The names Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd are fresh on our lips. A united groan quickly floods social media, but it predictably erupts into something else. Comments and opinions abound, and again we remember we are not in this together.
I sat down with Pastor Darrell Williams of the Core Church of Charlotte, North Carolina, and Pastor Wayne Otto of Providence Church in Summerville, South Carolina. My goal was to be a fly on wall during a candid dialogue. I wanted to understand how to be part of the solution of what is happening right now, and then remembered that for some people right now has been going on for decades.
So, how do we teach our congregations to have biblically-charged conversations about race?
Start by listening
Otto is a Caucasian pastor of a mixed congregation. His goal has been to lead the church to listen first, rather than respond quickly. “On one hand, the black community is saying, ‘cry out with us,’ but on the other hand, I’m calling for restraint because we really need to listen before we speak. The words of a friend are good, but when we are already convinced of what’s right, we are wounding each other with lasting repercussions.”
Otto is reminding that we aren’t all feeling the same churn from these events. We don’t all have first-hand accounts this pain. He reminds with Amos 5:13, “Therefore the prudent keep silent in such times, for the days are evil.”
Use discussions to learn and empathize
The pastors highlighted nuances where debates change course from the point, and we stop exercising empathy over the event itself.
It becomes a debate about good cops versus bad cops
Williams says, “When my son wants to go to the store, I get antsy. I struggle because if he is caught running with a bag of chips that he paid for, the perception is that he’s stolen it, and the system has a right to snuff his life out.”
Williams explained, “You can go online and see situations where officers have escalated small situations to life threatening. Sometimes understanding rights and complying doesn’t save your life.”
Parents teach their kids to comply so that they don’t lose their lives, but in the case of George Floyd and others, they are killed while not resisting. My heart drops when Williams shared this next intimate truth. “Now we must also comply with citizens who don’t want us jogging.” I remember the video of Ahmaud Arbery where the world watched a citizen murder him while he jogged through a neighborhood.
It becomes a debate about the right way to protest
Per Williams, “One of the harsh debates we find is people upset about rioting but not speaking out about the history of human lives being destroyed. We have to take this perspective when we look at 400 years of civil unrest and terror.”
I fought back tears. When protesting across the world turned from peaceful, my fear was this is terror. My prayers then led me to understand that this was actually trauma from a group of people who have been living in their own form of domestic terrorism. Williams reminded that if we don’t educate ourselves on the systematic oppression, then we will never really have the tools for compassion. We want to plant gardens, but the surface of the soil is not where the growth takes root. Sometimes we must get dirty to get to the root of it.
The focus on the method of protesting can even be part of the problem. “There are opportunists who are going to take advantage of a situation. They see some individuals making statements with great intention. To take a narrow group and focus on them is part of what’s going on with systemic racism.”
The truths keep hitting hard when Williams gives a hypothetical scenario. “Can you imagine a scenario during COVID when a heavily armed group of black women and men surround a state building with AR-15s?” This is in reference to the large group that protested COVID-19 lockdowns.
Tough conversations are akin to taking up our cross and following Jesus into the deep. The question is what are we really willing to learn and sacrifice to understand? Our sermons should sometimes bring discomfort in lieu of a fuzzy message.
Take a kingdom approach to reconciliation
Otto and Williams agree that when we call ourselves missional churches, we cannot establish a mission and then ask God to be a part of it. We must attach ourselves instead to the mission of God.
Through COVID-19, Otto has reminded his congregation that if we don’t take this time to listen for what God wants us to do, we are missing a great opportunity for reset. We must use this as an opportunity to die to ourselves.
Williams pastors an all-black congregation. One large hurdle is the correct approach to reconciliation. “Unless we are trying to reconcile back to the cross, it’s a myth.” Willams elaborates, “We need to make sure we don’t get pushed off course with struggle and remain kingdom-minded, even during oppression and move for the sake of kingdom agenda. Many times the discussions we have about reconciliation are melding a kingdom point to a secular change.”
Our Wesleyan roots take us back to Orange Scott, who helped pave the road of the church’s involvement in social justice and reconciliation. In the name of Orange Scott, Otto has established a tangible next step of being part of our modern reformation by ways of educating, missional work, donating and more.
Join the revival
Williams says, “We are set up for revival. I’m telling my church not to get distracted because we have to bring this thing to a biblical destination. We are called to social and biblical justice so we must stay the course. Can you imagine if pastors and leaders came together to repent because we are falling away from God’s Word? Can you imagine how the heavens would open up and cry out? The only way we are going to lead as a church is to experience a Pentecost and be empowered by the Holy Spirit.”
Otto’s eyes lit up as he reflected on his sermon from the Sunday prior. He led with Acts 2:1-4, “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them.” They were together, uniting the kingdom of God. The violent wind filled up the deepest parts of them, something we need to rush on us today. Tongues of divine aspiration, authority and accountability rested on them. Last, this filled all of them up, with one message and gospel.
Pledge allegiance to Jesus
Ghastly social media comments may lead us to think otherwise; but this is not just a political issue. Otto and Williams agree that when we rigidly tie ourselves to a party we are not allowing room for balance. As Otto says, “There is not going to be a democracy when we get to heaven.”
“Our nationalism has gotten us into trouble. Christianity has been deeply mashed with nationalism, but we haven’t pulled back to replace that with being married to the Kingdom of God,” says Otto.
Williams agrees and goes on to add, “Our theology cannot be shallow. We can’t let our political views replace our biblical views because then we go around justifying actions when we know they aren’t scripturally correct.”
Don’t let the discussion stop here
Let our prayers and conversations align with the Beatitudes, longing to be merciful peacemakers. Let us seek God’s wisdom first and pray for him to first do a mighty work in all of us so that we can continue to speak with truth and light.