MLK Day pastor panel explores racial equality

By Jessica Brodie

COLUMBIA—Six diverse United Methodist pastors in the Midlands gathered in honor of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to discuss issues of truth, accountability and reconciliation when it comes to racial equality.

Gathering on Jan. 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, at Journey United Methodist Church, the hourlong event was broadcast live on Facebook and YouTube. The Rev. Lex McDonald served as moderator for the panel, which included Dr. George Ashford, the Rev. Tiffany Knowlin Boykin, the Rev. Jeff Kersey, the Rev. Elizabeth Murray and the Rev. Kenneth Middleton. Diverse in age, gender, race and church size, the pastors are all members of CFRE: Clergy for Racial Equality, a group of Columbia District clergy that emerged after the death of George Floyd around racial equality and justice. The Columbia District of the UMC hosted the event.

The event started with children, who read portions of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered Aug. 28, 1963, in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Cathy Jamieson, Columbia District superintendent, then offered a welcome and prayer during what she called “tumultuous times in our country … when our hearts are heavy and our spirits are weighed down.”

“We are here today to honor and remember the legacy and tradition and inspiration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose nonviolent ways are rooted in Christian principles,” Jamieson said.

Jamieson lifted up three Scriptures that reflect the truth, accountability and reconciliation theme of the day: John 8:32, Romans 14:12 and 2 Corinthians 5:18.

“We hope the words shared today honestly and openly might bring more peace and unity in our country,” Jamieson said.

Jenai Brown, a senior at Claflin University, sang “I Know Where I’ve Been,” then McDonald as moderator introduced the panel.

That demon called racism

Murray, who works with youth at Lexington UMC, Lexington, said her youth often talk about Christianity and race.

Often, Murray said, “They start to see the church as separate from what they see going on in the world and what they see on Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, and they don’t see great connection between faith and politics or race relations. They see the church as antiquated or not speaking out or having a prophetic voice, and they’re not understanding where Scripture comes in, what it means to be as a Christian in the world.”

She said young people are looking to the church to answer these questions.

Knowlin-Boykin, who pastors Wesley UMC, Columbia, said as an African-American woman in the South, there are certain aspects of race and gender that are a big part of her personal narrative. Now, her role as a new mom factors in heavily.

“From the very moment I learned I was pregnant with a little boy, all kinds of worries, anxieties and fears began to rise up within me,” she said. “I know children of color, particularly little black boys, are treated differently. Right now my baby is 11 months old. He is cute and beautiful and always laughing. … But I know it won’t be a long time before people are going to look at him and he’ll be perceived as threat because he’s black and he’s a boy, not because of anything he’d do.”

That fear rests on her heart, and she said the church needs to remember all people are made in the image of God and are connected.

“Pain is pain, hurt is hurt, suffering is suffering,” she said, and when it happens to one, it happens to all.

Kersey, pastor of Mount Horeb UMC, Lexington, quoted Psalm 85 and noted God speaks truth to us throughout Scripture, reminding us of the need for reconciliation and unity. As a white man, he said the concerns he felt for his son might be different from those Knowlin-Boykin has for her son, and it is important for people to share their stories and concerns so all can try to understand each other’s pain and experiences.

Middleton, pastor of Bluff Road UMC, Columbia, shared about a time one of his then-teen sons walked to a local store and was falsely accused, accosted and arrested.

“They slammed him to the ground because they thought he was the person they were looking for,” Middleton said—yet other than a shared race, his son and the suspect looked nothing alike.

“If we are to have truth, let them hear our truth and say our truth without feeling repercussion,” Middleton said. “If we are to have racial connection together, we have to hear the truth of the marginalized and oppressed.”

This is not just a racial problem but an American problem, he said.

“For 400 years we’ve had this problem of racial tension in our nation. We have to sit down and deal with that demon called racism,” Middleton said. “Christ came for everyone—white, black, pink or brown.”

Am I looking the other way?

Ashford spoke next, reminding people about the need to be responsible citizens and understand the call of Christ is at our core.

“Responsible churches produce responsible Christians, and responsible Christians build responsible churches,” Ashford said. “To be responsible means we’re willing to do what is best for the common good, that we will exercise the moral courage which is often absent.”

As a responsible person—whether a pastor, father or citizen—Ashford said we must heed the words of Jesus in Matthew 25 to care for all people as though we are caring for Him. We must hold ourselves accountable by asking if we are overlooking things in our sphere of influence or looking the other way.

Murray noted the term “white privilege” often makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Sometimes, she said, white people try to dismiss it, saying “I’m a good person,” “I’m not racist” or “I grew up poor” so “I don’t have white privilege.”

“I truly believe unless white people can recognize this system that the U.S. built inherently to benefit us or to not discriminate against us, then we won’t be able to fully move on,” Murray said. “Even though I, Elizabeth, didn’t write the laws that allow discrimination, I am benefitting from them.”

She said “not being racist” is a good low bar at which to start, but next we must begin to look at how we can do the work of building bridges and tearing down walls.

My brother’s keeper

As for how to shift from passive anti-racism to active anti-racism, Middleton said love is the bridge.

“Am I my brother’s keeper? Yes,” he said. “We all are from same family of God and we ought to take that responsibility.”

Kersey said a key way to do this is to make intentional efforts to grow relationships and partner with people through common issues, like affordable housing.

Knowlin-Boykin said we also need to understand the relationship between systemic racism and poverty.

“There are not just poor black people, there are poor white people, too, but we have to understand,” she said. “Shame on us if I say ‘I’m a believer’ and I can watch him hurt and think, ‘So what?’ We’ve got to look outside and consider the needs of someone else.”

To watch the video of the service:

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