In his recent lament over the Trayvon Martin tragedy, evangelical leader Jim Wallis implored: “If there ever was a time that demonstrated why racially and culturally diverse congregations are needed — that time is now.”
For the past 4 1/2 years I have served as pastor of one such community of faith. Through its nearly 40-year history, Metro Baptist Church in Manhattan has enjoyed a heritage of diversity. While over 50 percent of our congregation is white and many of us enjoy varying degrees of privilege, we cross multiple boundaries of race and ethnicity – as well as socioeconomic status, sexual identity, and background – each Sunday when we gather for worship. Such diversity is partially a gift we receive from our city and neighborhood, but it is also a consequence of our church’s theological and ethical convictions (“This church opens wide its doors” our bulletin declares). When unity comes amidst such diversity, it is not through the erasure of our differences or from a false notion of being “blind to race,” but rather through opening our eyes widely to one another and seeking to know one another in all our particularities as created in the likeness of God.
As we gathered and greeted one another on Sunday, July 14, many of us expressed renewed grief at the death of Trayvon Martin, having heard the verdict in George Zimmerman’s case late the night before. The emotion hung in the air, like the dust Jesus described clinging to the shoes and bodies of his followers in our gospel text for the day (Luke 10:1-11). As a native Floridian, I felt my own immediate desire to shake the dust of that place from my feet.
Worship proceeded as Tiffany Henkel, also a pastor of Metro, offered words of corporate grief and confession in her pastoral prayer. Ryan Wilson, our ministry resident, followed with his arrangement of It is Well with My Soul. As the song closed, I looked up expecting to see the familiar presence of our head usher, Connie, who almost weekly leads our offertory prayers. Instead it was 16-year-old Wendell – a tall, athletic, African-American young man who has been attending Metro with his family for 3 years. He paused in the pulpit, bowed his head and prayed, “God, help us to believe peace is possible in this world with so much violence.”
At the close of the service in the back of the sanctuary, I thanked Connie for asking Wendell to pray. “Oh he came up to me just before the prayer,” Connie said. “He said he wanted to pray today.”
Wendell’s prayer was exactly what each of us wanted to hear, voiced powerfully with a grace none other in our congregation could have embodied so fully in that moment. But it was not a day for cheap grace or purifying tears. I was soon reminded that it’s one thing to listen for what we want to hear, but quite another to be receptive to what we would rather forget.
After the service, I sat in my office processing the day. I was aiming for catharsis, truth be told. Wendell knocked on the door. His emotions were mixed, and turned toward anger as he described his own experiences of stigmatization as a young black man. He shared how just this year he has twice been stopped-and-frisked as part of a controversial tactic used by New York City Police Department since 2002 to detain and interrogate pedestrians that raise “reasonable suspicion.” According to the NYPD’s own reports, in 2012 89% of those stopped under Stop-and-Frisk were totally innocent and 87% were black or Latino. Wendell wondered aloud why he drew suspicion when walking home from a pick-up basketball game or an after-school musical rehearsal (“I was wearing dance shoes, Alan!”). He conveyed a righteous anger that he can safely display in his pastor’s office, but admitted he conceals out in a world where anger and frustration – however righteous – can make him more vulnerable.
Wendell’s prayer was a gift to me last Sunday, but the greater gift came in his raw honesty after the service, reminding me that I could not simply receive the blessing of his prayer while ignoring his pervasive plight and that of his mother who wonders even more now how to keep him safe. I cannot simply shake the dust from my feet and move down the road toward visions of peace without acknowledging that the highway opens up for me in a way that it does not for others. I cannot enjoy the safety and ease of my life without also interrogating myself and my community for the fear and suspicion that such preoccupation with safety can form.
If we are to “believe that peace is possible in this world with so much violence,” we cannot simply listen and look for what we want to hear and see, but even more for the greater – and far more costly – gifts of redemption that can come from what we’d rather not.
“Wendell,” I asked as he was leaving Sunday afternoon, “Why did you want to pray today?”
“I just feel like Trayvon was my brother,” he said thoughtfully.
And then I prayed that the same could yet be true for me.
Thanks to Wendell for his many gifts to our church and his permission to share this reflection.