When I was in my early twenties I traveled for a couple years with Youth Encounter – an organization that sends out teams of 5-7 people to churches throughout the United States and other countries and the teams put on programs to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ through music and story and puppet shows. The first year I traveled in the northern U.S. and in my second year I was assigned to an international team that traveled the eastern half of the U.S. and two countries in West Africa.
I was overjoyed to be a part of this – and especially the opportunity to go to Africa. I just couldn’t believe my good fortune. I was so excited to experience a place so far away and so different from where I had grown up. And I can’t say enough good about the months I was there and how that time affected my life and my outlook. It turned out to be so good for many reasons but particularly because of the things that were difficult. And what was most difficult?
Well, I’ve always been the kind of person that enjoys time alone – love going for walks by myself, exploring things on my own. I love people, too, but as a die-hard introvert, I just get energy back by time spent in quiet and alone. Because I was traveling with this group of five people all the time, my alone time was to escape whenever I could and go for a long walk by myself.
But I found as soon as we got to Ghana that I no longer blended in anymore when I was out on my walks alone. Men would call out to me “obruni, obruni” – the word for white person. Children would come up and touch my skin or my hair and then run away giggling. Often people would just start walking with me because as I came to find out, there it was seen as simply brazen or an invitation for trouble for a woman to go out walking alone. I could no longer enjoy my walks because I was suddenly a spectacle with my white skin and being a woman in that culture. I slipped into a good amount of culture shock in the first few weeks there and I was upset that I couldn’t just enjoy my time there without feeling so noticed and judged because of the color of my skin and my gender.
Now contrast my story of having my world upset for an exceedingly short period of time because of being a white girl traveling in Ghana with this story:
Chris Lollie, a black father, gets off work at Cosettas, an upscale Italian restaurant in St. Paul and goes to pick up his kids from school. He gets there a little early and so he sits down on a bench in the skyway nearby. After a few minutes, he gets up to walk toward the school to get his kids and he is stopped by an officer who asks for his identification. He objects because he has done absolutely nothing. His interaction with the officers is recorded in a cell phone video and we hear him respectfully objecting to being asked for his identification when he hadn’t done anything wrong – he had only been sitting in a public area, alone, waiting for his kids. Because he refuses to show his identification, within just a few minutes, this man is tased, handcuffed, and arrested. We hear him being led away from the scene, frustrated and angry because now there was no one to pick up his kids, he would likely miss work, and all of this happened because he sat down in a public area and someone reported a black man loitering.
Stories like this cause all sorts of reactions. My first reaction is to think about how I am certain I could go sit in a public area in a skyway in St. Paul all day long and not have anyone ask me for my identification. There are those whose first reaction is to quickly jump to the defense of the police – and why shouldn’t we? They are here to defend and help and I’ve only known truly great and honorable officers of the law. But there are those who hear this story and nod their heads in recognition because they live it all the time. They often experience being treated differently, more noticed, and oftentimes treated with general suspicion or judged more harshly, because of the color of their skin.
I always like to keep my letter of call hanging in my office so I am reminded daily why I am here. The letter summarizes the foundation of everything I am to do in your midst – and it boils down to these key things:
- Preach and teach the Word of God
- Administer the Sacraments
- Lead Worship
- Provide Pastoral Care
- To impart knowledge of the ELCA and its’ wider ministry
- To encourage people to prepare for ministry of the gospel
- To guide the congregation in proclaiming God’s love through word and deed
- To speak for justice in behalf of the poor and oppressed
None of these are likely surprising to any of you – they seem like right and good things for a pastor to be doing with her time. However, over the course of my 16 years as a pastor I have been surprised to realize how complicated the last one, the speaking in behalf of the poor and oppressed, becomes at times.
Mostly because being a white, middle-class, educated, mainline Protestant who has served only congregations made up of predominantly white, middle-class, educated, mainline Protestants, it’s really easy to put the blinders on to what is going on in the rest of the world. And we get so busy with our own stuff – we have all our own obligations and worries and victories and defeats to be concerned about right here – and all those things matter, too, right? Let Ferguson worry about Ferguson and let Baltimore worry about Baltimore and we’ll worry about our own thing right here.
We may never say something like that out loud but sometimes that seems to become the unspoken sentiment in too many communities. Not meaning any harm, of course, yet also not going out of our way to care too much, or offering our opinion on a matter without ever really listening to the voice of the oppressed.
But I was convicted by what Julia Blount wrote about on her blog this week, she said, “If you (as a white person) are not listening, not exposing yourself to unfamiliar perspectives, not watching videos, not engaging in conversation, then you are perpetuating white privilege and white supremacy. It is exactly your ability to not hear, to ignore the situation, that is a mark of your privilege. People of color cannot turn away. Race affects our lives every day. We must consider it all the time, not just when it is convenient.”
If you have been watching the news lately you know that rioting broke out in Baltimore following the funeral of Freddie Gray who died on April 12th shortly after being arrested. The facts about what happened that day are still being revealed but what we know is that he was alive when he entered into a police transport vehicle handcuffed and when he came out he was comatose and his spinal cord was nearly severed. His death fanned the recurring flames of unrest in our country regarding issues of race. Over the last nine months we’ve listened to the reports from Ferguson to North Charleston to Baltimore and the people who live in these cities and others like them cry out that for every occasion we hear about on the news there are hundreds of other stories that aren’t reported.
So what can we do as followers of Jesus Christ who reject oppression and long for justice for all people – yet we do not live in places like Baltimore or Ferguson?
The first very important thing we must do is listen. Listen to the stories of people of color. Those of us who have grown up white in our culture have no idea what it is like to live as a person of color. We talk too much and listen too little. We offer our opinions too often on things we know too little about.
Our scripture reading from Acts this morning is an interesting text but there was one part of it that jumped out at me this week as I read it over and over. Imagine that you are this wealthy, educated Ethiopian official. You are riding in a chariot and reading Isaiah off a delicately copied manuscript. You are pondering the mysteries of God when some stranger appears next to you. This stranger is running along next to the chariot, struggling to keep up, panting as he says the words, “Do you understand what you are reading?”
What kind of question is that? You would think the Ethiopian should ask his driver to speed up and leave this stranger in the wilderness. Instead, this powerful, wealthy, official asks an important question of faith: “How can I unless someone guides me?”
Indeed, how can I understand the situation of my neighbor unless I hear their pain? How can I unless someone guides me? How can I unless God gives me the grace and patience and humility to hear the witness of those the world tramples?
We must pay attention. Pay attention to the news. Pay attention to the stories being written. Pay attention to what’s happening not just in our own context but in the context of our whole country and world.
I went much of my early life truly believing that racism wasn’t an issue in our country anymore. I knew everyone was supposed to have equal rights and I knew that I had friends of other races so as far as I was concerned it was all good. I don’t know if I was particularly ignorant or if I was a typical, self-absorbed young, white, educated, mainline protestant who went to a nice Lutheran college – but in these times of social media and 24-hour news coverage and increasingly blended societies we have absolutely no reason to stay uninformed. What happens in Ferguson, what happens in Baltimore, it affects us.
It does. And It must. As President Obama said this week, “[what if] we don’t just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns, and we don’t just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped, but we’re paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids.”
That is the heart of how our Christian faith compels us to think meditate on matters such as this. We can’t read scriptures such as our second reading from I John that is absolutely peppered with words about love and how we show our love for God by how we love one another and then ignore the suffering and hurt of others.
We can’t listen to Jesus in the Gospel for today talking about how God is glorified by the fruit we bear and how we follow Jesus with our lives and then pretend that everything is well because at least our own city isn’t burning – it is some city far away. At least it isn’t my children in harm’s way – it’s some other mother’s children in harm’s way.
Sisters and brothers, this gospel of Jesus Christ compels our hearts to break for what breaks God’s heart. And we have to be brave to let that happen, to let ourselves be wounded by the stories of suffering and injustice and at the same time trust that by hearing them we will gain new understandings and lift up to God our sighs and prayers – the kind that can help us begin to build bridges instead of walls wherever we are.