Visiting a Black Church During Black History Month

I’d like to recount a personal story from this morning.

Today I attended a local Black church, where I helped install a sound system yesterday. I wanted to help make sure it was working correctly for their first live use of the new system. I was one of two white people in the entire building. I love this group – some of them are becoming friends, and I’m always welcomed warmly. Today in fact I was even acknowledged from the pulpit by name, and was cheered for my assistance yesterday.

But here’s the real story. As Black History Month draws to a close, the pastor chose for his sermon a detailed recounting of many racially-charged aspects of American history, from the 17th century onward, with plenty of specific stories that are almost never discussed in white contexts. (Thanks to my reading over the last two years, nothing was surprising to me, and everything that was said lines up with my knowledge.)

I’ve heard plenty of history lessons in church before. But every one before today was an inspiring tale of some great aspect of America, the amazing pilgrims, the wise founders, our powerful leaders, or God’s providence in bringing this nation into existence and protecting it during hard times. It was always some version of “this is a great nation that was created by God to lead the world.”

I’ve never once heard a church sermon detailing the pain in our history, like I heard today.

Interestingly, although there was a lot of specific identification of painful, harmful aspects of our national history, there was absolutely no sense of “woe is me” and no accusation against modern white people. Instead, it was “Hey, it’s been hard for our ancestors, but that’s no excuse for you – we have it so much better than them. Let’s get busy doing the work of the Lord; our ancestors couldn’t just take the day off from being slaves, so let’s not slack in our own work. Let’s be joyful and thankful for what we have, and for the progress, but there’s still more to do.”

In the past, I have often heard white pundits and politicians say that the painful history is pointless if we’re forward looking, and that Black people just want to continue to whine about the past as an excuse for their poor conditions today. Well, this was anything but whining. It was a poignant combination of lament and rejoicing and encouragement.

And the sermon wasn’t targeted at white people. The pastor didn’t know I’d be there, and the only other white person there is a regular attendee. This was a Black retelling of history, specifically for the benefit of the Black members of the congregation.

In the last couple of years, I’ve learned that most white Americans don’t appreciate that Black history is intensely personal to Black people. They know many real historical details that most white people don’t know; they cherish those stories as part of their collective identity and history, even though they’re painful. Those stories speak to their collective strength in the face of desperate adversity. When white people literally whitewash history, leaving out the hard parts, or deny these details, or simply refuse to learn them, it’s painfully obvious to anyone who DOES know the history.

And Black people DO know the history.

Our white refusal to participate in collective historical truth literally continues to divide us, and that should not be.

This is exactly why Black History Month should be important to even white people, and why I will never again ignore it as supposedly irrelevant to my life. It’s NOT irrelevant. We share this nation with our Black brothers and sisters, along with plenty of other races. It would do us well to actually understand a more balanced view of our national history, of all tribes and tongues and people groups, to mourn with them over the past, also to rejoice with them in full awareness of the progress that HAS been made, but most importantly to help us truly understand how much still remains to be done.

As Christians, we know this: that some glorious day, worshiping together before the great throne will be an uncountable multitude, composed of every nation, and tribe, and people, and tongue. It won’t be all white. It won’t be all Americans. This is obvious, of course. But how can we hope to represent the Father accurately, as corporate members of ONE Body, if we continue in division? It seems to me that our ability as Christians to show the world something different than it’s ever seen will not just be whether we follow God’s laws and principles. It’s that we’ll do it together in our amazing diversity. That’s something that’s never been seen on the earth, ever. As the Body of Christ matures, it can only be out of every people group, as John saw before the throne.

So it’s incumbent upon us, here and now, to recognize that if we’re going to build the Kingdom, we need each other in all our rich diversity – not just of skin color, but of culture and language and ways of worshiping and living.

Learning each other’s history, with full humility, and grieving together over the hard parts, seems like a pretty good way to start.

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