Like everyone else in the country, I was stunned by the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last week. Having grown up in the South, race relations always have been front and center in my thinking and feeling. Serving as a pastor in the United Church of Christ, I also am firmly committed to working for justice.
I confess that with events in Ferguson last year, and Baltimore this year, I’ve felt paralyzed. The problems seem so big; I feel so small. Wanting desperately to do something, I’ve done very little. Nothing, really. Oh, I’ve felt plenty guilty, but not enough to take action.
Then–last week’s massacre of nine people attending Bible study at their church….
My complacency evaporated and I looked for something to do. When the call came on Friday to attend a meeting in preparation for an interfaith, interracial prayer service in Atlanta, I hopped in the car and went. I spoke at the press conference held after the meeting. I went back to Atlanta the next day for the prayer service at Peachtree Christian Church. Sunday at Pilgrimage, we prayed for the people affected by the shooting and for guidance in how we might work to heal the racial divide in our country.
Then last night, I attended a prayer service at Bethel AME Church in Acworth. I had met Pastor Leela Waller at the prayer service in Atlanta. I had thought perhaps her church and ours could begin partnering, get to know each other, build a bridge between a predominantly African American congregation and a white congregation.
The service was led by Freedom Church in Acworth. It was that congregation’s gift to the Bethel AME congregation to let them know they are supporting them…and will continue to do so.
Here’s the thing….last night’s service happened because the two congregations already had a relationship. As soon as he learned about the shooting, the pastor of Freedom Church–who was on vacation–called the pastor of Bethel AME because they already were friends. They didn’t get together simply because of the shooting. They got together because the shooting affected people they already loved.
I left the service convicted…and convinced that the only way to work toward racial reconciliation is to BEGIN working toward racial reconciliation. And the best way to begin working toward racial reconciliation is to build and strengthen relationships with people of other races. As long as those who are different from us remain “them,” the task always will feel daunting. But when “they” become “our friends,” then we’ll know exactly what to do.
After church on Sunday, a white congregant told me that one of their children had adopted an African American child. This person said, “I used to say, ‘Oh, look what’s happening to those people.’ Now I say, ‘Oh, look what’s happening to US.'” When we make friends, when we work hard at building relationships, then when tragedy strikes, we realize it’s happening to all of us. And if it’s happening to US, we will know what to do…and do it.