Monday, March 29, 2021

May we lean in together...

Since last April, our group of Presbyterian mission co-workers serving in Africa has been meeting every Monday morning at 11am Eastern Time via Zoom for a time of devotions and prayer. This weekly gathering has transformed us from a cohort of colleagues who all gather together every four years into a veritable family. It has been one of many gifts we have received during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In January, one of our colleagues suggested that during Lent this year we go through a daily devotional called Lent of Liberation: Confronting the Legacy of American Slavery by Cheri L. Mills.  In this devotional book, Mills recounts forty true stories of men, women, and children who escaped from slavery by means of the Underground Railroad.  She ties their stories to the biblical account of a God who desires justice and mercy.  We all agreed that this devotional book would be helpful for this season of Lent, and our African American colleagues offered to lead us in the devotions each week.

These six weeks have been transformative as our African American colleagues have shared important insights from this devotional book, helpful ways of seeing scripture, and most poignantly their own personal experiences of racialized trauma. In our devotional book, we have read stories of suffering and physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse from the period of American Slavery.  The documented stories of slaves seeking freedom recounted by Mills are also marked by courage and resilience in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.  Great sadness lies in the fact that so many families were torn apart by American Slavery.  We have also read about the continued racialized violence against African Descendants of Slavery during post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and into the present day. We have read scripture and heard scripture read, connecting the injustices of our history with the God of the Bible who stands with the marginalized, the enslaved, and the oppressed. Lastly and most significantly, our siblings of color have courageously shared with us their own personal experiences of pain, testimonies marked by prejudice, discrimination, and racism. Some of our colleagues have described incidents with the police which could easily have led to bodily harm and even death.

One colleague, a pastor and a friend, described the trauma of being pulled out from his family's home on Christmas Eve at gun point by a police officer. Ten squad cars arrived at his home within minutes as the rotor blades of a helicopter churned overhead. Our friend, a valedictorian and a selfless Christian who has worked with his church to help troubled youth and who has worked for reconciliation in Africa, kept asking himself the question, “Is all this for me?” My impression is that he was asking himself, “Is this the payment I get for all the good work I have done?”  Though our friend was innocent, and his innocence was quickly established in the driveway of his family's home, the police insisted on taking him in for questioning…on Christmas Eve. They eventually released our friend and never apologized for the way the officer acted alone in entering the home, a breach in police protocol.  Moreover, this officer was not reprimanded for this violation nor was the violation documented in his official record.  It is unbelievable to me that the Police Commander defended the raising of the firearm by the 'lone acting' officer in the family home, even though our friend had been accused by a stranger (falsely) with no corroborating evidence.  Only after persistent requests by our friend did the police issue a statement of innocence, though the authorities not only misspelled our friend's name but they did not detail most of what was done during this misguided episode for which our friend would have liked an apology.  Lastly, the officer in charge never followed up on his promise to exonerate our friend in "the court of public opinion” by speaking with the Homeowners Association, making it clear the police had made a terrible mistake. It feels as if it did not matter in the minds of the police that our friend was innocent; to them, he was just another black man that needed to be ‘kept in check’.

These six weeks have been emotionally heavy. These devotions led by our siblings of color are difficult but necessary. We have been invited into a new way of seeing the world.  We have been confronted, in love, by the trauma of racism, the very pathos of our African American colleagues who are generously sharing their stories with us.  Our friend adroitly intuits that White Christians do not sympathize with black pain because we do not understand the realities African Americans daily face.  We choose not to look.  We choose not to engage.  Thus, we do not understand and we do not act.  We fail to seek and promote a more just and equitable world.  We stand outside the circle of Jesus' greatest concern, to love our neighbor.  Author Cheri L. Mills describes how the greatest cause of atheism among Black Americans is White Christianity (Mills, 2021). 

 A common reaction for those of us who are white is to quickly deflect, justify, defend, or turn away. We invite you, reader, to join us and lean into the discomfort of these uncomfortable truths and to see how God can change us and our attitudes. We live in a racialized culture which requires a different lens for seeing the world, the lens God provides as God stands firmly in the circle of the marginalized and the oppressed. Yahweh hears the cry of the afflicted, delivering the children of Israel from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. Jesus, God incarnate, stands as a victimized Jew in the concrete particularities of the first century dominated by Roman occupation and oppression.  Jesus eschews all forms of power, wealth, and worldly success. May we who call on Christ no longer fool ourselves.  Jesus does not share the ‘American dream’ defined by the white dominant culture.  Rather, Jesus and his followers dream of a kingdom or a "kin-dom" where persons of all tribes and nations and colors are one, equal at the foot of the cross and who live in fellowship with one another.  As we peer deeper into the scriptures, may our imagination be drawn up into this Jesus, this Jesus who dreams of justice, mercy, repair, reparation, and reconciliation.  The journey towards healing is long but not impossible.  As we approach Holy Week, I invite you to join us, to lean into the discomfort and the pain of our broken world and to lean into the shameful history of American Slavery so that we can find ultimate healing and transformation, together, as God's people.  May we lean in together…

“…the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others. ” (Belhar Confession)

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