work for us not American enough to see the need to extend reparation.[11]

When the opportunity of growth becomes a victim to a process, those who are not in power suffer. The act of throwing money at an issue disconnected from justice leads to more frustration and failure. Reparations and reconciliation from my perspective are two parallel entities that only connect amongst civil people.

Virtues like justice do not create civilizations, they are product of civilizations. Order is not civilizations, true civilizations create order. When all Americans become truly civilized, real justice will occur and then reparations can be properly discussed. But to assume that the high quality of justice can be expressed by, and within, an uncivilized and selfish society made up of competing races is simply immature. [12]

 

[1] The “myth of America” is a concept that will be explained in further detail.

[2] James Baldwin. Nobody Knows My Name. New York: Vintage Books,1961.,5

[3] Lecky, Robert S., Elliott Wright, and William Stringfellow. “Reparations: Repentance as a Necessity to Reconciliation.” In Black Manifesto; religion, racism, and reparations,, . New York: Sheed and Ward, 1969.,54.

[4] KRS-One. Ruminations. New York: Welcome Rain Publishers,2003.,99

[5] Ibid.,98.

[6] Ibid.,102.

[7] Ibid., Baldwin,153.

[8] Ibid., Lecky and Wright,63.

[9] Ibid., KRS-One,105

[10] This is a taken from Joseph Boston’s blog post called The Dissonance of “Bring Back Our Girls” and African American Pain.

[11] Randall Robinson. The Debt. New York: Plume, 2000.,204

[12] Ibid.,KRS-One,128.

Thoughts on Fire Next Time: James Baldwin’s Hardcore Talk on Reconciliation

There is a certain frame of reference that avails itself to the writings of James Baldwin – his inner city upbringing, his time as a preacher, his extreme openness about his homosexuality all while growing up as a black man in America. He laments in his letter to his nephew, “…to be born, in a white country, an Anglo-Teutonic, antisexual country, black. You very soon, without knowing it give up all hope of communion.”[1] These are the expressive thoughts of James Baldwin that inform “these yet to be United States” that the hard work of reconciliation is a personal mission.[2]

Baldwin gives us much to ponder as he shares this existential truth that causes us to rethink the particular positions in white privilege. His mode of attack was not steeped in violence but was occupied by pity. Baldwin had an “unsentimental compassion for whites so trapped by their fear that they are deeply alienated from their true selves.”[3] He understood with clarity that hatred made for a short life and as well as made one unproductive. This pity and unsentimental compassion is the result of a people who are trapped in a history which they do not understand.[4] It is this lack of understanding that leads to the improper treatment of others. As Baldwin denotes that until that understanding is received “there can be no release.” The understanding is the connection to commitment and it is very hard for people to “act on what they know.”[5] It is the act that drives the commitment and” to be committed is dangerous.”[6] In an interview with Francios Bondy, Baldwin shares,

…there is no prospect of setting Negroes free unless one is prepared to set the white people in America Free…Free from their terror, free from their ignorance, free from their prejudices and free, really, from the right to do wrong, knowing that it is wrong.”[7]

So we ask, “Why do we not see systemic change as it relates to racism?” –it is too dangerous. Baldwin’s ability to reshape the narrative of the Negro idiom is the unspoken challenge in a controlled rage.[8] He calls all to the table for a dialogue of truth that is predicated on producing change. (A truth informed dialogue will prove useless if all parties are unwilling to be honest to themselves or have a lack of personal introspection.) His ability to speak with such honesty about the plight of black folks in America but yet move within many white circles was epic. We have to take notice that he never cowered away from an issue because it would prove uncomfortable for his audience. Though he spoke with an unwavering intent about his love for the black community he also had a love for humanity as a whole. It is uncommon in many circles, especially in the church, to see folks who can make this type of transcendence. What impact can be made if we all had the vulnerability to be honest?

Vulnerability

The ability of Baldwin to be vulnerable in his writing aids in the reconciliation process. Writing is a revolutionary act of human catharsis that has the potential to send one to the ultimate edge of sacrifice. For Baldwin this is crucial and mandatory for the formation of his life. His entire existence appears to be based upon re-presenting the totality of his experience. Baldwin shares with an interviewer from the Paris Review[9]when ask about writing from one’s experience,

“Yes, and yet one’s own experience is not necessarily one’s twenty-four-hour reality. Everything happens to you, which is what Whitman means when he says in his poem “Heroes,” “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.” It depends on what you mean by experience.”[10]

It is the act of being “there” and being able to show that image that helps in the reconciliation process. Baldwin’s ability to help all see his world and his experience gives a vivid picture of what black people have to endure. His vulnerability to share his life with others allows for those from different ethnic groups to have a peek into the world of an oppressed black man. As a writer Baldwin’s places himself at the center of the issue and then proceeds to write himself out of the predicament. It is through his writing that he is able to connect the dots that leave us asking more existential questions: 1) How would I communities change if we were able to be totally honest with each other? 2) Can our understanding of ourselves really impact the nature of our relationships with each other?

Conclusion

Dr. William Augustus Jones, in his book, God in the Ghetto, suggests that one’s theology, how I see God, determines one’s anthropology, how I see humans, and one’s anthropology then determines one’s sociology, how I order my society.[11] I believe Baldwin writes from a similar frame of reference regardless of the fact that he is anti-church.[12] His lived theology is one that models reconciliation during a turbulent time. His observance of the humanity of Jesus in ways that shaped the thinking of people impacted the way others saw America. Baldwin understood that “to accept one’s past-one’s history- is not the same as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.”[13] How can the past of the blacks and whites be used to bring about a collective change for reconciliation? Could it be that we need to have a”transcendence of realities of color, of nations and of altars.”[14]

[1] James Baldwin. Fire Next Time.(New York: Vinatge International,1963),30.

[2] These Yet to be United States is a poem by Maya Angelou where she drives home a hard critique of the united States not living up to the nature of its name.

[3]Nilson, Jon. 2013. “James Baldwin’s Challenge To Catholic Theologians and the Church.” Theological Studies 74, no. 4: 884-902. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 1, 2014),888.

[4] Ibid.,Baldwin,8.

[5] Ibid.,9.

[6] Ibid.,9.

[7] James Baldwin and Francois Bondy, “James Baldwin, as Interviewed by Francois Bondy,” transitions 12(1964) 12-19., 12.

[8] Ibid., Baldwin,69.

[9]Jordan Elgrably; The Paris Review; http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2994/the-art-of-fiction-no-78-james-baldwin accessed 3/30/2014

[11] William Augustus Jones. God of the Ghetto. (Progressive Baptist Publishing House, 1979), 13-20.

[12] I choose to refer to him as anti-church rather than anti-Christ because he mentions that Christ was a very good example for all to follow. His discontent came with the church not with Jesus.

[13] Ibid.,Baldwin,81.

[14] Ibid.,82.