I am a Christian and a black man. My wife and I wife attend a majority-white church in central New Jersey. We are not an anomaly. The few majority-white churches I’ve visited over the past several years had significant sprinkles of black folks in their pews. Our faith has served an important personal, communal and spiritual role in our lives. It is a source of strength, comfort and guidance, especially in times of hopelessness. My new church has been great at supporting my spiritual growth; however, more recently, I am unable to escape my frustration with the silence on race and racism.
I have been deeply and painfully grieved by the torrent of unprovoked killings over the past several years of young brothers. The events surrounding the deaths of Jordan Davis, Michael Brown and John Crawford were some of the most ugly and bigoted things I’ve witnessed in my lifetime—from the media’s attempted shaming of the teenage victims by drudging up signs of “troubled adolescence” to the “I am Darren Wilson” bracelets worn by Ferguson, Mo., police.
A recent New York Times poll shows deep divisions between black and white perceptions of the significance of race and racism in the death of Brown and is evidence that America’s race problem is much bigger than we thought. The problem isn’t that we, as African Americans, see race as a factor. The problem is that different lives have different value, and the value of young black life is at a shocking low in the 21st century.
In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. called on white clergy (pdf) to take a good hard look at the violence and injustice perpetrated against blacks in America and to stand united with black Americans who were struggling just to be treated as fully human. Fifty-one years later, I am calling on white church leaders to do the same thing: Take a good look at what is happening to black boys in this country and a deep introspective look into your own hearts to sift through any potential biases.
Ignoring the deaths of Michael Brown, John Crawford, Jordan Davis and others in service of placating white congregants is just as dangerous and problematic as overtly racist responses. Silence inadvertently communicates to the white members that these aren’t important matters or that they are not relevant to the faith.
The Sundays after the Brown shooting and the release of the video showing Crawford being gunned down in Wal-Mart, my pastor was noticeably silent on both incidents and ambiguously generic in his message. What did come across felt like an empty attempt to satisfy his own conscience by simply acknowledging that there is “division” in the country, without naming the divided parties or directing the church to support any stakeholders.
As a black member of a majority-white congregation after the Brown and Crawford incidents, I find it alienating when a pastor ignores these issues or halfheartedly speaks about “diversity.” It is hurtful when he talks about racism as if it is something with which both black and white people have to contend equally. It is offensive to question Brown’s character or to focus on the rioting in Ferguson to passively justify Brown’s killing and the police violence.
I met with my pastor to discuss my mounting frustration. My message was well-received, and I’ve noticed a very minor, albeit clumsy, change in his approach to addressing race. Subsequently he acknowledged racism in his sermon, though it was disconnected from these current events. I can’t be certain that change will continue to happen or that it will be positively linear, but I can be certain that I will continue to hold him accountable for what he does and does not say.
Following the example of Christ, the church should have a commitment to justice, especially for the poor and disenfranchised. Christ challenged oppressive state authority and continually reminded religious leaders to do some introspective housekeeping when they were blinded by privilege and self-righteousness. As members of the church, we have the same obligation.
The white church must ally itself with the black community by explicitly framing current events for its congregations as problems of racism and injustice, and reminding the church of its core values. Some white pastors are doing just that and setting a bar for others to reach. In response to the events in Ferguson, Texas pastor Matt Chandler took to Twitter, his church’s blog and his Sunday sermon to deliver a message about white privilege and injustice toward blacks. Though his initial message received mixed responses, he continued delivering it consistently. I applaud his example and encourage other white pastors to be bold allies with black communities that are extremely hurt by these events.
Kevin Clay is a Ph.D. fellow in education theory and policy at Rutgers University researching racial identity and urban youth civic action. Follow him on Twitter.