So welcome each other, in the same way that Christ also welcomed you, for God’s glory. – Romans 15:7 (CEB)
I’ll begin by saying that I am not qualified to speak about racism in America. I’m a white, middle-class, middle-age, Midwestern, possibly over-educated, heterosexual woman. Sure, I’ve had to deal with people who were biased against me because of my gender or my age (often I was both the youngest person and the only female in the room during my corporate career). I’m not qualified to speak about racism, but let me tell you a story.
Last winter as I was hosting at Divine Intervention, I was open about where I lived and having kids. One morning, one of the guests who I had met for the first time the night before asked if I would drive him downtown since I was going that way to get home. Immediately, I think that my husband would not approve. Then I rationalize that this person has signed in and people will see us leave together. I feel like I must drive him because I should – it is on my way and it’s really cold out. If I am going to love others as Christ loves me, I may need to be uncomfortable sometimes. I agreed to drive him.
One of the guys I had met and talked with several times before had mentioned he wanted to go the library downtown, so I asked him if he wanted a ride as well (probably not as much for him as for myself). Another guest also asked if he could have a ride. So I left that morning with three African American homeless men in my car.
Before I left, I texted my husband to let him know what I was doing and when I’d be home. I dropped all three off together near the library in Milwaukee. They thanked me for the ride and off we all went. I don’t think I’d go as far as to say I was afraid, but I did have a knot in my gut. I would have some dis-ease if it had been three white men. But, honestly, I was more uncomfortable because they were Black.
Good Lord, I’m a racist.
I was ashamed as I drove the rest of the way home. The truth is, that if I am driving through a neighborhood and stop at an intersection with a group of white guys hanging there, I am less concerned than if it were a group of Black men. My white son often wears his hood up on his sweatshirts. When I see a person of color doing this, I feel nervous. I know that racism is a sin and that statistically I’m probably less safe with white men I don’t know than with Black men. I can say that I love everyone. But my gut condemns me. And I hate it.
It’s been almost two weeks since the killing of nine African Americans in Charleston by a white man, Dylann Roof. That Wednesday night, Roof went to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and joined a Bible study. For an hour, he sat with 12 other people in study and prayer before killing nine of them. He may have reloaded five times.
When I first heard of the shooting, I assumed it was a large prayer meeting – probably in the sanctuary. I assumed that he shot those leading the meeting. I assumed he was anonymous in the back somewhere before he began shooting. But he sat in a room with only twelve other people for an hour. This young, white man could not have been anonymous.
I don’t know if it was common for visitors to attend this Bible study. I doubt it was common for white visitors to attend the Bible study. What did the members of the church think as he joined them? Did they wonder if something might be up? Was there ever any sense of danger? Did any concern they had subside as he stayed longer and longer without any incident? Did they welcome him and make him feel comfortable rather than as “other” in the group? Did he actively participate in study and prayer?
What do you do? He clearly doesn’t fit in and it’s hard to believe he didn’t give off some unsettling vibe. They could have asked him to come back another time to meet with a pastor, or attend worship, or a more populated study or program. They could have alerted security just to help ensure everything would stay secure. But it seems they must have included him in their small circle.
Churches continue to be very segregated in the United States. Every church I’ve been a member of was almost exclusively white, and the minorities that were present were varied and not extensively Black. If my Bible study was meeting at church, and a young black man came and sat down, I don’t know if we would have welcomed him. If we were all women, we would probably would text a man to come check on us and maybe speak with him away from our group. This is just the truth. If you are white, would you have welcomed an unknown Black man into your small group? To be fair, if a young, white man whom we didn’t know came in to join us, this would also cause discomfort – especially in the suburbs.
Our English word martyr comes from the Greek word meaning witness. During his ministry, Jesus was referred to as a martyr – not because he was eventually murdered but because he bore witness to God and God’s hope for the world. Our contemporary understanding of the word martyr largely rests on the concept of dying for what you believe, usually religious in nature. But this isn’t really how the Church should understand this word. Being a martyr is about faithfulness.
Those who were injured and died at Emanuel AME Church were martyrs. Not because they died, but because in life, they bore witness to the welcome and love of Jesus Christ. Leaders of a historic African American congregation in Charleston, South Carolina – where the confederate flag still flies proudly from the capitol – were meeting for Bible study and prayer when a young, white man walks in. What would you do? What would I do?
My current worshipping community meets in homes, usually my home. We’re not at the point of “advertising,” so I usually know who might show up. But what if someone I don’t know, who doesn’t look or act like me, stumbles upon our facebook page and shows up at my house? Do I ask for identification? Do I have someone escort them if they need to use the restroom? How welcoming will I be?
What will my witness be?
Part of my heartbreak over this violence in Charleston is what it might mean to the witness and inclusion of the Church. I fear that we will become more segregated within the Church because we will deem it too dangerous to be welcoming and inclusive. I fear that we will not bear witness to the truth that in life and death we belong to Christ because there is too much risk. I fear that the things that separate us from one another may overwhelm the humanity we hold in common.
The next white man that joins the Bible study or prayer meeting could be a killer – or he could be someone who needs to be welcomed into a sacred space (or both). What happens the next time a white man shows up at Emanuel or any other African American church? What happens when a person of color shows up at my door? How does love win when we are so afraid? Lord, hear our prayer.
Dear Jesus, I confess that I do not welcome everyone as you have welcomed me. Like the man who confessed, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” I confess, “I love! Help me to trust!” Welcoming one another as you have welcomed me does not require my comfort. Loving one another as you have loved me does not require my safety. But yet I hold on to my comfort and safety rather than offering you. Please bring my heart into alignment with my head. Help me to be bold where my faithful witness requires it. Give me eyes to see others as you see them. Heal us of our affliction so that we may glorify you in our churches and communities. Amen.