Thursday, January 8, 2015
The fear of acting white
The room was chilly cold. It wasn’t the temperature that had most of us trembling; it was the purpose of the gathering. Administrators at Duke University, the Divinity School, called a meeting with black students to discuss our lack of participation during worship at the chapel.
Worship services were held Tuesday – Thursday at the divinity school. The time in between classes was viewed as the perfect opportunity to ripen strong bonds with our peers. It was our chance to practice what we were being taught – what it means to be “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic”.
Many of the black students were being immersed in the teachings of liberation theology for the first time. Some of us began pondering the significance of Christianity given its long and brutal history in being used to subjugate people of color. Most of us found ourselves embattled by congregations that regarded theological education antithetical to the cause of the black church.
We were being pulled between diametrically opposed agendas – learning to advance the work of the Church and remaining vital in the churches we were being called to serve.
“I refuse to cast my pearls to the swine and, in the process, forfeit the idiomatic expression of the people I have been called to serve,” I said that day.
I meant every word.
I was afraid of gathering for worship, taking preaching classes from people who had never participated in worship with a black congregation, learning the theology of white men who died long ago, and, as a consequence, gaining nothing to support the work I’m called to perform.
Put another way, I was afraid of becoming white.
More to the point, I was afraid of being perceived as too white.
The tension I felt then continues to pester many who make the decision to pursue theological education. Many pastors warn their ministers not to be changed by the teaching. They’re told not to listen. They’re warned not to learn, but to go. Go and receive credit for going, but don’t accept what is being taught.
They’re taught that theological training is not designed to prepare those in ministry, but to credential and separate those who have it from those who don’t.
So, what is the significance of my working as a pastor at Bethel Church, a predominately white congregation? Does my presence reflect the function of my theological training and, as a result, the surrendering of my role as a servant of the black church? Is there an assumption that my embrace of the things I’ve been taught has led me toward becoming the very thing I feared.
Does this mean I have become white?
Let’s be clear. That is completely impossible. No matter how hard some work in denying the implications of race in their life, there is enough to remind me that I can never run away from the relevancy of my skin.
Some want me to pretend it’s not there. I’ve already been told I talk too much about being black. Why wouldn’t I? Why would I refute the part of me I love so much?
I love being a black man. I’m proud of my ancestors and the mass of people who keep it real while working to invalidate the stereotypes people wave in our faces. Yes, we are brilliant. We are artistic, and we have contributed more to America than any other race.
I said it. We make America what it is today.
I have no reason to run from my blackness. I love the energy and passion of black worship. I am a preacher of the black faith tradition. I love the deep moans that leap in my throat when the spirit of God catches hold of the congregations causing all present to break free from bondage of the week. That’s who I am, and nothing will ever take that away.
So, why am I serving a white congregation? If all of that is true, and it is, what is it that would lead me to step into the pulpit of a congregation that doesn’t understand the significance of what it means for me to be me?
That’s simple. It’s called a calling.
Put another way, this is bigger than me. It’s beyond what I understand. All I know, for today, is this is the work that God has chosen for me in this season.
How do I know this to be true?
Because everything I have done, before today, has prepared me for this challenge. I have been trained for this season. I know it’s true because I’ve written about and preached the message of inclusion long enough to be baptized into its meaning. I know it’s true because my footsteps point in the direction of healing and understanding.
I know it’s true because the world and the Church have to change the way it functions in regards to the things that divide us. It’s true because hate and detachment has fractured the essence of what it means to be crafted to promote love and peace. It’s true because someone has to stand beyond the assumptions we claim to rouse faith beyond the barricades built to keep us on the other side of unity.
I know it’s true because of the people I serve at Bethel Church. They have taught me beyond the things I have been taught. They teach me not with their words, but with their willingness to build community in a new way. I’ve watched them transcend the comforts of their sacred community. I’ve watched them say no to the crippling messages that keep America divided because of an aversion to listen.
No, it has not been easy. Yes, it comes with a cost beyond what I may be able to pay.
But, I’m here now glaring at my words from long ago.
“I refuse to cast my pearls to the swine and, in the process, forfeit the idiomatic expression of the people I have been called to serve,” I said.
I have a new message.
Beyond the color of my skin. Beyond the history of suppression. Beyond the assumptions made when I show up to speak. Beyond all of it, I have been baptized in a faith that makes me who I am today. Yes, I say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud. Nothing will ever take that away.
But, beyond all of that, thank you Lord for calling me to a purpose beyond things I can comprehend. I accept your will.
Show me that way. I don’t know the way, but I hear that still small voice calling my name.
Here I am Lord, send me.