This past week I was deeply grieved and horrified by the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. I know many of us are struggling to know how to respond as followers of Jesus. I believe it’s in times like these that we have a desperate need for the prophetic voice to help guide us through such perilous times. Many of you are familiar with Dr. Andrew Draper, senior pastor of the Urban Light Community Church (www.urbanlightmuncie.com) in Muncie, IN. Urban Light is a dynamic, multicultural church that exists to reconcile people to God and to each other by joining Jesus Christ in his reconciliation of all things (2 Cor. 5:16-21; Eph. 2:13-16; Col. 1:15-20).
Andrew is a dear friend and brother whom I’ve known for more than three decades. There are few colleagues in ministry who have earned my trust and respect to the degree in which Andrew has… his influence and mentorship in my life have been one of God’s greatest blessings in my own journey. In addition to pastoring Urban Light, Andrew has served as a university professor, author, activist and currently serves as a member of the General Conference Administrative Council.
Andrew shared the following reflection as a social media post earlier this week. As with most prophetic voices, Andrew’s words are like the surgeon’s scalpel: while painful, it’s always with the ultimate goal of healing. I asked Andrew if he would allow me to share these thoughts with you as a guest blog today. He graciously agreed. I am grateful for my brother Andrew, for his deep love for Jesus, his deep love for the Church, and his passionate commitment to justice and reconciliation. Please read these words and seek to understand a perspective that may be quite different from your own.
I called my wife in tears, frantic, and asked her to leave work and wait for me to come home. I was 30 minutes away in my car and was having thoughts of driving it off the road. It was November 2016 and I was a professor at a predominantly white evangelical university that I love. The provost had shared in a faculty meeting about the way some students were reported to have responded to the presidential election, including one running through his dorm hall with a Confederate flag. The provost was in tears asking us to look out for and care for students of color on campus. The faculty meeting happened to include a discussion on the addition of a diversity statement to course syllabi. Several faculty members rose to challenge it, apparently unaffected by the emotional plea they had just heard. I was stunned. Over and over in my service there, I had counseled students with trauma reactions from microaggressions on campus and blatant racism in the surrounding rural community. A young African American man from our church had left after one year of being a student there, explaining his experience as “death by a thousand paper cuts.”
I was grieved and angered and I posted on Facebook about the racism many people of color were experiencing in the various contexts I was a part of, including my urban community. Within the hour of my next class, my post and those of a few other faculty members were shared many times. My post was forwarded to administration; some donors and alumni called campus alarmed; conversations ensued about how to get control of the narratives being shared on social media. I tried to clarify my post online to reflect the love I had for the institution even in the midst of the hurt and anger. It was suggested that I remove the post and I complied. I longed for someone to understand the pain being experienced by people of color and I longed for someone to understand me as I shared that pain. It seemed that, for some, the public image of evangelical institutions trumped the lived experiences of people of color in predominantly white environments.
I love Christian higher education. I completed my undergraduate degree at the same institution at which I was teaching and for which I still work several hours a week on a theological resource grant. I learned to think critically there; I learned the value of Christian community there; I lived alongside brothers and sisters who would help me become a more moral person there; I met my lifelong partner – my wife – there; I traveled the world from there; I joined exceptional choral ensembles there; I was given the opportunity to practice worship leading and ministry there; I was introduced to community development work through there; I learned to experience the grace of Jesus there. I dove into the community in every way possible and I hope for my own sons to experience the blessings of Christian higher education. Even though I eventually resigned from my contract teaching position to re-devote myself to pastoral ministry, I would still consider returning to an evangelical college if the right tenure track role in theology became available. The great strength of many institutions of Christian education – community formation – can also become their greatest weakness as dominant white cultural expressions leave little room for the experiences of people of color. It hurts so much when the social belonging promised at a place is not extended to you in dozens of tiny ways every day. It is also painful when the majority culture at a place you love seems to have little room for serious discussions about race and identity issues.
As a faculty member and speaker in chapel, my voice for justice was not universally appreciated. As the culture wars in our society increased, the level of criticism I experienced increased. I became one of the targets of an anonymous faculty-led conservative newsletter; several administration members were told that I was a liberal threat to the Faith; I was disinvited from being the baccalaureate speaker because I felt called to speak about race; a parent contacted campus ministries to ask that I not be allowed to speak in chapel; a donor contacted the institution criticizing my hosting a Christian speaker on immigration reform; the video of a world-class black Christian theologian who I brought to campus and whose work draws from critical race theory was never posted online. Through it all, I believed the Lord was using me to bring important conversations to the surface and I knew that students’ life trajectories were redirected because I was there. I was encouraged by many students and by several faculty colleagues who became friends. Recently, a key institutional leader told me how much I am missed and that they were just not ready for me when I was there. With the departure of several staff and faculty committed to racial justice, he wondered aloud where that voice would come from in the days ahead. But I am not sure evangelical institutions understand the toll that being that voice takes on people. The day that my post went viral and I was viewed as a threat, something inside me snapped. I realized that, in many ways, my Christian culture of origin no longer had room for me as a family member. My vocation, calling, and very presence seemed to be expendable. My Gospel work deconstructing whiteness and patriarchy was making me a target so often that I was frantic enough to have fleeting thoughts of suicide.
I know my experience pales in comparison to the experience of being black in America and the visceral fear of being killed when a police officer or an armed white man is near. I know my experience of being considered a threat is nothing compared to black men constantly being portrayed as menacing. Criticism is something I can process my way through. Yet to feel so thoroughly rejected by many brothers and sisters in Christ while trying to be a faithful witness was just about more than I could handle. To this day, I still have deep-seated trauma reactions and sometimes even panic attacks when I post about racism on social media or travel to some white Christian contexts. It’s not because I am ashamed of my beliefs or because I don’t care about people and institutions; it’s because I have to calculate whether or not I have the emotional stamina to endure the backlash I know will be coming and whether or not my mental health is strong enough to withstand it. I’ve worked on this in therapy but even the thought of putting this online feels like staring down PTSD. If this is my experience, what must it be like to be black in America?
I need to write this today to process why I can’t even talk anymore when another unarmed black man is murdered. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the video of George Floyd’s life being snuffed out while he pled to be allowed to take a breath. Today I finally watched part of it and cried in grief and rage. Here is the honest truth: George Floyd was not killed by a rogue “bad” police officer. George Floyd was killed by whiteness… a way of viewing the world that scoffs at black cultural expressions, distrusts black experiences, fears black men, objectifies black bodies, and criminalizes blackness in general… a way of being that has been systematized in policy and borders and warfare and economics and laws and the enforcement of the same… a way of thinking that has contributed to the shaping of many Christian institutions in thousands of implicit ways. So many white Christians, including several who have left the church I pastor, have criticized me so vehemently for using the word whiteness that it’s hard for me to even say it anymore. But the word needs to be spoken to white folks because white people created it. Whiteness is a deep-seated historically-documented process of Europeans constructing the terminology of “white” vs. “black,” “civilized” vs. “savage,” “Christian” vs. “ethnic,” “citizen” vs. “foreigner,” and assigning people comparative value based on it. I have read so many original sources from the past 500 years that explicitly state what is now hidden. Whiteness is so ingrained in our cultural memory that we can hardly see it anymore. It is almost unbelievable to me that many Christians who profess a belief in demonic principalities and powers cannot also see the reality of demonic racist structures. It is hard for me to talk about because I am aware of what religious and political leaders tend to do to those called by God to speak a prophetic word. But speak it I must. For it’s the fire in Jeremiah’s belly. It’s the blood on the head of Ezekiel’s watchman. It’s the worship mixed with justice that delights Isaiah’s God. It’s Amos’ justice falling down like mighty waters. And it’s also the voice of Jesus saying that God will be with me.
CGGC eNews—Vol. 14, No. 23