As Rev. Susan Allen Grady and her family take some time away, this week's message comes from Rev. Lee Fullerton, Pastor of Congregational Care at Embry Hills UMC.
Last week, I watched our denomination’s service of “Dismantling Racism: A Service of Lament, Repentance, Communion and Commitment.” I did not want to watch it. Lamenting and repenting are hard work, and painful. At its beginning, a young African American woman laments, “I want, I need my church to talk about George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks… to say their names.” I watched it because a voice was telling me that God was not done with me yet and this service would be a stepping stone along my way.
In college, I worked in the mail room of a bank. My teacher in the ways of the mailroom operation was an African American man in his early forties who had been employed by that bank since he was a late teen. Had Robert not taught me so well how to do that job, I would not have lasted a week. Had Robert not told me some of the bank’s secrets, I would have no doubt blown the cover on some well concealed and not entirely ethical banking practices. Had Robert not shared with me some of the infidelities a few young and married vice presidents committed and where they were committing them in the late hours when I roamed the offices picking up outgoing mail, I might have embarrassed many more young lovers than I did. Robert had only a high school education but was he was way smarter than the white boy he trained. One night, making my rounds, I happened to see Robert’s paycheck on a desk, waiting for someone’s signature. Although he worked full time and me part time, his check did not equal mine. That was because I was a beneficiary of white privilege, a term we did not have in those days. I was a college kid. But when it came to the world of banking, I did not know squat compared to what my black friend and teacher Robert knew.
The next year I moved on to work at another bank and I heard a disturbing rumor about Robert. He had been accused of filching cash from deposits people mailed into the bank. I know. Who would send cash through the mail? But in those days, people did. No motivation was given for the alleged theft. But some financial irregularities were uncovered that no one could explain. I never saw how Robert could have gotten enough money from those few envelopes to create the alleged irregularities. I did not think he had, but nobody asked my opinion. Robert had been a faithful employee for over twenty years, and he was summarily fired.
When I did offer a soft-spoken defense of Robert’s character, it fell not on deaf ears but on hostile ears. I knew that to say anything more was useless. Nobody cared what I thought about the situation. Robert was guilty. Of being black. It was not my first experience of seeing the damage that racism can do in an
organic way in any system. It might be in a bank, a military unit, a law enforcement agency, a garden club, or a church. Racism is a sin, purely and simply. We in the church have always known that, but we have done little to stop the sinning. I wish that I had screamed “Injustice” from the rooftop of the bank in 1971. I did not. I wish that I had contacted Robert and at least tried to help his family. I did not. I went about my new job and my studies. I was a college student.
Watching the service centered on lament, repentance, communion, and commitment reminded me that I am all grown up now and have a big voice and can say whatever I want. But more importantly, I am part of a denomination and a congregation, that, collectively, project a much more powerful and prophetic voice. My experience with the Embry Hills congregation is that we have many gifts but one Spirit. That Spirit is leading us to confess our own sins of commission and omission, to repent and join in
lament with those praying for God’s to bring relief to those who suffer, to come together in holy communion (and conversation) and to commit ourselves to ridding all of the systems of the sin of racism. When it came to dealing with demons, Jesus first went to the synagogue at Capernaum. We should start with ourselves.