Near the end of a conversation I was having with an African American pastor, he said, “When you’re ready to do more than talk, let’s talk.” As a white pastor of a predominantly white congregation, I had earned those words.
In some ways I was more hopeful about the Church becoming a place of racial reconciliation when I graduated from seminary 30 years ago than I am today. Though maybe naiveté was just masquerading as hope.
In my experience in serving white congregations and in relations with other such congregations as well as with black and Hispanic churches in my city, I’ve found that white churches are more than willing to sit down for multi-racial conversations around the table, to come together for community services around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, or work together on some charity. And for 30 years I’ve participated in planning, leading or promoting such events from time to time.
The trouble is that for 30 years white churches in my area have wanted to talk. Just talk.
During that time the public school system, which was fully integrated 30 years ago, has gradually resegregated most of its schools. At numerous points the school system and the city have had opportunities to turn back this trend. White churches have just wanted to talk.
During this time redline housing segregation, while prohibited by law, has stubbornly persisted through racial bias at banks and real estate and rental offices. With few exceptions, housing is no more integrated than it was 30 years ago. And a portion of the few examples is likely to be gentrified communities in a decade-plus transition from one race to another. Meanwhile, white churches have just wanted to talk.
In the last few years there have been a number of well-publicized police shootings of unarmed black men, the mass killing at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va. When Black Lives Matter has been marching in the streets, too often white churches have still just wanted to talk.
What I heard from my friend that day was that he was tired of talking, and so was his congregation. When my congregation and other mostly-white congregations were willing to join his church and other historically black churches in taking action against the systemic racism that continues to plague our city, then we’d have something to talk about.
While white congregations have been willing to talk about racial reconciliation and generously give to social ministry charities, they are reticent to address the systemic issues that exacerbate the racial tensions in our city. Building relationships and talking about racial bias and white privilege in multiracial groups IS vitally important for our cities and communities in this nation. But JUST talking only perpetuates the frustration that many have when dealing with white churches.
Last week I stood with about 75 clergy behind a former school board chairperson during a press conference in which he came out against a bill in the North Carolina legislature that would allow townships to opt out of the county public school system and create their own charter schools, for their own mostly white citizens. The new law hearkens back to Jim Crow days. Fewer than 10 of the clergy standing behind him were white. My white peers and I continue to deserve my friend’s comment.
Tim Moore is the writer-in-residence and former pastor of Sardis Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. He also is a current member of the Alliance of Baptists’ Board of Directors.