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Part 5—Birth: The Summer of Blood and Birth of Peacemakers Discussion Group

Series: How Peacemakers Began

July 5, 2016, rolled around. It was a year to the day that I attended the first discussion of “Race, Confederacy, and the South” that Reverend Fletcher had held at the coffee shop. This was the same day that Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, was killed at almost point-blank range by a police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Within hours, the wrenching videos of the shooting were all over social media, and by the next day, the protesting had begun. The shooting, although hardly rare anymore, was shocking and raw in its brutality, and amongst African-Americans, there was an outpouring of sorrow, grief, fear, anger, and outrage.

Alton Sterling Mural
Alton Sterling Mural

But among many white people, including Christians, there was either silence or a vehement defensive of the police officer’s actions. Even when the footage was released, showing that the officer involved did not give Sterling an opportunity to respond and that the officer initiated the violence, the defensiveness continued.

The shooting, although hardly rare anymore, was shocking and raw in its brutality, and amongst African-Americans, there was an outpouring of sorrow, grief, fear, anger, and outrage.

When I read the comments on the video, most of the white persons commenting kept insisting that they could “see” Sterling “reaching” for a gun with his right hand. I watched the video over a dozen times, straining to see this man reaching for a weapon. However, in the video, it was impossible even to see Sterling’s right arm, as it was under the vehicle and not visible. I was stunned that my fellow white people were insisting they saw something that was not even there.

Before we could begin to process the shooting of Sterling emotionally, and while the protests were growing, the next day, in St. Anthony’s Parish, Minnesota, another black man, Philando Castile, was also shot at almost point blank range by a police officer for exercising his 2nd Amendment rights to carry a firearm.

Who can forget the video that was filmed in the immediate aftermath by Castile’s girlfriend? Who can ignore the large, spreading blotch of blood on the front of Castile’s white shirt, and the crying, distraught four-year-old child sitting in the backseat, who witnessed the entire the horror? Who can forget the hysterical profanity of the police officer who pulled the trigger?

Still reeling from the shooting just the day before, protests broke out, and the outrage from the black community grew, just as among too many white people, the defensiveness increased, as people attempted to justify the shooting of Castile.

Philando Castile shooting protest at the Minnesota Governor's Mansion

Who can forget the video that was filmed in the immediate aftermath by Castile’s girlfriend? Who can ignore the large, spreading blotch of blood on the front of Castile’s white shirt, and the crying, distraught four-year-old child sitting in the backseat, who witnessed the entire the horror? Who can forget the hysterical profanity of the police officer who pulled the trigger?

Less than two days later, violence erupted again, this time in Dallas, TX. While police officers were on duty during a non-violent protest about the Sterling and Castile shootings, a black gunman opened fire on Dallas police officers, injuring 12 and killing 5. The suspect was shot by police during the stand-off and allegedly claimed to “want to kill white police officers.

Season of change

After a week of violence either committed by police or against police, like many other people, I was in shock. The week was surreal. The graphic, raw violence of it was shocking, and the gaping divide between the way black Americans viewed the events and the way that white Americans viewed the events was telling indeed.

I will never forget the hurt, the fear, the anger of the black people close to me. Nor will I forget the indifference, the callousness, or the accusatory defensiveness of many other white people, of those I knew, most were Christians. This part was just as jarring and disorienting as the shootings themselves.

The Sunday, July 10, 2016, following the week of the shooting, Reverend Phil Fletcher put out a call on Facebook for a prayer vigil in downtown Conway. I attended, as the shootings had generated in me a growing sense of urgency, fear, and alarm. I was afraid if my own city would be next.

Would the next black man gunned down by an officer be in our city? Would it be one of our officers shot by a sniper during a non-violent protest? Just how long would we stay silent? How long would we make excuses? Would we wait until the blood on the streets were on our own streets? Would we continue to be indifferent until the blood was from one of our own?

So, we gathered at the little park by the railroad tracks downtown. There were quite a few people for such a short notice including many police officers.

2016 Dallas police shooting memorial service
2016 Dallas police shooting memorial service

Rev. Fletcher, along with others, spoke, shared scripture, and led us in prayer. At a few points during the gathering, Rev. Fletcher asked us to find someone who “did not look like” ourselves and talk to them, asking them what the previous week had been like for them.

So, we gathered at the little park by the railroad tracks downtown. There were quite a few people for such a short notice including many police officers.

During one of these opportunities for conversation, I ended up talking with an African-American couple, who had grown up in the Mississippi Delta. I will never forget some of the words that this man said to me that day. He had shared some experiences growing up a black boy and young man in Mississippi in the 70s and 80s, including a frightening encounter with law enforcement. I shared with him some of my own harrowing experiences in the Arkansas Delta in the early 2000s.

After telling him a few such experiences, I told him, “When I came to Conway, I was so relieved not to have to see such racism up in my face and not have to live in such abject fear of retaliation, that I just wanted to fly under the radar. I was afraid to get to know any white people really well, for fear that I would like them and respect them, only to find out that underneath they were like some of those people in the Delta.

If you are not normally one who remains silent, then you have let those people win by keeping to yourself and keeping silent. Don’t let them win.

And I was afraid to get to know black people very well, because I knew I would hear more stories about racism in this lovely city, and I didn’t want to hear that pain, heartache and anger, because then I would have to speak up, and I had been afraid of what would happen if I did.”

In response, this black brother told me, “That’s how they win. You have lived away from that place for 10 years, but mentally you are still there. You are physically in Conway, and free of those people, but it sounds like you have lived your life since then as if you are still there. That is how they win. That is how they get you to oppress yourself. If they can get you to suppress, change who you are, then they can oppress you even when you leave. If you are not normally one who remains silent, then you have let those people win by keeping to yourself and keeping silent. Don’t let them win.”

Silenced no more

Those words resonated with me, and suddenly, it was if a light came on. And I realized that he was right. And I resolved that I would not let the racists who had terrorized and silenced me in the Delta silence me any longer.

The next development during that summer of blood that ultimately led to the birth of the Peacemakers Discussion Group was the announcement by the then City of Conway Mayor, Tab Townsell that in response to that week’s shootings, the city leaders were forming a Conway Community Race Relations Initiative.

On July 28, 2016, over 200 residents, city and educational leaders, pastors, religious leaders, and members of law enforcement gathered at a church in Conway for prayer and an open conversation about concerns about race relations in our city. There was a prayer and an open-mic portion in which many people took the opportunity to speak. After, the mayor announced that several committees would be established to help improve race relations in our city. The hope was to prevent events like those in Baton Rouge, St. Anthony’s Parish, and Dallas.

The hope was to prevent events like those in Baton Rouge, St. Anthony’s Parish, and Dallas.

The committees would include a steering committee, an education committee, a law enforcement committee, a communications committee, and a faith committee. I remember the sense of relief and hopefulness I felt that night, as it appeared that the people and leadership in our city were coming together to heal wounds and prevent further deterioration in race relations leading to worse events. The mayor encouraged residents to sign up for the committees, as he said he wanted the involvement of the public. Eagerly, I signed up for the law enforcement committee and the faith committee.

Facing reality

The next week, I was so happy and hopeful about this new development that I had to share with some fellow white Christians. Their response stunned me. While I tried to tell them about the Conway Community Race Relations Initiative, about the gathering, about the committees and what the city was trying to do, I was interrupted several times. The first time was a lady animatedly and fearfully interjecting: “But it’s just so scary that black men with guns are running around shooting at police officers.” I sat there, trying to figure out what that had to do with what I was telling them.

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels
Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

Before I could formulate a response, a second and then a third person jumped in with a similar sort of negative expression. The conversation so frustrated me, and given that I am by nature very direct and blunt, anything I thought to say, I knew it would come out sounding rude sarcastic.

I realized that white people do not even know how to talk to one another about race, without framing it in some very negative commentary about black people and affirming their own racial solidarity with each other. It was demoralizing and confusing. I sat silent and confused not knowing how to answer.

Before I could formulate a response, a second and then a third person jumped in with a similar sort of negative expression.

This realization that that white people, including myself, did not know how to talk to other white people about race, made me realize that I needed to learn how to have those conversations. I did not know how to have those conversations, nor did I know anyone who could teach me.

But one thing I did know for sure. I was not going to be silent. The violence of that summer had instilled a growing sense of urgency and a deep determination that I would not sit silently, doing nothing, while the divisions deepened, and violence spread. I waited a couple of weeks, anticipating hearing back about the faith and law enforcement committees. However, that information was not forthcoming.

Finding a spiritual solution

As I thought on it, it occurred to me that the public could not address matters concerning law enforcement without the involvement of the police chief and the police department. However, I realized that the faith community did not have to wait for someone in a worldly position of authority to give us our orders in this matter.

We, the followers of Jesus Christ already have our order from the King of Kings. He has called us to be Christ’s “ambassadors of reconciliation,” and just as he reconciled us to Him on the cross, he is in the process of “reconciling all things to himself,” and that it is by reconciling with one another that the world can see that we are reconciled to God.

20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin[a] for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Corinthians 5:20-21 New International Version (NIV)

Thus, I began to reach out to some Christians that I thought I might be interested, and invited them to attend a “discussion on racial divisions in the Church and how to address them.” I named it the Peacemakers Discussion Group, and the first Friday in October 2016, we held our first meeting in a friend’s living room.

Peacemakers has grown both in numbers and in depth in the approximately 2.5 years since then, as together, with black, white, and Hispanic believers, we learn how to be reconciled to one another, how to be ambassadors of reconciliation, how to have those difficult, hard conversations that so many in the church avoid having, and how to reach out across racial lines to our brothers and sisters and congregations of colors different than our own.

Becoming light in the world

If you believe that the Church can and should be a better “light of the world” with regards to racial reconciliation and addressing racial divisions within the Church, then I urge to you take action and contact the Peacemakers Discussion Group.

You can also find the Peacemakers Discussion Group on Facebook or email us at pdg4gospel@gmail.com to learn more about the ministry of racial reconciliation and how you can get involved.

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