[In celebration of the ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today’s audio includes music by the men of our Chancel Choir, and a solo by member Willie Dycks, celebrating the strength, worth and dignity of all people.]
I bumped into a person, an African American woman who I know pretty well, in the parking lot of Home Depot at Severance several years ago. I haven’t shared this story with you because it is rather embarrassing to me. In fact, it was soembarrassing to me (and still is) that I didn’t evenshare it in my “Courageous Conversations on Race” group this past summer. So I guess I wasn’t very courageous. However, because of the Courageous Conversations on Race, I feel compelled to share it with you now, on this Sunday when we remember the ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
This woman, this friend – after typical greetings and small talk – handed me an invitation and said: “I want you and Deanne to come to my “white” party to celebrate my 50th birthday.”
I had never heard of a “white party.” Always wanting to respond in a light-hearted manner, I actually said: “Like, only white people come?”
She looked at me funny. Trust me this is not the embarrassing part!
She then explained that guests come dressed in white to celebrate a big day. I thought to myself, “Cool, a costume party!” (Still not the embarrassing part.)
So I took the invitation and told her that I was honored to be invited and I am sure that Deanne and I would put it on our calendar; which we did.
The Friday night of the White Party came. The event was held at a restaurant about 15 miles away – it took us about 30 minutes to get there with the traffic. Deanne looked great in her white pants and white linen top and I, who didn’t own a pair of white pants, thought it would appropriate and maybe a bit funny, sort of a costume kind of thing, to come looking like a minister. So I wore this white alb I’m wearing today.
It never even occurred to me – until we got to the parking lot of the restaurant and saw all sorts of folks we did not know, mostly black folk, beautifully dressed – that here I was in a white robe, just one pillow-case short of looking like a member of the Ku Klux Klan!
And I actually walked into the restaurant and ordered a glass of wine and tried to make conversation with a couple that I did know.
Why I went inside, I don’t know – you reach a point where you are so out of your comfort zone that you do the next stupid thing. No one said anything about my robe, the greeter was gracious, thankfully not too may people were there yet and not too many people noticed (I hope) but I know that I looked out of place. I felt out of place. And Deanne whispered to me, “You’d better go home and change.”
And so I did. I walked outside, took off the robe, hopped in the car – drove home, heart racing in shame and humiliation, ran upstairs, put on a dress white shirt and the lightest pair of khaki pants I owned and drove back to the party where, indeed, I then had a very good time. And Deanne is still married to me.
I share this story with you on the Sunday when we remember The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because we don’t move closer towards becoming the beloved community by holding back stories of shame, of joy, of learning, of embarrassment, of truth.
We don’t move towards the beloved community unless we “go home and change.”
We don’t move towards the goals of the kingdom unless we pay attention to the little things, the clues, the unintentional but real consequences and perceptions of acts.
We don’t move closer to the vision of the prophet Isaiah – where the wolf and the lion, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the fatling together lie down – if you and I are unable to move beyond politeness and potential embarrassment, talk about race, and tell our stories.
We don’t move closer to those inspirational words of the prophet Amos:
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream
until I, as a white man, can laugh at myself and undress my white privilege where the world revolves around me and let it go – in truth, in tears, in laughter, in shared humanity and humility, finally free of the shame.
I don’t have to let guilt shape my responses – but truth.
We don’t move closer to the Pentecostal vision first seen by Joel:
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh…”
until we move from only speaking prophetically to acting prophetically, living personally, sharing the resources, taking the personal actions and institutional actions of getting over the barriers, naming the barriers, taking personal and institutional stock, finally freed by honesty into the transformational power of truth.
We don’t move closer to the vision of Paul:
that in Christ Jesus all are beloved
until we reflect the community that we proclaim, until we look like that beloved community which we seek to become.
It takes work: hard work, personal work, institutional work, political work, prayerful work, risky work, to move towards becoming the beloved community.
If we’re to continue to become the hospitable, inclusive, diverse, kingdom of righteousness that we can be – we all have to go home and change!
We all have to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable. And create a community of safety so we can risk deep things. This is true of anything that really matters.
This is true of any system, whether it’s deeply personal – such as someone needs to take stock of addictions, a couple that has to talk deeper truths about hurts and hopes, a family that has to look at its dynamics – or institutional – such as an institution that has to take an inventory, or a nation that needs to take a good honest look at its history, both its glories and its gruesomeness.
Or even our church – asking what does it mean that we have an all-white program staff and black custodians.
What does it mean that in Cleveland Heights where the demographics are more or less 50% black and 50% white, that the schools are more like 85-15%, if not 90-10%.
There is a young woman, an African American young woman, who has been an A-student throughout elementary school and middle high and would have succeeded at Heights High – but a private school “investing in excellence” gave her a scholarship and so, she is not at Heights being excellent. Why don’t they send 10 of their outstanding students to Heights High? What does this mean?
There are so many issues involved in that for me that it hurts deep down in my gut.
And yet, when our son Jack enters our back door with his six closest friends, his brothers – who are all black – I feel deep down good, and I am going to claim it!
We cannot dwell in shame – or bask too long in the low-wattage glow of limited advances – but sometimes we can celebrate the victories and continue to plot the course, take the stand, and follow where the gospel leads.
And the hurt keeps pushing me towards hope. The questions keep pushing me towards godly answers. This community keeps pushing me towards powerful responses.
I keep thinking and dreaming about Forest Hill Church on its little corner of Monticello and Lee being a witness to something big and grand and good. And it has already started.
The Courageous Conversations on Race held this summer was a tremendous re-start of our long-held commitment. In the weeks ahead you will learn how you can get more involved by joining a dinner conversation, joining a book study group, going on a pilgrimage to Memphis and Selma and Washington D.C., becoming involved with North Church… showing an intentionality in all we do to building rich and deep relationships that move us onward; welcoming the stranger, inviting folks to social groups, even into Fellowship Hall (which may be the biggest task of all!)
I believe that the Courageous Conversations on Race are going to change our lives, save our lives. If not for those conversations, I wouldn’t have been able to tell my story of shame.
The Session Task Force – which produced this marvelous document I’ve been urging you all to read – has reclaimed hospitality as a core value and celebration of diversity as an expression of our faith. This is core work – building our capacity to talk deeply, act faithfully, and move intentionally. As our friend Doris Allen says, “Counting heads and making heads count!”
It is what we do, and what you pledge to.
Investing in small groups, encouraging social action, leading transformative education and giving permission – all that we are doing to align ourselves by what we say we believe to be true about the Kingdom of God – that we are one in Christ and called to equip the Saints – transforming lives, institutions and culture.
It is not about guilt, not about blame, not about judgment. It is about freedom. Actually, it is about seeing that we have a common destiny. Seeing that we – black and white together, gay and straight together, man, woman and child together, immigrant and citizen together, Muslim, Jew, protestant and catholic together, Republican and Democrat together, people of varying abilities and gifts and needs together – we have a common road. And we either move together – working, walking, dancing, playing, agitating – into the light, or we will be broken apart – into our individual silos of independent fears – in the shadows.
We can’t let that happen.
You won’t let that happen on the corner of Monticello and Lee. You are making it happen, here – and there is no turning back.
There is no turning back on becoming the beloved community of Jesus Christ.
There is no turning back from enabling me to tell an embarrassing story and be set free.
So let’s all go home and change.
But then come back!
For the party is just starting.