Series: How Peacemakers Began
Part 3–Watering the Seeds: The Love Your Neighbor March
Throughout the summer and fall of 2015, as the discussions on race, the Confederacy, and the South continued at the coffee shop, I did much soul searching, self-examination, as I grew more uncomfortable with my own silence in the face of the Church’s silence about racism and the incidents of that summer like the shooting of the nine African-American Christians in their church, the proliferation of the Confederate flag and flag rally’s that summer.
At the conclusion of the first discussion in July 2015, Reverend Phillip Fletcher, who organized and led the discussion series, offered us an opportunity to take public action on these matters, to take it beyond talk and discussion and invited us to help organize a “Love Your Neighbor March” in Conway, AR that upcoming September. He shared that a white, Christian couple had approached him wanting to organize such a march in response to the Charleston Church shooting to show the people of our city that followers of Christ in Conway loved one another and others across racial lines. They saw it as a way to publicly demonstrate what Jesus spoke of to his disciples, “By this will men know you are my disciples by how you love one another.”
They saw it as a way to publicly demonstrate what Jesus spoke of to his disciples, “By this will men know you are my disciples by how you love one another.”
Sitting through that first discussion in July, I found myself feeling convicted to “do something,” but have no idea what to do or how to go about beginning. So, with Rev. Fletcher issued this invitation, I knew I had to get involved.
However, after the first meeting of the Love Your Neighbor March committee, and I learned that one of my tasks on the committee was to reach out to other Christians in my circle, which in my case were mostly white believers. I was supposed to tell them about the march and invite them to participate. Soon, I was wrestling with many fears. When I told my teenage son about how I was helping to plan the march that would be held that September, he asked me, “Mom, will this like piss people off? Could we like have a brick coming in through our window?” Suddenly, I had to not only confront my own fears (which, were mostly about non-violent matters) but my child’s fear for both me and myself.
Suddenly, I had to not only confront my own fears (which, were mostly about non-violent matters) but my child’s fear for both me and myself.
Though I thought it was highly unlikely we would get a brick through the window for doing this in Conway, I had spent a few years in the Arkansas Delta and knew quite well that a brick through my window (and much worse) would not be theoretical but facts if people in some Delta communities tried to organize such a march. I knew there were communities in Arkansas where even the discussion series at the coffee shop would be met with sliced tires, busted car windows, death threats, and much, much worse. So, I pointed that out to my son and told him, “We live in a community where that is much less likely, which is a privilege, which gives us a greater responsibility to act since we can do with less severe repercussions.”
My next big fear was how to “talk up” the march to white Christians. I felt a loss at what to say. Such topics are not frequently discussed in white, Christian circles, at least in my experience, so I had very little experience talking about such things. But I dived in.
It was awkward, especially at first. The hardest part about that was the visible discomfort that these Christians expressed when I invited them to participate. I was saddened and disturbed that my fellow followers of Jesus Christ found a public demonstrating the love of Jesus for our fellow believers of other colors to be so “controversial,” as one person described it. Some people nervously asked, “A march? Isn’t a march kind of a ‘liberal thing?’”
I was saddened and disturbed that my fellow followers of Jesus Christ found a public demonstrating the love of Jesus for our fellow believers of other colors to be so “controversial,” as one person described it.
I had to explain that it was not a “liberal” or “political thing” in this context, but a public demonstration of the love of Jesus within our community. I heard many such comments and questions that summer and early fall. It was heart-breaking that so many Christians were more concerned about political affiliation and their fears of appearing to be of the opposing political affiliation by simply walking in a Love Your Neighbor March. I asked them, “Since when did loving our neighbors becoming a matter of political identity?” And I asked myself, “How did this happen, that loving one’s neighbor can only be comprehended in a political context?”
Someone else asked me, “What if gets ‘heated’ or people get angry?” Another person said, “Isn’t a march really controversial? Won’t that look divisive? Won’t it look like there is a problem where there really isn’t one?” This was the same summer of the US Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage, and there was much discussion, debate, and disagreement about the decision.
So, I answered this person, “Every year in our city, the gay community holds a Gay Pride parade to demonstrate their love for one another. They come together as people of different genders, gay men and lesbian women, as gay people with varying political affiliations, those who are religious and non-religious and across racial and socio-economic lines to publicly demonstrate their love and their pride in their love and to support common goals. They are able to come together despite their differences and demonstrate their love for each other and work together toward a common goal like gay marriage.
But we Christians, followers of Jesus Christ are AFRAID and ASHAMED to come together across our differences to demonstrate our love for one another and for all people and to demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God? WE are AFRAID? How does that reflect on our Lord and Savior? Is that not a reproach to the Gospel of Jesus Christ?” I pointed out that perhaps that is how and why those gay people had won that court victory, by working in unity toward a common goal?
Sometime that summer while working on the march, I gradually became convicted to reach out pastors of churches with majority white congregations and ask them to participate and encourage their congregations to join us. The idea of doing this truly scared me. The talks with white Christians were already awkward enough that I was afraid of how the pastors might receive me. I wasn’t sure how to present the idea to them, and was afraid that they would think I was some kind of “troublemaker.”
Though I regret it to this day, that I allowed these fears and lack of faith that God would give me the words to speak to silence me. I fought that conviction by the Holy Spirit, and though I carried out the other tasks assigned to me, like asking downtown businesses to post fliers about the march, I resisted and ran from the task assigned to me by the Holy Spirit. I spent that summer conflicted, torn, and miserable, as running from what God has directed you to do does not bring peace of mind or heart.
I spent that summer conflicted, torn, and miserable, as running from what God has directed you to do does not bring peace of mind or heart.
Finally, the day of the Love Your Neighbor march arrived: Sunday, September 20, 2015. I was so excited and nervous at the same time, wondering who would join us and how many people. But as the crowd arrived to march, I found myself deeply disappointed. Our city has a population of approx. 60,000 and approx. 200 churches. In addition to saturating social media with posts/videos, radio interviews, and many other forms of public announcements, the march committee had made contact of some kind with each of those 200 churches in some form and invited them to join us.
Out of 200 churches, we had approximately 100 people show up for the actual march. I have since learned not to focus so much on actual numbers, but instead be thankful for those who do participate in such events, but I truly expected that out of 200 churches, that we would have a much bigger crowd. After all, if each church had sent just 10 people, there would easily have been 2,000 people, which would make more sense. As we walked together along the route, singing songs, as parents pushed strollers and wagons with little ones, and elderly people walked slowly.
Out of 200 churches, we had approximately 100 people show up for the actual march.
Overall, the march was a success, and afterward, people of different races and ethnicities intermingled and fellowshipped and exchanged contact information with people they met that day. And though numbers aren’t everything, I could not shake the question: “Why weren’t more Conway Christians willing to publicly demonstrate the love of Christ for one another?”
Earlier that summer, a week after the first discussion on race at the coffee shop, as I wrestled with the fears of possible personal consequences for helping organize the march, my faith and courage were challenged and bolstered by a sermon that my pastor preached that July Sunday, called “Faith for the Fire.” The sermon was about the story in the Old Testament book of Daniel about how the three young Hebrew men, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego refused to bow to the idol that the foreign king had ordered them to bow down to on pain of death.
There was a question that my pastor asked during that sermon that hit me hard and that I have carried with me ever since, and the question is one I regularly ask myself when I face a new challenge or fear involved in the ministry of racial reconciliation within the Church:
Am I willing to take the steps that lead down the path to the “fiery furnace?” By the end of that Fall, I found myself wondering, “what next?” What do I do next?
And I found myself wrestling with the following questions:
- What does it mean to “love my neighbor?”
- How far am I willing to go to love my neighbor? How much adversity and persecution am I willing to face to love my neighbor?
- What does it mean to be Christ-like in this particular time and place and culture? What does it look like in these tumultuous times?
- Am I willing to sacrifice my own comfort, well-being, safety, security, and walk and talk like Christ? Am I willing to go where he went and do what He did? Am I willing to step up to where the rubber meets the road?
- Where does wisdom, discernment, and caution end and cowardice and selfishness begin?
- Am I willing to take the steps that lead down the path to the “fiery furnace?’
- Am I going to bow when everyone else does……or will I stand..if necessary, alone? (note: all the other
- Israelites apparently bowed along with the pagans. That was God’s people bowing to that idol! Only three men didn’t bow.)
- If I am willing to do all the above, then how does one challenge the Church and other believers in a Christ-like way?
I have found as I have walked the journey of the last three and a half years, that I often revisit these questions at different points along the way. I encourage and challenge you, dear readers, to reflect on these same questions and ask the Lord to search your heart and seek Him for an answer for yourself for those questions. For me, ultimately, those questions led me a year later to found a racial reconciliation ministry within the Church in my city, and over two years of working within that ministry. You never know where you will end up when you choose to obey God!