“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak with you each year as a representative of the laity of the Pacific Northwest Conference. It is a great honor and privilege, as well as a great responsibility as I strive to bring you words that will be meaningful, or uplifting, or thought provoking… and I don’t take that responsibility lightly.
Originally, I had planned to share with you stories from around our conference, highlighting just a handful among the many places in which laity are not only engaged in ministry but actually leading their congregation in mission or outreach in the community. With help from our District Lay Leaders and other members of the Board of Laity I have collected numerous stories to share with you today. That was my original plan.
But something changed. I awakened last Thursday morning to the news. You know the news I mean. The evening before, Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, South Carolina welcomed a young man into their midst who, after spending an hour in bible study seated alongside members of the church, removed a gun from his belt and began shooting. When it was all over, 10 church members were wounded, 9 of them would succumb to their injuries. In light of this news I found myself unable to go on with “business as usual”, I recognized that I needed to change the focus of this address.
This was one of those events that stopped everyone in their tracks. It was almost as if the entire country entered into a period of shock and mourning. Some called for more guns, saying that the death toll would have been smaller if some of those “good people of the church” had been carrying firearms.
But then, the most remarkable thing happened. Family members of those who had died offered forgiveness to the one who had shattered their world. They offered the gift of grace to Dylann Roof. That same grace that we all understand as a gift from Creator.
Perhaps I’m not alone when I wonder if I would offer that same response had I been walking in their shoes. I would like to be able to say “yes, of course I would” but I don’t truly think I can know this until I find myself confronted with a challenge of this magnitude. I pray I never do. Grief can bring out the best in us, as the people of Charleston demonstrated. But it can also bring out the worst in us.
This event, this shooting brought to mind, once again, so many other stories we have all been following. Stories like that of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, so many stories… So many of our communities of color experience injustice at the hands of police officers and now, suddenly, the world is watching. Yet still, it goes on.
Many people have been called to action as a result of these events. Many of you marched yesterday in response to the killing of Zambrano-Montes. But so often, in situations where we feel powerless to repair a situation, we find ourselves simply waiting it out until whatever is fueling the passion runs out and then we continue on, essentially leaving it all behind us. Until the next news story emerges.
Each time I hear stories about someone who is threatened, injured or killed because of their African ancestry, I think “this could be my brother, my nephew, my sister”. And that stirs my emotions.
We are not so different, you and I even if the color of our skin is. When we look into the face of one who is the victim of an injustice and we see our own image reflected back, or when we recognize in them a sister, brother or friend, we can’t help but feel compassion and in us stirs a need to find a way to effect change.
On Thursday morning, in this place, we were all offered the grace that the people of Emmanuel AME Church offered to Dylann Roof. Our American Indian sisters and brothers reached out to us in a gesture of grace. We, as a country, and as a church, have really messed up. Time and again we have made promises, and time and again we have broken those promises. Yet they were here to reach out, once again, to help us understand where we have been and then invite us into relationship. What a gift!
On Wednesday evening the Laity Session focused on the United Methodist Social Principles. Rev. Neal Christie, from the General Board of Church and Society helped us see how the social principles are not just something we say we believe, they are meant to inform the ways in which we behave as United Methodists.
In so many ways we have not lived out those United Methodist beliefs. Sometimes I believe it’s because we don’t know how to live into them in a particular situation, so we do nothing. Sometimes stories like those in the news, like those we heard here on Thursday are so overwhelming to us that we become paralyzed. But sometimes, we simply don’t want to take the time, or make the effort. The good news is that I heard many people in this room committing to doing things differently from here forward. Please hang onto that passion when you leave this place.
It would be really easy for me to think that my energy needs to go into dealing with race relations as they pertain to African American communities in this country. After all, that’s what affects me most personally, right? But that not really true and it doesn’t go far enough. In his letter written in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting, Bishop L. Jonathan Holston of the South Carolina Conference wrote:
“whenever one of us suffers, we all suffer and so without justice for all, there is no justice at all.”
Any instance of injustice affects me personally.
It is not enough for me to simply seek justice for those who look like me. I am called, we are called, to seek justice for all of our sisters and brothers. And I’m more likely to do this if I know my sisters and brothers, if I have heard their stories. I must accept the truth of their pain even though it may not be my pain, even if I cannot understand the pain of which they speak.
If my sister tells me she is hurting, then I must do whatever I can to alleviate her suffering – as a child of God, I can do no less. If my brother tells me that he has been wounded, I must do whatever I can to heal that wound. And if I cannot see that wound then I need to listen to the story of his woundedness and know that the wound I cannot see is no less real. As a child of God, I can do no less.
Bill Mefford, of the General Board of Church and Society posted online on Tuesday, giving an update on a phone call held Monday regarding the Charleston shooting. The dialogue was a good one and identified to 2 initial responses to help move us closer to a solution on racism. Two things that we can all do now.
In case you didn’t see his post I want to share just the first of these 2 responses.
In his words: “if you are in a predominantly Anglo church, walk across the street or drive across town and sit down with leaders of a church that is predominantly made up of people of color. Start building crucial relationships. Listen to what they say and learn from them. We are all part of the body of Christ. When one of us hurts, we all hurt. So let’s actually BE the Body of Christ.”
Does this sound familiar? I believe on Thursday we were challenged by our Bishop to begin building relationships with our American Indian sisters and brothers.
It’s all about relationships. Not a single conversation. Not a session during which we ask questions and record the answers. Worship together, share a meal, talk about your hopes, dreams and aspirations and listen to someone else’s.
Relationships take time and often we want a quick easy fix. But it takes as long as it takes. The joy truly is in the journey. I hope you will do this soon, before the memory of the powerful message we received here fades, before the shock and grief over Charleston wears off and we return to “business as usual”.
And, finally, I hope the lay members present this week will take this as their call to action. My hope is that we, the laity, will take this message back to our local faith communities and not just wait for our clergy partners to do it. I am challenging myself, one who worships in a predominantly Euro American congregation, to start building relationships with those in ethnic churches and with my American Indian neighbors. I pray you will too. AMEN