Greetings, Free Methodist family.

Following our Facebook Live event Sunday evening with five of our African American leaders (https://vimeo.com/426966207), Bishop Linda, Bishop Keith and I have been talking about next steps. Over these next days and weeks, we want to share resources and ideas around how we go forward in this conversation.

I want to take these moments for this Bishops’ Word to share some thoughts from my own heart about this journey of racism and reconciliation, and recognize with you that this is a journey that is long and arduous, but we are on this together, and we will not go back. I want to begin by reading several verses of Scripture. First from John 17 as a part of Jesus’ high priestly prayer and then from 2 Corinthians 5. Hear God’s Word.

“I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22–23 NIV).

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19 NIV).

As a white male leader in a position of significant influence and authority in the Free Methodist Church, I believe it’s important that I both listen and speak. As Dr. Robert Marshall reminded us on Sunday, we need to both listen and hear. My perspective is that frequently white leaders have spoken way too much and listened too infrequently, but I also believe in this bully pulpit that God has given to me as a bishop, you also have to know where my heart is, and as I share these thoughts with you, I want you to know that Bishop Keith and Bishop Linda are on the same page. We are completely united around this discussion, around our desire for the Free Methodist Church to be gospel-centered and Jesus-focused, and talking about racism and talking about reconciliation is part of this Jesus journey for us as a denominational family to be all that God intended us to be.

 

Learning From Listening

So with that backdrop, let me just simply share some lessons I’m learning. The first lesson that I’m learning is just simply to be quiet and listen.

I’ve asked trusted friends of color over the years to share their stories with me where they’ve experienced racism and brutality, and those stories are heartbreaking. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that this murder of George Floyd cannot be seen as an isolated incident. It is a part of a pattern, and we acknowledge that, and we grieve over that, and I’m thankful for friends of color who have helped me on this journey as I’ve grown toward what it means to understand to the best of my ability that I will never fully grasp what it means to be a person of color, what it means to be an African American person in this culture, in this context and in this church.

Lest you think somehow that I have it all figured out, I would just tell the story that a couple of years ago, I was at an event, and I ran into a person that I hadn’t seen for a number of years — an African American man named Richard Lewis. Over the course of some time that we had together at that event, Richard reminded me that his interaction with me over some issues in his local church were very hurtful and that my responses lacked compassion and did not hear what he was saying. My heart was broken by that, and so as I share some thoughts with you, I just want to admit that I don’t have this all figured out. I am no expert, but I am a person on the journey with you to understand how we can go forward together.

The good news is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is about God meeting us where we are at on this journey, and so today I want to invite you on this journey of listening. As Pastor Robert said, not just listening but also deeply hearing when we hear stories that are different than our own experience. I love the way that The Message paraphrase talks about these verses from John 1. God “became flesh” and “moved into the neighborhood,” and people’s pain and perspective cannot be dismissed or ignored or explained away just because it isn’t a part of our experience or our story or our journey. I love the words of the 18th verse of the 34th Psalm. The psalmist said, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (NIV).

 

Recognizing My Advantages

So I’m learning as I’m listening, processing and hearing. I also recognize secondly that I’ve had so many advantages — advantages that I’ve not realized. Being part of the white culture, of the majority culture, has had its advantages for me and so many of us. For example, just hear these things:

  • People have never asked me where I’m really
  • No one has ever asked me what race I was.
  • No one has ever suggested to me that white people were so intelligent and so studious.
  • No one has ever asked if they could touch my hair. (Obviously that would never happen.)
  • Nobody has suggested to me that I don’t talk or act like other white people that they’ve known.
  • Nobody’s asked me what kind of food we had growing up in my home.
  • No one has ever suggested that the Bible didn’t allow me to be a pastor because I was supposed to be quiet and submissive.
  • I’ve never been told that I was a credit to the white race.
  • I’ve never been asked what it was like to be raised as a white person.
  • I’ve never had the experience of anyone moving to the other side of the street when I’m walking toward them at night because somehow I looked fearful or threatening to them.
  • It’s never been suggested to me that somehow I was the spokesman for all white people or for balding white males.
  • I’ve never been forced off land that belonged by my family for generations, or my grandparents and parents weren’t sent to an internment camp solely based on our race.
  • I’ve never been asked what it was like to be a white male pastor.

So many of these experiences would come under the general heading of “microaggressions.” Microaggressions are quite often unintended slights, racist or sexist, that make a person feel stereotyped, undervalued or misunderstood on the basis of race or gender.

And as a while male in this society, I’ve had many advantages. Let me also suggest that as a white person, I’ve had privileges that our friends of color have not had. So is white privilege real? It absolutely is real, and it’s important that we humbly acknowledge that fact.

According to the 2 Corinthians text that I read a few minutes ago, we’ve been entrusted both with the ministry and the message of reconciliation. If I take that admonition seriously, it means that as a white male leader I have to stand up and speak the truth, and that’s what I hope these moments together today will be. Part of speaking the truth is simply to say that in whatever circles God gives me influence that I have to say we have a problem with racism in this society. We have a problem with racism in the church.

Jesus balanced that grace continuum so perfectly. As John said, He was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14 NIV). Sometimes we fall off on one side of that continuum or the other. Jesus perfectly balanced the grace-truth continuum. As someone said, Jesus came to “comfort the afflicted and “afflict the comfortable.”

 

I’ve Seen Jesus

A third lesson that I want to be clear about in these moments that I have with you is that I’ve seen Jesus on this journey of trying to understand racism and a call to reconciliation. I believe with all my heart that God wants to meet us on this journey. I’ve seen it over and over again. I’m so thankful for the persons of color who have been so patient with me and given me grace. They’ve been Jesus to me and helped me to see things that I couldn’t even see from my own perspective, from my own background.

I’ve seen Jesus on this journey in so many places. I’ve seen Jesus in the lives of people who have walked with me and have been my teachers and my mentors. One of those voices that has been so helpful to me is Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil who is a professor at Seattle Pacific University and serves as a staff pastor at a local church here in the Seattle area. She’s a noted speaker and an author, and in her book “Roadmap to Reconciliation,” she lays out the journey of reconciliation. This is what it is: “the ongoing spiritual process that involves repentance, forgiveness and justice that restores relationships and structures to the way God intended them to be.”

“Restores relationships and structures to the way God intended them to be!” This is not a liberal issue or a conservative issue. This is a gospel issue. This is a Jesus issue. This is a fairness issue, and this is a Free Methodist issue!

We had Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil come and speak to our annual conference in the Pacific Northwest several years ago. It was challenging and powerful. It was a holy moment as she prophetically spoke to us. Her words were difficult for some to hear, and I recognize with you that sometimes the messages that we’re hearing are difficult for us to process, and we don’t understand them because they have not been a part of our experience.

So we just want to recognize that this journey to understand racism and the call to reconciliation is stretching, and we acknowledge that together. I attended a seminar here in Seattle several years ago entitled “Undoing Institutional Racism.” As I recall, it was two and a half days with leaders from across the spectrum representing various institutions — very challenging presentations about racism in society and the foundations of institutional racism. Some of the hardest days that I’ve ever experienced as an adult were listening to these stories that stretched my mind and broke my heart. By the end of the seminar, I was exhausted and recognized that I’d learned some things that I had not previously known. My view of the world, particularly of racism, will never be the same because of that hard experience.

When I began talking about racism and reconciliation a number of years ago, it generated some very difficult conversations — conversations like we’re having now. That was discouraging for me, but some wise mentors reminded me that when we give people permission to share the pain they’ve experienced, it’s a part of the conversation. It’s a part of the journey that we have to be on in our commitment to walk this road together.

Let me leave several thoughts with you now as I conclude in just a few minutes:

Listen Up

First of all, let’s make the commitment to listen up. In the context of relationships with friends of color and in the reality of mutual trust, if we ask people to tell us parts of their journey that have been difficult, can we be those who listen and not try to explain away but simply respond with these very simple three words, “tell me more”? Tell me more. We have so much to learn from our persons of color, friends of color, colleagues of color about their journeys, about their stories. Our commitment in whatever ways we can — as I said in the context of relationships of mutual trust — is to listen up.

Speak Up

The second thing I want to challenge us about is to speak up. We need to ask God to help us do that in the spheres of our influence, to speak up if racially insensitive comments or stereotypes are made in your presence. We can no longer remain silent when things that are displeasing to Jesus are said in our presence wherever that might be — in the workplace, in the context of people who are our friends, but probably most difficultly in our own family. We cannot remain silent. We have to have the courage to speak up and say, “What you are saying is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s contrary to what God desires for each of us.”

Step Up

Lastly I would just say step up. For those of us who are part of the majority culture, let’s make the decision to commit to be lifelong learners on this racism and reconciliation journey. We need to step up and find authors and hear presentations that will help us to have a better perspective. There are many, many resources out there that are available to us. Let’s make the commitment that we will step up and learn and grow on this journey together. I mention my friend Richard Lewis, and I want you to know Richard has now become a dear friend, and we joined a group of several other pastors and leaders, African American and Caucasian, where we would meet together regularly and share our hearts, and as a result of those relationships of trust and mutual love, we planned several events in the greater Seattle area for issues around reconciliation in the church of Jesus Christ. Richard now, after that initial very difficult conversation, has become a dear friend and brother, mentor and teacher for me.

Hear again these words from the Scriptures, from God’s Word in 2 Corinthians 5, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18—19 NIV).

Brothers and sisters, Free Methodist friends, may it be said of us that we are committed to learn, to listen and to speak as we go forward together on this road to reconciliation. May we be those whose hearts are broken over racism. May we be those who step up and say, “By God’s grace, no more, no more.”

May God help us to be all that He intended us to be. May God help the Free Methodist Church to be all that God intends us to be. Thank you, and God bless you.

 

 

 

 

 

Bishop Matt Whitehead shares lessons he’s learning.   Please click the image below to play the video.