The Many Things I Do Not Know about Racism

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.

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Putting an End to Prayer Vigils

Jewish synagogues have been defaced with swastikas.  Latina women have been threatened.  Muslim women have been forced to remove their hijabs.  On Veterans Day, Marie Boyle, a U.S. army veteran from the Philippines, was told to “Go back to Mexico.”

I do not want to go to another vigil.  Sometime soon someone will easily obtain a gun no hunter would ever use.  He will open fire in a room full of innocent people.

Clergy will organize a vigil where we read the names of the victims.  We will grieve for the families of those who died.  We will read scripture.  We will pray for an end to gun violence.

We will give anyone paying careful attention the impression that we are not sure that God and God’s people working together can stop or even slow gun violence.  The ministers will not offer concrete suggestions as to how we might prevent the next tragedy.  The ministers will either be afraid of offending someone or they will not know what to suggest.  Does a prayer vigil that leads to no action make us complicit?

The temptation right now for those who have worked against the easy availability of guns is, if not to give up, to stop trying so hard.  But this is not the time to—as one of my dear friends put it—binge watch The West Wing and eat ice cream.  This is the time to be vigilant.

This is the time to work to make it harder to die from gun violence.  More than 30 people in our nation are murdered by guns on an average day.

Gun violence is a domestic violence problem.  In an average month, 51 women are shot to death by a current or former husband or boyfriend.

Gun violence is a child abuse problem.  The number of children and teens killed by guns in one year would fill 126 classrooms of 20 students each.

Gun violence is a mental health problem.  21,000 suicides are committed using guns each year.

Gun violence is a safety problem.  More than 45 people are shot accidentally each day.  (Statistics are from,, and

Gun violence is a faith problem.  Christians have to be broken-hearted by the gun deaths in our country.  We have to be more concerned with the sixth commandment than the second amendment.  We may want to say that gun violence is as prevalent as it is because politicians are afraid of losing their jobs, but it is also true that Christians have not worked as we should to end the violence.  We cannot pretend we cannot do anything.

We can work to strengthen background checks.  40% of the guns sold legally in the United States are bought without a background check.  No records are kept.  No questions are asked.  Criminals buy guns online from unlicensed sellers.

We can insist that background check laws work.  Connecticut improved their background check laws and cut gun deaths by 40 percent.  Missouri repealed their background check laws and gun deaths increased by 40 percent.  Common sense demands we keep guns out of the hands of felons, domestic abusers, and those adjudicated as mentally ill.  We can regulate guns as closely as we do cars.

We can require locks that make it harder to pull a trigger and lower the number of accidental shootings.   We can work to ban the automatic weapons that seem to have no purpose other than mass shootings.

Christians disagree on how best to address the epidemic of gun violence, but we cannot disagree on the tragic nature of gun violence.  We have to do something.  Support courageous politicians.  Complain about the ones who are not courageous.  Speak up for common sense gun laws that make our streets and sanctuaries safe.  Defend the right of families to walk their neighborhoods without the risk of being shot.

Pray for an end to prayer vigils.  Pray for the time when we have no list of victims’ names to read.  Pray that we will have the courage to speak up.  Pray that we will realize that, especially in hard times, God expects more from us.

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