(RNS) The ride to the church seemed too short to give me time to unleash all those tears. I had to preach. What would I say?

How do you preach what you feel when you’re one of only a few black people in the church?

What do you say to a mostly white congregation after the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown? What do you say after prayers and litanies are offered to remind us that we are called to promote justice and peace?

I cried because I feared saying what I felt to members of Bethel Baptist Church in Columbia, Mo., last Sunday. I cried because I wondered if they would understand. In that moment, the deep burden of division landed in my stomach and forced me to scream. Yes, the ache was about the death of another black man.

But I cried because I felt my blackness come to me in a way that exposed historical pain. I wondered if it ever goes away. I thought about what it takes to move beyond the trappings of history.

Have we evoked a language of peace devoid of a clear understanding of how it feels to be harassed by the police?

Is it possible to preach to those who haven’t lived that experience? Isn’t it much easier to drive away?

I wanted to leave the pain of the parking lot and find a congregation filled with black people. I wanted to find home — the affirmation, love and support of the black church.

But as easy as it is to drive away, change happens when we stay.

People keep asking what the church can do to move us past the pain of Ferguson. Maybe the answer is found in staying.

Staying is painful. The desire to leave is rooted in that deep sense of loneliness. The desire to depart is cultivated by the fear of not being affirmed and understood.

Ferguson is a story about abandonment. It began when white residents left due to the rise in black population. Some blacks left in search of the American dream defined by the percentage of white residents. Churches followed by abandoning their mission around the corner.

What service can churches offer among those they have abandoned?

“It’s not about what we can do, it’s about what they want us to do,” said Muriel Johnson, regional associate minister of the American Baptist Churches of the Great Rivers Region. “We can offer to stand in solidarity with them in our giftedness to do what they tell us they need.”

Johnson is correct to suggest we listen. What else can churches offer?

Churches, black and white, can confess the sin of abandonment. They can confess the limits of their theological claims.

We can confess that our congregations are dying and becoming less relevant due to our unwillingness to listen. We can apologize for not being present with those who hurt. We can ask forgiveness for formulating views about people and their communities that negate their dignity. We should beg forgiveness for walking away.

We can admit how hard it is to be present. Congregations should talk about the fear of poverty and the consequences of walking in that space. Pastors should admit how they are lured into embracing congregations with wealthy members. We should confess packing sermons with language that satisfies the masses and maintains distance from those we fear.

Carl W. Kenney II teaches journalism at the University of Missouri. He holds a divinity degree from Duke University. This column was written for Columbia Faith & Values. Photo courtesy of Carl Kenney/Columbia Faith & Values

Carl W. Kenney II is an adjunct instructor in the journalism department at the University of Missouri. He holds a divinity degree from Duke University and has pastored several churches. Photo courtesy of Carl Kenney


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Yes, we should confess not moving beyond the talk about race and racism. Yes, we must admit how difficult it is to stay in the parking lot, move into the church and preach to those who don’t understand what we have to share.

But we have to stay there until they get the message.

So, we’re sorry, Ferguson. We abandoned you. Be patient with us as we prove to you that we will not walk away again.

(Carl W. Kenney II is an adjunct instructor in the journalism department at the University of Missouri. He holds a divinity degree from Duke University and has pastored several churches.)

YS END KENNEY

17 Comments

  1. Sister Geraldine Marie, R.N.

    Too many churches are clubs, not churches! Most people go to church not to worship the Lord and help their neighbors, but to feel good about themselves and how that will get them to Heaven. The people who get to Heaven are those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick and lonely, etc. Read the Gospels and obey The Lord!

  2. Prof. Kenney,
    You have described my own internal tensions as an African-American seminarian and the one called to preach and speak to mostly Euro-American congregations (and a few well-to-do African-American congregations, too). In the commentary you asked if the exposure to historical pain ever goes away? I think, not. As a matter of fact, I have come to embrace this exposure as a gift to those of us who are jarred into our blackness periodically. It is this exposure that will aid Christ in bringing the church to solidarity with the abandoned. Ultimately, we all need to be exposed (fill in any ethnicity here_____) so that we do not forget that God’s will must be done on earth as it is in heaven. Thank you for composing my struggle, of which is also my gift.

    • You don’t need to be ‘in solidarity with the abandoned’. Just persuading people in your congregation to undertake regular prayer and meditation and lay off the fornicating and discretionary divorce suits is challenging enough (and actually useful).

  3. Another exercise in self-dramatization. Shut up.

    It began when white residents left due to the rise in black population.

    The township’s population has been on a downward trajectory for forty-odd years. It antedated the demographic shift in the last twenty-five years and has been slower during that time than it was during the 1970s.

    That aside, people leave for all the reasons people have to sell their homes. Owner-occupied housing turns over about every eleven years, typically. It has been characteristic of Ferguson that there are more blacks in the incoming than the outgoing population, something that has been true for a generation. The succession of ethnic groups in neighborhoods is nothing unusual and nothing particularly unsalutary. One needs only be concerned that it is not temporally correlated with declines in the quality of life that might be readily addressed by authorities (and it really has not been in Ferguson – up till now).

    Now let us posit something that this blowhard fancies he knows: that white residents of Ferguson left due to friction with their neighbors. There are all kinds of reasons people may dislike you, and dissimilar manners is one of them. That’s just life in ‘diverse’ communities, and most people are not willing to continue to live in irritating and uncongenial circumstances in service to some fuzzy obligation dreamed up by an out-of-town pastor. If you want people to sacrifice for something, make it a hill worth taking a stand on.

  4. samuel Johnston

    Hi Carl W. Kenney,
    To a hammer everything looks like a nail. Since your interests appear to be in churches, and in being black, naturally you interpret events through that lens.
    “Is it possible to preach to those who haven’t lived that experience?”
    If that is the litmus test, then you need to find another profession. The glory days of civil rights marches are history. Asian, Hispanic, Arab, and so on are the outsiders today. What do you have to say to them?

    • Had it not been for the civil rights movement , the Asian, Hispanic, the
      Arab and others would not have any rights. Since you are against the blacks, stop putting your stores in black neighborhoods, go and put them in the White neighborhoods. You now why, you can’t, because they think you are trash just like they think we are. You came over here own your own accord, New Flash, they want you gone.GO BACK!

      • Had it not been for the civil rights movement , the Asian, Hispanic, the
        Arab and others would not have any rights

        Rubbish. Where do you get this historical tripe? The penal courts and electoral registrars in the Southern United States were badly corrupted. That applied to the resident black population (who could still own property and contract even in Mississippi), not these other categories. It did not apply to these other segments, who faced no more disability than any recent immigrant group. While we are at it, it is an anachronism to refer to ‘hispanics’ in remarking on the period prior to 1970.

      • Since you are against the blacks, stop putting your stores in black neighborhoods, go and put them in the White neighborhoods. You now why, you can’t, because they think you are trash just like they think we are. You came over here own your own accord, New Flash, they want you gone.GO BACK!

        Why not make a concerted effort in the future to be coherent?

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