By Rev. Mindi
I first saw the news on Twitter. Nine shot in a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Nothing was confirmed at that point. I prayed, I looked for more news online but it was hard to find outside of Twitter.
In the morning, the truth was known: nine black people murdered in their church during their Wednesday evening Bible study, by a white man that they had welcomed to join them. Murdered because they were black, because he was white and held on to white supremacist beliefs.
What has been revealed since that day is that this man grew up in a mainline church. He grew up in a European-American white protestant mainline congregation.
In other words, to most of us reading this blog, he grew up in a church that probably looked a lot like ours. With people who looked like us.
He could have been one of us.
I’m sure all of us come from churches that deny racism from the pulpit, that preaching equality, especially on Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. We probably have read from the “I Have A Dream” speech and at least once have sung “We Shall Overcome” or “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in our congregations. We don’t promote racism. We deny it.
But yet, it could have been one of us.
Some gun-rights activists would have you believe that instead we could have been one of the victims, but when we look at our history, from the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, to the shooting in the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, and the shooting at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Tennessee, there is one thing in common. All of the shooters were white males. All held on to beliefs that others were taking over the country—whether they be Muslims (mistaking Sikhs for Muslims as well), or “liberals” as in the case of the UUA church shooting, or black, as in most other cases of violence in churches over the last few decades. All of these perpetrators of violence lived and breathed white supremacy.
And so do we.
That’s scary to admit. It’s not easy to admit that our United States still promotes and exists where White is centered. Where White people rarely think about the color of their skin or prejudice associated with skin color or ethnic background.
So unless we start working on racism from within—and especially from within the white mainline liberal church, another shooter could grow up within our walls.
We have to call out the sin of racism. We have to stop jokes, assumptions, stereotypes, and other ways that we consciously or unconsciously perpetuate racism. We have to speak up when we hear it and stop it. We have to acknowledge when we have held those stereotypes and work to undo them.
We need to foster relationships with people who are different from us, but we cannot expect to teach us. We must learn. There are many books and articles about racism and ways that white supremacy exists in our culture, consciously and subconsciously in America. We cannot ask our black kindred in other churches to show us where we need to change. We can work in ministry together and support one another, but we cannot expect others to be our educators.
We also need to work on other oppression from within. I’m old, but not that old, and remember all too many jokes about the Irish, Polish, Italians and Jews and others told among white circles. If we cannot stop racism from within White European-American culture we have already lost. Not to mention sexism, ableism, and discrimination against LGBTQ folks that we still need to work on amongst ourselves.
Stopping racism from within is hard work. But we must do it, if we are to prevent what happened in Charleston from happening again. I’m not saying that the church this shooter attended wasn’t already trying—we don’t know—but we do know that those close to him knew he was plotting something for a while, but failed to speak up or do anything. The white mainline church has long been complicit in failing to speak up, failing to act, calling upon others to wait until a better time. We’ve heard this since Martin Luther King, Jr. penned his Letter from Birmingham Jail.
How much longer will we in the White Mainline Church wait to own up, take responsibility, and start the hard work of dismantling racism from within?