Yesterday was the long awaited first-again sermon at an unsuspecting church on the far northern outskirt of the county. Save my wife, there was not one familiar face and I’m guessing the average age in the sanctuary was 70. After making myself publicly available this spring to share a message of how the gospel looks to one white-lady-pastor-turned-protestor, this one (and only) church asked me to come. After weeks of trepidation, the moment of reckoning was now.
Walking in felt strangely familiar, like every white congregation across America and I’ve seen many over the years. Feeling at once at home and simultaneously on hostile ground, I took my seat at the pulpit. For the most part my instincts took over and I moved through the service like the veteran that I am, rusty but experienced. When it was over, I wanted to bask but it felt all wrong. The smiles and hugs and kind words were familiar, but also the chill. There was a reserve, a marked disconnect. Could it be simply group weariness from having too many strangers pass through their midst this summer? Maybe so. More likely though would be the obvious: displeasure. I often forget that nice white church folk smile at you as they then turn to their neighbor to complain. Is this what was happening? I don’t know and, quite frankly, it isn’t my business. What is my business is being faithful. The only relevant question, for me, is whether I was faithful to the gospel that I was given. Did I share with integrity, humility, and prayerful presence as best I was able? I believe so.
A friend texted later in the day and asked how it went. As I replied, I discovered the conundrum that haunted me every Sunday for 23 years. The message that has been given to me, from my earliest call, has been a prophetic one; a message that pushes the edges, asks hard questions of myself and the wider community, that understands that none of us are truly free until every one of us is. And though my personality is not people pleasing (oh that it were), I am predisposed to measure my own self worth based on my understanding of other people’s opinion (read: I crave approval). This felt need combined with a prophetic message has always been a toxic duo, preaching things that make congregations stir and then looking to that very same community for approval. It’s an irrational expectation.
For years I was able to find some balance in a setting with a fairly large and supportive staff team. As a staff we could provide the chorus of yes as we troubled with the waters, supported one another, and found life in ever deepening waters. Truly my undoing in parish ministry was the devolution of the staff team. In the rearview mirror I can recognize that it happened gradually and can even see areas of my own culpability, at the time I was clear only about betrayal. Regardless, the loss was complete and I found myself floating (and sinking) on my own. So much of this has been buried. Stepping into the pulpit yesterday morning brought it back. It’s personal, it’s deep, it’s painful. It is a sinkhole of grief that pulls with remarkable force, even now.
But yesterday morning wasn’t about all of that. Yesterday morning was about sharing a sacred word in a community to which it (hopefully) belongs. There is nowhere in America more in need of frank talk about race, whiteness, and the soul of this nation than white church. Imperfectly but in very personal terms, I invited that conversation yesterday morning. Using the lectionary text of the morning, I shared my own grief, included stories of urgency and terror straight from the streets, and pointed to a path forward. Like Jonah reluctantly preaching in Nineveh, I shared the message given to me. What happens from here is really none of my business. If Jonah had let go at this point, his story would have ended happily. But he didn’t and it didn’t; it actually gets quite brutal after Jonah refuses to let go of the outcomes. Clear is the command to share the message and relinquish all control. All. And it’s got to be this way. If we white folk are ever going to get honest about the racist waters in which we swim, we’re gonna have some uncomfortable conversations that result in, well, displeasure. And worse. If we’re clinging to the responses, we will lose the message.
While I don’t purport to have the answers, I do have stories to tell that challenge our assumptions and invite new reflection. And I have renewed clarity that while such is the task at hand, pastors reliant on congregational paychecks cannot be the ones to deliver this message. But I don’t have that constraint, and I can share the message.
Letting go the backward glance, hand at the plough. Let’s do this.
Note: If you know of churches where this message might be shared, please be in touch. All proceeds (in their entirety) will be used to support Jericho Project, a new initiative of the Wicked Poets Society in St. Louis.