I remember it like it was yesterday, it was March 3, 1991. On the television were scenes, playing repeatedly, of a black man being brutally beaten by police officers. His name was Rodney King. I remember how sickening it was, and I remember the riots afterward.
To be honest, I have known racial unrest almost since the day I was born. I was 5 when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. I only have a vague memory of the riots. The riots and shooting at Kent State, when I was 7, was my first real memory and it has always stuck with me.
Growing up in Ft Wayne, I remember the push for desegregation in the late 60’s. We lived downtown when the city began buying homes and moving African American families into our neighborhood. My sister and I didn’t care, we played with all the kids black and white. But after all the neighborhood changed, we moved away too.
They call that ‘white flight’, but we didn’t really have a name for it back then. We moved for a few years to the country but later moved back into town. As a little boy, I sang in an all-black choir at a church we visited as my dad designed a new church building for them.
In 1971, several schools were closed, and kids were bussed to new schools to integrate us. We didn’t understand why we couldn’t just walk to our old school, and no one really talked much about it. At least, not in the open. We only heard whispers. I am not sure why they didn’t better prepare us for the move, but both African Americans and white kids, I think, resented this.
During 1973 to 1976, I remember the unrest and even the race riots in the schools. I remember being locked in our classroom and hearing about the violence in other schools around the city. I was even attacked by a white kid for having a black friend. It seemed like the whole world had gone crazy.
After I graduated, I remember the Miami riots in 1982. Then for many years, the issue of race faded into the background for me. I raised a family and went to college. Later I attended seminary.
Throughout all those years, I had African American friends who I worked with and we had in our home regularly. We played softball and soccer together. I have to say, I was color blind. Race seemed like someone else’s problem, not mine.
Later, I invited African American groups to sing in my churches and regularly worked with African American pastors. I did pulpit swaps to preach in African American churches on a few occasions and worked regularly with people of color in the community.
I guess I never noticed or understood that things were not right until I opened my eyes. I remember being at a gas station, where you had to pay to pump the gas. It was new back then. As I reached for the gas pump, I saw the sign and so I started inside to pay. But the attendant saw me and waved me back.
A few minutes later, an African American man drove up and also tried to pump gas. The attendant saw him and waved for him to go inside and pay first. I was shocked, I had never seen racism like that before. It made me question many things. Clearly, we were living in two different worlds.
That is when I began to ask questions and listen to my African American friends. I asked them why they never mentioned things like that before, they said they thought I wouldn’t want to hear about it. That is when I realized that color matters and I should not be color blind.
I think for many people, helping elect Barack Obama as the first African American president seemed like a way to help heal our differences. Unfortunately, I think it just brought unspoken tensions and race issues back to the surface. Hate speeches against President Obama shook me to the core. How could people be so cruel?
But it was the shootings in 2014 in Ferguson and Oakland that seemed to make everything blow up again. I heard people say, “Why can’t we just get along?” But I knew it wasn’t that easy. In sermons, I shared my disgust and talked about all people being equal in God’s sight. The truth was though, I wasn’t sure what to do.
I made it my mission early on to have women and people of color in worship as much as possible. I wanted to live up to Revelation 5:9 where it says that people from every tribe, language, nation, and background will be together in heaven. In our last Church, I interviewed, and we hired a Hispanic man to come and play for our new second service.
I marched in Anderson for Martin Luther King Jr day, with others across the Memorial bridge. I was feeling pretty good about myself. I have always wanted to work with inner city churches, although I have been assigned mostly to small-town and country churches.
Then on June 17, 2015, a young man named Dylann Roof walked into a Charleston Church and murdered 9 and injured one. He said he did it in hopes of starting a race war. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one asking, “Where do people like this come from?
Here we are in 2020. The Corona Virus has forced us into our homes. Tensions are up and people have lost jobs. People are frustrated ‘then the sickening’ by the horrible killing of George Floyd. Again, this set our nation on fire. Truthfully, there have been many other killings, this was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I think people were sick of being inside and the opportunity to protest was almost a release; but it is far more than that. Over the years I have prayed, “How long, O Lord?” “How long will people hate each other over the color of their skin?” “How long can prejudice and fear prevail?”
While some say, “All lives matter” and they do, don’t miss the point. Keep your eye on the ball, Black Lives Matter. The treatment people of color receive; the hate, fear, abuse, being pushed down and murdered is intolerable. We cannot stand by when such injustice continues.
Desmond Tutu said, “If I diminish you, I diminish myself.”
Martin Luther King Jr said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
And James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Here in America and the world, racism is not only a disease but a sin before God. We are called to love all our earthly brothers and sisters. Mark 12:30-31 records Jesus’ words, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
As I was preparing to talk about race, I am reminded of Micah 6:8, “He (God) has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
We can never live as God has called us to live, if we tolerate so much injustice. Where is the compassion? Where is the mercy? Why are we ‘too proud or afraid’ to speak out? How can we remain silent when so many others suffer? Their loss is not our gain, we all are diminished when others lose their rights and their lives.
In our main scripture passage today, Jesus has been healing others on the Sabbath and the Pharisees are outraged. So much so, they want Jesus dead. (Matthew 12:14) The pharisees, looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, said, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (Matthew 12:10)
Jesus responded, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore, it IS lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:11-12)
Then, Jesus had the man stretch out his shriveled hand and Jesus healed him. THIS IS what outraged the Pharisees because it challenged their way of life. To them, the law was more important than a human life, or quality of life. Caring for others would require more sacrifice on their part. And so, they missed Jesus’ point entirely!
Following this story, Matthew quotes from Isaiah 42:1-4, he states, “Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets.
“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, – till he has brought justice through to victory. In his name, the nations will put their hope.” (Matthew 12:18-21)
The Hope of the world is Jesus. He was willing to take a stand against sin, corruption, suffering and injustice. As Christians, we are called to take ‘the same stand’.
When we are baptized into a Christian church and community, we take these vows,
“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject evil powers of this world and repent of your sin?” And “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression – in whatever forms they present themselves?” We respond, “I do”.
Prior to the story of the Good Samaritan, the question is asked, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)
Jesus tells the story of a hated Samaritan who has more love, compassion and respect for life than the 2 religious leaders who passed by. Not only did he help the man, he bandaged his wounds, covered him with his clothing, put the man on his donkey where he took him to an Inn – and finally paid for the man’s stay. And offered to pay extra if needed. (Luke 10:30-35)
Notice, he never asked what nationality the injured man was or what he had done to be attacked. No one deserves or could provoke such a beating.
This Samaritan simply looked past race, religion, and bias to help a fellow human being in despair. Then Jesus asks, “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” We know the answer, the Samaritan. (Luke 10:36-37)
My question I must ask myself is, “What Kind of neighbor am I?” You will have to ask yourself the same question. Do we seek justice, show no bias – and seek to love as God loves?
Deuteronomy 10:17-20 reads, “For the Lord your God is – God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Fear the Lord, your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name.”
And Psalm 97:2 reminds us that “righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.”
As my good friend Rev. Dr. Aleze Fulbright explains, it is time to look within. Have I been complicit? Have I spoken up, out, and often enough? Have I spoken up about the worth of others, about reconciliation and privilege? Have I been willing to seek justice for others no matter who they are?
Black lives matter. This injustice will not end until we all stand together and speak out.
Pray with me for a moment, Heavenly Father, I have failed to see my neighbor and love as you would love. I have been blind, help me to see. No more can we protest or speak ‘once on this matter and think we are finished’ and believe we have done our duty. As long as racism exists, we have work to be done and an enemy to be fought.
Help me to listen without being defensive, to be engaged and enraged for the right reasons, but to use my power in love and in compassion. Help me and others finally say, enough is enough and to be able to stand by our convictions. And help us to live the hope we profess, in the name of Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
Your assignment is…to examine your own life in respect to race. What have you experienced and how did you react? It is easy to remain silent, when we should speak – or speak, when we should listen. How have you grown over your life?
What steps can you take to help break down barriers? You can begin by simply meeting and befriending others who do not look like you. How many people of color, specifically African Americans, do you know? We often pass one another without a word spoken. Speak first and share some good greetings and words.
Until we actively work to engage one another and break down barriers, the suffering will continue. Hold others, accountable. This will never end until we all take a stand together. No one deserves what our African American brothers and sisters have had to put up with. It is time for this affliction to end.
Please do your part, it is the right thing to do. We must follow Jesus’ example. Then, others will know us by our love.
“And all God’s People said, Amen”