Today I Saw God
We knew they were coming. The group of white supremacists had been issued a permit to gather in Lafayette Park, on this, the one-year anniversary of the “Unite the Right” event in Charlottesville. At their 2017 gathering, Heather Heyer, a counter-protester, was killed, while others were physically injured and their city was left scarred and deeply saddened. Now they were coming to Washington, D.C.
A call was initiated by the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church to respond to the white supremacist rally with a rally of our own. I’d heard that there would be a group from Floris UMC going. Something inside inclined me to sign up.
Let’s be clear: I am not a very brave person. I am no risk taker. I am not foolhardy. I have never stood before the barrel of a gun, never truly feared for my life, and certainly never placed myself intentionally in the presence of someone I knew would be spewing hatred, shouting racist epithets or chanting anti-Semitic slogans. (Heck, I don’t even like the unruly crowds at Redskin games.) All of this swam in my mind as I boarded the Floris UMC bus to head downtown.
There were 12 of us on that bus: 10 courageous women, one pastor and bus-driver extraordinaire and me. During the ride down, organizers of our group delivered our “marching orders.” In case we were confronted by hostile protesters or situations that posed harm, we were to defuse any altercations, assist anyone subjected to harm and were not to engage any form of hatred. Our job was to sow peace, the peace of Christ. But, just in case something untoward occurred, we arranged for an alternate meeting spot, shared phone numbers, and signed into event alerts. Maps indicating the nearest metro stations were distributed, just in case we couldn’t get back to the bus.
This, you might imagine, did not assuage my fears. There I was, sitting in the back of a church bus, apparently headed straight into what might be harms way. I sat pretty quietly during that ride in spite of the lively chatter which surrounded me. This was a pack of peacemakers with a purpose! I was completely out of my league.
The plan was to collect for a pre-march pep rally at Christ United Methodist Church, so after Rev. Bob’s miraculous parallel parking on DC city streets, we poured out of that bus and onto the sidewalk to head to church. First, prayer. Circling to hold hands, Sara Greer even convinced a group of kids walking our way to join us. All prayed up, we headed to church where we were greeted warmly, welcomed magnanimously and inspired by word, song and fellowship. They handed us a lunch – our last meal? – as we gathered behind the banner to begin our march.
Our police escort immediately surrounded us. They proceeded to stop traffic, so this little band — multi-racial, multi-ethnic, broad-ranging in age and mobility — could all find its way safely. As we spilled onto the grassy lawn of the mall, instead of the hatred, weaponry, and harsh words I feared, we were greeted by nothing but love. A beautiful stage had been erected right in front of the Capitol building, its banner announcing our common purpose: United to Love.
Kicking off this rally, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling told us, this was not a meeting of counter-protesters. In fact, it came about in response to a request directed to the bishop imploring her to lead the effort to deny the “Unite-the-Right-ers” permission to rally. “Absolutely not,” she told them. “If we take away their rights, they will have the right to take away ours.” Instead, we will rally under this banner. Not as counter-protesters, shouting down hatred, but as representatives of a force stronger than hate, because, as Dr. King said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
United to Love had a permit, too — for the mall, not Lafayette Park, thank goodness! I would not be standing eye to eye with white supremacists, but surrounded by love in all colors and denominations. Relief! I even saw a bit of humor in this. As we staked out our place on the grass, we were instantly dive-bombed by dozens of large flying bugs that resembled dragonflies. One in particular hovered so close to me and held me with such intent focus, I imagined him a dragonfly-drone collecting data on this new species of Invader. I waved a happy so-long, as he buzzed off.
Then I settled onto a borrowed beach blanket to enjoy the spectacle: song and word, prayer and praise, fellowship and message. A rally it was, to God be every bit of the glory. Yes, we knew that hatred and bigotry was gathering just a few blocks from us but we couldn’t hear them and we couldn’t see them; it was only from news reports via digital media that we heard they were there. Instead we were focused on the future, on ways that moved us forward, on a path we could chart together. We, a diverse group of interfaith worshipers, gathered in support of our common humanity and each other. That, I felt sure, was not what was happening in Lafayette Park.
Then the funniest of thoughts creeped in. What if all the dragonflies really are drone-spies sent by the “Unite the Right” rally organizers to report on that “other rally” down on the mall? I wondered what they’d think of what was being shared here: messages of hope, commitment, and unconditional love, amid preaching and teaching affirming that we, in our diverse array, are each expressions of a God whose nature is love.
OK, now that I’m relaxed and amused and my life doesn’t feel quite so endangered, this out-of-doors praising God inclines me to worship with a bit more abandon — to raise my hand in affirmation, clap my hands in rhythm and raise my voice in response. I’ll be honest, I feel way more free to really worship here than I feel inside a Sanctuary on a Sunday.
Our times make it clear that now is the time we need to raise our hand when we see injustice and raise our voices to stand against it. From Micah 6, we take our marching orders… what does the Lord require of you?
As I look behind me and scan the gathering of the faithful around me, a peace that passes understanding settles over me. The trepidation I came with is gone. No, I’m not a risk-taker by nature, but I’m no standby-er either. I rise to wander through and greet a few folks, but mostly to snap photos of the amazing expressions of God’s mercy, love and justice, on display right there on the D.C. Mall.
How proud I feel to have marched behind the banner which is now draped over the fence with the Capitol building as backdrop. Midway through the rally, as the afternoon sun beats down on us, and most of the crowd have taken shelter in the shade to right or left of the stage (but not the hardcore like us!), Dr. David McAllister-Wilson, President of Wesley Seminary addresses those gathered. He wonders to us, What is Unite the Right? How are they right? He concludes that they have gotten it confused. Not unite the right, rather, unite the righteous. “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” ~ James 3:18
Many speakers refer to the distinction between our rally and that of “those gathered a few blocks away.” It starts me wondering if our times are something like the day in another capitol city, Jerusalem, some 2,000 or so years ago when there were also two parades. Along one parade route people shouted Hosanna and waved palm branches, welcoming Jesus riding humbly on a donkey. Along the other rode Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Judea, adorned in his imperial majesty. One rally peaceful, one rally proud. The peaceful not a counter-protest but a different message, entirely.
Sometimes, when we as people who are not brave, not risk-takers, and not particularly well-suited to diffuse differences or sow peace, let the God of love drag us up out of our pews into our nation’s capitol on a Sunday, we are forced to see and hear what is going on in our day.
I marched and rallied on Sunday in order to magnify the message that Jesus reverberates through the ages: “faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Love is the eternal answer to the toughest questions of every age.
The question that remains: what will the followers of Jesus do with the message of love? We’d best be love.
The following blog posting is Based on the May 16, 2018 Devotion in the Floris UMC Racial Reconciliation Group Meeting:
In his Dissent of Plessy V. Ferguson, 1896, Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote,
“The White race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievement, in education, in wealth, and in power…But in view of the constitution, in the eyes of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens….The destinies of the two races, in this country, are indissolubly linked together, and the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law."
There’s a lot here to unpack here, but for this moment, let’s focus just on the portion, “The destinies of the two races, in this country, are indissolubly linked together.” Do we really believe this, and if we do and we weren’t hypocrites, how would it manifest in our daily lives?
Many racial groups in our community live side by side with other racial groups but rarely do their lives cross paths other than when traveling along the same roadways. Whites, in particular, sometimes think that they can conduct themselves most of their days within their own world without any need or interest in interacting with any other racial group. This can make them indifferent to those groups, and in some cases, dismissive of those groups needs and interests, or of great value found when racial groups interact in meaningful ways. The irony of white privilege here, that any group other than whites can imagine actually living most of their daily lives without the constant influence of another group’s values and position, doesn’t escape me.There’s still value to the question, however: Pushing back on racial insularity, how is the positive destiny of white people directly linked to the positive destiny of people of color? Alternatively, how are the races so linked that as one rises, the other does, too, or as one falls, the other one does as well? Could each race be considered the canary in the coal mine for the other?
I’m struck by one of the biggest reasons I’m a part of a racial reconciliation group – none of us is free until all of us are free. My white race is not whole in its humanity nor in its faith and relationship with God until it is reconciled with each race, and it has done the hard work of becoming aware and proactive in ending racism, doing much more than a quick click on the, “Like,” button on a random anti-racism tweet.
This is a scary thing, though. It requires candor, and it’s just easier to keep living one’s life without rocking the boat or losing friends in uneven efforts at blunt honesty. Suddenly there it is, though: Watch how we inadvertently perpetuate racism either systemically or personally by not saying anything, not getting educated about racism’s very real presence and our roles in ending it.
We need models of courage to ignite our own moral outrage and displace our unrecognized complacency. New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu made a stunning speech in May 2017 just before workers removed a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, the fourth Confederate monument to be dismantled in New Orleans in the past few weeks at the time. The speech went viral on YouTube and Landrieu has since written a book about it and his personal commitment to an anti-racist south. Here’s a portion of the speech:
“There are also other truths about our city that we must confront. New Orleans was America’s largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were brought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor of misery of rape, of torture. America was the place where nearly 4,000 of our fellow citizens were lynched, 540 alone in Louisiana; where the courts enshrined ‘separate but equal’; where Freedom riders coming to New Orleans were beaten to a bloody pulp."
“So when people say to me that the monuments in question are history, well what I just described is real history as well, and it is the searing truth. And it immediately begs the questions: why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame … all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans.
So for those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission. There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it. For America and New Orleans, it has been a long, winding road, marked by great tragedy and great triumph. But we cannot be afraid of our truth.
History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done. The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost and we are better for it. Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong."
And in the second decade of the 21st century, asking African Americans — or anyone else — to drive by property that they own; occupied by reverential statues of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person’s humanity seems perverse and absurd.”
Conviction means we hold firmly to belief, we stand resolute. There is great courage – the kind needed for racial reconciliation and reparation - that comes from Christian conviction, in particular. How do any us demonstrate the courage of Christian conviction in today’s world? Will they know we are Christians by our love alone? And how many times in our lives have we needed to demonstrate the courage of Christian conviction, but it just wasn’t in us, and had we the opportunity to do it over again with such courage, we would have handled it very differently? ‘A plentitude.' Please, Lord, let these things agitate us and call us forward!
I love song mash-ups where DJ’s, singers, and others mix portions of favorite songs into a new composition and in doing so, create something with a power all its own, separate from the effect of the individual songs themselves, strong though they may be. Let me do that here with verses from the Biblical books of Genesis, Colossians, Revelation, John, 1 John, and James related to race, unity, and our common roots in Christ. Let’s read collectively as a summons to find the courage of Christian conviction to participate in the hard, sometimes uncomfortable work of racial reconciliation in God’s world:
So, God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them… And have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all…After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands…[Declaring] Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness…[So,] A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.
Please, Holy Redeemer, let these moments in scripture grant us courage of conviction as we facilitate racial reconciliation in our personal lives and the larger community. We know that if we speak up for respectful conversations, whites becoming informed of the issues, racial reconciliation and equity in all elements of secular and spiritual living, we may lose friends, family members, and colleagues for a while…or longer. Walk with us, Lord. Help us with forgiveness, too -- for ourselves and others. We will make mistakes in these conversations, including inexact wording, unintended stereotypes, muddled thinking, and outright offensive acts or words. They WILL happen. How we respond thoughtfully to these gaffes, imperfections, and the pain we cause others is a clear and courageous expression of our Christian conviction and God’s grace. Lord, grant us the receptiveness to hear you, the humility to recognize the error, and the fortitude to make amends. And noting your direct commands in the Scripture above, Lord, your call could not be more clear. Carrying the lantern so, we see the way ahead.
Much of my life has been spent connected to the Church. The first time I attended church I did not walk in, I was carried. I was brought by my wise and loving parents, baptized and have been here ever since. Although I have fond memories of a life spent in Sunday school, youth group, worship, fellowship, and ultimately bringing my own kids to be baptized, I have never experienced what I refer to as a “direct and powerful encounter with God”. A burning bush experience if you will. Thankfully, I have lived a life of blessing with minimal trials, none too devastating, at least not compared to some of the struggles I have observed in other people’s lives. I am thankful but, to be honest, I have experienced some envy of people that have stories of direct and powerful encounters with God. I love the Lord and as I grow older I have come to love and trust him more and more. I believe I have been faithful in serving him in many ways in the church and outside the church. I hope I have been an example to others and helped lead people to Christ. Recently, I saw that Floris UMC was having informational meetings to discuss Race and Reconciliation efforts. I wanted to attend but found that my schedule did not allow me to make it to the meetings. As oftentimes happens with the Lord, missing a meeting does not preclude you from participating in his plans. I happened to see a post about an event on this very subject on the Virginia United Methodist Church Facebook page. The Bishop was hosting an event in Annandale, a mere 10 minutes from my house. And, as it happens, my schedule was clear that day. I felt compelled to attend and was joyful and excited about learning more. I signed up and thought that maybe I would see someone from Floris UMC at the event. In fact, there was a good-sized group from Floris UMC that attended, learning about issues around race and our role as Christians in the work of racial reconciliation. What was most exciting for me that day is that I very clearly heard the Lord speaking to me about this issue. I was struck by how clearly I heard him say “this is important to me, I want you to do this work for me”. I could relate to John Wesley’s story of how he felt his heart “strangely warmed” and of the story from Luke about the Road to Emmaus where two men who had encountered the resurrected Jesus asked each other “were not our heart burning in us while he talked with us on the road”. This was a first for me and not only powerful but exciting. I had some nervousness and fear about this issue and what, if anything, was required of me. Suddenly, it was clear and I wasn’t as fearful or nervous. I can’t say that I won’t feel fear or anxiety as this effort moves forward but I have an assurance that God is with me and that I am exactly where I need to be. As I approach the half-century mark, I sometimes think that I have missed opportunities that the Lord had for me, that I got caught up in my life and my plans and that maybe that is why I haven’t felt this way before. I won’t live in regret, that’s not healthy for anyone, but I will work to be more connected to God’s plan, rather than my own. I have come to believe that his way is the only way to experience freedom and blessing and the fullness of life. “There is freedom waiting for you, On the breezes of the sky, And you ask "What if I fall? Oh but my darling, What if you fly?" (quote by Erin Hanson)
On Saturday, April 14, I had the privilege of joining about a dozen other leaders from Floris United Methodist Church and about two hundred others at Annandale United Methodist Church to participate in the Bishop’s Convocation on Race and Reconciliation. Most of us from Floris came because of our connection to our congregation’s new racial reconciliation initiative, and we anticipated hearing how our bishop and other leaders would lead those gathered to be more effective agents of change and reconciliation in our communities.
It’s not easy getting up to spend a Saturday in church. However, between worship together, a challenging presentation by our keynote speaker Romal Tune and small group training on facilitating difficult conversations, I found myself seriously considering my own race for one of the first times in my life.
As a straight, white, Christian male, thinking about my own identity is not a normal thing for me to do. Most of my life experience has occurred in spaces where most people look like me, speak my language and believe similar things that I do. I have lived a lot of my life in a dominant context, meaning that, not because of any decisions of my own but because of a system from which I benefit, my voice is often heard in conversations and in communities when others’ may not be. For a long time, I bought into the same lie that many white people believe, that I don’t have
A video by
We usually talk about racism by
Rather than keep racism within the bounds of interpersonal actions, our working definition of racism focused more on how racism acts as a system of racial prejudice developed and sustained by institutional power. This shift in focus led us to consider our own participation in the racist systems that uphold our society and realize that being white does not mean being without
As we had these conversations, a phrase from our keynote speaker Romal Tune stuck with me. At one point, he spoke about what white people can do in response, and that deciding to act is really hard. Because of the ways our society has been set up to benefit the white elite, in some sense, any action toward racial and socioeconomic equity requires those in power to give up and share that power. In other words, as Tune said to those of us who were white in the room, “There is value in your silence.”
The moral weight of our work hit me squarely in the face
I do not claim this responsibility as an egotistical white man looking to continue fixing the world’s problems with my own solutions. I claim this responsibility at the invitation of my non-white sisters and brothers to join the effort they have maintained their entire lives: working to make sure our society views them as people and as nothing less
My white sisters and brothers, we cannot put the burden of equality on those who have borne the burden of oppression for far too long. Be informed. Be empathetic. Be willing to say that you’re wrong. Be willing to apologize. Be willing to listen and learn. As Tune told us, our past is not our future, but the past has dramatically shaped our present. I invite you to join the work of our racial reconciliation initiative to help shape our future, so you too can discover the value in others that far outweighs the value of our silence