I sat on the side of the bed and I wept.
These were emotion-filled tears of relief, anger, joy, pain, and disbelief. The tears I cried that night were not just for me. I cried for the generations of folks that were so broken and systematically oppressed that they never thought a day like today possible.
I cried for my grandmother, on my father’s side, whose parents were born into slavery and suffered through reconstruction and the institution of “Jim Crow” laws. I cried for the thousands of teenage boys, like Emmett Till, ruthlessly battered and brutally murdered for no reason, other than racial hatred, and crossing a line of taboo.
I cried for the Civil Rights workers abused, cursed at, spit upon, disrespected, bombarded and soaked with fire hoses, attacked by dogs, assaulted with rocks and bottles, and jailed simply because they were seeking to dismantle a cruel unjust system.
I cried for my own father, who never learned to read or write, who was discouraged and denied access to an education because, in the words of his dad’s Mississippi boss, “all he needs is a good strong back, and a willingness to work hard.”
Yes, I cried when the projections were all in and it was announced that the 44th President of the United States was a man of African-American descent.
Don’t get me wrong. My tears were not because I thought that black folks had finally “arrived” at some mythical place where hundreds of years of racism, animosity, and injustice would magically disappear. I’ve lived and dealt with enough challenges, in my own lifetime, to know better. But I did think that this historic election was a turning point, a Zeitgeist moment signaling a change of direction.
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a black man, was arrested for suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill to purchase a pack of cigarettes. Details of his arrest are sketchy, but the nation and the world have seen the video of a man handcuffed face down on the pavement, clearly not resisting as a police officer pinned him down by placing his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes.
"I can't breathe," Mr. Floyd said repeatedly, before becoming nonresponsive and dying.
It has become increasingly clear that despite the significant gains in race relations, America still has a long way to go. Could this latest assault become the true zeitgeist that we need? Will George Floyd’s name and story simply become the latest addition to an ever-growing list of African American men that have died because of this nation’s racial intolerance? Will our nation continue to unravel and spin out of control because of this recent tragedy?
It’s time for THE CHURCH to step-up and to lead the way forward. I know that the church has been more problematic than problem-solving, but I still believe that the Church of Jesus Christ can and should lead our nation and our world into a brighter future. The healing balm that is needed right now has always resided within the church’s capabilities. It’s time for the church to put on our work clothes and to get busy dismantling racism.
Even as I write this, I am aware that the battle within the church will be harder than the battle outside of its sacred walls. As a black man serving in a majority-based denomination I’ve seen the underbelly of the church and have experienced institutional racism from within for over 40 years of ministry. God has not given up on the church and I believe and trust that God can and will turn things around and the church will be the instrument used to accomplish the world that we seek.
It’s time to confess the sins of our past, repent, embrace reconciliation and begin to chart a new path for moving forward as sisters and brothers rooted in the sustaining love of Jesus Christ. I know that it sounds simple enough, but it is hard work.
I’ve spent my entire working life around The United Methodist Church, so I know that the work we need to do runs deeper than just singing a few verses of Kum Ba Yah, and shedding a few crocodile tears. I am not opposed to Kum Ba Yah, because we need a fresh visitation from the Lord. And I am definitely not afraid of tears that flow from genuine remorse and repentance. I am suggesting that to simply begin and then abruptly end when this current crisis subsides is not sufficient.
We need continual, intentional holy disruptions that keep us from returning to our comfort zones. As Christ followers we must stop accepting any behavior that is not Christ-centered. This will mean that we quit normalizing racism and prejudice in the body of Christ. It is no longer acceptable for churches to deny people because they happen to be of a different ethnic origin. It has never been God’s intent that racism should exist, let alone thrive, within the body of Christ.
The Holy Spirit, poured out at Pentecost, was given to teach us and lead us in the ways of Christlikeness. Unity is a central core of becoming more and more like Jesus. We were promised that the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ powerful presence in a different form, would assist the church in becoming triumphant witnesses and world changers. Let’s not settle for anything less.
I cried over the death of George Floyd. I cry today over the mayhem that has ensued. I cry and I pray, “Lord, break my heart with the things that break your heart.” I cry knowing that the church, especially the people called United Methodist, have a long way to go before we are where God desires. I cry, but not as one without hope for a better tomorrow.
I cry with the calm and confident assurance, anchored by the faith and same belief in Jesus Christ, as those who have gone before me, that: “We shall overcome. We shall overcome. We shall overcome some day. Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day!”