Dear Friends and Family of First Christian Church of St. Paul:
Last week in the immediate aftermath of the killing of George Floyd I decided to go for a walk. We live in North Minneapolis. It was a nice sunny day, perfect day for a walk. “Be careful,” my husband Daniel said as I left.
Later that evening, I was chatting with my mother. As we finished our phone call to say goodbye, she asked me to be careful.
Be careful. This has been my reality since I was a kid. My parents were telling me to be careful ever since I was a teen. Growing up in 1980s Michigan, my parents were always concerned about me, not that I was doing something reckless, but because I was a young black man. Even now when I’m 50 years old, some loved one is always telling me to be careful. This is how African American men ( and even African American women) have to live. Black mothers worry when their sons go out with friends. They worry they will get in trouble with the police or worse.
George Floyd was seen as a threat. He had a target on his back on that Memorial Day when he met his end on a Minneapolis street. For far too long, too many African Americans have been viewed not as a fellow human being, but as a threat, worthy of being killed.
Before I go any farther I have to say the following: I believe America is a good nation. I know there are good cops that care about their communities. I know there are good white people. I know that we aren’t living in a time of segregation like my Dad did growing up in Louisiana in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. All of this is true. And yet, a middle-aged black man is dead, again because of the color of his skin.
What’s infuriating is that George Floyd was a gentle giant, a committed Christian who moved to Minneapolis a few years ago from his native Houston in search of a better life, dies at the hand of a cop who had a long history of complaints and for some reason remained on the force. He was engaged to be married and he never got the chance to walk down with his love.
But what is upsetting and frightening is that it could have been me. It could be me. Floyd is only a few years younger than I am. I pray that it never happens, but it is not out of the realm of possibility.
And then there were the riots. Coming from Michigan as I do, you learn about the Detroit riots in 1967. It’s no surprise to African Americans and other people of color that Minnesota is not an idyllic place. Racial disparities are among the highest in the nation. That said, I would have never, ever thought there were going to be riots like what I’ve seen in the past few days. To say that Minneapolis is burning is as weird as saying Lake Woebegon is burning, but it has happened.
So where do we go from here?
That’s the rub. Talking about the problem of race in America is always a challenge because you have those who want to live in denial that there is a problem (and that includes some African Americans) and those that think there are racists under every bed. But I think as Christians what it means is that we live our lives with God’s table at the center. The Restoration Movement which gave birth to the Disciples believes strongly that the Lord’s Table is for everyone. Now when Alexander and Thomas Campbell were making their argument about the communion table they were informed by the internecine battles within the Presbyterian Church. If you didn’t believe the right way, you couldn’t have communion. The Campbells believed it was God, not an interpretation of a creed, that invites us to the table. God wants to be in a relationship with us and God desires that all us be in relationship. So in light of all this, we have to live a life that welcomes everyone into a relationship with each other and God. We have to be communities where people from all walks of life are welcomed, united in Jesus Christ.
Relationship means listening. Listening means being vulnerable. Relationship is rooted in reconcililation. It means living a sacrificial life and opening yourself up to dissonance.White Americans have to be willing to listen even when what you hear goes against what you know or experience. That’s hard to do because we all come with our own experiences and biases. It’s hard to listen to something that doesn’t jive with what you believe. But I think White Americans have to do that because we can’t change until we hear the stories of African Americans that might not be the story you are used to.
But in that relationship there also needs to be grace. Far too often, having a conversation on race become stilted out of fear that something will be said that is offensive. The thing is, if we are going to have an honest talk on race we will stumble and say something that might come off as offensive. It means making mistakes, seeking forgiveness and moving on. It means African Americans should show grace to their white sisters and brothers understanding that we are all sinful and all in need of God’s grace. The racial reconciliation is messy and that’s okay. It will be messy.
As an African American man, I am honored and blessed to be the lead pastor of this congregation that doesn’t just have diversity as a value, but we live it out. We come from various racial and ethnic backgrounds and yet we are in a relationship with each other. But even here, we have to be willing to listen deeper and make space for grace. Because those unsettling stories are there just below the surface and they need to be brought forth and dealt with.
Second, we have to be involved in the work of reconciliation. Our Presbyterian sisters and brothers wrote in the Confession of 1967, that God’s reconciling love breaks down barriers, the Church is called to fight for reconciliation:
God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, God overcomes the barriers between sisters and brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all people98 to recieve and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize others , however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess .
I am reminded of the parable of the Good Samaritan. We’ve heard the story of the man traveling down the road who ends up beaten and left for dead by robbers. Two religious people see this injured man lying at the side of the road and pass him by. For whatever reason, they didn’t stop to offer help. Finally, another man comes by, a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along, but this man didn’t care about whatever animosities kept them apart. He takes the injured man and places him on his donkey to the nearest inn. He even tells the innkeeper to keep a tab that he would pay back when he swung back that way again. The Samaritan got involved. He could have said this was none of his business and moved on, but he didn’t. He got involved.
The same thing needs to happen now. I said in a sermon four years ago, in the aftermath of Philando Castile’s shooting that the only way these killings of black people by police will stop is when white Christians, white Americans step up. This is not simply a problem for African Americans but it is all of our problems. It’s an American problem and most of all it is a spiritual problem.
The past few days have left me angry and sad. As a community and as a nation, we have a lot of work to do. We need to start talking But I have hope in Christ. I have hope in the Christ that died a horrible death, suffering with humanity and freeing us from the bonds of sin. Ultimately, I have hope because, in Jesus Christ, the evils of racism will never have the last word. Let’s pull up a chair to God’s Table and start talking.
Dennis Sanders, Lead Pastor