June 15, 2015

Overhearing a Racial Conversation

            I have just returned from the Hampton Ministers Conference, which is in its 101st year.  Held on the historic campus of Hampton University, it beckons over 8000 participants to hear good preaching, learn new methods for church revitalization, and participate in excellent workshops for church musicians.  It is an important gathering place for leaders in African American churches, part continuing education and part revival.

            I went to the conference for several reasons: to assist in recruitment, to connect with key leaders, and to listen to the internal conversation about racial injustice in America.  There is insider and outsider language as the black church engages its own constituency and the larger context in which it resides, with all of its racially tinged practice.
            Recent events in various communities surfaced in the preaching and teaching, and there was a clear sense that churches cannot be silent about these atrocities.  Yet, it is not solely the burden of black churches to denounce injustice; white churches need a good dose of righteous indignation, also.

            Soaring rhetoric moved those gathered for worship.  The beauty of alliteration, cadence, and dramatic delivery constituted a compelling medium for the proclamation of the Gospel.  The performative dimension of preaching was on display, and my heart was “strangely warmed,” in the words of John Wesley.  The craft of preaching remains indispensable in forming the people of God.

            My time there was bookended by cab rides with an older white female driver who was full of venom about “the worst president ever” and being sick of black persons “feeling like victims.”  She spouted these perspectives while claiming not to be racist; the issue of the mass incarceration of black males, for instance, was justified in her mind.  It was a bit of a whiplash experience, and I am not just talking about her driving!
            Why did I ride with her a second time?  Other cabs drive from Hampton to the Norfolk airport, yet I called her to ferry me back to catch my plane.  Ever the evangelist, I hoped she might be willing to think differently if we had a civil conversation about our differing perceptions of what is going on in.  I trued to follow what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians, “knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others . . . “ (5:11).
            Ultimately, we decided we could not talk further about the matter of race given the challenge of finding any common ground.  I was disappointed, but I think our conversation will linger with her as it has with me.
            The conversation I overheard at Hampton was valuable, and it reminded me how essential it is for black and white churches to be in conversation, hopefully with white churches listening more than talking.  There is much to learn.

            Molly T. Marshall

Central prepares women and men for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.


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