Churches play key role in fight against racism

Men from New Life Christian Fellowship worship in front of Emanuel AME Church in June. (Wade Spees/Staff)

On Sunday, June 21, four days after nine people were murdered at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, I had the great privilege of preaching the Word of God at New Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamestown, less than an hour away. How did I, a white person, earn this honor? Well, 14 years ago, I became a member of Morris Brown AME Church. Seven years ago, I answered God’s call to preach and began the journey into pastoral ministry. And last August, I was ordained an Itinerant Elder in the AME Church and was assigned by my Bishop and Presiding Elder to serve as the Pastor at New Emanuel. In a sense, I got to preach that day because I kept showing up.

The terrible event at Emanuel has brought this idea of white people showing up at black churches into the spotlight. It’s not common. In the normal scheme of things, when we’re not shocked and grieving, it doesn’t happen much. Some black churches have white visitors regularly; most don’t. Very few have white members. I am one of two white AME pastors among the more than 500 AME pastors in South Carolina.

I’ve sometimes had white church leaders tell me that they’re disappointed that black people don’t come to their churches, because their churches would welcome them with open arms. I ask them what their motivation is for wanting black worshippers in their congregations. Is it just to validate the white churches’ proclamations of openness? And if not, if the motivation is that you want worship on earth to look more like worship in heaven, with people of all ethnicities together, then why don’t you go to a black church? Why ask them to be the ones to leave their comfort zones and venture into unfamiliar territory? Why not take that initiative yourself?

Some white people may have believed that it would be awkward, that they would not be welcomed in a black church. I hope that the circumstances surrounding the tragedy at Emanuel have demonstrated how ridiculous that belief was. If a racist terrorist intent on destruction has experienced more of AME hospitality than you have, what does that say?

In the days after the shooting, people showed up. If you prayed, thank you. In that first terrible week, I and many other AME clergy felt ourselves genuinely sustained by the prayers we knew were being lifted for us. If you attended vigils and marches and funerals, thank you. The images of Charlestonians of all ethnicities grieving together and supporting one another were beautiful and inspired hope. If you showed up, thank you.

But don’t stop now. Part of white privilege means that you now have the option to disengage, to pull back from the ongoing conversation about race and racism in America and from the hard work of building a more just society for all people. You have the choice to post your selfies from the vigils and pat yourself on the back for being #CharlestonStrong. And nothing will change. If we all go back to our own racial and political corners and talk amongst ourselves, nothing will change. We will have squandered this opportunity, as our President so eloquently said, to experience God’s grace.

The truth is that racism still permeates our nation. Some wonder how this can be true so long after the end of slavery and legalized segregation. Think of it like this — when an old chemical plant shuts down, one that operated before the idea of environmental regulations, the land it’s on doesn’t cease to be polluted. The contamination remains until special hazmat crews come to clean it up. The toxic sludge of racism continues to contaminate our society. Its pollution lingers in our schools, our courts, our police departments, our government offices, our banks and businesses, and yes, in our churches. The half-life of hatred is long; it won’t just go away.

The good news is that we can all join the clean-up crew. The only special equipment we need is radical humility, love, and the commitment to keep showing up.

Anya Marsalek Leveille is the pastor of New Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamestown.