GCORR General Secretary Erin Hawkins shares a deeply personal reflection that offers each one of us ideas and actions for how we can counter and ultimately dismantle systemic, longstanding racism in both our Church and society.
For the last few months, I’ve been caught in what seems like a perpetual struggle, trying to decide whether or not to write a statement after each incidence of violence toward black people at the hands of law enforcement or racist hatemongers. It seems that just as I find the words to respond to one act of terror, another one becomes the headline story of the day. I can’t form the words fast enough. Truth be told, I can’t process the emotions fast enough to make a statement that fits within the timeline of the “talking heads cycle of commentary.” Like others, I’ve offered the obligatory, “we’re appalled at these acts,” “standing in solidarity with,” “praying and calling for prayer” statements that so many church leaders routinely offer, knowing in my heart that it was not enough. Secretly, I prayed that some other leader (particularly a white leader) would step up with a word of undeniable clarity, conviction, and direction for the Church at a time when racism has emerged from its subtle, subterranean space and black, brown, and indigenous people are being visibly and publically sacrificed all over the world.
As the General Secretary of the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR), I am keenly aware that the task of stepping up and speaking out on global issues of race, ethnicity, culture, and their related oppressions is part of what the denomination established this agency to do, and what I, as its leader, must do. But I am not only the General Secretary of GCORR. I am an African American woman living in the United States. I am watching as sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers in the black community, my community, are being slaughtered in the streets of America and South Africa and drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. Slaughtered by human hands and by the invisible hands of systemic racism, colonialism, and classism. It affects me deeply. I am grieving. As I live out my role as leader, healer, reconciler, and disciple of Jesus Christ, I confess that neither my agency nor I can do this work alone. Yet, with each passing occurrence, I experience an increasing sense of loneliness in this United Methodist Church that professes the sacred worth of all people, but is challenged in consistently acting in ways that demonstrates this belief.
Sandra Bland is dead. She died under questionable circumstances in a Texas jail after being arrested during a “routine” traffic stop. The video footage of the exchange that led to her arrest is disturbing to say the least. Her death is yet another headline to process, to mourn over, to respond to. The problem is that as we try to make sense of her case, there have been several other questionable deaths of people of color in police custody in recent weeks. Just a few days ago, a University of Cincinnati police officer was indicted on a murder charge for the killing of Samuel Dubose, who on July 19 was shot and killed during a minor traffic stop. He was unarmed.
There simply aren’t enough words, enough statements to do justice to the truth that all people of good will—all people who proclaim to follow Jesus who said, “in as much as you did it unto the least of these you did it to me”—must join hands, say “enough is enough,” and take action if we are to break through the physical and spiritual forces of violence and hatred that plague us.
While in Houston recently, I had the privilege of attending a service and march, led by Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Waller County, Texas. After issuing a call for racial justice and reconciliation, Bishop McKenzie led more than 200 people gathered in a march from the chapel of Prairie View A&M University to the site where Sandra Bland was arrested a few feet away from Hope AME church (ironic isn’t it?). At the site, a marker was placed calling for justice for Sandy, and Bishop McKenzie challenged everyone gathered to actively work for the betterment of relationships between the races, to seek justice for all in the community, and to do all that we can to ensure that the deaths of Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, the Charleston 9 and so many others are not in vain.
The significance of the recorded events of Sandra Bland’s arrest lie not only in the fact that it gives us a glimpse into what took place that day, but that it offers a “real-time vignette” of how the dynamics of race and racism play out in America—that, in the face of systemic white power, the only acceptable response by people of color is submission, acquiescence, deferment, and gentility. Any variation on that theme results in violence and death. The unfortunate reality is that the violence and death must be irrefutable and met with some show of grace or graciousness from the harmed in order for there to be acknowledgement of wrongdoing and, in very rare cases, reparation of harm. But every day the dynamics of personal and systemic racism deal subtle but unrelenting forms of violence and death to the bodies, minds, and spirits of people of color. Racism has been linked to obesity, hypertension, depression, and a host of other mental and physical health disparities in communities of color. Oppression does that: it wounds and kills, either explicitly or implicitly, those who are outside of the spheres of privilege before circling back around to wound and kill the privileged themselves.
The Church is not immune from the dynamics of racism made visible by the death of Sandra Bland and countless others. I have listened and prayed as pastors of color recount stories of their hearts and spirits, as well as those of their families, being wounded and killed in churches that don’t want them and refuse to embrace them at any level. These pastors are told that if they were effective in ministry that they would learn to adapt. Adaptation is a reasonable request. The problem is that the expectation of adaptation within oppressive systems is usually one way. The dominant group is granted the privilege of engaging in business as usual. Despite this dynamic, what I’ve come to know after years of journeying with pastors of color is that in the final analysis when racial conflict is at play, both the pastors who comply as well as those who resist end up deeply wounded. Playing by the rules is no guarantee of making it out alive.
So where do we go from here?
- I believe that prayer is powerful, and I encourage leaders at every level in the Church to continue praying and calling for prayer.
- I believe that declarations of solidarity and support are an important first step in building relationships with the harmed and hurting.
- I also believe that if those are the only two things that you are doing in the face of the staggering realities of racism, sexism, and classism—which are being made more and more visible every day, all around the world—then you are a part of the problem.
Humanity needs more from the Church. It needs more from you. It’s time that we join hands, say “enough is enough,” and take action on that conviction.
- No more violence and death because of the color of one’s skin.
- No more abuse of those who dare to speak out against the systems of oppression or who resist oppressive behaviors.
- No more dehumanization of those who have lost their lives or livelihood by suggesting that they deserved their fate because they weren’t perfect human beings.
Beginning now, I urge everyone, regardless of race, to commit to taking three actions in response to racism in the Church and in our society:
- Be accountable: Build relationships with others that keep you accountable for effectively dismantling the systems of racism and oppression while at the same time building community amongst the whole human family. We need to be committed to both, not one or the other.
- Be inclusive: Stop putting superficial parameters on who is worthy of your love, respect, and acceptance. Race, class, gender, age, and sexual identity are not legitimate reasons to hate, exclude, and dehumanize.
- Be courageous: Don’t shy away from conversations about race and the “isms” just because they are uncomfortable. We need constructive dialogue—and by constructive, I mean conversations that lead to community and action.
There certainly are many more actions that we can all take at this moment in history. I, as a leader in my Church and community, will continue to speak and act faithfully even in the midst of my grief and weariness.
GCORR will continue to work tirelessly to call forth better leaders, better systems, and better conversations and resources in the Church for such a time as this. I invite any who are willing to join us in the journey to freedom.
The time is now… Enough is enough!