I was a pastor in Denver in 1992 when the acquittal was announced in the trial of four Los Angeles policemen who beat Rodney King. Anger and despair greeted the verdict, and the streets of LA erupted in violence. In the aftermath, community leaders in Denver joined with those across the nation to demand racial justice, churches and other organizations sought to address the concerns, and Rodney King issued his now famous plea: “People can’t we all just get along?”
The question was not new then and twenty years later, it has yet to be answered. From time to time, a racist incident captures the attention of the dominant culture and appeals to deal with racism emerge. Then interest wanes, “business as usual” resumes, and the racism that infects our nation’s soul simmers until the next crisis. The Rodney King beating wasn’t the first time the country was called upon to address the sin of racism, and we all know it was not the last.
Fast forward to a month ago. In the days following the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the internet was clogged with renewed discussion about race. The Zimmerman trial tiptoed around the issues, but reactions to the verdict reveal how difficult it remains to talk honestly and helpfully about race. But isn’t time to try again?
In his remarks on July 19, President Obama encouraged us to talk. He said, “I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching … in families and churches and workplaces … you [can] ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can; am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.”
Are we committed to doing this, or did interest in addressing the issues lose steam after the first few weeks? How much soul searching is occurring? Where are we talking about the racial divide?
The issues are not just black and white and relegated to Florida and other southern states. Last spring, an Asian-themed party was held in Juneau that was insensitive at best. In its aftermath, Lance Twitchell, Christy NaMee Eriksen, and Ishmael Hope have called for our community to talk about the racial tensions that lie below the surface. In a May Empire article, they suggested that “Topics might include how people of color are treated in the community, the ways racism appears today (socially and institutionally), and how many people avoid the topic out of fear of embarrassment, labeling, change and admission of power and privilege.”
The Church has often been part of the problem; it has conflated European culture and Christian faith. Through the “doctrine of discovery” it justified the decimation of Native cultures and imposed white ways as Christian ways. But as a community rooted in the diversity of its founding Pentecost vision, the Church can also find its way back to its inclusive beginnings. At Pentecost, people from of all races and ethnicities from throughout the world were gathered in one place and all heard good news in their native languages. In keeping with these origins, I pray that churches can once again become places for healing conversation, not just for themselves but for the community at large.
The congregation I serve, Northern Light United, is blessed with racial and cultural diversity, and we need to talk as much as everyone else. Even more important than talking is listening, especially for those in the dominant culture. It is time to hear stories and honor experience rather than argue and debate. We invite everyone to Northern Light on Wednesday, Sept. 11, at 6:30 p.m. to begin a conversation. As we observe the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the need for honest communication is as great as ever. Martin Luther King Jr. was right. “Either we learn to live together as [sisters] and brothers, or we will perish together as fools.” But if we truly hear each other, perhaps this time we really can learn to all get along.
• Campbell is the pastor of Northern Light United Church