February is Black History Month. It is a time to reflect on the history of black Americans and to honor the individuals and groups who have worked tirelessly toward racial justice. Yet, as Black History Month comes to a close there is still something about it that does not sit right with some people. Some question why there is not a White History or Asian History Month? Others are not content with Black History Month because black history is American history. Every church should celebrate black history because God is glorified in diversity.
In 1926, a Harvard historian and African American, named Carter Woodson, declared the second week in February Negro History Week because Abraham Lincoln’s and Fredrick Douglass’ birthdays were on February 12th and 14th respectively. From the beginning, the purpose of the week was to teach kids about significant moments in black history. Then in 1976 Gerald Ford expanded it to a monthlong celebration and renamed it Black History Month saying:
We should seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Then came the 2016 election. Black congregants had already grown uneasy in recent years as they watched their white pastors fail to address an influx of police shootings of African Americans. They heard prayers for Paris, for Brussels, for law enforcement; they heard that one should keep one’s eyes on the kingdom, that the church was colorblind, and that talk of racial injustice was divisive, not a matter of the gospel. There was still some hope that this stemmed from an obliviousness rather than a deeper disconnect.
Then, it seemed that the demographic widely identified as white evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump by a larger margin than they had voted for any presidential candidate. They cheered the outcome, reassuring uneasy fellow worshipers with talk of abortion and religious liberty, about how politics is the art of compromise rather than the ideal. Christians of color, even those who shared these policy preferences, looked at Mr. Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants, his open hostility to NFL players protesting police brutality and his earlier “birther” crusade against President Obama, claiming falsely he was not a United States citizen. In this political deal, many concluded, they were compromised.
Many people, including Christians, like to believe that if they were alive during the 1960s, they would have participated in the civil rights movement. If Christians refuse to acknowledge racism and fight against it today, then it is clear where they would have stood half a century ago, too. Therefore, Black History Month needs to be celebrated in every church.
What happens when Christians relegate racism mainly to the past? Black people and other people of color continue to suffer. Whether it is insensitivity, ignorance, and obliviousness demonstrated by fellow church members or the dire prospects many black people face in terms of basic professional, educational and health-related outcomes, a failure to acknowledge racism in its current forms perpetuates inequality. Ultimately, when black people do not feel heard, they leave, even if the exodus is a quiet one.
As the headlines of the outside world turned to police shootings and protest, little changed inside majority-white churches. Black congregants said that beyond the occasional vague prayer for healing a divided country, or praise for law enforcement, they heard nothing. It has been a scattered exodus — a few here, a few there — and mostly quiet, more in fatigue and heartbreak than outrage. Plenty of multiracial churches continue to thrive, and at some churches, tough conversations on race have begun.
Pastor Robert Morris, the senior leader at Gateway Church, told the congregation that he was one of Mr. Trump’s faith advisers. The church was a sponsor of an inaugural ball in January 2017. As a tumultuous 2017 unfolded, Morris learned that some of his parishioners wanted him to address race directly. He explained:
As I prayed about it as I talked with black pastor friends of mine, I realized I don’t really understand the depth of the pain they feel. This is personal to them — it was history to me. I would talk to my friend and it was personal to him because it was his great-grandfather.
In October 2017, he preached a message entitled “A Lack of Understanding.” Addressing “all the ignorant white people,” and acknowledging his own past grappling with prejudice, the pastor listed reasons that racism was evil — among them that it was an affront to God’s creation, given that Adam and Eve were probably brown-skinned. A video played of a black pastor talking of the racism he experienced as a child in East St. Louis in the 1960s.
The response, Pastor Morris said, was “overwhelmingly positive.” Another leader at the church said he saw a black woman weeping in her seat and was thankful that he finally had an answer for black worshipers questioning how their church truly felt about racism.
On Facebook, some white congregants were angered at the sermon, especially at the focus on white people as the root of the problem. One person said:
I believe Robert spoke from his flesh in this message. I gave him another week to correct the message and make it biblical. I didn’t feel he did that so I left the church.
The Civil Rights Movement was a Christian movement led by pastors and organized in churches. Music as diverse as gospel, blues, and jazz was rooted in black spiritual music at home in the church. This might be controversial, but much of the population tend to forget or overlook the contributions of minorities. But when churches stop to remember how minorities have contributed to the country it reminds us how much we need each other. America is a stronger country because it is a diverse country.
The Bible explains clearly that Jesus was crucified for persons from every tribe, language, people and nation. God is not colorblind, and neither should any of his followers be. God is more glorified in being praised by all people than he is by any single nationality or race. Why should EVERY church celebrate Black History Month? Because black history is OUR history!
Opinion by Cherese Jackson (Virginia)
NY Times: A Quiet Exodus
Every Square Inch: Why Christians Should Celebrate Black History Month
Top Image Courtesy of US Army CCDC’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Inline Image Courtesy of Wave Church – Used With Permission
Featured Image Courtesy of Pick Pic – Creative Commons License