White churches must use worship services to repent for the sin of racism in part by acknowledging complicity – active or passive, said Natasha Nedrick, associate minister at Greenforest Community Baptist Church in Atlanta.
“You cannot hold comfortable and traditional worship services after you witness unarmed black men and women being murdered in the street and still call yourself an ally,” Nedrick, a member of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Pan African Koinonia, wrote in a recent CBF blog post.
Nedrick attended the virtual services of a number of several CBF congregations on Pentecost Sunday – just days after the escalation of protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
What she saw in most cases, she said, was nothing.
“You would not have known the country was on fire, that there was unrest over police brutality,” Nedrick told Baptist News Global.
She acknowledged that for many congregations, their own participation in systematic racism is difficult to comprehend.
“White privilege is the ability to not see what you don’t have to experience.”
Nedrick spoke with BNG about her experience watching churches ignore or try to negotiate the racism that permeates white church and culture. Her comments are included here, edited for brevity.
What gave you the idea of watching white worship services?
It was that Friday, the day the escalated protests really started, and I was interested in how white persons, and more specifically white CBF churches, were approaching this moment. I have worked for CBF. I am a member of CBF. I wanted to hear how the Fellowship was responding.
Did you have any expectations going into it?
I had a feeling what the direction was going to be, but I wanted to hear the language at such a pivotal moment. Particularly when I saw one person online, on the state level of CBF leadership, saying we shouldn’t push people on what to preach, that we shouldn’t pressure people in these ways. And I’m very much paraphrasing, but I had taken quite a bit of offense to it because the post was at 7 p.m. on Friday night so there was nothing he could be alluding to but the protests. I thought this was taking cover. It was an opportunity for pastors to use this as cover. I say this because a lot of churches use pre-recorded services. I also know, being in the black church, that every black congregation I know was having to adjust their services.
What were those adjustments?
It was addressed through prayer and it was addressed through sermons. Maybe a bit through song. In some churches it was through announcements on safe ways to do things. There was no doubt if I turned on a black church’s service, I knew it was going to be addressed. It’s what was in the air. The question I had was what would it look like in a predominately white environment?
What did and didn’t you see in those environments?
There were two categories.
In the churches where services were prerecorded, they didn’t opt to change anything. But that didn’t actually surprise me because there are churches that refuse to take on this issue. There is a reason they are silent, and I don’t think it’s because everyone just happened to decide not to redo their pre-recorded sermons.
What was the other category?
The lukewarm stuff, alluding to it but never naming it. They would say there is injustice in the world and that we need to pray about it. One interesting quote I heard was “systems of terrible oppression” without listing the oppressors. You don’t list how people are being oppressed. You don’t call the names of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. Instead, you just name it as a generality. We probably know what you’re talking about. It’s got enough direction that the people in the congregation know you’re alluding to something, but you haven’t said enough that would upset someone. And if you needed to, you could probably walk back your words.
Could it be made to sound that oppressors are the victims?
Absolutely. That’s what you get when you use language that’s so general. So, if you don’t name the oppressor or the oppressed, how should I view myself in this light? And you get to choose. But for whatever reason that day, pastors did not want to identify racism as a sin from which we need to repent. That is the fullest place I wanted congregations to go.
Did any of them go there?
There were a couple of examples: Alan Sherouse at First Baptist Church of Greensboro (North Carolina) and Steve Wells at South Main Baptist Church (in Houston, Texas). There were others, but I think they articulated it the best.
Alan Sherouse talked about the sin of racism. He talked about how it was America’s original sin and how it’s embedded in everything that happens. Using Pentecost language, he talked about how we need a new listening and how this is a time to listen more than it is a time to speak. He laid out what the church’s response needed to be, which involves a lot of listening, first, and then a lot of action.
Steve Wells preached about forgiveness and apology. He framed his sermon around what does it mean to ask for forgiveness and that it must include not just words, but also understanding the offense and taking action. He talked about how we often don’t feel like we have responsibility because we don’t do these kinds of things – we would never literally put our knee on someone’s neck. But he said inaction also makes you responsible. He preached that repentance is about so much more than an apology. I thought that was important to declare from the pulpit.
What are some actions white churches can take?
The first step of repentance is the confession of sin. So, you have to acknowledge systematic racism and participation in those systems. Maybe you didn’t have the awareness. But a lot of people are saying, “Wow, so when black people said they weren’t being treated the same by the police, there’s evidence now because it keeps happening on tape.” And it’s important for churches to publicly repent and to acknowledge their participation, whether it was intentional or unintentional. Just call it out by name.
Where can they go from there?
Part of the response is educational – reading and understanding how racism has been systematic and how prevalent it is. And the response also is relational – the desire to get to genuinely know people and build relationships with them. You need to be in these relationships to be able to understand the struggles that they go through. The Catch-22 is this may not be the best time for this. I don’t know if white people understand the amount of stress, the amount of weight that is carried with recalling and re-experiencing racial injustice in our lives. So, let’s wait for the right time when African American persons are comfortable telling their story.
The next step is for congregations to come together and to think through what public action they can take on this issue. This doesn’t mean all congregations have to do the same things. Some people think everyone needs to go protest. But it’s not the only thing to do. So, examine your congregation just like when you’re doing mission work. Look at how your church is gifted and that will inform what actions you take and who you partner with.