(Author Note: Though this is written specifically toward Seattle pastors and church leaders, it can easily apply to leaders in other locales.)
Last evening, Seattle Pacific University and First Free Methodist Church hosted the event “Seattle Evangelicals for Racial Justice.” Church leaders from various denominations and churches all over Seattle came together for worship, confession and lament, and expression of righteous indignation over systemic racism. The congregation corporately confessed that through its silence, the church has perpetuated and upheld systems of oppression and violence, both historically and in the present. Church leaders were specially commissioned for the task of racial reconciliation and justice, and were given the charge to bring this message to their various contexts. Leaders were invited to make a pledge to actively engage this issue in their particular contexts, and to commit themselves to the work of racial justice in our society.
All of these things are good, but the church must not stop there. This worship service of confession, lament, and commissioning was a necessary first step in beginning this work together, but we must be careful not to become comfortable with the idea that participation in this worship service means we’ve now “done something” and the work is complete. Church leaders were charged to “act” with this message, to “do,” and to put feet to words.
Every leader is on a different level when it comes to this task. Many have been doing this work for a long while, some are just getting started, and others have no idea where to start. I want to affirm that this is an overwhelming task, and for leaders that may never have specifically engaged the topic of racial justice before, it can be difficult to know how to begin.
I am aware of how burdensome this might feel for church leaders, particularly for those whose ministry contexts have not historically engaged this issue in an overt manner. I am not unsympathetic to the fact that the charge to work toward the dismantling of systemic oppression and racism is a heavy one. I know that as church leaders begin to push for this in their contexts, the backlash they will inevitably receive from some members of their congregations will be exhausting and painful.
It is understandable to be hesitant in participating in this fight for justice. It is not easy. But hesitation, or feeling overwhelmed, or the threat of potential backlash from congregants does not absolve one from responsibility. Recently when I was talking to a friend about the role of church leaders in this fight, I was told that church members can indeed act outside of leadership, that “we are the church” and perhaps we don’t need to push for church leadership on this issue. I agree that parishioners “are the church” and we certainly need to be doing this work of our own volition and motivation. However, it is also true that the church’s pastors and leaders are crucial to the building up of the body. There is a reason that at the service last night, church leaders were called to the altar in order to receive the charge to fight for racial justice. Church pastors and leaders have a very particular and special role to play. The good news is that there are many church organizations in Seattle that are doing phenomenal work in this area, and the leaders of these churches provide amazing examples in how to move forward in this effort. Moving forward can have a lot of different “looks” to it, but there is one thing in particular that I want to address.
Just before the commissioning at the end of the worship service, one of the organizers of the event stated that he had recently met with students of SPU who are participants in the downtown Seattle protests. These students were in tears, lamenting the fact that the church has been profoundly absent from the streets. These Christian young adults are using their bodies to disrupt the status quo, to cause discomfort, to shake people from complacency. Christian young people are responding to their theological convictions of justice by marching for hours in the rain, standing with one another in solidarity, and risking being maced, physically assaulted, and arrested. They are participating in and facilitating corporate prayers of lament and truth-telling through protest chants of “black lives matter,” “no justice, no peace,” and “hands up, don’t shoot.”
These Christian young adults are becoming pastors on the streets of Seattle. They are encouraging those who are weary, praying for protesters, fighting for the kingdom of God, being the visible presence of Christ. And they are tired.
Church/protest outside the Seahawks game
This is a moment in which the church has an amazing ability to be the presence of Christ on the ground, to show the most marginalized and oppressed individuals in our society that their lives matter and that the church will fight for them and care for them. It is an opportunity to build up and stand with the young Christian leaders who are facilitating, organizing, and participating in protests. It is an opportunity to begin paying attention to the justice work that people in your congregations might already be doing, and to ask how church leadership can begin to support and participate in that work as well.
One question I have heard consistently over the past few weeks is where someone might begin in this work. From the perspective of someone who has been protesting regularly, and who has heard Christians who are leading and organizing the protests lament over the lack of clergy on the ground, the following are some suggested action steps. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but these are things that I think might be helpful.
1. Attend a protest. To find out when Seattle events are scheduled, visit these Facebook pages: Justice for Mike Brown-Seattle, Outside Agitators 206. Just as we need legal observers on the ground with protesters, we also need pastors on the ground in prayer. The visible presence of church leadership in the streets with protesters is a powerful thing. When one of the main leaders of the protests revealed to other leaders that she is a Christian and is protesting because of her belief in Christ and her theological convictions, they were shocked that a Christian even cared about this. I can’t imagine how protesters would react if they saw someone with a stole or a clerical collar in the streets with them.
To learn more about the downtown Seattle protests and its leaders, read independent journalist Casey Jaywork’s blog post, “Among the Outsiders at Seattle’s #BlackLivesMatter Protests.”
2. Be aware that at a protest, there are all different kinds of folks with all different kinds of beliefs and ways of expressing themselves. Don’t be afraid to interact with people who are “radical.” Remember, Jesus did that too.
3. If you attend a protest, make an effort to meet the leaders and keep in touch with them. Treat them to coffee. Encourage them, pray with them, and ask them what they need right now. Ask them how they would like to see the church getting involved in the work of fighting for racial justice. Let them know you are there for them. They might want to meet with you, they might not – but the fact that you cared enough to ask will mean a lot.
4. If you know people who are protesting on the streets, meet with them and ask them about their experience. Try to check in with them once in awhile. Even an email of encouragement is helpful.
5. If you know any young people who are participating in these efforts, make a special effort to reach out to them. Many young people are reconsidering their chosen educational/career paths because of their efforts in this movement, and a little encouragement and/or counsel might be helpful (particularly from church leaders who are more experienced on this topic).
6. Visit protesters in jail. Go to their arraignments if possible. Be the presence of Christ to them in a place where Christ may feel absent.
7. Be bold about your stance on racial justice in your churches. If a sermon hasn’t been preached on Ferguson yet, preach one. If there aren’t any conversations happening in your church right now about how the congregation can participate in the effort toward racial justice, start one. If the church isn’t very diverse, start asking questions about why that might be. Make the topic of race and racial justice a primary focus of your gospel message. Build a culture in your congregation such that when people hear the name of your church, they know you’re about racial justice.
8. Dedicate yourself to learning more about this topic by staying informed on local and national news. Follow Facebook pages or blogs that highlight these topics. My favorites are Urban Cusp, The Root, and Colorlines. Read theological texts on racial justice and racial reconciliation and start community groups and sermon series. Check out these suggested texts for that purpose.
9. Try not to move too quickly into peace and reconciliation language. We pray and hope for the day when peace and reconciliation will be our reality, but right now we are drowning in systems of racism, oppression, and violence. Calling out these systems and breaking them down might not look very peaceful. Jesus didn’t look peaceful when he was turning over tables in the temple. If our language prevents us from doing the work that would dismantle oppressive systems, then perhaps our language needs to sound different. We live in the “now” and “not yet” – although we see the presence of Christ and the ushering in of the kingdom of God through the body of believers, we know that sin still exists in our world. We need to figure out how to hold that tension better – our kingdom of God language must not render invisible the suffering and affliction that are still present in our world.
10. Establish partnerships with other churches that are already engaging in this work. As churches form more intentional partnerships with other churches and parachurch organizations, the presence of the body of Christ in our city will be powerful.
These are just a few examples of ways to begin this work and to support young people who are leading the charge on the streets, and it’s certainly not limited to this. If meeting with people is not your gift, if acts of service are not your gift, if encouragement is not your gift – figure out how to utilize your unique gifts for this movement, and commit to engaging in the fight for racial justice in the best way you are able to. Although in this blog post I’ve used the word “protest” to reference street protesting, there are many different ways to protest. For more ideas, check out the article “Eight Ways to Support Protests Against the Criminal Punishment System, if You Can’t Get Out on the Street,” and also see Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil’s new blog series #ProtestProfiles, in which she highlights people performing everyday acts of protest through their particular giftings and contexts. Whatever your spiritual gifts are, use them as your act of protest. Be vocal about it, and encourage others to do the same. To the extent that the church is silent on the issue of racial injustice and oppression, it is complicit – so let’s get loud.
Christian leaders cannot, on their own, do all of these things. But what would it look like if every Christian leader in our city committed to doing just one of these things? How would our city change? Would people who have long ago given up on the church have their faith restored?
There’s no way to know until we try. I implore you, Seattle church pastors and leaders, to begin this work with intention if you haven’t already. We need you. If you have already been doing this work, thank you, and I pray that God will give you the strength to keep going, and will raise up others who will help to shoulder that burden with you. I truly believe that the time is now for the church to stand together on this, and I hope and pray we will answer that call faithfully.