Van Buren United Methodist Church is tucked inside a small neighborhood straddling the border of Washington, DC and Maryland. The church building is old and its dark red exterior could use repainting. As you enter, you are immediate in the worship space. The altar is carpeted red and the seating is wooden pews, just like the church I grew up in. This congregation is small and is predominantly black. A majority of the members are older women with the tightest, most loving embraces. When it is time to pass the peace during service, you easily greet everyone. Following offering, everyone is able to gather and kneel at the altar together in prayer.
It was during the summer I was a regular attendee that a young man entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on the evening of June 17, 2015 and killed 9 people who had gathered for a Bible study. The shooter was a white supremacist and confessed that he committed the act of violence with the intention of starting a race war. Walking into church the following Sunday, I was unsure what to expect. I had never been in such a diverse space before in the aftermath of violence, and I experienced the event in a much more personal way than I had before.
The women of the church greeted me the same as always, with tight hugs before service, during the passing of the peace, and after service before we parted ways. The usual words of greeting used during the passing of the peace for the congregation were whispered in my ear with familiar warmth: “Welcome home, Chelsea.” The most remarkable moment of that experience came at the end of the service as we were gathered around and kneeling at the altar, praying for the world. The pastor tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I would help her. As she led us in prayer, I lit candles for each of the victims of the shooting, including the shooter.
That moment – more powerful than I realized at the time – was a moment of unity, of solidarity.
I grew up with the value that all people have equal worth, and Dordt College helped me express why: all people have worth and dignity for the sole reason that they are created in the image of God. It is a value that should inform my interpersonal interactions as well as my engagement of institutional actions. Within the Reformed tradition and reformational framework, institutional actions are discussed in terms of their “right” societal roles and responsibilities (sphere sovereignty). In these conversations, we often lose sight of the historical development of institutions built on oppression of people, and the impact that this history plays on the present.
Specifically, I am talking about race. And, talking about race is hard. There are many forms of racism, both interpersonally and institutionally. However, many of us want to claim that we are not racist, even that we do not “see color.” We want to say that sometimes bad things happen to people, and isolated events sensationalized by the media should not be taken out of context. We want to believe that the end of slavery and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement brought about the end to a sad and unjust chapter of our history. These are all sentiments I heard frequently as a student, but they are not components of a full, educated dialogue about race, racism, and our contemporary American context.
My intention is not to lay out how interpersonal and institutional racism is present today and what we need to do about it. The authority to do so is not mine because I acknowledge that I am detached from the realities of what it is to be black in America. Moving forward, I need to engage more ideas and voices; I need to read even more writings by people of color and about privilege and oppression; I need to sharpen my history and understand not only what is going on now, but how we got here; I need to hear more stories and meet more people with different backgrounds and experiences. Conversations about race and racial reconciliation have been in process for a very long time. We should have been participating long ago. Now it is our responsibility to educate ourselves. It is our responsibility to listen.
Yes, talking about race is hard. But often it seems as though fear from having hard conversations keeps us from engaging in civil discourse all together. As a result, the experiences, hurt and pain being experienced by people of color do not receive the attentiveness to which we are called to provide to fellow image bearers of God. The act of entering into this uncertain space may feel impossible right now due to time, location, personal priorities, or even the political climate. But, it is possible. When I begin to feel the weight of our world’s current brokenness, I remember that moment of unity in Van Buren United Methodist Church – the act of lighting candles in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting and praying as one body. I still believe that, by the grace of God, we can do better. And if we can do better, then we are obligated do better.