Can We Talk? About Racism?

Can we talk?

In recent months I have found myself struggling with memories that disturb me to the depths of my soul. The memories are a part of my early life as the son of a Nazarene pastor in Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. The memories are especially poignant relating to those years inMississippi and Alabama where I attended Junior High and High School during the late 1950’s, graduating high school in Tuscaloosa in 1961.  I attended Trevecca Nazarene College in Nashville from 1961, graduating in 1965. My wife Susan and I moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where I attended Nazarene Theological Seminary, graduating in 1968. Our first two assignments after seminary were in Tennessee and Kentucky, home territory to me, and familiar territory for Susan.

If you follow those dates you may be aware that, from the time I entered Junior High School in Mississippi, and through the years of my earliest service as a pastor, I was immersed in the Civil Rights era in the deep South.

Those years were tumultuous for the USA. Brown Versus the Board of Education set in place a new reality for public schools across the nation. The Civil Rights movement was at its most intense. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most visible figures in the nation, and depending on how you viewed the cultural turmoil, he was either the revered leader and spokesman for an oppressed people, or was evil incarnate for his efforts to change the culture of the nation, especially in the South.

Our home was a haven of grace and kindness for my sister and brother and me, and for the people of the churches and communities where my father served as pastor. However, he was also a polarizing figure to some. His support for the civil rights movement, his admiration for MLK, and his willingness to invite African American churches to participate with our churches in revivals and special events drew attention. Black pastors, evangelists, and district superintendents were frequent guests in our home.

Sometimes the attention my father received was appreciative and kind. At other times the attention was threatening and divisive. Among members of the churches were some who applauded his desire to reach across the racial and cultural divide. Some were uneasy, not knowing quite how to respond. And in some cases, the reaction was fiercely opposed to any effort to open doors for relationship with African Americans.

Civil rights was not the only issue creating turmoil and tension during those years. During our sophomore year in college, while Susan and I were having lunch in a little neighborhood restaurant near the Trevecca campus, the owner suddenly brought out a little black and white TV. He sat in on the counter for all to see. We watched in horror as news of the assassination of President Kenedy played out before us on the grainy little screen.

Five years later, while I was a student at NTS, we were stunned by the news of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Two months later, Robert F. Kenedy was killed.

As I watched the “Alt Right” march in Charlottesville, Virginia last year, as I have listened to the rhetoric flung about by politicians of every stripe, news outlets of every kind, and social media on every platform, I have had the same agonizing, disturbing, tension producing thoughts and experiences I had as a young teen, as a college and seminary student, and as a pastor in the south.

I recently read again a book written by Dr. Ivan A. Beals, a member of my congregation when I was pastor at KC First. Ivan had served as assistant editor of “The Herald of Holiness” (now “Holiness Today) for many years prior to his retirement. Unknown to many people, Beals was a passionate advocate for racial reconciliation. He spent the last several years of his life meticulously researching and writing a book that was published in 1997, entitled, “Our Racist Legacy: Will the Church Resolve the Conflict?” A year later he wrote, “A Theology of Forgiveness: Towards a Paradigm of Racial Justice”.

To read his books is to be driven to your knees. To see how the Church of Jesus Christ has been complicit in creating the racial divide, and how ineffective it is in addressing the issue, nearly overwhelms me in grief.

The question we must ask is this:  Are we willing to face, openly and honestly, the racial divide that has only deepened in the past decade? Are we, as the people of God, ready to grapple with our own complicity, and seek the forgiving grace of God? And are we willing to make the radical changes and sacrifices that will be required of the majority race in the Church and in the culture in order to finally and fully resolve the conflict, to the best of our ability to do so?

Where will the conversation begin? And where will it take us?

Can we talk? Can we talk openly? Can we talk honestly?

Will we talk?

Jesse C Middendorf

November 1, 2018

13 thoughts on “Can We Talk? About Racism?”

  1. Thanks Dr Jess for initiating this discussion. I too have read and have copies of Ivan Beals’ book “Our Racist Legacy.” Is there a way to get it reprinted or in a digital format for on-line access? It remains a timeless historical narrative of the need to face racism in the church – both past and present.

    Those of us whose lives and ministries were shaped by the Civil Rights era may be surprised and saddened that race relations have seemed to deteriorate. Perhaps we thought that the work for racial equality and harmony had been accomplished. Or that with the election of Obama we had entered a post racist society. Only to find that un dealt with racism continues to surface in new as well as old ways.

    May the conversation continue.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello, Lynn,
      The book is out of print, but copies are available on Amazon on occasion. The prices run from $65.00 (don’t buy that!!) to $5 or $6. There is an online version, and I have received permission from Beals daughters to have it reprinted. I am working on that, but it is months away, at best.

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  2. Thanks, Jess…I remember working in a shoe store in The Landing & seeing NG troops stationed at every entrance to the center after MLK was assassinated…every feeling for a young man from “the North” (raised in Minnesota). My first experience with other cultures or race than my own was a cultural exchange program through our church that brought boys & girls from St. Paul out to our rural community to live in our homes for 10 days. A good experience, but could not prepare one adequately for some of the things you describe having gone through. I grew up with language that I didn’t know was racist, and had lunch with an African American guy from a church I served in (he was married to a beautiful white girl) and I found myself apologizing to him for that language popping up in my thoughts and speech. He graciously accepted my apology. What is engrained in us from our youth is very difficult to reverse…only by God’s grace.

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    1. I remember the troops on the Landing very well. There was a tank on the corner across from the HQ building for a day or so. It is so crucial that we get this right. I am distressed that we have lost the vast majority of our African American leaders, and are going to have to work hard to cultivate a whole new generation of Black pastors. We desperately need to make this a major effort, if for no other reason, because as Wesleyan Holiness folk, this is a requirement of Holy Love. In addition, because the US and Canada now make up less than 25% of the membership of the Church of the Nazarene, we white North Americans are in a decided minority of the Church. We are willing to pay dearly for missionaries to serve in Africa, but are unwilling to go across the street to minister to the African Americans in our neighborhoods. I could go on, but you know the issues. And you are right, only by God’s grace will we be able to accomplish this. We will face some fierce resistance from folks who swear that they are not racist. But many of them are victims of unconscious bias, and are very uncomfortable with the thought of their teens being in the same youth group with kids from another culture. We are making some excellent progress in a few places, but for the most part, we have work to do. Lots of it!! Grace!

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      1. I grew up in the same atmosphere in deep South GA, ignorant of legal racism. Didn’t see any in my family’s dealings with others and seldom saw open discrimination. We all worked together. I wasn’t aware of legal segregation, thinking we went to separate schools because of location. I was in college at Asbury when I learned there was legal segregation. I have tried to work against it and for harmony ever since, but feel my efforts were mostly ineffective especially now when I look at FB postings from old friends and even some of the family; saddest is from former church members.

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  3. I grew up in a non-Nazarene nominally Christian household in the 1950s and 60s. Like many, I was blind to the cultural racism that surrounded me. Racist remarks, jokes, and attitudes were just part of of the atmosphere we breathed. My parents were strict about one particular aspect: they did not use and would punish me, my brother, or my sister for using racially derogatory language of any kind. It simply wasn’t tolerated.

    Much later, after high school, I came to know Jesus Christ as my Savior in a Nazarene revival service. I later enrolled in a Nazarene college. In my second year I responded to God’s call to ministry. Since I felt called I attended a meeting of the campus “ministerial fellowship.” To my disgust the pre-meeting conversation featured racist jokes, including the very words my parents, who many there may have labeled “non-Christian,” taught us not to use.

    I left the meeting early and did not return. Only the wise counsel of my adviser and pastor kept me from chucking it in all-together. I have since found that the attitudes displayed by those in that meeting were not held by all. I appreciate learning about ministers like your father who showed us a different way.

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  4. Thanks for this! This morning I preached on 2 Chronicles 7:14. When I talked about our need to turn from our wicked ways I told them it included systemic sin. I read a large portion of your article as an example.

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  5. It is entirely possible to have a multi-racial church in the South, even in the rural South these days. Our congregation is about the same mix as our county which has about 33% black and 66% white (no other races). It takes work and constant reminding that it doesn’t matter what your race is, all are welcome and invited to find Jesus here. Constant reminding. And sometimes stern correction when conversations start up about how “they” are.

    We all have to continually confront and renounce racism in our own hearts when it tries to take root. Each and every time a person who is different from us acts in an unkind way, when Satan tries to lie to us and say, “Yeah, they’re all like that,” we have to reject those thoughts. We have to remind ourselves that “our kind” isn’t all the way perfect either, that each person can make kind or unkind choices, and that we walk in love and forgiveness because we’ve been loved and forgiven.

    We also have to learn how to not describe people by skin color. For example, when talking to our children about someone they’ve met but don’t know well, it’s better to say, “Do you remember the woman who gave you the teddy bear? She wears glasses and likes to ask you about your bike riding?” Not so good: “Do you remember that black lady who gave you the teddy bear?”

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