Growing up, one of our regular family activities was camping at Fort Boonesborough State Park outside of Richmond, KY. Truthfully, it was a bit of redneck ‘glamping,’ as most of the time we pulled into a parking space, set up a tent, and plugged in all the electronic devices we needed at the outlet 10 feet away. Nevertheless, the sprawling site near the Kentucky River were a great place to run free as a kid, and we took full advantage.
And one spot near the river always caught my eye. There was a monument near the site of the original fort that signified the place of the first Christian worship service in the state of Kentucky. As a teenager who had recently came to faith, the site always fascinated me – it felt holy. I mean… the first worship service? Every time we camped there during the summer, I’d go visit by myself and take it in. (I was a weird kid.)
Years have passed, and I now have a family of my own to take camping. And as a pastor, I’ve remembered that spot at the park often – never losing my fascination for that unique piece of history. Recently, the monument came mind on a day that myself and my 2 boys – quarantined at home – were bored and needed a fun activity. I decided to pack them both into my truck and make the 30 minute drive to the site so we could see it for ourselves. On the way, both boys fell asleep, so as I arrived, I snuck out of the truck and walked up to the monument.
There it was – the site first Christian worship service in Kentucky. The plaque was far more old and weathered than I remembered. I was prepared to leave, but before I did, I walked around to view the other sides.
And there they were.
On the three other sides of the square monument, there were plaques with other commemorations of the site. On one, part of the inscription read:
In honor or men of courage, faith, and vision, investors in a glorious dream of winning the wilderness for the white man…advanced guard of the enlightened civilization of the west.
If that weren’t enough, one of the other plaque read that the loss of life…
“opened the doors of destiny to the white race in Kentucky…”
I was flabbergasted. All those years of coming to a monument that I held to be sacred, and I’d never taken the time to see what was right in front of my eyes. To make matters worse, I noticed that the plaques were erected in 1935. It was not an artifact from ancient history. It was a modern monument to white supremacy.
All these years, I was unaware. It was right under my nose.
But then again, that’s how white supremacy survives. People like me who only see one side out of their own ignorance or indifference. It is difficult to confront the reality that what we hold sacred might not stand in innocent isolation from the evils it failed to confront or condemn. Worse still, the institutions you love could share the very same brick and mortar. Long before I ever knew what to see, they were built together.
Which brings us to our cultural moment. As a pastor, I’ve wrestled all week with how we as a Church can grapple with our national crisis. I know there is both a danger in complicit silence and performative empathy that has little concern for action in the long term. In 7 years of ministry in the (predominantly black) East End neighborhood, I’ve been profoundly humbled at how deep-seated my own privilege had clouded my judgement of a whole community of people. I’ve been confronted by the propensity for a paternalistic, “white-savior-complex” in the manner in which I’d seen “mission.” I saw my evangelical pragmatism in the form of believing diversity could be “programmed” for a service without being lived through the congregation. Where did these mindsets and patterns come from?
Look at the other side of the monument. They were built in together.
As American evangelicals, we’re living in a house built on blood-stained ground. Did we build it ourselves? Maybe not. But do we benefit from it, day after day, in both seen and unseen ways? Absolutely. The ground cries out and shakes beneath us, and we have one of two choices: either continue the never-ending, arrogant, dismissive maintenance of a spiritually unsound structure… or actively dismantle it knowing there’s a better home that awaits us. Is this demolition? No. Some of what is dismantled is needed to build a home big enough for those we tried to ignore. And our faith already offers us every tool we need. We just have to have the courage to get to work.
The truth is, it’s easy to know that racism is wrong. We can have firm theological convictions against its existence but do nothing to confront the systems and structures that have allowed it to survive in our country from its inception. We can believe that God loves us equally, yet we can reap the benefits from structures and ideologies that continue to uphold inequality. We can read the right books, listen to the right podcasts, preach all the right sermons, and publicly profess our enlightened opinions, yet allow the witness of our lives to remain silent.
Restoration family, I don’t want to do that. I want to have the uncomfortable conversations and take the uncomfortable steps forward towards confronting both the personal and systemic sins of racism and white supremacy – in our our country and in ourselves. I want to name and uproot the ideologies and narratives that have blinded us from seeing the truth. And in a nation where so many of us need to reckon with our own sins – both past and present – I want to set the tone as lead-repenters.
Because our identity is secure in Jesus, because we are loved beyond measure, because the work of the cross has exchanged our sin for his righteousness, we can boldly confront our sin without shame. In humility, we can reckon with our complicity and silence without devolving into navel-gazing self pity. When we know the truth, the truth will set us free. But in the words of David Foster Wallace, “The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.” It is our duty as Christians to let the truth we are seeing continue its work in us.
I don’t pretend to have a perfect plan for how we move forward in this truth. But I do know three expressions of faithfulness that can help us navigate our way forward. First, we can repent. To repent means to change your mind. God-willing, the events of the last week have been a catalyst for repentance for the Church. Not only should we repent of our own complicity and silence, but we should repent on behalf of our country. Repentance is not the fruit of judgement, but rather the kindness of God (Romans 2:4). And in his kindness, God is offering us a chance to be more fully formed into the image of Jesus in learning to better love our neighbors of color. We should jump at the chance to receive it through repentance.
Second, we can listen. Our African American brothers and sisters have been crying out for generations. The collective witness of people of color in our country means that we have no excuse not to actively listen and educate ourselves about their experiences of racism and white supremacy in our country. In particular, I have found the witness of the Black Church to be a comfort and antidote to the cynicism I feel towards white evangelicalism. There are so, so, so many voices of life-giving witness to the way of Jesus in moments like this, and I believe wholeheartedly that following their lead is the way forward. Like this. And this. And this. And this. And this. And this. And this. And this.
And that’s just the beginning. Wherever you start, be committed to listening for the long haul.
And finally, we can act. Should we peacefully protest if we are able? Sure! But after the events we’re living through have passed, the disparities and injustices faced by African Americans will continue to be present unless we commit to continued, sustained action. We can support African-American led non-profits that tirelessly serve the needs of our city. We can work alongside schools like William Wells Brown to ensure kids have access to every resource they need to succeed. We can support needed policy change, on local and national levels, that dismantle the structures and narratives of racism and white supremacy among us. And we can do all of this without a “white-savior complex,” seeking to empower and come alongside the already-capable leaders and voices of color that have been doing kingdom work all along in our city.
To close, please know that as your pastor, I’m committed to continued learning and repenting. What I’ve said today isn’t a proud declaration that I’ve arrived, but rather the opposite. I see my ignorance, and I’m seeking to remedy it. What I’ve written is an imperfect but hopeful statement of our journey ahead, not the destination itself. So many of you have expressed a desire to act, and many of you already have – and have been doing so for years. I pray that together we might model the kind of steadfast, stubborn commitment to tangible love in our time – a community of restorers who are brave enough to dismantle what has been so we can build what can be.
Restoration, I love you. Take courage. Stand together. We have work to do.
Pastor, Restoration Church