Black Lives Matter: Old First E-pistle 08.13.15

The push back to the “Black Lives Matter” campaign — where people take offense at the racial specificity in a “choose life” assertion… as if it somehow insinuates that other lives don’t matter, or claims that Black lives matter more than others, or, more recently, when people disapprove of who might be targeted for an action — reminds me of an earlier episode in ministry.

The trouble first flashed when I somewhat innocently announced in the January ‘97 newsletter that the church was going to be celebrating Black History month: “every Sunday in February, we will somehow uplift the traditions, culture, people of African descent.” I went on to challenge everyone to be in worship each week to see if they could pick out the ways Black people were celebrated in the service.

The morning after the newsletter arrived in folks’ mailboxes, this woman came storming in my office, waving the newsletter, and asking, with a surprising degree of anger, “When are we going to have white history month?”

“I see something has upset you.”

“I don’t know why church has to have Black History month! What’s Black History month have to do with Jesus?”

“Jesus calls us to create a world where everyone is treated with justice.”

“But there’s no white history month!!!”

“We don’t need white history month. But we all need Black History. Because in the world as it is, the history and culture of Black people have been put down, like Black folks themselves. You could say, so much about Black people has been overlooked that it’s white history almost all the time.”

“That makes no sense. We’re the church: we can’t show a preference for some people over others.”

“But we show preference for the dominant culture and narrative all the time — without ever recognizing when we do it. Or when we do catch ourselves, we don’t acknowledge it. History is written by the “winners;” the history we mostly know is white history.”

“You are just courting approval from the majority, because there are more Black people than white in this congregation now!”

“Actually, I think an all white congregation should celebrate Black History Month in their worship too (even if that’s a bit trickier, without appropriation). Celebrating Black History is not some claim necessarily about who we are; it’s a protest about how our world is. And a promise of how God means for the world to be. I mean, church is about redemption.”

“I won’t come to church next month.”

“I’ll miss you, and you’ll miss learning and hearing some things about neighbors that you never known before.

I became the pastor of Flatbush-Tompkins Congregational in 1996. It was a grand, old engine of a church. It had weathered the years and the demographic changes that had washed across central Brooklyn well. Or at least the bumps were surprisingly few… and not as bruising as one might have expected.

FTCC had welcomed its first person of African descent in the mid-60’s — a ‘Canal Zone’ Panamanian of West Indian extraction. Mildred, whose ironic sense of humor so thick you could cut it with a knife, used to say, “Back then, I was just the fly in the milk.”

But not long after that, she was joined by the first a wave of African Americans integrating Flatbush, and later the flood of West Indian folk who moved to Central Brooklyn.

Thirty years can make a big difference. By the time I arrived at FTCC, the congregations was well over 80% (maybe as high as 90%!) people of African descent, mostly folks from the Caribbean community of nations, but also some African Americans and Africans, mostly Ghanaians. The others in the church were Euro-Americans, folks of East Indian heritage and Hispanics. We fairly accurately reflected the neighborhoods surrounding the church at that time.

Interestingly, I suspect, I had been called as pastor, at least in part, because I was white. Some eight years prior to my arrival, the church had called its first African American pastor. A newly ordained, second career minister, he was a good man, and I can see why the congregation would have been attracted to him as pastor.

But, almost from the start, there had been a deadly struggle between the pastor and the lay leadership of the church. It’s always “something” to be the first pastor of any kind — the first woman, the first queer person, the first person ethnically different from the majority or the church’s history… even, the first person who looks like the folks in the pews if her or his predecessors did not! But this was a bigger struggle.

Perhaps, I’m simplifying too much, but the pastor and the church had clashing understandings of leadership. They were very “Congregational” and wanted to be making decisions cooperatively, almost consensually, or at least democratically. And, their minister was from a tradition and church system wherein he was granted much greater authority and deference. It wasn’t an easy 6 years, and it ended even worse for everyone.

My skin — in some bit of stereotyping or even profiling — as well as my growing up Congregational promised that I’d lead from the center of the community, rather than racing ahead and expecting others to follow me. They were clear with themselves and with the candidates: they were looking for a greater sense of shared decision-making.

Cynically, I also wonder if because I was young, some leaders figured they could boss me around! More positively, since I’d already served a predominantly Black church, they presumed I could function effectively, respectfully and creatively in a community that was not my own.

After the tough times they’d been through, and that had overwhelmed so much of their church life, most of my task as pastor was simply to help that congregation get back to being and doing church again (rather than the distrustful, opposing sides of an endless court case).

Another way I could help was to walk them towards an easier, more comfortable embrace of church traditions that would be signs or symbols reflecting their being some of the many possible forms that ‘the Black church’ takes. This was an important step for the history and development of this institution. But it was also important for their mission effectiveness in the larger community surrounding the church which was predominantly Black (where having a white pastor at least raised questions, if not eyebrows.) But it was complicated for everyone, and not without its jitters!

But being a Euro-American pastor whose task was to help a congregation explore and adopt new ways of being a church that relied on African American traditions — that’s a bit of a dance! I knew my job wasn’t about telling Black folks how they should be Black. Instead, my expertise was in church. So it became my goal to help people understand why it mattered that their church life lifted up Black religious experience, styles, lives. And my work was about helping folks see the possibilities and then creating a process wherein as a congregation, we could choose what was best for us. And then, again as pastor, shepherding from where they were to where they thought they should go.

Black lives matter doesn’t mean that other lives don’t. It’s a simple statement of fact: Black lives have been discounted and disrespected, harmed and taken. Black people have been, are being dehumanized by the injustices perpetuated, accepted. The injury, insult and loss need to be named, seen, grappled with, in order to be stopped. I don’t believe the movement has sprung in any overt way from the church or the Christian tradition.

But I think Jesus is involved in the organizing. Black lives matters is a corrective for a world in which the image of God is denied in too many people. And it’s a harsh critique of the society in which we have been living and dying. But Black lives matters is redemptive; it’s about saving lives. And trying to get us to some kind of shalom and justice. It would be a good response in a litany in worship…

See you in church,

Michael