My black history/white history month talk at church
The times we’ve had to apologize
During Black History Month, we talk about our black heroes, some unknown, some well known, some coopted for our own ends. The thing about Black History, though, is that we wouldn’t have to make a special effort to celebrate it if we weren’t really grappling the lie that white people began to accept in 1619, that the only value of black people was their enslaved labor.
When our [redacted at said kid’s request] was in kindergarten, the kid came home talking about Martin Luther King. We asked had happened to him, and [the kid] made a super-sad face and pointed at me. And I said, “That’s right! A white person shot him.” They learn about black history, but they learn about what white people have done.
In 2002, our denomination confessed and apologized for their involvement in “unbiblical forms of servitude — including oppression, racism, exploitation, man stealing, and chattel slavery.” Our denomination began in 1973 but many of our churches are much older — and the oldest churches — they’ve been the churches of slave holders and their legitimate descendants. That means the PCA — or at least its southern churches who contribute to it — have received tithes, or land, or donations towards buildings from slave owners. Our denomination has benefited from the unpaid labor from enslaved people.
In 2015 and 16 — last year — our denomination confessed/apologized — again — for “during the civil rights period, there were founding denominational leaders who not only failed to pursue racial reconciliation but also actively worked against it.” This statement means things like First Presbyterian in Jackson, MS, — a flagship church in our denomination — refused to allow black people inside the sanctuary to worship. And let’s not forget the upstanding elders who started Citizens Councils, or the seminary professors who railed about miscegenation — that is, an interracial marriage that produces children like mine and Roy’s.
I was baptized into our denomination as an infant. And I’m comfortable sharing the sins of our denomination because I have my own sins too. Roy didn’t marry me because I didn’t have a racist bone in my body. He married me because he loved me anyway. We don’t have time to talk about all of my sins today, so I will just pick one. I grew up in white in Mississippi and so I grew up invested in and loving the myth of the Old South — which is to say, I wanted the south to have won the Civil War. I was taught that we were all made in God’s image, that slavery was wrong, and we should never say the N-word. But my state’s very declaration of secession states that “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery…[remaining in the union would mean submitting] to the loss of property worth four billions of money.” For as long as I could, I chose to ignore the implications of my love for the Old South. I chose to ignore what doodling confederate flags signaled to the black classmate that sat behind me. “She knows I’m *nice* though, right?” I wasn’t doing anything on purpose to hurt black people, but I was loving a myth that brutalized them and dehumanized them for profit, and I thought it was okay. I’m thankful to God for wise teachers, my RUF preacher, and original documents that helped change my heart and brought me to a place of repentance — and to a husband full of grace — to have the family I have now.
Some of you didn’t know our church is Presbyterian with all that history. Many of you aren’t white. Some of you just got to this country recently and our history isn’t your history. Maybe some of y’all think that being at this church is proof that you’re a good white person. But I want to tell you just a couple things: Our hearts are deceitful above all things — and this country has been loving this lie about black people for almost 400 years. It’s a devious, sneaky lie and it shows itself in so many different ways, including what you value about where you send your kids to school, what neighborhoods you choose to live in, if you’re truly comfortable with American black leadership, and if you can listen and believe black people’s stories without emendations or caveats. However: Jesus died for your belief in that lie. To whatever degree it’s snuck into your heart, he died for that, and he will root it out if you let him. I pray we all do and that it makes a more just and equitable future for my children — and everyone else.