Dear American Baptist,
Prologue: “As I write in honor of the commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, I am cognizant of the challenge that our society and the church still face on matters of race. As I write, it is important that I acknowledge that I do so out of my context as a Euro-American, raised in the segregated South. Those facts have defined my own wrestling with the issue of race as both a spiritual and a social issue for me. Important in my own journey has been Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, which describes a church that surmounts the divisions of the cultures in which it is embedded as testimony to the transformative work of Christ within his community of believers. This letter provoked my struggle with the cultural norms of the segregated South that were all too often present in the life of the church as well. Equally important to me has been the influence of African-American and other friends of color who have accompanied me on this journey with grace, challenge, and forgiveness. Their perspectives have offered me new insights into their experiences in America that have challenged me and helped me understand the enduring nature of racism in our culture.”
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington where Dr. King delivered his prophetic “I Have a Dream” address that still inspires today. This march was the high-water mark in the Civil Rights movement. As we mark this moment in history, I am grateful that throughout the Civil Rights struggle American Baptists were actively involved in the effort to create a more just and loving society.
Many were buoyed by new possibilities for America as the March on Washington brought a moral challenge not only to the nation’s capitol but to every American. As Dr. King proclaimed a dream of an America where “one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood,” his words fired my imagination with hope as a 15 year-old white teenager in Georgia for nation and church.
This week’s anniversary celebrations mark both how far we have come and yet, how far short of Dr. King’s vision of the beloved community we have fallen. Since the March on Washington, real gains have been made. Whatever gains we have made have come at great cost to many who sacrificed much for Dr. King’s vision. Today an African-American occupies the highest office in the country, an idea that was unthinkable apart from the struggle of many. Yet sober reflection must acknowledge that Dr. King’s dream is only partially realized. Underneath outward signs of progress lie layers of distrust and dis-ease and a questioning of the fairness of our systems for people of color. These are matters we seldom address in conversation with each other across the lines of race. And intra-racial conversations – black with black, white with white, brown with brown – reveal very different perceptions of the “American experience” 50 years after Dr. King’s address.
Most recently, the killing of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman on the basis of “stand your ground” laws have dramatically show-cased the still- festering wound of race in this country.
As the grandfather of a two year old grandson who bears the ebony hues of the African heritage of our beloved daughter-in-law, I have been confronted with the enduring nature of racism in our country in a new way. Everywhere we take my grandson, everybody oohs and aahs over him – and rightfully so! “How cute!” “Isn’t he precious!” “He’s so darling!” But I fear for when he is 16 or 17, and is walking in a neighborhood and not his own to visit a friend, how folks will see him then. I worry for him in a way I have never worried for my two sons because I know the power of the race-based assumptions and suspicions that are deeply ingrained in our culture.
The “American experience” differs in many ways depending upon one’s race. I frequently reflect upon a conversation I had with a friend of mine several years ago. We were commiserating about how both our sons were coming of age and would soon get their driver’s license and how, consequently, our insurance rates would go through the roof. The conversation took a serious turn when she, an African-American mother, began talking about the fears she had for her son when (not if) he would be stopped for driving her Mercedes-Benz. She began to recite to me parent-to-parent all the cautions and warnings she had given her son about how he was to act if pulled over in order not be seen as a threat. Never had I thought about the need to give my son any advice except, “Don’t be rude if (not when) you are pulled over.” Now with my grandson, I wonder what I must say to him in the America of 15 years from now. Just as 50 years ago I hungered for an America free from the stain of segregation, now I want for my grandson and for all our sons and daughters an America free from the stain of enduring racism.
It was the stance of American Baptists against slavery, ABC’s work in the South after the Civil War founding schools and working for the rights of African-Americans newly freed, and our involvement in the Civil Rights movement and support for Dr. King and his family that led me and others to become American Baptists. I wanted to be part of church that lives Ephesians 2:14, and dreams of being “the beloved community” that the prophet Isaiah heralded when he declared, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isa 56:7 RSV) This is the church’s calling: to be a community where all are joined together in the power of God’s redemptive love, and live in the harmony and unity that actively flows from the life of the Trinity: Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.
The National Executive Council of ABC (Louis Barbarin of MMBB, Virginia Holmstrom of ABWM, Michaele Birdsall of ABHMS for Aidsand Wright-Riggins who is on sabbatical, Reid Trulson of ABC/IM and me as General Secretary) yearns for ABC to become such a community and to be in the forefront of a new movement for racial justice. We believe it is of the essence of being Transformed by the Spirit that ABC become in Paul’s words “the new humanity” where racial and cultural differences are received and honored as gifts that reflect God’s manifold riches.
We further believe that scripture’s affirmation that God “has given to us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18) both empowers and compels us to take up this cause not only within our lives and within our churches but within our society as well. To that end, we have purposed together to lead American Baptists in a sustained engagement around the issues of race in our nation. ABHMS will be taking a key programmatic role in this effort, but all of us will be offering leadership.
We invite American Baptists to participate in the dialogue that ABHMS is initiating on its Facebook page. We also invite every ABC congregation to engage in this dialogue not just internally but with sister churches whose memberships do not mirror its own. We will be identifying and making available resources to assist our conversation and engagement as brothers and sisters in Christ.
In our struggle for a nation that more fully reflects God’s reign, repentance will be demanded. Listening with the heart will be required. New habits, attitudes, and practices will be essential.
American Baptists were a strong force for change in the Civil Rights movement. American Baptists can be a strong force for justice today. As the hands and feet of Christ, let us fulfill Christ’s command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves through our work for a society that does justice and loves mercy as the expression of our walking humbly with God and neighbor.
A. Roy Medley
General Secretary, American Baptist Churches USA
The message above, written by ABCUSA General Secretary A. Roy Medley, was translated into Spanish by President of the ABCUSA Intercaucus Amaury Tañón-Santos.