The largest lecture hall at Duke Divinity School sits right beneath Goodson Chapel.
The lectern from which our professors speak sits right beneath the lectern where the Word is read.
I sit on the back row with my friends, trying to focus through the chill of the room, the buzz of cellphones, the clatter of keyboards. The class is Ethics, taught by a professor I have not yet learned to respect or appreciate, because I am foolish and small-minded, and have not yet learned that women’s voices (even my own voice), high-pitched and breathless and laced with tears, can speak deep truth.
She tells us with sorrow leaking from every pore that there is a racial divide in America, between black folk and white folk… even in this seminary classroom. Even among men and women who love God, or are trying to, and want to serve God’s people, or are trying to want to.
Don’t believe me? the small white woman asks.
If you are white, and you are late to class, you may run– to catch a bus, to catch a ride, to catch up. But if you are black, your mother likely taught you never to run in public. Because the cops will think you have stolen something, you have shot someone, you are on the run.
Still you doubt? Her tears leak down her face.
If you are white, and you find yourself in the midst of trouble, you look for police cars. You seek that officer, who you are certain will help you, because your mother likely taught you that police are the good guys, they will take care of you, they are helpers and friends. But if you are black, and you find yourself in the midst of trouble, you fear police cars, knowing that they will suspect you as the source of trouble, will point their guns at you. And you’ve likely known, or known of, too many black men and women with police bullets in their bodies to trust that you might be the exception.
All of us white students are silent, uncomfortable, unnerved, some are crying. The people of color in the room look around at us, perplexed. Their weary eyes ask us: How could you not have known this?
A year later I sit in another classroom, smaller this time. Another class taught by a woman, a body I’ve come to respect, a voice I’ve learned to listen to. She arranges the class into a circle, the tables screwed permanently to the floor between us, each of us with our backs against the walls– and the words of Howard Thurman echo in my mind as I think back on this: “The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed.”
She refers to the news, asks us if we’ve been following the coverage of the young black boy shot in his hoodie, with nothing but candy in his hand. Yes, we say solemnly. We have learned by now to pay attention, to weep and pray, to stay awake with Jesus just one more hour as He mourns.
“You must preach Trayvon Martin,” the white woman says. “This Sunday. Preach him to your congregations. Tell his story. Say his name. Say the name of Jesus, tell of His love for Trayvon. Take courage.”
Silence fills the room. With our laptops balanced awkwardly on our laps, we lower our heads, praying for guns to lower everywhere.
A white boy speaks up.
“But my congregation,” he begins slowly, “is white. So… it doesn’t affect them. It doesn’t matter to them. They probably aren’t even paying attention to the news on this. So…” He pauses. Takes a breath. “I won’t preach this. I won’t. I’ll stick with Jesus. I’ll preach Jesus, not Trayvon.”
The silence in the room is of a different sort now. I have never before felt what rises in me at this moment. It is not exactly rage, it is not exactly pity… it is something else. Disgust? Disappointment? Shame. It is shame.
This summer the Lectionary, that schedule of scripture that some preachers like to follow, invites those who have courage to preach from the prophets. To preach words to our congregations (to ourselves), no matter their (or our) skin color… hard words, words that ring very true today in light of Alton and Philando. Words like these from Amos, who says,
“You have turned justice into poison”
“Hear this, you who trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of this land…
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.”
Recently I posted on social media a photo dragged up from not-so-distant religious history, of a poster circulated by the Mennonite Church. It features a the back of a white man’s head, wrapped in a tight hug by a woman of color, her face hidden in the embrace. Over them, words read:
A MODEST PROPOSAL FOR PEACE:
LET THE CHRISTIANS OF THE WORLD AGREE THAT THEY WILL NOT KILL EACH OTHER.
A friend commented on this photo with the polite inquiry: Why just Christians not kill Christians? Why not everyone not kill everyone?
I replied, That’s what makes it so modest.
Start somewhere, my friends.
Start with something modest.
Maybe it’s a hashtag.
Maybe it’s a prayer.
Maybe it’s a protest.
Maybe it’s getting rid of your gun(s).
Maybe it’s planting a garden to remind yourself of the peace of soil, the universal need for rain, the beauty of feeding others.
Whatever it is, however modest or grand, please start.
The world burns while women and men of good faith stay quiet.
Put that good faith into action.
Stop the bleeding. #BlackLivesMatter