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Uncomfortable Conversations

Broderick Greer is a deacon and the curate at Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He will be ordained to the priesthood in December. This narrative is based on an interview which appeared in an insert produced by Trinity Wall Street for September 6, 2015 issue of The Living Church magazine, called Sacred Conversations about Racial Justice: Listen for a Change, and begins an ongoing conversation leading up to the 2016 Trinity Institute conference

I was about 17 when I first became aware of the role race played in my life. I was a senior in high school and I saw a story on the local news that there was a black couple in the town over from us who had the words “die nigger” written on their garage. Soon after that the wife was walking in the neighborhood and an elderly white woman came and beat her with a two by four. She sustained serious injuries and had a lengthy stay in a local hospital.

Soon after, it was announced that there would be a walk in support of the couple through their neighborhood that Saturday. For some reason, I decided to go over there just to watch, to see what was going on. Mind you, I was never an activist, nor had I ever been particularly concerned with racial justice. At the demonstration, I remember seeing someone holding a sign bearing the famous words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” That justice is a matter of human interconnectedness had never crossed my mind as a middle class seventeen-year-old. From that moment on, I realized that the suffering of one or a few is the suffering of all and that the injustice experienced by that couple could easily become my own, as a black person. Like them, I could buy a house one day and neighbors could write similar words about me on my garage door.

I consider that moment of decision at age seventeen my baptism into blackness, a realization that, due to incidents of history, almost nowhere on this continent is safe for black people. My parents had catechized me about blackness throughout my childhood and adolescence, but it took that experience for me to learn that for myself. It was one of many that helped me realize the baptized people of God need to be in public spaces witnessing the suffering of oppressed groups. I wouldn’t have articulated it as such at seventeen, but that experience invited me to realize that I could not live my faith in a pietistic, individualistic manner anymore.

That memory lay dormant in my life until last year when I was speaking at a Martin Luther King Jr. men’s prayer breakfast about black rage. (This was coming off the heels of the non-indictment of George Zimmerman.) I was preparing for the lecture when I recalled marching through Arlington, Texas on that crisp, winter morning in 2008 and I realized violent racism is still a pressing issue in our modern American context. It is still difficult to be black in the United States America. Then Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson four months later, which became the ultimate catalyst for my involvement in racial justice movements.

I made the journey to Ferguson two weeks after Michael died. Until the moment I stood on the spot where he was killed, his death was theoretical. In that moment, I thought, “He is someone’s son. Michael Brown is someone’s brother, grandson, and classmate. And they can longer enjoy his humor, joy, and beauty.” While visiting Ferguson helped me contextualize the personal impact of unchecked, state-sponsored white supremacy, I was also heartened to experience firsthand the resilience of the people in that small, predominantly black St. Louis suburb of 18,000 people. While it is easy to caricature the citizens of Ferguson as disempowered, disenfranchised, and dispossessed, I am always reminded of a conversation I had with a black mother that afternoon, in which she said, “I will protest for as long as I have to. I will ask questions of our government leaders until I get answers.” When I think of my time in Ferguson, I will remember the prophetic fierceness and resilience of its people. People forced to live in subpar housing, who send their children to subpar schools; people who embody the stories of millions of black people in this country. Yet, they took power into their own hands, forcing a tone deaf nation to hear their justice-oriented lament.

As we listen and respond to their voices, the Episcopal Church is poised to be a transformative voice for a cultural awakening because we have, as a church, come to a prayerful conclusion that racism is sin. This assertion should not be taken for granted, seeing as not every Christian denomination uses such strong language about racism, if they even have the courage to discuss racism at all. The Episcopal Church must take the sin of racism seriously and seek to be a presence of healing in Spirit-inspired ways. This can mean marching in Black Lives matter demonstrations, or, as in the case of Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis, opening its doors for prayer after the announcement of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson. As the Episcopal Church does this, it will become, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Finally, the Episcopal Church must be willing to say—with our lips and lives— that black lives matter. We’ve reached such a critical stage of racial turmoil that white Christians need to say explicitly that they support the existence and flourishing of black people. Not only is this a political and economic assertion, but it is a theological reality, that God sees, hears, and mourns the loss of black life in this nation. We need white Christian people who will echo God’s heart by praying, “Black lives matter and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to let people know that.”

As I have become more outspoken within the church, I have received overwhelming support from family members, friends, seminary classmates, professors, parishioners, and clergy colleagues. Of course, there have been those who have accused me of “race baiting”, but that is to be expected in work of this nature. The most common refrain has been, “When I first heard you talk about this it made me uncomfortable, and it’s not that I’m any more comfortable now, but I understand that this is what we need to be talking about.”

You can find Broderick Greer on Twitter @BroderickGreer. The Trinity Insitute conference will take place in January 2016 and feature Nicholas Krisof, Anna Deavere Smith, Micheal Curry, and more. Learn more and register.  

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