Ferguson and the need for new eyes
Throughout the Fall of 2011 I was in the midst of networking in preparation for the planting of The Embassy Church. During this process a pastor in my city invited me to a gathering that featured his mentor, a professor of Missiology at a large denominational seminary, as the keynote speaker. When we were done he asked that I meet with the professor and share insights regarding the church that we were about to plant. I had the obligatory stump speech that allowed me to walk people through our mission in an expeditious manner, but he did not allow me to finish. When I exposited one of our distinctives, “Diversity and Integration,” the professor stopped me and said, “That will never work. You are African American. And I bet you preach in a black style. Black preaching will appeal to African Americans. That should be your target audience.” I explained that my neighborhood is diversifying due to gentrification. The black, white, and brown populations are almost evenly represented in the community. He replied, “That’s irrelevant. If you target everyone, then you are targeting no one. You should set out to plant a black Church.” I asked, “If the church does not integrate, then how will we effectively address divisions among us. In the absence of dialogue between eternal family members, we will never effectively represent the Kingdom that John depicts in Revelation 7:9.” He replied, “First, the divisions among us are overstated. The rift between black and white has diminished. Second, the church will be perfectly integrated in eternity. You should focus on getting people into heaven where God will be the integrator.”
In the aftermath of Ferguson, the words of the professor came to mind. The rift is diminished? Really?! The present divide, which carefully traces along racial, cultural, socioeconomic, and even Christian theological lines, would seem to undermine the veracity of his opinion. In response to the same news we have camps rejoicing, while others battle irrepressible heartache. If a nation can be divided in such a precise and extreme manner, it seems that the Church, the ordained embassy of the Kingdom, should remove its self-imposed blinders and display a sincere belief in the Master’s model prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” If Matthew 6:10 is a mantra, is it appropriate for the Church to be so longsighted as to fixate on “getting people into heaven…”? If they are present citizens of the Kingdom, why would we wait before calling them up to Kingdom living?
What is the complication? We are inherently myopic and too arrogant to see the value of engaging anyone from a different perspective. Why? Because, we recognize “Truth” as cold and objective. In fact, we boast in our capacity to accept its objectivity without flinching. Consequently, we only wish to know the details of an encounter between a police officer and a teenaged boy on a Ferguson street. We contend that we need only assess this encounter in a vacuum and let the chips fall where they may. It is not uncommon for majority culture pundits to assert that any protests and angry retaliation among minorities is a display of foolishness, racial bias, and denial. I wish it were that simple, but it is not! Like all moments, the encounter between the officer and the teen was the momentary culmination of history. Ideas and sentiments predated the moment as they were derived from previous experiences and opinions. Not everyone in Ferguson experienced history through the same eyes. While truth is objective, the manner in which humanity assesses it is not.
I am male, black, and large. I am always among the most obvious people in a room. Recognizing this, my father and uncle sat me down and taught me “the rules” when I was a preteen. They said, “Boy, you are male, black, and large. One of those gets everyone’s attention, two make you a suspect, but all three of them make you a dangerous suspect. You need to know the rules of getting home safely.” As a twelve year old I deemed myself all-knowing, so I did not need their advice. Their concern seemed extreme and unnecessary. After I communicated this to them my father said, “Keep living, you’ll learn.” He was right. When I was fourteen-years-old I watched four police officers beat a man for ten minutes only to release him after they realized he was not guilty of the suspected crime. They did this knowing that they were acting in the presence of at least eight witnesses. When they drove away he walked over to us and, in my youthful fury, I said, “We should do something!” He laughed and said, “Who are you going to call?! The police?!” At seventeen years old, while three friends and I were on our way to a party hosted by the marching band, I was pulled over by a Dallas police officer. He approached the vehicle with his flashlight in hand and never said a word. After he silently shined his light throughout my 1987 Plymouth Voyager, he turned and walked away. We asked why he stopped us and he said, “You looked like you were up to no good.” We were seat belt wearing, speed limit observing, college bound high school seniors on our way to a party that was sponsored by the MARCHING BAND! When I returned home I rehearsed the encounter for my father and he asked, “Did you observe the rules?” When I answered “yes” he replied, “Keep living.” My white brothers who flippantly disregard the idea of white privilege are able to do so because they have not experienced moments of this sort more than fifteen times in thirty-nine years. I have never been arrested, but on several occasions I have had to prove that I am not a criminal. This reality has fashioned me. I see and approach life in a manner that is wholly distinct from my white brothers. I am far more careful than they will ever be. I have “the rules.” This did not happen in one moment. My present moment is the temporary culmination of history. I see the moment through eyes that were birthed from that history. The most arrogant thing you can do is tell me that my observations are invalid without first communing with me to gain an appreciation of my eye’s perspective. We should treat Ferguson as an opportunity to hear rational people express their heartache. An eighteen-year-old boy is dead. How could we dare go on without pausing to gain understanding? It’s okay to listen; you do not have to always be heard.
With the above in mind, I appeal to those of the majority culture to appreciate an often-overlooked point. The present discontent among minorities is not due to a single moment in Ferguson and by no means is it the result of rational human beings ignoring the objective nature of truth. Instead, may I suggest that we are presently experiencing the lit kindling that is our history. It is not an event; it is a series of events. And those who do not have eyes that assess the series from the perspective of another would be unwise to oversimplify the circumstances and critique the outrage. And I would contend that we arrived at this moment because we agree with the advice of the professor of Missiology. We are content to remain segregated for now because Jesus will clean up the mess later. But what if Christ’s death was devised to address it now? His death not only reconciles us to him; it reconciles us to one another! (Eph. 2:1-22) He values the integration of his Church so much that he died to purchase it! It is this community that initiates the discourse. It is here where we gain an appreciation of history through the eyes of others. It is here where sincere and humble dialogue preempts racial riots instead of reacting to them. The professor is wrong! While his evangelistic sentiments are well intended, he has truncated the Gospel. Jesus did not die so we could merely go to heaven. He died so that all that is broken could be made whole. That is the comprehensive Gospel. The professor is wrong, and the Gospel accuses him. Ferguson is the result of the Church replicating his error. It is time for us to course correct. Otherwise, the present circumstances will be our norm.
Praying for unity – Grieving until it comes,
The Embassy Church
…making God famous throughout the world
 Experience has proven him wrong. In spite of my “black preaching,” The Embassy Church is more than 60% white!  For example, when you are pulled over you always keep your hands in plain sight, only answer the question you are asked, turn the lights on in the vehicle, don’t reach for anything without first announcing it, do not make any jokes, no more than 4 people in the car, etc.
Thanks for sharing Brandon. I echo your prayer.
Thanks Nephtali. Can you forward your info to me? (firstname.lastname@example.org) We may be calling on you for the movement in our city.
Thank you Brandon for your reflections! The church might find itself powerless because it doesn’t see its God as being powerful. It doesn’t see itself as the rock upon which Jesus is building His church but rather the sand by which the church continues to be washed away because it has become irrelevant to the issues of the day.
We preach and teach about the awesomeness of our God but He is impotent in changing our hearts, attitudes and prejudice. The church has become speechless in addressing the moral issues of our day.
The culture we happened to have been birthed in and the color of our skin which we had no choice in has become the barriers in our being one in Christ as He has commanded in John 17.
We sometimes forget we weren’t called to save anyone or to escort them to heaven, we were called to share the Gospel, the Good News in all of its power. Yes, it’s resurrection power. The power that makes dead men alive. “Yes, Martha, I am the resurrection and life”. Martha looked to the future; Jesus looked to the moment. Too many of us we look to the future and not to the moment in which we can make a difference in revealing the resurrected Christ, His righteousness and love!
The power that changed twelve men who were from the hood, who changed the world through the powerful message “He has risen as He said”. “These men have been with Christ”. The issue of race has always been at the door of the church; I wonder what God will say at the door of heaven.
By His Grace
Pastor Bob, as always, your insight is valuable and welcomed. We need you and I will be calling on you as we initiate an intentional movement in our city.
I don’t typically comment to these articles because so much can be unknown about the author and the organization and if they are who they appear to be in writing. I looked at your web site and see that you spent time in Little Rock at a church that I am familiar with. I read the churches “beliefs”. Not that I would have to believe the exact same things as you to respond, but in such cases as these, I feel it’s important to know if we’re coming from the same spiritual foundation. It appears that we are.
I appreciate and agree with so many of your statements. I am grieved on many levels and am starting to lose hope that we will see this struggle come to peace this side of heaven because there is sin in the world and that is where all of these issues began, from sinful actions in the past to today. I even hesitate to respond for fear I will say something the wrong way and be deemed insensitive or assumed that I am a racist by others who may read this and disagree with me. However, in my grief and hopelessness I must ask how are we to overcome these struggles if the country keeps looking back every time something like this happens and cries out racism? Sadly, people of every race and color commit murder and other violent acts upon each other on a daily basis. I keep trying to understand why is it only considered racism on a national level and by many African Americans if it happens like in Ferguson? I do acknowledge the past and how African Americans have been treated and I have worked hard teaching my children about it so that they would never become involved in treating anyone that way and so they would have as much of an understanding as they could about the cruelties and injustices and sin, without having actually experience them personally. And I am deeply grieved that you and your friends had to endure some of those struggles, injustices, and cruelties yourselves as I did not.
I am not qualified to begin to make sense of it or comment on who is right or who is wrong in the Ferguson case specifically. However, I can tell you that I am grieved that a young man lost his life and that a policeman’s life and family will also most likely be destroyed for many years to come. I am also grieved over how some people feel the freedom to destroy others property and their own town because of their personal anger or beliefs about what has or hasn’t taken place. Many innocent people in that town are suffering needlessly because of those actions.
I wasn’t a part of the cruelties that happened in the deep past, recent past, or current days. Yet I often feel that I am being blamed and treated as an abuser by African Americans like Jessie Jackson, Al Sharpton, and all those who assume I am racist simply because I am white and haven’t suffered these cruelties. I am not seeking to make this about “us”, but to truly know how we are to move forward, I have to understand the answers to the following questions. How am I ever to repay for how other white people have treated African Americans? Will my family and I, and the millions of other white people ever be free of carrying a burden that we did not create and don’t believe in? A burden that widens the divide because we are often fearful to try to have open discussions and ask questions that will help us understand better, because we may not say something the right way or use the politically correct verbage even though our hearts desire a community connection. How long do we have to carry the blame and be held accountable for crimes we have not committed against the African American community…especially when we are constantly desiring to love and live in community with all our neighbors regardless of color or race. How do we continue to bridge a gap we didn’t create and don’t believe in?
What is your solution? What are your further encouragements and exhortations to white and black communities as we try to continue building community and moving forward? It must go beyond acknowledging the past and validating it, to true healing and restoration to keep moving forward. I trust that you are giving the benefit of the doubt that many white Americans do truly take into account the knowledge of the past and validate it’s cruelties and injustices as well as we see it as a series of events, not just a single event. We are not content to remain segregated until heaven. We desperately want to participate in the gospel of Jesus with all our brothers and sisters in the fullness of Christ, under the banner of the freedom that Christ brings.
May God continue to bless your church.
LM, I am impressed by the careful and intentional manner in which you bore your heart. You asked fair questions regarding the looting and rioting in St. Louis. Rest assured, we do not condone that behavior. It is as deplorable as the systemic racism that troubles us. The unity of the church is the answer to this need. We are presently in the process of addressing that need. Stay tuned as we will be publishing the steps here as we move forward. Thanks for your honesty. Thanks for your compassion. Thanks for your heart. – Brandon
The articulation of substantive points is fantastic. There’s really nothing to say except Amen and Selah…
Thanks J. Be in prayer for us. We are preparing for a movement in our city.