Two years ago, Carol and I started attending a nearby African Methodist Episcopal Church. One other white person came from time to time. I liked it more when she was not there, because I enjoyed saying, “We were the only white people at church.”
The gracious congregation tried to teach me to sing, clap, and sway, but my swaying still needs work. One Sunday, the pastor surprised me by calling me to the platform to lead the morning prayer. Everything I said brought a response. I am not sure if “Help him, Holy Ghost” is encouragement or critique.
On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof went to a prayer meeting at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston and murdered nine people. People like me thought it was an isolated incident, but my African American friends knew better. Dylann Roof had been taught to hate. He breathed the air of racism.
Two days later I got a call from the pastor of the church we were attending: “The minister who was killed is a member of my family. I’m going to Charleston. Could you preach this Sunday?”
What I said was, “I’m so sorry, but I’m in Texas right now for a conference. I’ve agreed to preach at a church here on Sunday. I’m very sorry.”
But what I thought was, “What would I say? What could I possibly say? What could a white preacher say to broken-hearted African Americans who have fears I can’t even imagine?”
I have an easier life because of the color of my skin. I have privileges I do not recognize. I breathe the air of racism. I was taught to have a sense of superiority and to consider condescension charity. When I reach into my wallet, ignore the twenties, and get a dollar bill to drop into a poor person’s hand, I do not think about the part privilege and prejudice played in that person’s homelessness.
Last week as we felt the anguish of victims’ families at Dylann Roof’s sentencing, I wondered what I would say if I had another chance to preach at the AME church. At least this:
I want to understand what you deal with, but I also know that it might break my heart.
I do not know what it is like to have nightmares of a church service that ends in murder.
I do not know what it is like be the mother of a teenage son who is afraid because her son’s skin is the same color as the skin of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Jamar Clark, and Tamir Rice.
I do not know what it is like to be an African American in a country where the next president has a history of racist comments, including insulting heroes of the Civil Rights movement.
I do not know what it is like to be an African American and know that the next Attorney General suggested that a white civil rights attorney was a traitor to his race for taking a voting rights case.
I do not know what it is like to be an African American and wonder if our congress is so excited about cancelling health insurance for 20 million people because of the race of a disproportionate number of those 20 million.
I do not know what it is like to be complimented on how articulate you are and wonder if that is a compliment only black people receive.
I do not know what it is like to drive knowing you are more likely to be pulled over by the police.
I do not know what it is like to be looked at with suspicion by store clerks because of the color of your skin.
I do not know what it is like to know that some people who have never met you do not want you living next door.
I do not know what it is like to fear that your child’s teacher expects less of your child.
I do not know what it is like to realize that some of the churches that sing “in Christ there is no east or west” would not welcome you.
I do not know what it is like to truly hear the shameful silence of white Christians.