With Martin Luther King Day approaching, I am thinking about the lily-white world in which I was reared. The adults in my life would have abhorred racial hatred. They would have never admitted to being racists. Yet bigotry was all around us. White supremacy was the air we breathed.
As a youth, I did not have the wisdom, maturity, or the vocabulary to challenge the institutionalized racism in that Southern culture. I live now with a sense of shame because of my lack of empathy at that time for black Americans. I have confessed this to some of my African American friends who have been exceedingly gracious, more understanding to me than I deserve.
I have just finished reading the excellent memoir by Philip Yancey, Where the Light Fell. This spiritual autobiography tells about his growing up in the racist South, one strand in his complex story. He grew up in a fundamentalist subculture that preached racial segregation and practiced ecclesiastical separatism.
Yancey’s background was similar to my own: a fundamentalist church, authoritarian leaders, the cultural milieu of white supremacy, and attempts to justify it theologically. His spiritual and social awakening paralleled mine: frustration with a rule-based religious life, a spiritual crisis while in college, and a growing understanding of the inherent dignity of people of all races, created in the image of God.
Yancey wrote about how he has attempted through his writings and personal relationships, to promote racial harmony and understanding. Throughout my ministry, I have tried to preach against racism and to promote inclusion. I have learned, instead of wallowing in regret, to accept God’s forgiveness for the racism of my youth.
More than that, I am called to minister as a volunteer chaplain in the Oklahoma County Detention Center. Most of the inmates I meet with are African American. It is a joy to bring God’s word and God’s love into that environment. My wife ministers as a tutor to an African American schoolboy and his family.
I am called to confess and openly acknowledge the stupidity and wickedness of racism. Several years ago I wrote a letter to my adult children in which I attempted to lay out my concerns about white supremacy and racial bigotry in our nation. I wanted them to know that I believe these have no place in the life of a Christian. I encouraged them to actively oppose structural racism.
I am called to recognize and support the legitimate concerns of my black neighbors: policing, voting rights, housing, health care. I will vote for and support political candidates who take seriously these concerns.
I am called to seek understanding. I may never fully appreciate how it feels to grow up as part of a racial minority group in this country. But that doesn’t mean I should not try to understand. That means I will listen. I will cultivate friendships. I once asked an African American friend, what I could do to promote racial harmony. His answer was simple. “Show up,” he said.
So that is what I am called to do. On this coming Sunday afternoon I plan to do what I have done for several years now. I will show up at the annual Martin Luther King Memorial Service at Saint John Missionary Baptist Church, where my friend Dr. Major Jemison serves as pastor. I will be a racial minority in that environment.
But I will gladly join the congregation in singing a song written by James Weldon Johnson that carries deep meaning for the African American community. I will sing enthusiastically as an act of love for my brothers and sisters: “Lift every voice and sing/ till earth and heaven ring/ ring with the harmonies of liberty/ Let our rejoicing rise/high as the listening skies/ let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
“God of our weary years/ God of our silent tears/ Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way/ Thou who hast by Thy might led us into the light/ Keep us forever in the path we pray/ Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee/ Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee/ Shadowed beneath Thy hand/ may we forever stand true to our God, true to our native land./ Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us/ Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us/ facing the rising sun of our new day begun/ let us march on till victory is won.”
Pastor Randy Faulkner