Series: How Peacemakers Began
Part 2-Planting the Seeds: Real Talk at the Coffee Shop, Race, Confederacy and the South
It was on a Monday night, July 6, 2015, when the seeds were sown that would eventually grow into what became the Peacemakers Discussion Group. That night, 13 Christian people, African-American, Caucasian, and Hispanic gathered around a table in a coffee shop in downtown Conway, AR, and with the aroma of roast coffee permeating the air, embarked on a discussion that is rarely undertaken among a racially mixed group (at least around here).
The discussion was facilitated by Phillip Fletcher, an African-American pastor in our community and our topic was Race, Confederacy, and the South, in response to the Confederate flag rally that had been held in our city the day before.
Though I don’t recall the exact questions that Reverend Fletcher asked in order to get the discussion going, I recall that we went around the table, one at a time, with each person expressing their knowledge, awareness, or feelings associated with the Confederate flag, and with regards to experiences with race in our city.
I recall being profoundly surprised by things shared by both white and black people at that table. When I had observed the pick-up trucks cruising around my city sporting large Confederate flags, I had assumed that all the drivers HAD to know the significance/meaning of that flag and the principles that the Confederacy was founded on.
I just assumed that if you were born or grew up in the South that you just learned that by osmosis, so I had believed that everyone sporting that flag knew exactly what message they were sending, and doing so deliberately. That night, I learned that might not necessarily be so in every case.
I had assumed that all the drivers HAD to know the significance/meaning of that flag and the principles that the Confederacy was founded on.
One young white man explained, “I always thought the Confederate flag just had something to do with Lynard Skynard, since it was on the album cover.” Another young man told how he had purchased a Confederate flag belt buckle as a teenager, “cause it looked cool and the cool kids were wearing them,” and how his parents would not let him wear it to school, but without telling him why. He shared how he wore it to school anyway, and the belt-buckle was confiscated by his principal, but again he was not told why the Confederate flag belt buckle was forbidden.
Both young men shared that they did not know the meaning, history and significance of the flag until they were in college. The young man who had purchased the belt-buckle said he would never wanted to purchase the item, and certainly never worn it if he had known. This was all a new concept to me, as I thought the heritage of the Confederate flag was known to all in the South. I realized then, that many of the white people I was hearing talking about how the flag was “heritage, not hate,” were truly ignorant of the actual heritage of the flag.
One black person at the table shared her response to seeing the Confederate flag rally on the overpass the day before. She said she and her family were driving back to Conway on the interstate, and when they approached the overpass and she saw the flags, she described bursting into tears and feeling a sort of sickening sense of horror that she was seeing such a thing in our city. She said she never expected to see such a thing in Conway. She described what it was like to attempt to explain it all to her children who were in the car with her.
Just as I had been surprised by what the young white men had revealed, I was also surprised by the openness and willingness of the black people to share their experiences with racism in our city, as well as indifference to racism by white friends. Another black person shared how it felt to attempt to talk to fellow white Christians they went to church with about the church shooting in Charleston and the Confederate flag rally in our city. This person described the silence, indifference, and lack of concern expressed by their white brothers and sisters they worshipped with. This person described wanting to say something to the effect to those white people: “Don’t call me your ‘sister’ if you are not willing to be my sister in times like this. Because I don’t feel like I am your sister when you are silent in the face of all this.”
“Don’t call me your ‘sister’ if you are not willing to be my sister in times like this. Because I don’t feel like I am your sister when you are silent in the face of all this.”
Those statements hit me hard. I had been living in Conway for nine years at that point. I had arrived in Conway nine years earlier after having lived in the Arkansas Delta. I had found my time in the Delta harrowing with regards to the racism I observed there, and when I came to Conway was relieved that I did not have to see it so blatantly in my face as I had in the Delta. At the time, if you were a white person in Conway, as long as you did not get too close to any black people, to get to know them, hear and see their experiences, then you could almost believe racism did not exist in our city.
That night, my black brothers and sisters brought it home to me by telling numerous stories of their experiences. The statements the one black lady made about “Don’t call me your sister if you are not willing to be my sister in times like this,” struck me in particular. Even though I did not know this lady, because she and I were/are followers of Christ, believers, because we became family 2,000 years ago on a hill called Calvery, when Jesus Christ who through the shedding of his blood tore down the dividing walls between us and made us family, the family of God, she was and is my sister.
As I listened to her and others that night, I thought about what she said, and the implications for me as a follower of Christ. I wondered how I could be this lady’s sister and be silent. I wondered how the Body of Christ could possibly function when some members of that body so readily ignored and dismissed the suffering and heartache and injustice suffered by other members of that body. I wondered what it really meant to be part of the family of God.
As I listened to her and others that night, I thought about what she said, and the implications for me as a follower of Christ.
The discussion did not end that night. In August 2015, Reverend Fletcher held another discussion, the same topic, on the back patio of the coffee shop. I counted 45 people there that night. Forty white, and five black. The discussion that night was not nearly as personal as the discussion in July, but it had some moments almost as raw.
That night, I watched Phillip Fletcher, an African-American man and a Christian, stand in front of a mostly white crowd of his white brothers and sisters and graciously share with us our “heritage” associated with the Confederate flag.
He read aloud from some of the Articles of Secession of states that seceded from the Union, as well as an excerpt from a speech by the vice-president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, the “Cornerstone Speech.” None of what he read shocked me that night, as I was quite familiar with that information. But it was news to some of the white people. I remember one young white lady absolutely stricken with grief and sorrow when she realized what the flag she had grown up cherishing really meant.
I remember one young white lady absolutely stricken with grief and sorrow when she realized what the flag she had grown up cherishing really meant.
There are several moments that stand out to me from that night, but one thing, in particular, made an impression. It was simply this: it was watching, once again, an African-American brother (in this case) once again, reach out in love, with grace to his white brothers and sisters and graciously open a door, and lead a discussion that we white believers should have long since been having our own, in our churches, in our living rooms. I sat there watching this brother navigate our responses, as some of us become defensive, deflective, and in some cases, evasive to the questions he asked.
And I asked myself, as I watched, once again as another black believer (in this case, a brother) gently and graciously challenge us, “why?” Why must our black brothers and sisters have to tote the bale and haul the barge of racial reconciliation alone? Why aren’t there any white brothers or sisters standing beside this man and helping facilitate this discussion? I recall feeling a bit of anger at my fellow white believers, wondering why someone didn’t stand up.
That led to an even more uncomfortable question:
Why wasn’t I standing up? Why was I sitting silently? Why was I leaving this bale and barge to be toted and hauled by my black brothers and sisters?
I am white, too. So, why I was expecting other white people to do what I was not yet doing? Why? Why?
And so, if you are reading this as a Christian with a white complexion, please ask yourself these questions:
Am I standing up? If not, why not?
Am I silent? If so, why?
Why am I leaving the bale and barge of racial reconciliation to be toted and hauled by my black brothers and sisters?
Why do I think that the suffering of one part of the Body of Christ has no effect on me?
Why am I tolerating a status-quo among the Body of Christ that is a reproach to the Gospel and the name of Jesus Christ?
..To be continued…