Can we talk about race yet?
By Meagan Ewton.
On June 13, 2019, the General Commission on Religion and Race released a statement regarding racist elements in a popular Vacation Bible School curriculum. Days later, I asked five churches to talk to me about it, and all of them refused. In response, I wrote an article titled “Why can’t we talk about race?” and published it as the cover story in our September issue of Say So, the Oklahoma Conference magazine.
Fast forward to 2020. Protests have erupted across the country decrying the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a police officer kneeled on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Racism and police brutality are at the top of the news cycle. Protests against racist violence have spread to the rest of the world.
Oklahoma will soon be thrust into the spotlight: the president has chosen to relaunch his campaign in Tulsa – the site of one of the nation’s deadliest race massacres – on June 19, or Juneteenth – long celebrated as a holiday of freedom from slavery in the black community. The racial tension is thick, and it’s growing more intense by the day.
Is it okay to talk about race now?
“Racial issues and racial tensions will never go away unless the church actually stands up and speaks to it,” said Rev. Valerie Steele. “We as pastors have to assist in leading the way for that opportunity to happen.”
Has anything changed?
Steele thinks that nothing has changed yet in the way the church talks about or approaches issues related to race and racism. Though groups within the conference and the greater church are discussing justice issues of the past, like the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921, there isn’t as much discussion about how to address current issues.
“We still have churches that bristle if they learn they’re receiving a pastor of another race coming,” said Steele, who is preparing to transition to a new appointment. “What are we doing to till the soil so it will be fertile to receive leadership that is capable, that is effective, that is gifted to be appointed to that church? I have my feelings where that lands, but I think it’s going to take all of us.”
Rev. Chris Tiger, director of New Faith Communities for the conference, agrees that churches as a whole have not reached a tipping point in changing their approach to race or racism. He’s hopeful that society has.
“I’m older, I have a longer memory in dealing with these things, and it seems there are tipping points,” Tiger said. “I’m hoping this is something just as important in our history as the 1960s were. There’s just certain times that seem like maybe instead of slow gradual process, there can be a jump.”
Rev. Dr. Elaine Robinson, who pastors OKC-Village and teaches at the Saint Paul School of Theology, said it’s time for the church and the country to address disparities in the way people are treated.
“One of the most important things the church can be teaching is that it’s not enough to claim’We love everyone equally.’ Rigorous testing proves that notion actually minimizes difference rather than embraces it,” Robinson said. “Whenever we make that claim, we are implicitly adding, ‘as long as everyone adheres to the way I do things and the way I understand the world.’ We must learn that the experiences of other people in America who aren’t in the white majority culture are different from ours. And we need to learn to appreciate those differences, even as we see our common humanity.”
“Black Lives Matter”
Rev. Dr. Joseph Harris, director of communications for the conference, said there’s not only growing recognition that America’s history has not reflected a value for all lives, but also a growing desire to do something about it.
“Some think you can’t say black lives matter because all lives matter, but all lives matter can’t matter until all black lives matter,” Harris said. “It seems to me that the protests that we see across our state and around the world are different from protests that we’ve had in the past. They seem to be much more diverse, both of race and of age.”
Harris said he hasn’t attended a protest for health reasons, but he has researched other ways to be involved without risking his physical safety.
“I’ve tried to be as involved in that without putting myself physically at risk because of the COVID-19 challenge that’s still among us,” Harris said.
The pandemic is also a cause of concern for Rev. Jennifer Ahrens-Sims, who serves as an associate pastor at Norman-St. Stephen’s. Like Harris, she has encouraged people to participate in activities that do not require physical presence, such as writing letters to government representatives expressing concern for black lives. She and her children have participated in peaceful protests in Norman, gathering at noon every Monday at the Norman Police Department to take a knee for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
“I have deep, deep concern for the protests taking place. I am concerned about protesting in large groups amidst the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ahrens-Sims said. “I am concerned about the history of violent protest in this country. With white knuckles and clinched fists, I have nervously watched hours and hours of protest on TV, hoping they will not become more violent with more loss of life. I am relieved they have been as peaceful as they have been.”
It can be hard to escape racial divisions in Oklahoma because of its significant and diverse Native population, according to Rev. Brett Thomasson, who pastors the United Methodist church in Pawhuska. He said this diversity is a strong reason for Christians to want to chip away at racial division.
“I like it when people gather to express their points of view in a peaceful and respectful manner, even if it’s edgy and uncomfortable,” Thomasson said. “I feel badly when people with other motives hijack those protests for their personal gain or desire to just break things, because that becomes the focus instead of the issues we want to address.”
Protests in Oklahoma have reached as far as the panhandle. Rev. David Player, who leads Guymon-Victory Memorial, did the invocation for a mile-long march to the county courthouse. He also participates in an early watch prayer every morning from 5-6 a.m. to pray “against evil, racism, stupidity and division, and for righteousness, justice, wisdom, peace and reconciliation.”
“Racism is ‘out there,’ but it is also in us,” Player said. “We must be honest before God, repent, ask for forgiveness and with the Spirit’s help become better and do better. For societal ills, we must listen up, show up, stand up, and speak up.”
Protestors, Police, and the Church
Rev. Travis Ewton, who pastors the Calumet and Red Rock churches, thinks the church has a tendency in times of societal unrest to try and play the middle between protestors and the police, which can in turn cause harm to the disenfranchised. He tries to remember that though Jesus was on the side of the marginalized, he still provided healing for the servant of a centurion, the law enforcement of Jesus’ day.
“Jesus healing the servant of this officer was directly connected to the fact that this was a good officer: he was good to the people, he cared for his community, he invested in the community and served the community,” Ewton said. “I think it’s important for us to be like Jesus and love all people and care for all people – including the centurions – but to also very much be on the side of the poor and to admonish that those who are in the position of power to care for and serve their communities.”
Rev. Derrek Belase said some of his friends have led the way in some of the protests and prayed for public safety officials, including those at the Oklahoma City Police Department. He believes the church can provide space for protestors and police to develop positive relationships.
“If the church cannot be a place where two groups of people co-exist, I don’t see how it can happen anywhere,” Belase said. “This may seem like a dream world, but it is certainly my dream. How can we know each other – what is on our hearts, what motivates our actions – if we cannot be in relationship in the same space? The church could take the lead here.”
“Pay attention, slow down, and listen”
One the things Rev. Thomas Hoffman, who pastors Tulsa-Hope, wants white allies to remember to follow existing leadership rather than act on their own.
“Whites can serve as effective allies, but only if we are willing to give up our power and privilege and first ask how we can best serve Black Lives Matter and other organizations,” Hoffman said. “Sometimes that means marching. Sometimes that means staying behind the scenes, making sandwiches for the protesters. Even white clergy should not assume a role without inquiring of local leadership.”
Rev. Carlos Ramirez, pastor at OKC-Putnam City, thinks the church should “pay attention, slow down, and listen before we make a judgment” on the Black Lives Matter movement. He thinks the denomination has more work to do before it’s in a position to teach about race or racism.
“How can we say, ‘Let me teach you about racism’? When people of color are not represented in the pews, in leadership, and communities aren’t feeling invited to be a part of this denomination, then something is wrong. We need to call it what it is: blunt systemic racism,” Ramirez said. “I think we should be humble as a denomination and say, what can you, demonstrator, teach us? You teach us, because there’s a chance we have it wrong.”
Harris believes it’s the responsibility of every person of God to address issues of race and racism. He believes God is trying to say something during this time of unrest, and that all Christians are called to listen.
“We’re at a starting point, but we may get distracted by something new that happens,” Harris said. “At that time, the key will be, will this issue slide back to the backburner again? Will this still be a priority when the next thing comes along?”