Sitting in the Pews of Ebeneser Baptist Church

Two weeks ago I was a participant in a racial reconciliation gathering associated with my tradition, the Churches of Christ. I was a part of a two part presentation. The first part was a presentation by Dr. Lawrence Murray, a psychologist from Oklahoma Christian University, about "Black Rage." I added to the conversation, as a psychologist from Abilene Christian University (both ACU and OCU are Church of Christ schools), with a presentation on "White Fear."

The gathering was in Atlanta, so before heading home I visited the King Center. I'd been there before, as a part of my "Civil Rights Family Vacation" (see the sidebar), but when I was last there Ebeneser Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr's church, was under renovation. So this was the first chance I had to go inside and visit the church.

It was Sunday so I had the place pretty much to myself. The picture here is one I took. Sermons of Dr. King were being played over the loudspeaker. So you could sit in the pews, close your eyes and just listen.

I imagined the congregation swaying under the rhythmic, prophetic preaching of Dr. King.

I found the experience to be quite moving. So I pulled out a pen and wrote a poem.
Sitting in the Pews of Ebeneser Baptist Church

Is this my church?
Or shall I ever be
a perpetual visitor here?
Light, White
my complexion
and the complicit history
that I carry
and the privilege
unearned and transparent.
I linger here
in this house of God--
of prayer and worship and pain--
wanting the brotherhood
found in that praying One
colored in stained glass
high above
the pulpit where you stood.
Am I here to repent,
to stand--
representative of my race--
to say I am--
that we are--
Or am I here to gain the strength
to carry the guilt
a little farther in,
farther on,
down the road?
Do not lay that precious burden
too quickly.
Such things are not so easily mended.
but no final absolution.
Not yet.
Too many tears.
Not yet.
I sit
as the aged wooden pew
creaks beneath me.
I sit here
listening to your voice.
I am listening to you.
Though you are long dead.

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10 thoughts on “Sitting in the Pews of Ebeneser Baptist Church”

  1. When we do Regional Water Planning in the part of Texas overlying the non-recharging Ogallala Aquifer, one of the first tasks before us is coming to an agreement on the "Desired Future Condition" of the aquifer, say 50 years hence. It gives us a concrete set of benchmarks against which we can measure progress, and the DFC is accessible to all in ordinary language.

    It occurs to me that amid all the ongoing self-flagellation about race in this country, we still do not have any concrete idea of what circumstances would have to obtain before we would be justified in moving on. Is that because, once having articulated the "desired future condition" in concrete terms, we would no longer be able to keep moving the goalposts?

    MLK himself set out some elements of a DFC in his "I Have a Dream" speech, but we spend more time [congratulating ourselves for] honoring his memory than we spend actually heeding his words. What would be so terribly wrong, for example, about really, truly focusing on the content of one another's character instead of obsessing about the color of one another's skin? That's the direction Drs. Williams and Sowell and Justice Thomas and Shelby Steele would like us to move, but alas, the Jacksons and Holders and Sharptons and Obamas will not permit it. And the self-flagellation continues.

  2. We might have to agree to disagree on this. But "self-flagellation" supposes that the self-inflicted guilt is being done in the absence of real guilt over real harm done. That the sins of racism and White supremacy are "in the past" so why don't we "move on"?

    But the sins are not solely in the past as the effects and harms of racism and White supremacy continue to this day. These are contemporary evils. Contemporary sins.

    And the only Christian response to evil and sin is Godly sorry and repentance.

  3. I'm quite sure we'll have to agree to disagree, especially in light of your insistence that the ONLY "Christian response to evil and sin is Godly sorry [sic] and repentance." That insistence would benefit, however, from a consistent regimen of thoughtful push-back.

    As in: there IS a time for sorrow and repentance. But it does not last forever. It must not last forever.

    There is a time, as King David showed us, to wash up from our sackcloth-and-ashes over our sin with Bathsheba and the consequent deaths of our sons, and set about the business of living into that repentance in such a way that it is seen to be genuine in actual life.

    There is a time, as Jesus is thought to have said to the promiscuous woman he has just rescued from the self-righteous, to "go and sin no more."

    There is a time, as John the baptizer is thought to have said to the repentant tax collectors and soldiers, to "collect no more than what you have been ordered not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages."

    There is a time, in other words, to set about the hard work of fixing things, of presaging and heralding resurrection life rather than wallowing interminably in death. That is not, by the way, a denial that racism exists; it clearly does. But it is past time that we articulate in stark and mutual terms what racial progress really looks like - both in terms of rights AND responsibilities AND concrete objectives - and that we eventually wash off the ashes and get on with life as we pursue that progress. As it stands, we are in perpetual victimhood and rage rather than shoulder-to-shoulder, at real work as brothers and sisters busy about the task of creating a more excellent America along the lines that MLK dreamt.

  4. Abstractly, I wholly agree. This is the time to get to work. The trouble is, and here's where I think the disagreements start popping up, that many within White America can't get on with that work because they think nothing is wrong. That is, their inability to see the wrong and, thus, repent, precludes their ability to "get to work." You can't fix stuff when you don't think it's broken.

    Yes, we need resurrection, but something is going to have to "die" in the hearts of White America before we can get there. Otherwise, you have resurrection with no death and that's triumphalism.

    To unpack some of the poem. These lines--

    Do not lay that precious burden


    too quickly.

    Such things are not so easily mended.


    but no final absolution.

    Not yet.

    Too many tears.

    Not yet.

    --articulate what I'm trying to get at.

    Whites have prematurely laid a precious burden (guilt) down too quickly. And because of this things have not been mended. So there is no final absolution. Yet. There are still too many tears. Too many systemic wrongs and evils that, and here's my point, Whites can't even see, let alone feel guilty about.

    I agree, perpetual guilt isn't the answer. And I believe there will be final absolution.

    But not yet.

  5. Actually, MANY people have articulated a number of concrete things that they would like to see happen to undo some of the structural racism that still exists in America. The numerous inequities in our criminal justice system and educational system, for one thing, or immigration policies, etc.. I've worked in the non-profit world for more than 20 years - mostly focused on organizations that work in low-income predominantly black and Latino communities - and I hear people discuss what racial progress would look like ALL THE TIME - and propose solutions. Some of those are very grassroots approaches, and some are more policy driven, and for people in the trenches, there is substantial agreement on a number of fronts.

    Here's the problem: It's really hard to stand shoulder to shoulder and work with someone who disagrees with you about the nature of America's history, the prevalence and strength of institutionalized racism, what it's current effects are, and what should be done about it. I could give you a list of 20 specific things that I think would help move us forward as a country toward greater racial and economic equity - and you would probably disagree vociferously with me on at least 18 of them. So the issue is not the lack of concrete benchmarks - it's deep, deep disagreement on what those benchmarks should be, the role of government in achieving those benchmarks, and radical differences of opinion of what the "desired future condition" looks like. We can quote I Have a Dream til we're blue in the face, and that won't change those deep fissures.

    (And if Dr. King were alive today, you might not like most of his political positions. He was VERY anti-war with serious reservations about America's military-industrial complex, pro-choice (Planned Parenthood gave him an award and everything), deeply concerned about income inequality and not at all opposed to government intervention to address it, and one of his closest advisers was the openly gay Bayard Rustin. I Have a Dream was a fantastic speech - but one of the reasons that it's his most well-known speech is that it's one of his least controversial.)

  6. Has the United States, as a country, ever formally apologized for the 250 years of slavery that shaped the founding of this country? Is the Emancipation Proclamation that apology? Finally, in 2015, there will be a museum in our nation's capital to pay tribute to the unique contribution of African Americans to our collective history. ( ) This is progress (what took so long?) but is it an apology? And are we, the descendants of slaveowners, the ones to make the apology?

    I agree, whites can't see. I keep going back to that book by Wendall Berry, The Hidden Wound, where Berry says that the cost of inflicting the wound of racism on black men [sic] has been that the white man [sic] has received the mirror image of the wound into himself. As the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it, and the more painful it has hidden itself within himself. But the wound is there and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his own mind as it is in his society.

  7. I'm asking for an articulation of *outcomes*, not preferred means. We've heard the preferred means ad nauseum, yes. But how will we know when we are making progress? Will it be when X% of African Americans are above income line Y? When they've been elected to Z presidencies? I'm not asking for just one. I'm not stupid enough to think that one indicator will be enough. But all people seem to talk about is a never ending demand for certain actions (reparations, apologies, etc.), with zero indication of when you would be satisfied.

  8. That Planned Parenthood gave MLK an award is a delicious irony, given Ms. Sanger's Coolidge-era objectives! But it is not hard at all to stand shoulder-to-shoulder now; black Americans and white Americans do it all the time. All that is required is the mutual decision to do so. Alas, the Jacksons and Sharptons and their white, leftist patrons will not give up the political advantage that the grievance industry confers on them. The kids I coach in youth sports, and their parents, are just the tiniest group of living examples that it's not really that hard to well as the multi-racial children, and THEIR parents, who race up to my wife at the grocery store for a hug years after she taught them art.

    When? Now. It's not too soon at all.

  9. I will be satisfied when blacks and whites share the same neighborhoods, churches, and schools -- across all economic levels (when was the last time you saw a white cleaning lady in a black household, other than the White House?). When we eat at the same tables. When there is not an overwhelming disproportion of young black men wasting away in our prisons or being executed.

  10. As a young white man, what should I carry guilt for? I didn't do anything and am not doing anything that looks like racism. I think I understand Brent's view a little. How long should I have to "carry guilt and shame" for our forefathers actions? Compassion & empathy for what "those people" did to blacks, sure! But just because I'm white doesn't mean I'm responsible for all whites. Why should I carry the burden of my race?

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