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Commemorating 1619: On Naming Slavery in Worship

The act of worshipping together as a community—of being not just in physical proximity, but spiritual proximity—sometimes feels like a miracle. As a pastor responsible for planning and leading worship, I have a deep appreciation for the perils and pitfalls that come with asking a group of people to pray together, sing together, worship together. If I write a prayer for worship, it can’t just be my prayer; it has to be a prayer for the whole community.

The logo for 400 Years of Inequality, a coalition committed to education and observance and urging communities to organize against racism for justice.

These challenges become especially acute when worship leaders ask their communities to engage with a topic that is painful or divisive. But we can’t shy away from hard subjects. We can’t restrict our worshipping life to shallow platitudes and feel-good theology lest we water down the gospel to the point of being meaningless. Faith communities need to dig deep into the places where our faith, our scripture, and our God intersect with the hard stuff: injustice, suffering, cruelty, sin. The sacredness of worship provides a powerful connection-point to the very subjects that are hardest to confront.

These reflections took concrete form for me recently as I pondered how my congregation should mark the quadricentennial of the transatlantic slave trade. In 1619, the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia (though enslaved people were brought to the Americas prior to 1619)[1]. Four hundred years later, organizations both secular and religious are using 2019 to reflect on our history and to see how it connects to our present.

I’m a white woman, and I pastor a predominantly white congregation. Bringing up race or racism  among white people tends to evoke anxiety, guilt, and defensiveness—in short, our white fragility is quick to rear its head. We would rather leave slavery in the distant past. We would rather ignore the continuing racial injustice in our society. We would rather not consider our own complicity in this injustice. So I was faced with a complex challenge: how to mark this 400th anniversary in worship in a way that is truthful and authentic, without prompting so much defensiveness among my white congregants that they would be unable to engage.

Of course, what is truthful and authentic in my context won’t fit in every context. Particularly in communities made up of descendants of enslaved Africans, marking the quad-centennial will look very different. For those, like me, in mostly-white congregations, I hope these resources will be helpful.

I developed some liturgical resources with a lot of help from my colleague and fellow young clergywoman, the Rev. Jessica Harren. Part of developing these resources was paying another colleague, Jessica Davis, M.A. who is African-American, to do a sensitivity reading. If you are white and writing something about race, it is wise to seek input from a person of color; but don’t take advantage of their expertise and emotional labor! The liturgical resources we wrote can be found here: https://www.socalsynod.org/2019/08/16/resources-for-commemorating-the-400th-anniversary-of-the-arrival-of-the-first-enslaved-africans-to-north-america/

Another young clergywoman colleague, the Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings, wrote liturgical resources of her own, which can be found here: https://www.disruptworshipproject.com/litanies-confessions-prayers-for-justice/confession-and-repentance-on-the-400th-anniversary-of-slavery-in-the-united-states

Bringing up slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, mass incarceration, and racial injustice in worship may seem daunting. For those of us who are white, it is certainly easier to say nothing, to let this anniversary slip by. We have the privilege of ignoring slavery’s legacy. Our siblings of African descent don’t have that privilege. If you are hesitant to rock the boat by asking your congregation to name racism as sin, I encourage and challenge you to be bold. Our Savior didn’t come to placate the privileged and neither should we.

Worshipping together in community seems like a miracle sometimes. It is a miracle that we can come together—- all with different stories, different hopes, different wounds—- and find a sacred unity. It might seem miraculous that a mostly-white, suburban, politically mixed congregation could join their voices in condemning slavery; could publicly repent for denying the divine image in all people; could pray together for descendants of enslaved Africans. And they didn’t even lash out at their pastor afterwards!

Although marking the quadricentennial in worship felt like a risk, the truth is that it was a small first step. The things we do in worship—the stories we tell, the prayers we raise up, the history we remember—form us as individual Christians and as Christian community. The true miracle is that the Holy Spirit works in and among us, uniting us as the body of Christ. The work of worship leaders and planners is important, but it is the miraculous work of the Spirit that transforms us, bringing us ever closer to God’s sacred intention.

[1]

To learn more about the complexity of the translatlantic slave trade beyond 1619, visit https://bit.ly/2kLqc5M

 

mug reading "read fewer white dudes" on it on a shelf next to a pile of books by non-white authors

#ReadFewerWhiteDudes

mug reading "read fewer white dudes" on it on a shelf next to a pile of books by non-white authors

The author’s reading corner. Mug from Where Are You? Press, books from Powell’s books.

Two years ago, my good friend from seminary, Casey Kloehn, wrote this blog post inviting others to join in her reading challenge to #readfewerwhitedudes. It was one of those Holy Spirit moments, where her post and invitation came just as I was coming to grips with being told how white my reading list was. When the whiteness of my reading  list was first pointed out to me, I jumped to defending my choices in my head. “These are good books! I’m a smart person! I’m trying to buy books that will help me be a better pastor and this is what’s available!” But then I remembered: I live in one of the whitest cities in the United States. And I’m a pastor in one of the whitest denominations in the United States.  As much as I wanted to stay in my comfort of being able to order the professional and personal books that seemed to “fit what I needed” at the time…. It seemed like Spirit was urging, drawing, pulling me into this invitation to include diverse voices in the books that I was reading. (And, the excuse to order another motivational coffee mug for my office certainly didn’t hurt.)

 

After the first few months or so, I noticed some changes. First, I would get asked more often about what I was reading and was able to share recommendations more readily than before because of the intention I was holding in my reading habits. Some of this was admittedly because I unashamedly drink coffee from a mug (pictured) ordered from the independent publishing company that inspired Casey’s original hashtag. But some of it is also because people ask their pastor what they are reading.

 

This season of reading fewer white dudes has brought with it a season of talking about books from voices that were stirring something new in me. Which brings me to the second change—I noticed just how much my reading habits get into my head, heart, and bones. Before this challenge, I hadn’t realized how much my inner voice lacked diversity and imagination until I got called out on it and nudged into making this shift. If we believe in the power of written words to move us, then believing that what we read matters follows naturally. And as leaders, what we read matters.

 

There is a quiet and powerful prophetic task in not only reading with intention, but sharing our reading with others. Sharing openly about the #readfewerwhitedudes challenge started to feel like a very pastoral task, even if most of this reading was what I would consider “not for work.” For better or for worse, there are pieces of our lives as pastors that get exposed to the people we lead. While plenty of times there is space for us to discern how much or how little we share about our personal habits, I’ve decided my reading list is best kept open to the public. It keeps me accountable to those voices on the margin, and in sharing my story about why I #readfewerwhitedudes, I’m able to be open with others about naming and owning my privilege and power as a middle class, heterosexual, cisgender white woman. Some of that privilege and power needs to be checked with these marginal voices. And some of it has been able to do the work of standing up to the white hetero patriarchy by continuing to drink from my motivational mug, even when it has caused offense.

Two years after that first challenge, and I’m starting another annual booklist. Since that first list, I have resigned my first call, spent some time in Sabbath wilderness, birthed a baby and begun dabbling with a grassroots spiritual community forming in my neighborhood. Last week I got asked the question again “What are you reading?” And I stopped to share about #readfewerwhitedudes. All the while, aware that I still live in one of the whitest cities in the United States. And I’m still a pastor in one of the whitest denominations in the United States. I’m continuing this year to #readfewerwhitedudes. I’m reading fewer white dudes and more women, Asians, Native Americans, Black, Queer, Trans, Latinx writers  because as a leader I need voices in my head and my heart that will move me forward when Spirit pushes me towards justice. I’m reading fewer white dudes because I want to be able to share openly with others a habit of mine that feels honest and authentic and intentional. I’m doing it to claim small moments of being something other than status quo in a world that seeks ease and comfort. So, dear YCW and friends, want to #readfewerwhitedudes with me?

 

I’m Still Here: A Review

Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here:  Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness was released this year and I commend it to you. Brown’s memoir is essential reading. Especially Christians who are white and living in the United States will benefit from listening to Brown’s wisdom and perspective as a woman of color.

Her absorbing book starts with a surprising story that immediately draws the reader in: Brown describes an encounter she had at the age of seven when the librarian was suspicious and questioned whether the library card actually belonged to this young Black girl. When Brown confronted her mother afterward, her mother confessed that she and Brown’s father had intentionally chosen a name most typically given to a white male, because they hoped that potential employers in the future would give “Austin” a chance not normally extended to people of color.

After this powerful chapter, Brown tells her story chronologically. She describes attending a private Christian elementary school in Toledo, visiting extended family in Cleveland, and she shares experiences—both positive and negative—with teachers at her Catholic high school and majority-white college in Chicago. After graduating, Brown worked at a number of Christian non-profit organizations. Brown is someone who is well acquainted with white evangelical culture, and she writes with persuasion and spiritual strength.

Going into the working world after college, Brown admits that she had assumed that she would be able to fearlessly combat racism, slaying racist nonsense as if it were a dragon. What she discovered, however, was that racism was not so much an “imposing beast” but a “poison” that “seeps into your mind, drip by drip, until it makes you wonder if your perception of reality is true.” My guess is that many young clergywomen could resonate with this experience. We may enter a ministry with idealism and a desire to effect change, but systems that oppress continue to oppress, and others undermine our truth at every turn. Every time we seek to name the problem, we are told that the problem is with us. It can be wearying.

For this reason, I am grateful for Brown’s tenacity: throughout her memoir, she fearlessly challenges the presence of white supremacy within the American church. At the same time, it was clear to me that she wasn’t using Christianity as a punching bag: there was no malice in her evaluation, only love. She writes, “even though the Church I love has been the oppressor as often as it has been the champion of the oppressed, I can’t let go of my belief in Church—in a universal body of belonging, in a community that reaches toward love in a world so often filled with hate. I continue to be drawn toward the collective participation of seeking good, even when that means critiquing the institution I love for its commitment to whiteness.”

In the workplace, Brown discovered how insidious white supremacy is. She writes, “Whiteness constantly polices the expressions of Blackness allowed within its walls… It wants us to sing the celebratory ‘We Shall Overcome’ during MLK Day but doesn’t want to hear the indicting lyrics of ‘Strange Fruit.’ It wants to see a Black person seated at the table but doesn’t want to hear a dissenting viewpoint. It wants to pat itself on the back for helping poor Black folks through missions or urban projects but has no interest in learning from Black people’s wisdom, talent, and spiritual depth. Whiteness wants enough Blackness to affirm the goodness of whiteness, the progressiveness of whiteness, the openheartedness of whiteness. Whiteness likes a trickle of Blackness, but only that which can be controlled.”

There were times as I read this book that I had the same sensation as when I watched the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro. What I had previously seen as benign in American culture was exposed, by Baldwin and Brown’s keen insights, to be grotesque. Brown rightly observes that the white church has viewed power as its birthright rather than its curse, and her memoir is a testimony of the damage done by the curse of whiteness in the American church.  Read more

The author

The Messiness of Microaggressions

1 Corinthians 12:12, 26 NRSV

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

 

The author

The author

Hey there, friend. I have news: we are all a mess, and you are messy, too.

I feel called to tell you that because I love you, and I love the people with whom you come in contact.

While we may know each other well, marginally, or not at all, the fact that you were willing to click on this link and at least start reading this think piece means that I can trust you with a bit of truth. I am guessing that something intrigued you to mentally and spiritually lean in towards a topic that most of the world would still choose to turn away from, minimize, or utterly deny.

With that in mind, I am going to assume the very best in you; I am going to trust you with my truth. Because, as we see being played out in government (45, I am looking at you), the media, and in the comment section of almost any page online, communication has no worth without an explicitly expressed value of trust.

Along those lines, let’s establish our starting place, friends. I am assuming that you and I have a shared value for what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. named the Beloved Community. That is, the kind of community that respects the intrinsic worth of all members of humanity. The King Center writes, within the beloved community “racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.”

If this is not your shared stance on humanity, please feel free to exit this article because it will be a waste of your time, and probably only offend you. Honestly, I love you enough to let you be who you are. If the work of edifying the beloved community of humanity is not your shtick, then this is conversation is not for you.

I will give you a few seconds to go if you need to: 3… 2… 1…

Read more

A Litany Against White Supremacy

The author

As Charlottesville, VA becomes the focal point of white supremacy and those who stand against it, this litany was prepared by myself and Pastor Elizabeth Rawlings for use in worship.

Litany against white supremacy

Gracious and loving God,
In the beginning, you created humanity and declared us very good
We were made in Africa, came out of Egypt.
Our beginnings, all of our beginnings, are rooted in dark skin.
We are all siblings. We are all related.
We are all your children.

We are all siblings, we are all related, we are all your children.

Violence entered creation through Cain and Abel.
Born of jealousy, rooted in fear of scarcity,
Brother turned against brother
The soil soaked with blood, Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?

We are all siblings, we are all related, we are our brothers keeper. Read more

The Power of Words

Rev. Molly F. James, PhD
Christ Church Cathedral, Hartford, CT
August 20, 2017, Proper 15A
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

May God’s Word be spoken. May God’s Word be heard. May that point us to the living Word, who is Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

As a part of my PhD program, I spent three months living in England, which was a wonderful experience in many ways. There was, however, one huge downside. My husband Reade is a mechanical engineer. There is no such thing as a sabbatical in the engineering world, so he could not pick up everything and move to England with me. So I lived in England by myself. That is a challenging experience if one has been married for some years. But we found some wonderful ways to stay connected, even across an ocean. One of the ways came as a complete surprise to me. When I had settled into my apartment in Exeter and I turned on my computer for the first time, a window popped up with a message: “Hi Molly, 28 days until I come visit you. Love, Reade.” A new message popped up everyday counting down the days until he came to visit. And then messages popped up counting the days until I flew home.

I have been thinking a lot about the power of words this week, and that story came to mind. Read more

Out of the Human Heart

What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart. 

In the name of God: the Source of Life, the Word of Love, and the Spirit of Truth. Amen.

On Wednesday evening, I attended a community prayer service at John Wesley United Methodist Church, right up the street. The pastor there, Jerry Colbert, called the gathering in response to recent violence in our nation and our community. And people came. People who belong to many different churches, and I’m sure some who belong to no church. People whose skin and hair and eyes were many different colors. We came seeking a place to pray and sing and cry together.

Near the end of the service, after he gave the final prayer, Pastor Jerry began to lead us in a song that I first learned in seminary, when I sang in the gospel choir.

I need you
You need me
We’re all a part of God’s body
Stand with me
Agree with me
We’re all a part of God’s body

It is God’s will
That every need be supplied
You are important to me
I need you to survive
 

It meant so much for us to sing those words to one other. After the song, Pastor Jerry invited us to greet each other, and I found myself embracing total strangers. We were all smiling at one another, so glad to be reminded that all of us belonged there, that all of us belong to God’s body. So glad to be reminded of our need for one another.

This morning’s gospel is one of those texts that preachers dread, and it’s not hard to see why. The collect for today calls Jesus Christ “an example of godly life.” But in this encounter with a Canaanite woman—a foreigner—his behavior is anything but godly. It’s tempting to try to explain this away, but the truth is that Jesus is rude to the woman. He insults not only her, but her people. He calls them dogs. Put this interaction into today’s context for a moment. Whose words are you reminded of here? What groups of people are calling other people dogs—and worse? This is hardly an example we would want to honor, let alone follow.

I find it interesting that just before Jesus travels to the distant city where he meets this woman, he talks to his disciples about the power of words and what our speech shows about our character. “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the human heart,” he tells them. Only a few verses later, it seems Jesus needs to pay better attention to his own teaching. The words of his mouth reveal the prejudices of his own heart. You heard me right. I said that Jesus was prejudiced. Is that so hard to believe? After all, we proclaim that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. As a human, he experienced everything that we experience, and that includes learning prejudices against people who were different from him.

But never fear; there is an “example of godly life” in this story for us to follow. Two of them, actually. Read more

Dear Church: It’s Time to Get Out of the Boat

The theologian Karl Barth was known to have said that preachers should write their sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. If he were alive today, he might have amended that statement to say that we should preach with the Bible in one hand and our Facebook news feed in the other. I have to tell you, there were two topics in particular that came up in my Facebook feed this week that we need to discuss here this morning. And while it might not seem so at first, they are actually related to each other.

The first was an article about church decline. I’ve seen dozens of similar articles shared by clergy colleagues, stating facts and figures about Christianity’s demise in the West: noting a decline in church attendance and a decline in young clergy and the impending leadership vacuum it will create. All the statistics that we faithful people who come to church every week don’t want to hear. These articles all speculate as to the reasons why people aren’t finding church to be relevant anymore: we’ve watered down the gospel to create mass appeal, the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, capitalism and individualism, the internet, televangelists and millionaire celebrity pastors, church scandals, an increasingly secular culture… Perhaps all of these reasons are true, to a degree. The sum of it all, though, is what we need to pay attention to: that in rapidly increasing numbers, more and more people find church, Christianity, a life of faith, simply irrelevant.

The second was what happened in Charlottesville this weekend. In case you aren’t aware, a debate over removing the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a city park in Charlottesville led to white nationalists planning a rally they dubbed “Unite the Right.” There was also a call for 1,000 clergy and faith leaders to come to Charlottesville in prayer and community to counter-protest, and many Episcopal priests and bishops, as well as bishops and ministers from other Christian denominations, some of whom are personal friends, were among those gathered in counter-protest.

Starting Friday night, radical white supremacist protesters against the removal of the Confederate statue descended on Charlottesville. In a scene all too familiar to many who were part of the Civil Rights era, they marched through Charlottesville with torches in hand, shouting hateful racist slogans and terrorizing the counter-protestors. One colleague of mine posted a picture that he called “an enduring image” as to why he was there. It was taken inside the church where he and hundreds more faithful counter-protestors were gathered and showed a young girl, probably eight or nine years old, being held and comforted by the pastor of the church, with a terrified look on her face because white terrorists with torches in hand had encircled the church outside and were not letting them leave. The one difference was that now, there were no white hoods to mask their faces. Thankfully, the protest eventually was disbanded and they made it out alive.

The planned protest was for Saturday at noon, but it was cancelled before it even started. Saturday afternoon, in an act of domestic terrorism, a radical white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring at least 19 more. Virginia declared a state of emergency, police were ordered to clear the area, and people were told to go home.

I’m so upset at this headline that I’m still struggling to find the words for it. I’m baffled, confused, and sickened. How was this allowed to happen? How can white supremacy—neo-Nazism—have such an organized stronghold, such legitimacy, in this country that literally fought against Nazis in a World War? Why are we calling this “white advocacy” and the “alt-right,” using words normally associated with political issues, to tame down a non-political movement that has proven itself to be nothing short of domestic terrorism? How can there be such strong bleed-over between radical Christian fundamentalists and radical white supremacists, while the church stays relatively silent and allows them to corrupt the gospel? Read more

Sinking: A Sermon on Genesis 37, Matthew 14, and Charlottesville

As the children leave, I ask of you a moment of personal privilege. I am grateful for the trust you give to your pastors and for the gospel which has been entrusted to all of us as people of faith. I also want to remind you that a pastor’s role in preaching, like the shepherd’s staff, is twofold. Sometimes sermons draw you near and bring comfort. Sometimes they prod and agitate. This sermon falls in the latter category. It is intentionally provocative. It may make you uncomfortable or even angry. I’m not flippant about that; all I ask is that you hear me out, and I promise to afford you the same courtesy should you want to remain in conversation. I believe our relationship as a family of faith can hold that tension. 

Keep your eyes open and pray with me: Lord, may your light shine. Lord, may your steadfast love endure forever. Lord, may justice flow down like water, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amen.

Small historical markers track the movement of the Athabasca Glacier in Alberta, Canada.

The snout of the Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rocky Mountains is just a few hundred yards away from Icefields Parkway, a stunning, scenic route between Banff and Jasper National Parks in the province of Alberta. When our family stopped to see the glacier just a few weeks ago, I underestimated the reflection of the sun off the ice and sustained a wicked sunburn. So I brought back from Canada souvenir tan lines which prove my lack of good judgment. But what has stuck with me even more than the sunburn is the memory of small historical markers along the walking trail leading to the glacier’s edge. I might have missed the first one on the far side of the parking lot just off the highway, except that my four-year-old was climbing on it. No more than 2 feet high, and definitely off the beaten path, the stone marker blended into the background. It simply said, “The glacier was here in 1843.” As we hiked toward the glacier’s edge on a trail of rock and rubble left behind by the glacier itself as it has receded, I noticed more of these markers—off to the side, unobtrusive, and yet still quietly telling the sad truth that the glacier is receding at an alarming and accelerating rate.

“The glacier was here in 1908” read the marker at the foot of the path. A ways later, “The glacier was here in 1925.” Then “The glacier was here in 1935.” We walked on, sometimes slipping and stumbling on the rocks left in the glacier’s wake. “The glacier was here in 1942.” We helped the children on the steepest parts of the climb. “The glacier was here in 1982.” By the time we reached the marker showing where the glacier was in 1992, the message these markers conveyed was growing painfully clear. At the 1992 marker, we were only about halfway from the parking lot to the glacier’s current position. You’re probably already doing the math. In the last 25 years, the glacier has moved roughly the same distance it had moved in the previous 149 years.

I could go on about shrinking glaciers and the truth they tell us about the damage we are doing to the environment God has entrusted to our care, but that is a sermon for another day. Read more

What White Christians can Learn from Get Out

the author

The author

I’ve watched white churches attempt to confront racism in ways their members can digest, whether it be with campaigns or curriculums. So I’d like to add a suggestion. Predominantly white churches who want to confront their racism should watch Get Out.

In Jordan Peele’s horror/thriller, a young black photographer named Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) goes to meet the family of his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams from Girls) for the first time. The audience travels with Chris and Rose to the secluded and expansive home of the rest of the Armitages: Rose’s neurosurgeon father, Dean (Bradley Whitford); Rose’s psychiatrist mother, Missy (Catherine Keener); and Rose’s mixed-martial arts enthusiast brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones).

The Armitages appear to be the average “liberal” white family, but there is an eerie mixture of condescension and forced politeness molded into their kindness that makes Chris uncomfortable from the moment he arrives. When Chris meets the Black housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Black groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson), who are subservient in a way reminiscent of slavery, it’s clear something isn’t right.

Chris eventually finds pictures of Rose with numerous Black men and a picture of Rose with a less hypnotized, more modernly dressed version of Georgina. The photos lead to the big reveal of the terrifying truth about Rose and her family. Rose lures Black men (and Georgina) to her family’s home so her mother can hypnotize them, and her father and brother can then transplant the brains of white people into the bodies of their new Black hosts. The process started with Rose’s grandparents, whose brains were transplanted into the bodies of Walter and Georgina. The brain transplants leave their victims in the “sunken place”: a place in their consciousness where they are passive observers of everything they say or do.

Peele’s “Get Out” is a love letter to the Black community, validating our anxiety about the racism of all liberal white people—an anxiety that is no exception for Black people who work with or worship with liberal white people in predominantly white churches. White church folks invested in anti-racism work understand that unpacking their racism (and the work that comes with it) rests solely on them and not on Black folks.

 

If you’re a white liberal churchgoer watching “Get Out,” here are some takeaways from Get Out that you don’t want to miss: Read more