Having led a congregation in Santa Barbara for 36 years and running, I understand the importance of pastoral responses to troubled times. Religious leaders of all stripes are invited to be present during people’s most difficult experiences.
We seem to be at a national inflection point, because white dominance knelt on George Floyd’s neck, just as it has knelt on our collective neck for four centuries. I have heard white church leaders calling for prayers to “heal our divided nation,” but the only healed America Black people know is in our dreams. In this moment, we are not thinking of healing the nation; we are gasping for breath.
“White dominance,” “white supremacy,” and “white nationalism” are terms that are rarely ever studied, even uttered, by white people, including many Christians, and especially white evangelicals, but they pose an ongoing threat to the well-being of African Americans.
I am amazed, but also alarmed, that several church leaders have reached out to me in response to this difficult experience. My head is spinning.
Your interest is a good thing. We need relationship. We need solidarity. We need koinonia. I love the ancient text that promises the day when the lion will lie down with the lamb. Note, however, that only one of them needs to do deep internal work regarding predatory tendencies.
When I was a child, African Americans were entertained by programs that erased us. I watched, Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriett, and The Flintstones, and in order to enjoy them we had to pretend that African Americans don’t exist, or that we are a novelty. We have similarly experienced your churches.
I hope you understand my slowness to engage as reasonable. Recently, I was asked by more than one church to participate in a “service of lament.” I have been in a state of lament all my life. I don’t need a service for it. Until now, many of you have questioned my experiences and brushed aside my lament.
After Officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, some of the same religious leaders who declined to publicly recognize Colin Kaepernick, perhaps for fear of alienating donors, rushed to the closest African American they could find. You may be sincere, but I am not ready to talk about this until you are more ready to talk to me. While you shielded your congregation from controversy, you failed to honor your parishioners who remain frustrated, seeking spiritual solace in a hostile environment.
It feels like you are more interested in saving your organization than saving Black lives. That’s what history tells us. A quarter of a century ago I sat in a room with some 30 church leaders in Santa Barbara after the LAPD brutally beat Rodney King. I did not realize when I entered the room that the objective of the meeting was to pray for law enforcement.
It is cause for celebration that people around the globe are noticing the oppression and insult that African Americans and the rest of the Diaspora live with daily. Vigils and marches, led by people of all ages and races, have gotten the attention of church leaders, and you are having to reckon with your complicity with that oppression and insult, and your silence.
If you had no conscience, what would your next decision be?
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”
Is the church an active conscience for America? If you had no conscience, what would your next decision be? When we look at lawlessness in law enforcement, how many churches, based on their role as conscience, have ever taken responsibility for that lawlessness?
Your Faith Needs to Be Disinfected
The Father of American Evangelicalism, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is a study in current practices. He lamented the cruel slave trade, but he purchased and owned Africans. This kind of duplicity runs rampant in American religion. Some people explain, “But he was just a man of his times.” What they ignore is that abolitionists were working hard on this continent long before Edwards chose to buy Venus, his first acquisition, a 14-year-old girl.
While you spray-clean your church buildings, while you scrub your Eucharist elements, and sanitize your hands, they all remain contaminated. Your faith needs to be disinfected. Western Christianity gave up the immune system of its liberative properties in order to accommodate imperial power. Western Christianity, conservative or liberal, bears responsibility here for disinheriting both Native nations and Africans, and that’s before we start talking about other continents and islands.
‘Make the Main Thing the Main Thing’
I know many of your churches have been reached out to by white Christian anti-racism advocates and you denied them. You said, “It is not our focus right now” or “We are already doing the work” or “Our church is not ready for that.” Perhaps you are beginning to see your mistake of not engaging sooner. A popular saying among churches that choose to remain silent in the face of mortal, neck-crushing injustice is, “We want to make the main thing the main thing.” This is code for somehow featuring the name of Jesus without the message of Jesus. You can heartily sing hymns and choruses about the very Jesus you ignore.
To some, our struggle for freedom may come off as angry and confrontational … because it is, and confronting is the thing the churches in Santa Barbara have not effectively done, or even tried, in most cases.
Five persons who spoke at the rally led by Healing Justice: Black Lives Matter SB are people of deep faith who uplift Jesus, including myself. So, I am here as a Black pastor in Santa Barbara standing for Black liberation, lifting up Black joy, celebrating Black life. If you want to do the same, I invite you to join us. Recognize the essentiality of Black faith.
Black Joy Is Real
Rev. James Ficklin has led a faith community, Greater Hope Baptist Church, longer than anyone here, for some 54 years. He has a story to tell that you need to hear, of growing up as a Mississippi sharecropper, migrating West and dealing with new expressions of anti-Blackness in Santa Barbara. We all have our stories, but we are more inclined to tell them when the listener is serious about creating change.
As I said at the aforementioned rally of May 31 at the Sunken Gardens, “A lot of you see the Black joy we have with all the artists, the music … the joy of the brilliant, beautiful young women leading this movement. Black joy is real, but you cannot have Black joy without knowing Black pain, Black sorrow.”
If you are serious about this, email me.
Find me on Facebook.
Come to our churches.
We need churches to stand for Black liberation.