In 1996 I began to pastor New Hope Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Georgia. The population around our church was significantly black, but our church was not. I embarked on a journey to see that change. It was not an easy task.
As our church became more diverse, I began to encounter opposition I had never experienced before. Our family even received death threats! At one point I was so discouraged and angry that I went to my friend and mentor Crawford Loritts and asked for his advice.
Crawford is African-American. And his answer to me was so wise. He said, “John, you said you wanted to make a difference in racial reconciliation? Maybe God wanted you to know just a little of what it was like to grow up black in this country!”
Wow. He was absolutely right. I needed to feel just a small amount of the weight and the pain that many of the people I pastored had felt all of their lives.
I’m so thankful for those years at New Hope. That congregation is even more diverse now. My dear friend Rhys Stenner is the pastor there and, in my opinion, has led one of the great untold stories of racial diversity in the church in America today.
I never dreamed back then that we would find ourselves where we are now in America. Some days I find myself wondering if there is any hope for real change in this country on this issue.
But that would be underestimating God! If the New Testament church could overcome the incredible racial barriers of its day, then there is still hope for us. Jesus has not changed.
But we must choose to follow Him toward repentance, healing, and unity NOW. We don’t have time to delay. We must ACT, not just talk.
So, while realizing that I don’t have all the answers, may I suggest four things that we need to do now to move toward healing.
We must repent.
Almost everything in Scripture starts there. If you are Anglo, you may push back at this and not feel that you have anything to repent of. Peter didn’t either when he was asked to go into a Gentile’s house; but in Acts 10:28 (ESV) he said, “God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.”
“God has shown me.” This was years after the Lord had given Peter His Great Commission and instructed him to lead it. If it took Peter that long to see his problem, maybe we should not be surprised if there is unseen prejudice or racism in our own hearts.
I had lunch one day with one of my best pastor friends. He is African-American. He knew that I was a law enforcement chaplain.
We were discussing how African-Americans view the police. I told him that in all my hours riding with officers, I had never seen any kind of racist treatment of anyone.
He then told me his own story of how he was taken out of his car, arrested, and had drugs planted in his car. After he told me that story, he said, “And the worst thing is that you, my friend, are even now wondering whether I’m telling you the truth.”
He was right.
I later found out that the officers who did that to him were later arrested for doing the same thing to others. I was devastated that I had allowed unseen prejudice to cause me even the slightest distrust of my friend.
Would you ask God to examine your own heart and point out blind spots of prejudice in your own life? Then repent. Everything starts there.
Grieve with someone of another race.
Reach out to a friend who is different from you, and grieve together what has happened in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. Talk about it openly. Try to understand each other’s hearts and fears.
And if you don’t have a friend of another race, do the hard work of developing a real relationship. LISTEN to them! Even if you are unsure you agree—knowing your friend is more important than agreeing with him or her.
It’s hard to hate a friend. You would not put your knee on the neck of a friend. Neither would you burn down the business of a friend.
We have to start somewhere to heal these wounds, and friendship is a good place to start.
Pastors must speak boldly and prophetically against racism and violence this Sunday!
And then do it again next Sunday. And after that, do it again the next Sunday. Do it until every person in your church has either repented of their own prejudice or decided to leave your church.
Having pastored for more than 35 years, I know the temptation to avoid this issue, to not push people away. But, Pastor, let me ask you, if someone in your church was advocating abortion, would you confront it?
As pastors, we may have to come to grips with some of our own hypocrisy. When we do not confront racism, we are not fully pro-life.
Will some leave your church over this? Probably. Love them. Try to help them see their need to repent. Practice what Paul said to the Thessalonians:
We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
Racism is not the unforgivable sin. Shepherd them toward love, if they will be led.
But if some of your people reject your loving attempt to call them out of the sin of racism, then let them go. God will not honor your church with revival anyway until they repent.
At the same time, we must all speak out against the violence that is setting fire to our nation. There is nothing about this that is helpful or right. And it’s being perpetrated by people of all races.
My heart has broken to see black-owned businesses burned to the ground in many cities. This does nothing to help, and indeed is an affront to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
By the way, if we are going to quote Dr. King, let’s actually observe the day named in his honor, in our churches of every race, standing with those who are different from us when they are afraid.
Raise your voice.
First, raise it to God. Prayer is the most practical thing we can do. Let’s live like we believe God is real!
He can change hatred to love. He can heal brokenness into wholeness. He can transform the fires of racism and riot into the fires of revival. Let’s ask Him to.
And why don’t you let at least someone of another race know that you are praying for them and with them today. Pray for our leaders. Especially pray for our president, that he will put aside divisive rhetoric and lead with humility toward healing.
Then, raise your voice to others. Confront anything that smacks of racism when you hear it. Don’t be quiet anymore.
Ask questions. Email your local law enforcement and ask them what their plan is to be sure there is not a George Floyd in your own community. If you don’t get an answer, ask again and again until you do.
Raise your voice as well to say thank you to those in law enforcement and the National Guard who ARE protecting us in the right way.
Raise your voice to bring calm and comfort when you hear anger that could lead to violence.
Raise your voice. We cannot be silent anymore. Let’s allow our voices become a choir of justice, love, and healing.
I have to wonder if the isolation brought about by the pandemic has worsened the situation we see in our nation right now. Let’s remember that we are truly not alone.
There is One who suffered hatred and violence for all of us until He could not breathe anymore. And He died. For each of us. He did it for love.
And now He sends us to be ambassadors of that love for each other. That is our hope. And it is a great hope! Even in days of racism and riots, there is still a love that overcomes:
… that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:17-19).
Together, we can know and share that love. And love wins every time!