the shape of leadership

Racial Healing Begins by Acknowledging Wounds

An AG pastor shares insights from his personal experiences

Gavin Brown on June 3, 2020

I grieve while reflecting on recent events in Minneapolis and across the nation, including my own community in the Washington, D.C., area. Experiences like the George Floyd tragedy are triggers of painful experiences for many in the black community.

As an African American in pastoral leadership, I feel compelled to share some personal and painful experiences I’ve had while serving in church leadership. You see, until we truly see this as a heart and gospel issue, we’ll never recognize the need to examine our own perceptions, thoughts, prejudices, and willingness to be continuously transformed by the Word.

None of us is perfect. We are all works in progress under God’s hand. If we’re not willing to look for blind spots, we’ll never know whether they exist. It is my conviction that the Church must lead the way in confronting these realities, no matter how uncomfortable they may be.

I love the Church. I am honored to serve and pastor an amazing, diverse group of people whom I love and care about dearly. The Church has changed my life, given me opportunities, and challenged me greatly.

My intention here is not to divide, but maybe to disturb. I’m learning in this ongoing dialogue regarding race not to be afraid of the tension that comes with these types of talks. The stakes are too high to be worried about giving in to insecurities.

Some people fear what they don’t understand, and that’s OK. True love courageously pushes through the tension for the sake of bringing awareness and needed change, even when it’s tough.

Here are some of the experiences I’ve had in ministry over the past 17 years:

  • As a young minister attending one of my first events for church leaders, I was in a buffet line where pasta was being served for lunch. I was behind an older white pastor who heard me turn down a particular item, telling the server, “No, thank you.” To my surprise, the man turned around and said, “Not soul food, huh?” This guy didn’t know me. I hadn’t even introduced myself to him. As a 21-year-old pastor, I was a little embarrassed.
  • While I was serving as a youth pastor, a mother sat in my office and told me she didn’t think I could ever connect with her kid because of my skin color. She rubbed her arm back and forth to reinforce the point. I left that meeting wondering whether I was capable of pastoring, leading and connecting with white youth because of my race. Of course, I knew the answer. I just had to wrestle with blatant racism and prejudice catching me off guard. Nevertheless, I went home jaded.
  • A superior told me a family had left the church because they didn’t want their white kid to sit under an African American youth pastor.
  • Another pastor described my growing presence and opportunities in the pulpit as “reverse affirmative action.” When I heard this, I went to my office, closed the door, and teared up with anger before collecting myself to go home quickly and quietly, showing no outward signs that I wasn’t OK.
  • Shortly after I came on board as a church staff member, a co-worker told me, “You don’t have to sit in the back of the bus anymore.” I wondered why he was comfortable saying this — in the hallway, where others could hear, no less. He didn’t know me. I had been on staff for less than a month, and we had just met. I wasn’t even sure what he was talking about. Were there segregated vans or buses at this church?
  • During the interview process at the church I now have the privilege and honor to pastor and serve, I was surprisingly asked the question from a ministry colleague, “What do people think of having an African American as their pastor?” Caught off guard, I replied, “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll ask them.” I silently wondered whether the person meant all the people or just the white people of the church.
  • My wife, Shekinah, was a passenger in the car of a Caucasian acquaintance when the person’s father phoned in through speaker, not knowing Shekinah was in the car. It was election season, and the father said to his daughter, “You’re not voting for any [racist slur], are you?”
  • After my wife and I had our third child, a former colleague said in front of a group of people, “All black preachers have a lot of kids.” Ironically, this person had the same number of kids as me.
  • During a break at a meeting, as I was talking with the only other African American in the group, a white man interrupted us, saying, “This isn’t a black caucus meeting, is it?”
  • A pastor sharing his frustrations on racism said to me, “ I don’t understand it, really. Slavery ended years ago.” To me, this is another way of saying, “Get over it, black people. It’s not as bad as it used to be.”
If we’re not willing to look for blind spots, we’ll never know whether they exist.

I share these stories not to get sympathy or a pat on the back, but to call for all of us to do some deep introspection to see whether we find any racial prejudice in our own hearts — and, if we do, to go to God and ask Him to cleanse us of an attitude and behavior that is displeasing to Him.

Prejudice, racism and bigotry don’t just manifest explicitly. I trust you’ve seen how they show up implicitly as well. I’m not looking to cast blame. However, I also don’t want to waste this opportunity to promote understanding and healing.

We can press on with courage, love and unity to address these issues at the foot of the Cross, where the blood of the Lamb makes us one. But please know these painful experiences leave wounds that ache when we encounter something that lays them bare again.

I can say for certain I’m not the only one with wounds. I would never condone violence, looting or the destruction of property, but I do understand the outrage and the desire for peaceful protests. It’s a response to the riot within many who are hurting.

There are also anxieties. People have complimented my kids on their cuteness, and my wife and I desire to raise them in the fear and admonition of the Lord, to respect and treat all people, of all races, with dignity and value. However, as their father, I worry that they — especially my son — will enter adulthood in a world where their skin color will be a provocation. I refuse to settle for this. We must be better for those who will follow us.

I’m thankful, blessed and encouraged by many of my incredible white brothers and sisters who have listened, reached out, and talked, cried and prayed with me over the last few weeks. This gives me hope for the future.

My hope ultimately lies in the gospel. Justice must roll on like a river indeed (Amos 5:24). Love must prevail to the least of these. We must strive to love God and our neighbors as ourselves. If we are to move forward, it can’t be just a black thing. We must do this together — especially in the Church. Our world needs it. The gospel demands it. There are wounds to be tended to.

As I pay attention to the tension I see, I don’t grieve without hope. My hope is in Jesus and His perfect love. I’m thankful His love indeed covers over a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).

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