This Sunday I have the privilege of guest preaching at St. Paul UMC in Winston-Salem. I am so thankful I have the chance to say goodbye to these wonderful friends I have made while at Centenary but to also encourage the continued growth in the relationship between St. Paul and Centenary. St. Paul is our sister church east of Hwy 52, its members predominantly African-American. Their senior minister, Rev. Donald Jenkins, and I knew each other as colleagues before a few years ago but we have become good friends the past 2 years, for which I am thankful.
Many of you know the story of how our two churches began to start connecting with one another but I would like to share it one last time for those who have not heard.
It was Sunday, July 17, 2016 and after worship had ended at Centenary we found out there had been yet another racially charged police shooting. We had already had a prayer vigil for the rash of police shootings of African-American men in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, MN and police officers killed in Dallas all the first week of July. Then on July 17 three police officers in Baton Rouge were shot and killed. Staff looked at each other and wondered what can we do to help our people make sense of the escalating racially charged violence all across our country.
About 1:30 I decided to call Donald Jenkins and see if our two churches might somehow come together in a positive way in the midst of these difficult race dynamics playing out before us. Surely the Church can model a better way. I was fully expecting to leave a message since I was calling his office phone but Donald miraculously picked up. He had finished worship at St. Paul and was back in his office packing up to head home. (Admittedly I had already finished with worship at Centenary, eaten lunch and changed into comfy clothes and was settled at home for some down time that afternoon!) I remember saying to Donald, “We need your help.”
Our predominantly white and affluent congregation felt helpless in the moment not fully understanding and certainly not knowing how to be helpful in constructive ways. We as staff were tired of inviting everyone to pray for the victim’s families and pray for our country and pray for our police officers and pray for the African American community. Prayer clearly wasn’t enough at the moment.
That phone conversation began several face to face meetings with staff from St. Paul
UMC and Centenary UMC as we talked about how we could bring our people together in a meaningful way. We went on to do a joint worship service at St. Paul’s later that week that brought choirs from both churches together and Donald and I offered Scripture and a few words. Prayers and readings were done by lay folks. It was a beautiful worship experience that was filled with hope and a message of love that God’s kingdom was big enough for people of all skin colors to come together and care for one another in the name of Christ. We might not know one another well let alone trust one another, but as children of God we sure could find common language – especially through music – and worship together.
From there we would go on to plan table dialogues, watch Blood Done Signed My Name together, and enjoy worship opportunities. We are hoping to get some service projects and a deep dive book study on understanding race differences launched later this fall. For me, it has been a blessing to have a place where we could start building trust with those different from us and learn the very interesting lesson that maybe the good folks at St. Paul are NOT so different from us. If we would just invest the time to continue to build the relationship there would be many, many more lessons to learn from one another.
And that has been the beautiful nature of this partnership that Donald and I have watched grow. It’s true for us personally as well as for our church people. We have learned from one another – equal playing field. We have trusted one another and that has been a gift. When I said to Donald “We need you” I meant it. Our church folks had (and still do) so much to learn about stereotypes because of skin color. As hard as it is for white people to talk about, the truth of white privlege is real. Very real. While my church was having prayer vigils for the people involved in the shootings across the country, Donald had invited a police officer to come speak to his congregation about how safely to handle when you get stopped by a police officer in your car. He was sending out videos teaching where to put your hands on the steering wheel as the police officer approached your car. Our worlds were so different.
As we moved out of the season of racially charged gun violence we were able to catch our breath and begin to focus more on building relationships. My recent transition has caused a bit of a disruption in some of our planning but we have every intention of continuing to build the bonds between Centenary and St. Paul UMC.
And I for one, will always have my friendship with Donald and the good people of St. Paul I have had the pleasure of getting to know. And so to be able to preach Sunday, May 27 in that space that meant so much to me that summer night almost 2 years ago where I caught a glimpse of the Kingdom of God right in my midst, makes my heart soar.
May God continue to find ways to remind us that just maybe, we aren’t so different after all. We are all children of God. God loves us more than we can imagine. We love God with all of our heart. Now we just have to keep practicing sharing that very same love with one another.
Grace and Peace,