Early – like three weeks in to my new position as General Presbyter in Charlotte – I was attending a men’s breakfast sponsored by five congregations and I was so new that I didn’t yet know that we had multiple congregations with the same name. Because of the history of slaveholding in our oldest Presbyterian churches, there are Black Churches and White Churches with (almost) the same name. After emancipation, those who had been enslaved in the White Church left to start their own Black Church down the road.
I didn’t yet know this.
I was eating my pancakes with two White men who said they were from “Little Church” and this surprised me – in a good way – because I knew the Pastor of “Little Church” and he was a Black man. “Good for these guys,” I thought to myself.
A few moments later, that Black Pastor came into the breakfast. He greeted the two White men at my table like a Pastor would typically greet parishioners and they were all friendly. Then the Black Pastor greeted me and I said to the Black Pastor, “I was just talking with two of your parishioners here.“
One of the White men almost spit out his coffee. With a strange laugh he said, “Do you think we would have this N- be the Pastor of our church?”
To say I was shocked is an understatement.
The Black Pastor who surely heard this turned and walked away. And I blurted out, “Wow, that word just came out of your mouth.” And then I said something like, “We don’t say that word in Church. Actually we don’t say that word anywhere.” It felt like I was a preschool teacher talking to four-year olds.
I shared that story at lunch yesterday at the pre-conference event for The National White Privilege Conference which we have been planning for almost three years. For 23 years Dr. Eddie Moore and his team have led this conference throughout the United States, but this is the first time it’s come to the Deep-ish South. Please check it out here. Our theme this year is Wade in the Water: White Supremacy, Religion, and Reciprocity.
If I learn nothing else this week, I learned an important teaching at lunch yesterday. Two women asked me what I said next to the two White men at the breakfast table and I said I was too shocked to say much more.
Not good enough.
We who identify as White are given opportunities every day to interrupt racism and I missed my opportunity that day. I’m not going to moan about it and I’m not going to cry in shame about it. But I am going to try to do better. My lunch friends suggested that next time, I offer this helpful response: “I’d be curious to know . . . “
- “I’d be curious to know why you think you could use that word.”
- “I’d be curious to know why you would treat this Pastor this way.”
- “I’d be curious to know how you could say that word as a Christian.”
- “I’d be curious to know how you could say that word in front of me as your General Presbyter.”
The hope is that we would express curiosity instead of shock. The hope is that we would come into a conversation with authentic curiosity which also requires more compassion than outrage. The hope is that I might have said something within ear shot of that Black Pastor so that he might know I won’t let that word go without addressing it.
Every day we hear comments that hurt and violate people that the dominant demographic tend to “otherize.” Black people, Asian people, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, people who are not Christian. We can do better.
Let’s stop being shocked and subsequently paralyzed. Let’s be curious. Also – no more White tears.
Thank you Christie and Melanie