When Will We Stand United? (How long, O Lord?)

“A number of us usually attended St. George’s Church in Fourth street; and when the coloured people began to get numerous in attending the church, they moved us from the seats we usually sat on, and placed us around the wall, and on Sabbath morning we went to church and the sexton stood at the door, and told us to go in the gallery. He told us to go, and we would see where to sit. We expected to take the seats over the ones we formerly occupied below, not knowing any better. We took those seats. Meeting had begun, and they were nearly done singing, and just as we got to the seats, the elder said, “let us pray.” We had not been long upon our knees before I heard considerable scuffling and low talking. I raised my head up and saw one of the trustees, H– M–, having hold of the Rev. Absalom Jones, pulling him up off of his knees, and saying, “You must get up–you must not kneel here.” Mr. Jones replied, “wait until prayer is over.” Mr. H– M– said “no, you must get up now, or I will call for aid and I force you away.” Mr. Jones said, “wait until prayer is over, and I will get up and trouble you no more.” With that he beckoned to one of the other trustees, Mr. L– S– to come to his assistance. He came, and went to William White to pull him up. By this time prayer was over, and we all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued with us in the church. This raised a great excitement and inquiry among the citizens, in so much that I believe they were ashamed of their conduct. But my dear Lord was with us, and we were filled with fresh vigour to get a house erected to worship God in. Seeing our forlorn and distressed situation, many of the hearts of our citizens were moved to urge us forward; notwithstanding we had subscribed largely towards finishing St. George’s Church, in building the gallery and laying new floors, and just as the house was made comfortable, we were turned out from enjoying the comforts of worshiping therein. We then hired a store room, and held worship by ourselves. Here we were pursued with threats of being disowned, and read publicly out of meeting if we did continue worship in the place we had hired; but we believed the Lord would be our friend. We got subscription papers out to raise money to build the house of the Lord. By this time we had waited on Dr. Rush and Mr. Robert Ralston, and told them of our distressing situation. We considered it a blessing that the Lord had put it into our hearts to wait upon those gentlemen. They pitied our situation, and subscribed largely towards the church, and were very friendly towards us, and advised us how to go on. We appointed Mr. Ralston our treasurer. Dr. Rush did much for us in public by his influence. I hope the name of Dr. Benjamin Rush and Mr. Robert Ralston will never be forgotten among us. They were the two first gentlemen who espoused the cause of the oppressed, and aided us in building the house of the Lord for the poor Africans to worship in. Here was the beginning and rise of the first African church in America. But the elder of the Methodist church still pursued us. Mr. J– M– called upon us and told us if we did not erase our names from the subscription paper, and give up the paper, we would be publicly turned out of meeting. We asked him if we had violated any rules of discipline by so doing. He replied, “I have the charge given to me by the Conference, and unless you submit I will read you publicly out of meeting.” We told him we were willing to abide by the discipline of the Methodist church; “and if you will show us where we have violated any law of discipline of the Methodist church, we will submit; and if there is no rule violated in the discipline, we will proceed on.” He replied, “we will read you all out.” We told him if he turned us out contrary to rule of discipline, we should seek further redress. We told him we were dragged off of our knees in St. George’s church, and treated worse than heathens; and we were determined to seek out for ourselves, the Lord being our helper. He told us we were not Methodists, and left us. Finding we would go on in raising money to build the church, he called upon us again, and wished to see us all together. We met him. He told us that he wished us well, and that he was a friend to us, and used many arguments to convince us that we were wrong in building a church. We told him we had no place of worship; and we did not mean to go to St. George’s church any more, as we were so scandalously treated in the presence of all the congregation present; “and if you deny us your name, you cannot seal up the scriptures from us, and deny us a name in heaven. We believe heaven is free for all who worship in spirit and truth.” And he said, “so you are determined to go on.” We told him–“yes, God being our helper.” He then replied, “we will disown you all from the Methodist connexion.””

These words were written in an autobiography of Reverend Richard Allen, the Founder and first Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. They describe an experience that was first detailed to me by my own pastor in the United Methodist Church, not very long ago. I remember being both appalled and uplifted at hearing the story: a man who humbled himself before God, and was forcibly removed from a position of prayer. A group of people who were willing to follow their convictions out the door, even though it meant being disowned as Methodists. It’s a story of hate and discrimination, yet it’s also a story of courage. In a time when it was dangerous to be a Black American, a group of people – God-loving, Christ-following people – stepped out on faith to create a place that was safe for them to worship the way that God called them to.

As I reflect on this story, I wonder where the white Methodists were. Why did they not follow Richard Allen and his company of saints out the door of St. George’s? Why did they not see the glory of the Lord surrounding this group of people, the tongues of flame over their heads? Why did they stay in the face of this injustice? Why did they choose the Kingdom of the Church over the Kingdom of God?

I try to understand these questions, and then I look at the church today. The United Methodist Church is a denomination that is 90% white. I couldn’t find a percentage of white faces in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, either because such faces don’t exist, or they exist so rarely that they don’t warrant counting. We have created a de facto state of segregation in our churches today. Perhaps this is because of all the old wounds that we’ve never thought to heal. Perhaps it’s because this is the way things have been for so long – the presence of “black churches” and “white churches” just down the street from each other – that we don’t know how to change it, or if such a change is even welcome. Perhaps it speaks to the great cultural divide that seems to be widening every day between “white America” and “black America.”

Or perhaps it’s something more insidious. Perhaps it’s because we’re “uncomfortable” with each other, with our differing forms of worship. Perhaps we think that these differing forms of worship mean that we, ourselves, are too different to be worshiping together.

It’s that feeling of difference that disturbs me the most, because the feeling of difference, of “Other” is what leads to the kind of hate that was so violently expressed at Emanuel AME Church yesterday. Nine people dead today, 9 families – and an entire community – in mourning today, 1 disturbed young man who was probably raised and spoon-fed the idea of “difference” that led to “other” that led to walking into a church with the expressed intent of killing black people.

A friend and fellow writer expressed great hesitation in writing on this tragedy, and I share his hesitation. Sometimes, “white allies” – like me – are far too quick to jump to a conclusion, voice an opinion on a tragedy that seems to affect the black community exclusively. While I agree that this tragedy affects the black community primarily, I daresay that it is a tragedy that affects us all, a tragedy that was in the making since the moment that Richard Allen followed Jesus out the door of St. George’s, a tragedy that we could have mitigated at any moment between then and now.

I don’t mean to state – implicitly or explicitly – that this holocaust of black Christians, or black Americans in general, is as simple a matter as racial divisions in the church. There are many issues that were thrown into this unholy stewpot: a history of racial hate, especially in the South; a rabid love of firearms and gun violence, coupled with an almost complete lack of regulation; a lack of awareness and treatment of the kind of severe mental imbalance that turns a hateful young man into a vicious mass murderer. All these things contribute to the almost daily litany of violence against black Americans. But, today, I won’t speak as a person in favor of gun regulation, or mental health awareness and treatment, or greater police accountability; although I am in favor of, and an advocate for, all those things, the sick feeling in my stomach and my soul doesn’t come from those things. The sick feeling in my stomach comes from a question that I can’t get out of my head.

Where were the white Christians in that Bible study?

Why were there no white bodies, covering black bodies, laying beside them in the solidarity that the Kingdom of God is supposed to be all about?

We are always quick to mourn these tragedies in the white community. We are always quick to remark on the senselessness of it. We are always quick to express disgust. But, we are rarely, if ever, there at the scene of the crime. We are rarely, if ever, present in the body with our black brothers and sisters. “We are with them in spirit” is cold comfort when the blood of the martyrs still covers the floors of the church.

And, so, I am issuing a Call to Action. As a Southern White Christian – and a Southern White Methodist – I acknowledge my complicity in watching this divide widening and doing nothing to bridge the gap. I acknowledge that I have not heard the cries of the black community, and responded as I should. I have become a bystander. So, I invite all my white brothers and sisters who follow Christ – especially those of us in the South, especially those of us in the United Methodist Church – to be with our brothers and sisters in Christ in Charleston, both in the body as well as in Spirit. Let us make a holy pilgrimage to Emanuel AME Church this weekend; not to offer words, but to offer arms. To offer service. To offer to mourn with those who mourn. To offer our humble repentance for doing nothing for the culture of “difference” that has helped widen this divide. To offer our ears, to hear what the Spirit has to say to us through the slain bodies of the saints. Let us finally begin to stand united, to join Richard Allen and Absalom Jones in exercising our convictions with our feet, to never allow the door to close at the back of our brothers and sisters whose skin is different than ours.

In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. There is neither black nor white. There is neither UMC or AME or SBC or PCUSA or any other symbol of difference. There are only the saints. There are only the citizens of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom of infinite diversity. Let’s bring that Kingdom about today, on earth as it is in heaven.

Michael Brian Woywood