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

“I Can’t Breathe”: A White Man’s Thoughts on Eric Garner, Ferguson and the Specter of Racial Injustice

“For me, this is a very religious thing. I don’t believe you can love your neighbor as yourself and then kill them. Police officers have to learn to love their neighbors as themselves. If we continue a situation where cops are allowed to continuously resort to lethal force, the cycle of violence will continue and death will continue to beget death. I think people of faith need to demonstrate. We have a fundamental responsibility to be in the streets, to be creating coalitions, to be building change.

I keep thinking about Eric Garner saying, ‘I can’t breathe.- It made me think — that’s what Jesus is saying in this culture. Jesus is fundamentally connected to the marginalized and right now Jesus is saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’ I think the church should be saying the same thing — that we can’t breathe in this culture and we have to change this culture in order for us to have breath and exist in this society.”

— Rev. Jeff Hood

I normally try to keep these blog posts confined to religious topics, and I do my best to avoid specifically political issues. I have not been perfect in this regard, because there are times when the weight of political/social events becomes so heavy that the religious community can no longer afford to sit back and try to be peacemakers.

This is one of those times.

As I sit here, my head is still reeling from the grand jury verdict of “no true bill” for Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, Jr.. I have struggled since the announcement of the verdict to understand how we have come here, to this place in America where a professional with a firearm can be reasonably threatened by an unarmed civilian – at least to the point where lethal force is appropriate. That goes against my beliefs on non-violence, but it also goes against my training in escalation of force and rules of engagement. The addition of the fact that the officer in question was white and the victim/perpetrator was black, and the case takes a new dimension. Suddenly, we’re thrust into the world of racial injustice. We suddenly have to consider that a young black man is 21 times more likely (http://www.propublica.org/article/deadly-force-in-black-and-white) to be shot dead by police than their white counterparts (this study includes both white and non-white police officers.) We have to consider the racial injustice of the courtroom and prison, the fact that there are more black Americans in prison or on probation or parole than were enslaved in the year 1850 (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/criminal-justice/locked-up-in-america/michelle-alexander-a-system-of-racial-and-social-control/).

These are uncomfortable statistics for white Americans, because they indicate an institutional racism that we have become complicit in. We are not racists on an interpersonal level, yet we continue to live in a privileged state compared to our dark-skinned brothers and sisters. Our sons are far less likely to be shot dead by police, or tried and imprisoned, for often minor crimes. We are not feared in large numbers. We are not a targeted population for stop and frisk laws. We are not as likely to lose our voting rights as a result of felony incarceration.

We are privileged, but we don’t want to admit that. We don’t want to acknowledge that America is an easier place to live when you’re white, because it would challenge the false narrative of racial harmony that we’ve been building for at least the last 40 years. White Americans now quote Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on non-violence (while conveniently ignoring his pleas for racial justice.) We lionize a dead civil rights champion, while we simultaneously demonize living ones (see: Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton). We point to a black president as “proof” that we’re living in a “post-racial” society, yet we fail to see that the same President has been subject to racist campaigns to discredit his citizenship and a level of vitriol unheard of in my lifetime.

I have family and friends that feel strongly that the case of Ferguson, Missouri and the death of Michael Brown, Jr. is a case of “race-bating” and “fanning the flames” of racial division. But, they fail to see that we, as white Americans, have already done that. We have fanned these flames into a raging inferno, and then stood back and complained that it’s too hot. How have we done this? We have done this by ignoring a system of institutional racism that has existed, in some form, since the foundation of this country.

We owned slaves for 245 years in this country, from the first landing in 1620 until 1865. After the practice of slavery was abolished, we continued a system of legal segregation and discrimination for another century (the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964.) So, for 344 years, black Americans were either owned or legally prevented from going to the same schools as white Americans, working at the same jobs, living in the same neighborhoods, shopping at the same stores, eating from the same restaurants, etc. To put this into a different perspective: my father was born in 1962. He is now 52 years old. That means that the first black Americans to be born into a world without legal segregation and discrimination are just hitting what we would call “middle age.”

Is 50 years long enough, in the scope of cultural and institutional trends, to make up for three and a half centuries of hideous racial injustice?

Is 50 years long enough for the memory of those crimes to fade?

Is 50 years long enough for the children and grandchildren of slaves – the children and grandchildren of the legally disenfranchised, segregated and discriminated against – to “pull themselves up” out of the hole that white Americans dug for them and threw them in?

I’m using strong language for a reason. It’s time for us to acknowledge that we created the very cycles of crime that we turn our nose up at. We created the urban neighborhoods that we don’t feel safe driving through. We created the generational problems of incarceration that leave so many young black men fatherless. We created the poverty that forces so many black families onto federal assistance.

We created these problems, as a society and a culture, and now we wash our hands of it, we shake our heads disapprovingly, we protest innocence and say, “I didn’t do any of those things.”

Protestations of innocence do nothing to solve the problem of racial injustice.

Disapproval makes it worse.

Denial of privilege makes it worse.

This morning, I watched the video of Eric Garner being murdered by a NYC police officer. I listened as he cried out, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” over and over again. Unlike the tragic story of Michael Brown, Jr., there was on question of whether or not Eric Garner was an aggressor. He was well within his rights to tell police officers to leave him alone. He was committing no crime at the time of his arrest. From the words he said, this was not the first time he had been unjustly confronted by officers.

And they still confronted him.

They tackled him.

They choked him.

They killed him.

A grand jury failed – not refused, but failed – to bring back justice for Eric Garner. A police officer is clearly shown on video as an aggressor, is clearly shown to ignore the cries of a man who is in pain, and yet a grand jury said to the people of that neighborhood in New York City, “Eric Garner doesn’t matter.

Does this cast a different light on the “situation” in Ferguson, Missouri? Does this make riots and looting understandable? MLK Jr. referred to rioting as “the voice of the unheard.”

Can you hear that voice? Are you even listening? Do you even care?

That voice is the cry of the oppressed, the cry of the needy, and we are instructed clearly in the words of Jesus about what to do when we hear those cries. Those cries are His cries.

Where was Jesus in Ferguson, Missouri? He was bent and weeping over the slain body of Michael Brown.

Where was Jesus in NYC? He was crying out with Eric Garner.

Where is Jesus every day when another young black boy loses his life to police bullets? Where is He when another black man is sent away from his community to rot in a for-profit prison system?

Jesus is always at the side of the oppressed.

But, that’s cold comfort to a community of people who are losing their sons, brothers, fathers, mothers, sisters and friends to a system that doesn’t care about them enough to stop it. They don’t need Jesus standing by their side.

They need us.

This isn’t a narrative about white superheroes and saviors swooping down to save poor black people. This is a narrative about average, everyday white Americans admitting their privilege and consciously ignoring it in favor of solidarity with the oppressed.

This is a narrative about white Americans speaking out in defense of the victims, rather than the aggressors.

This is a narrative about white Americans understanding, rather than judging.

This is a narrative about white Americans refusing to support acts of violence against the black community, regardless of who perpetrates it.

Finally, this is a narrative about white Americans recognizing that we exist in an unbalanced state of racial relations. It does no good to talk about how “colorblind” you are, while simultaneously benefiting from systems and institutions that favor one color of skin over another.

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I wanted so badly to be a peacemaker. I wanted my first blog post-Ferguson to be about our need for reconciliation, the need for both parties – offended and offender – to come together in unity. But, I no longer believe that this is anything but a white American problem. We have greatly wronged our brothers and sisters of color for centuries, and it is neither Christian nor American to expect them to come up with a solution. We have the only solution.

The only solution is justice.

And only we can deliver that.