Earlier this year, a loved and trusted colleague of mine who is black, the Rev. J. Lee Hill, Jr., posted something on facebook that changed me. He wrote,
“White colleagues preaching on Sunday (YES, I AM TALKING TO YOU!): your text of cultural context this Sunday is NOT mental illness and #RobinWilliams.
Your text is #Ferguson, #MikeBrown, and the over-militarization and justification of white town cops, policing black and brown communities---and it DOES go with your selected scripture texts."
“Oh.” I thought. “My colleague J. Lee is talking to me. He’s really talking to me.” I sure wasn’t planning on preaching about Robin Williams that Sunday, but I didn’t feel sure I was equipped to preach about Ferguson. Michael Brown’s death was horrific, a sickening symptom of the rampant racism that is the primary illness of our country, causing cops, and anyone in power to treat people with dark skin as less than human. What was happening in Ferguson was vitally important. But until I read J. Lee’s post, I wasn’t sure it was my place to preach on it.
I know for certain that I have never and will never experience anything resembling what Michael Brown and his family, or anyone else who’s black in this country, experiences every day. How could I possibly have a voice on racial injustice when I am so far from experiencing it? It wasn’t my voice that needed to be heard, it was the voices of those who are most profoundly effected by it. Plus, let’s be honest. I was terrified. For a lot of reasons. I was terrified that I wouldn’t do the issue justice. I was terrified I would say something wrong headed. I was terrified that, in attempting to speak on this issue, I’d be revealed for exactly what I am: a white girl who’s been pulled over by the cops exactly once in her life, and got away with a warning. I thought of the African American folks in my congregation and wondered if I could really speak to this, and do it well. In my mind, I saw them raising their eyebrows and thinking, “Wow, good try. But she really doesn’t get it.”
But J. Lee’s mandate would not go away. He had called on me to preach. His words both called me to action and gave me permission, even if this was’t an experience that I “owned.” And so I dove into preparations for sermon for that week to preach about what happened to Michael Brown to my predominantly white congregation, because it was so very important that my congregation hear me speak, rather than observing me remain silent.
I’ve been working on preaching about race consistently at St. Lydia's for a little while. I’m learning a lot. And I thought it might help a few of my white clergy colleagues out there to hear about that learning process. I am no expert on how to do this. But I’m doing it, or at least trying to. So here’s what I’ve got.
Your job is to learn to be an ally.
We’re pastors, and we’re white, and we’re used to running stuff all the time. When we’re preaching about race, it’s time to do something we should probably do more often, and change our posture from leader to follower. Take up a spot in the supporting cast and pay attention to what’s happening on stage. What’s the plot line here? Who’s saying what, and why? How can we amplify the voices that are speaking (not just talk about what we think?) This movement doesn’t belong to us, but we can help lift it up.
Remind yourself to listen.
Always listen. Listen to the voices of people of color around you. Listen to the voices of those whose lives are hemmed in and defined by racism systems. Listen to the voices of the people who are leading this movement on the ground by following them online. Get your news from outlets run by people of color. Start out with Urban Cusp, Colorlines, This Week In Blackness, and The Root. Can your sermon amplify these voices?
Reflect on how race and racism has impacted you.
When I was in the third grade, my mother, who was a teacher in another district, spent some time in my classroom. She noticed that, when my teacher asked questions of the class, she would call on only the white kids. To the black children she’d say, “sit up straight.” “Stop fidgeting.” They were never given an opportunity to participate academically. My parents removed me from the school midyear. From then on, I went to the school where my mother taught. My new school was mostly white.
I’m pretty sure that my third grade teacher was not aware that she rarely called on black children. But think for a moment about what I learned sitting in that classroom about who “mattered” and who didn’t. And think about what the black children learned. My parents took me out of that school, but I’d imagine that most of the black children in the class never had that opportunity.
As white people, we have not been victimized by racism, but we have been impacted, simply by virtue of living in this country. We've soaked up the message that we're better than people with darker skin, in ways we're not even be aware of. And then there are the ways we are aware of it. I was aware of it last week when I saw the police scattering a bunch of black kids sitting in a public area, drinking soda because they were "loitering." I was aware of it last month when I sailed through a red light on my bike but the brown-skinned man just behind me got pulled over. (I stopped and asked the cop why. They let him go without a ticket, but that didn't fix anything). We live in a racist nation, and it’s formed our consciousness in a particular way. Your stories are not the central stories here, but they are important stories for you to learn to tell.
Focus on truth, not your emotions.
You’re going to have an emotional reaction to the injustices woven into the fabric of our country. It would be worrisome if you didn’t. However, when preaching on racial injustice as a white person, I invite you to focus your preaching not on your emotional response, but on the truth of the root issues here: injustice, inequality, and the violation of the core Christian belief that all life is sacred. So, don’t start your sermon with the words, “When I heard about Michael Brown’s shooting death, I was outraged and saddened.” Of course you were, but what’s central here is the grief of Michael Brown’s family, and the reminder his death is to black people around the country that their lives are habitually seen as less valuable.
Empathy and emotion can be a powerful tool to connect your congregation to the experience of those who live in the shadow of racial injustice, so keep emotional content focused on those who are suffering most. Then, be sure that your preaching doesn’t allow empathy to wander toward sympathy, which can turn to pity. As Joe Lowndes, author of "From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism," has said, “A lot of white liberals talk about empathy, when what they really need to think about is solidarity.” Don’t let empathy be the end point of the conversation. How does our empathetic response to these events fuel the the setting down of our own power, and the lifting up of those who are powerless?
Keep God at the center.
Here are the questions: what is God doing in the midst of this? How is God calling us into response? It’s not about preaching the issues. It’s about preaching the gospel while standing in the world.
Don't be afraid to throw out what you've already written.
This is more important. If you wrote your sermon two weeks ago, you might need to start over.
Share the pulpit and build relationships along the way.
Invite other voices, especially voices of color, to be a part of the conversation at your church. Try and make this as relational as possible. Asking one black preacher to come preach about racism can be tokenizing. Setting up a regular pulpit exchange with an African American congregation is an opportunity for relationship and transformation.
Embrace feeling unsure most of the time.
This is complicated. There’s no such thing as getting it right. Dismantling racism is an ongoing process, in the world and in our hearts. When we preach on racial injustice we risk slamming into some perspective our privilege had shielded us from or being knocked on our ass by a story someone tells that indicts us. It’s going to be messy and feel vulnerable and you’re going to see some things about yourself you didn’t want to see. But that’s where the Holy Spirit does her thing. This is the most important thing you can model to your congregation: wading in, because God calls us into the deep water.
Give action steps and create a culture of confronting racism.
Preach to your congregation where they are. This will differ depending on who your congregation is and the range of races, cultures, and experiences present. Be aware of the racial dynamics within the congregation, and don’t assume that the experiences or perspectives of people of color are uniform. Give your congregation some concrete action steps, based on what the leaders of this movement are asking for. If some of these can help your congregation engage racial injustice in your local community, all the better. I’ve complied a list for our congregation here; yours might be different. Action steps are not a checklist that, when completed, relieves us of our guilt. Instead, they are an invitation into a new way of living. Engaging these issues will change us.
Weave a culture in your congregation around race and racial injustice. Make it part of an ongoing conversation, one that challenges your congregation to uncover the truth of their privilege. I’m a firm believer that relationships are redemptive. How can you invite your congregation into building relationships across boundaries of difference that will be honest, bold, and transformative?
Okay, so you’ve been commissioned. Don’t be silent this Sunday. As Rev. Hill says, "Yes, I am talking to you!" Your congregation is waiting to hear your voice. Preach. And see what the Holy Spirit does.