Thursday, December 15, 2005

A Story on Race

Below is a story I have drafted for the Alliance of Baptists. The Alliance is requesting personal narratives of "acts of faithfulness in confronting racism" to be shared at the Alliance Convocation in April. I thought Irie's and my story might help to inform, and perhaps inspire, fellow sojourners:

In the fall of 2003 I was assigned to a small baptist church in North Carolina's Research Triangle Park area. The assignment was a part of Duke Divinity School's field education program, which required all students to serve in a local congregation as a prerequisite for graduation.

The church I was assigned to was organized at the turn of the 20th century by several farming families in the area. By the time I arrived the tobacco farms had all been bought out and turned into suburbs, but the church retained its distinctively Southern rural feel. The people were good folks, I was told, but they had their prejudices. Chief among these was racism. For a white progressive like myself – who thought he had put away all his problems with race – this was an unforgivable sin.

Mostly it was subtle hints and code words that clued me in on to the walls which had been put up to keep blacks and others out. The pastor, who wanted very much to see the church become more diverse and was occasionally bold enough to weave this hope into his sermons, told me there was talk of putting up a fence to "protect" the church property from the hundreds of black middle-schoolers who attended the school across the churchyard. Folks in the church talked about how gracious it was of their parents and grandparents to build another church for the "coloreds" down the road. Finally there was the paper trail. Stipulated in the official correspondence between the church and Duke was the request that the divinity school student assigned to the church be white, because "at this time" the church was just not ready to let its white children receive spiritual milk from a black minister.

For most of the first semester things went pretty well. I casually mentioned God's love for all his children - black, white and brown - in my children's messages. And when allowed to preach the Sunday sermon, I again called for us to be a more inclusive people as we sought to bring God's kingdom near. So long as nothing too threatening was said or done, everyone pretty well tolerated an occasional prod from the pastor and myself.

By Christmas, however, things began to heat up. A young black boy and his mother began coming to our church and things grew tense. Finally something blew. On the Monday after the young boy was baptized in the church, the pastor received a visit from an irate member. Apparently folks in the community had been talking and this gentleman and a few others in the church, who didn't have the courage to come forward, had had enough. They wanted to know just what our pastor thought he was doing baptizing blacks (the language was stronger) in our sanctuary. After things cooled, the visitor was able to flesh out his feelings in a more coolly. According to this gentleman it wasn’t so much that the church didn’t want to welcome blacks. Most knew it was time to do the right thing and become a more welcoming body of faith. But apparently the church was beginning to get a reputation. And we ministers just didn’t understand how hard it was for some of our church members to face the scorn of their racist friends in the community.

By and large, however, most accepted the baptism - albeit with a degree of suspicion. Most thought a lot like the gentleman who told me he didn't mind blacks coming to church and joining, so long as they weren't doing it because they wanted something. I saw this statement as a mild mark of progress, and decided not to point out that things like that were never said when whites joined the church. It never seemed to occur to this gentleman that we all want something when we join a church - namely, to be a part of the Body of Christ.

Apparently whatever the family was looking for - whether it be a helping hand or a hand out perhaps just a sense of belonging - was nowhere to be found in our little church. As Christmas came and went and we drifted into the cold bleakness of winter, they stopped coming altogether.

All of this was happening in my church world while at the same time, ten miles away in my school world, I was falling in love with a black woman.

For almost four months I kept the two worlds apart. Since I would say a sweet goodbye to the church upon my graduation in May I figured I would spare the congregation and my girlfriend, Irie, from having to deal with one another. It was the most pain-free solution for all parties involved I supposed.

The biblical precedent for such duplicity was not exactly positive. In Genesis, Abraham takes Sarah into Egypt and, when suspecting that the men there will kill him for the right to his wife, Abraham asks Sarah to pretend to be his sister. This was a low point in the patriarch's story, as he so fears for his own life that he is willing to wager Sarah's honor and the promise she holds in exchange for his own security. In this classic example of the human condition, a giant chasm exists between God's promise and the reality of Abraham's life. There was a kind of schizophrenic disassociation between the Abraham who could take radical steps of faith in accord with God’s promise, and the Abraham whose fear and lack of trust could at other times provoke shockingly incongruent decisions.

By keeping Irie and the church at a safe distance from one another, I had created my own schizophrenic worlds. I was really no more over my own problems with race than was that gentleman who burst into our pastor’s study in such an uproar. We in essence shared the same fundamental problem. Fear was the primary motivating factor behind his hate-filled eruption and my concealment. Each of us in our own ways was responding to the prospect of having to face the scorn of a world torn apart by racism.

After a lot of soul searching, on Easter Sunday 2004 Irie and I pulled onto the cemetery road where a small gathering of church members were huddled in the cold, waiting for me to preach the sunrise service. As we stepped nervously from the car salvation was at stake. I had to do this, for the sake of the soul of that church – and for the sake of my own soul as well.

The end of the story was a happy one for us all. Though a little nervous at first, most people welcomed Irie with open arms. After graduation, I accepted the call to stay on as minister of youth and children at the church and Irie joined the church the next fall. And in May 2005, Irie and I were married in the sanctuary of that little church.

This is not to say the church solved all of its problems with race. We were not able to take any further steps toward integration in the church. While we have had other blacks in our congregation (and a church half full of people of color at our wedding!), no other African Americans have joined the church. The church continues to wrestle with the effects of its long and hard history with the problem of race.

I too continue to wrestle with that history. On the day Irie and I returned from our honeymoon to discover someone claiming to represent the KKK had burned three crosses in prominent places in our city. I was again gripped by fear of others’ contempt. And I know I will most likely again have to face this fear again as I seek to live my life with faithfulness and courage and undivided loyalty to myself and my wife.

Yet I know that it is here, in small but significant acts, that the dividing wall of hostility is being chipped away, and we as humans are being reconciled one to another.