The date is April 3, 1968. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, having arrived only a few hours earlier in the city of Memphis, hoped to retire to his hotel room for the evening. He is weary. At just 39 years of life, he carries the weight of a nation of people desperate to overcome the whips of racial injustice, ready to enter the promise land of the free-at-last. And so, even though he desired to rest, Rev. King answers the call of Memphis. He stands at the podium of the Bishop Charles Mason Church of God. He preaches like a prophet of old and the people have come from every-which-direction to hear this herald of peace. The weather brings rain and thunder to accompany the voice that swells and finds it’s bass.
Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That’s the issue. And we’ve got to say to the nation, we know how it’s coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.
Cheers and applause break forth as the preacher leaves us a legacy of non-violent protest and leadership in the civil rights movement. How could the world know that only hours later the reverend who fought for the human rights for “people of color” would be assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel? And here we mark the decline in pursuit of justice for people of color in this country.
This month (on March 7, 2015) is the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the day when America and the world turned their televisions to see the plight of African-Americans protesting for the right to vote when the Alabama state police brutality beat them sending at least 50 of the protestors to the hospital. That was 50 years ago. Yet, just 5 months ago America was in an uproar over the deaths of African-Americans Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police officers. In many African-American homes, the holiday mood of Thanksgiving and Christmas remained grim and mothers cried for the future of their sons. Protesters, violent and non-violent, took to the streets, stopped highways and the world turned their faces to American once again and witnessed our racial divides.
Where do we go from here?
Undoubtedly, there are many Americans still hung up over the issue of whether or not Michael Brown deserved or did not deserve to die. And if the conversation remains solely on this moment then the opportunity to engage in a deeper discussion will be missed. Why is there such a mistrust of the American legal systems in the racial minority communities of this country? Why is there such a disproportionate number of African-Americans in the prison system of the United States when African-Americans are a racial minority? Why did the minority communities of America turn the advent season into a time of lament if the recent events were isolated incidents? Why will the conversation on race die away in the predominantly white racial communities in America, while the rest of us are forced to think about how race will play a factor into our life experience every day we put on our shoes? And further, for the church leaders and future church leaders, what is the role of the church in this conversation if it is to at all have a role?
Not too long ago I had breakfast with a friend of mine who is a pastor. This pastor is a white male and a while ago we agreed to keep in touch for the sake of friendship, but also to share our cultural diversity together. He confided with me that he recently was in a meeting with other pastors of different ethnic heritage: White, Asian, Latino, and African-American. The topic of discussion was how each of their churches responded to events in Ferguson regarding Michael Brown and the riots. At his table, only the African-American pastors made a public response in their congregations. How about your church? How did your church respond? Was there any form of public prayer?
We cannot live authentic Christian lives without at least considering the pain of our neighbor. For those of us living in the United States, that must include dealing with the sin of racism which has plagued this nation from its inception. It infects our individual lives, but also our churches, denominations, and yes, even our seminaries. Yet, we must realize that these issues will not disappear overnight. But, we have to start somewhere.
I appeal to you to begin having crucial conversations, like the one mentioned above. We cannot continue to engage in a world of ministry imagining it to be a homogenous unit that represents our own interests. We can’t learn about our neighbor’s pain without having intentional dialogue with them. Who are you talking to? Is it only people that look and think like us? Only from our denomination?
Who are you reading? Consider picking up a book from authors that don’t represent the White-dominate majority (that goes for whites and everyone else). Here are a few suggestions: The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander; The Next Evangelicalism, by Dr. Soong-Chan Rah; or articles and books by Carlos René Padilla.
The conversation on race and religion will continue with or without you. But, it would be better if the church is engaged in the conversation. The need for justice and equality did and cannot end with the death of Rev. King. His work should have marked only the beginning. There is much yet to be done. And there is much needed healing from the damage of racism – in our courtrooms and in our churches. Let us let the Holy Spirit and Scripture be our guide. Paul writes to the church in Philippians in the second chapter of his letter:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
By Ricardo Tavarez