As we prepare to commemorate the 5th anniversary of the murders of nine Black members of a Bible study group in the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church by a white Lutheran (ELCA)-raised man on June 17th, and on June 19th commemorate “Juneteenth”, the anniversary of the end of slavery in 1865, I feel the need to share some of my own reflections.
I pray and believe this moment in our history is an important opportunity for positive change.
In our ELCA Affirmation of Baptism liturgy those affirming or reaffirming faith promise to “serve all people following the example of Jesus; and strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”
On February 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man was spotted, chased, confronted and then killed by two white men in Georgia. Local police and law enforcement officials initially protected those who hunted and murdered Arbery under a citizen’s arrest law that allows someone to detain and/or use deadly force against a person they suspect of a crime.
On March 13, 2020, Breonna Taylor was killed after police returned fire from her companion who thought their Louisville, KY home was being breached by an unknown assailant. She was shot 8 times.
On Memorial Day 2020, George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was handcuffed, pinned down on the pavement with a Minneapolis white police officer’s knee on his neck for nearly 9 minutes while ignoring Mr. Floyd and other’s cries for mercy before he died. Three other officers looked on without intervening.
On June 12, 2020, yet another unarmed Black man, Rayshard Brooks, was killed by Atlanta police as he tried to escape custody after failing a sobriety test and being detained.
I believe it is hard to understand these and millions of other crimes against Black, Indigenous and other People of Color over the centuries unless I honestly and repeatedly examine in my own heart, family, church, community, and nation to identify and reveal the terrible signs of personal and systemic racism – the centuries-old sin conceived from the lie of white supremacy. These recent tragic and hateful crimes represent literally millions of others. Most have been denied any form of justice, let alone peace.
So, I confess to you, my siblings in Christ, my own racism. I was taught racism by the white people in my life and the communities in which I was raised, including my cities, schools, and churches. The lessons were often subtle, because they were mostly “nice” people who denied their racism because it wasn’t usually overt – but, in many ways, that made it all the more insidious and dangerous.
Despite decades of education and training to challenge and reverse those early, pervasive and false lessons – racism still informs and infects far too many of my thoughts, words, and actions. It often happens instantly, and sometimes, I don’t even recognize it. If so, I hope no one else notices. I always deeply regret it. Still, it’s there. I can’t change and grow until I acknowledge and confess it and then daily do what I can to correct it. In the church, we call this “confession, repentance, and amendment of life.”
So…to my siblings who are Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color, I acknowledge that I benefit from the inequities and injustice of past and present systemic racism that has done so much harm to so many for so long. I offer my sincere apology and I pledge to do my best to listen, learn, reach out, pray, act, and grow. I also pledge to use my privilege and power as a bishop to engage in the work necessary to disrupt and dismantle both personal and systemic racism and create positive systemic change in our Virginia Synod and ELCA. I am sorry for the centuries of inexcusable harm and my own role in perpetuating it. I am deeply grateful for your partnership and witness in our church.
To my siblings who are white – I invite you to join me in learning about and confessing our complicity; repenting of our sin; actively amending our lives; and working daily to reform our own thoughts and actions – and the institutions in which we have influence and power, including this beloved church, and the communities and nation from which we receive unequal access to even basic benefits and services.
To all, we (the ELCA), are currently referred to as “the whitest denomination in this country.” I believe it is long past time for us to do the work necessary to be an authentically inclusive and truly welcoming church. We need one another to ensure the needed reforms have integrity and are enduring.
Personal racism leads to bad judgments, words and actions, (intentional or not), that end up being hurtful, insulting, angering, sometimes frightening, and too often deadly to our siblings of color. Systemic racism leads to the legal, economic, judicial, political, and religious systems that support and reinforce racism – and, at the same time forcefully judge and restrict or condemn persons of color.
Similar sinful prejudice and harm are also experienced daily by women; those who are LGBTQIA+; Jewish; Muslim and too many others. Increased harm and racism are real and victimizing our Latinx neighbors and those from many origins desperate to escape deadly circumstances in the land of their birth trying to immigrate to this country. During COVID-19 our Asian siblings are experiencing increased prejudice and systemic injustice. In these anxious times, hate crimes, vile messages, and dehumanizing comments are increasing in many contexts. All this must end!
Thanks for reading these reflections. I know I have a lot of work to do. If I am going to be true to my promise to “strive for justice and peace in all the earth,” I will need to offer and help build a sustained and sacrificial commitment to meaningful racial justice and reform!
I hope and pray you will join me. I know for certain I cannot bring about the essential changes on my own. I need all of you. We are church together!
What a critical opportunity for… following the example of Jesus, who is FAITHFUL + BOLD + SERVING.