I never fully understood why young black Christians demanded their pastors address racial injustice. I thought, “What do you want them to say? What are you expecting them to say?” I never expected politics in the pulpit to be able to comfort the pain I buried, the fear I felt, and the grief I carried in my spirit. I never expected pastors to say anything that could dry my tears or restore my faith in the criminal justice system. I never thought I would hear a pastor utter the names of the black men murdered by police officers in cold blood and in plain sight, but today, what I thought I needed and what I thought I wanted and what I expected would come from that experience all changed.
I sat in a church that I had only visited once before. The pastor walked out and mentioned that he had many members from the St. Louis area. I knew then exactly where he was going. I prepared my heart and my ears for what would follow. I hardened like a solid rock that couldn’t be pierced or broken and I braced for his next words.
He said, “We need to pray for St. Louis.”
I thought, “Here we go again, another blanket statement without addressing any issues. Typical.”
He continued (and I paraphrase), “If you haven’t heard about the recent injustice, there was a man by the name of Anthony Lamar Smith who was killed a few years ago and yet again, despite the facts, the officer was acquitted. I’m not going to go over the details, you’ll need to look them up, but I want to pray for the family of Anthony Lamar Smith.”
The Baggage: What I carried into the church
As a TV news producer, I knew the details well. I remembered the Friday before when I began writing about the verdict in my newscast. It was one of the last scripts I chose to write because deep down I dreaded every moment of it. I remembered seeing video drop on our feeds of the chase that led up to Smith’s death. I remembered thinking, “I can’t do this. I won’t do this. I can’t do this again. I won’t watch another video of another black man being murdered. I won’t screen another video to see if a black man’s bloody body needs to be blurred. I can’t.”
The problem is: I knew it was my job. I knew that if I didn’t do it, someone else would and I couldn’t guarantee that they would write about both Stockley and Smith, remembering that they are BOTH human beings. I couldn’t guarantee that they would be fair and balanced and write solely about the facts, not their own opinion about the matter. Most importantly, I knew that I couldn’t deny the public the facts. I couldn’t turn a blind eye to what was happening in St. Louis, let alone the computer screen in front me so I did it. I pep talked myself, told myself that I could do it. I took a deep breath and I pushed play.
“What you’re about to see are the final moments of a man’s life,” the reporter said.
I braced for it: the sound of gunshots. I braced for the moment the officer could be overheard saying, “I’m going to kill this ***, don’t you know?” I hardened myself just as I did two days later in that seat at church. I reminded myself that it wasn’t about me, that it wasn’t about my own mental health, or fears, or pain.
“I want to pray for the family of Anthony Lamar Smith,” the pastor said.
Many in the crowd applauded. I nodded.
He continued, “I also want to pray for Jason Stockley.”
A smaller group applauded. I nodded again.
He went on (and I paraphrase), “Now, I don’t hear the same response for Stockley, but I believe that we need to pray for him as well and you should be just as eager to pray for both. We also need to pray for what’s happening in St. Louis.”
I softened slightly, but I remained hard, reminding myself that it was not about my own mental health, or fears, or pain.
He began to pray for the family of Anthony Lamar Smith. He then prayed that Jason Stockley would come to know the Lord and that he would be brought to a place of repentance. He prayed for St. Louis and then he prayed for us. He prayed that we would fight for justice in the right ways and that we would be angry, but not in an unrighteous way. He prayed that we would carry a righteous anger, one that seeks change. He prayed that we would not get comfortable with the sight and stories of black men being murdered. He prayed that it would always shock us.
Unpacking The Baggage
At some point, I found myself wiping tears from my eyes. I found myself emotional and unhardened. I found myself releasing the numbness I’d often forced myself to feel within the walls of my workplace. I allowed myself to realize that it was okay to believe that what happened was not okay and not fair and not what God desires.
However, these tears were different. I didn’t cry the same tears I cried following the death of Michael Brown. I didn’t feel the same fear I felt when a police officer murdered Philando Castile in front of his child. These tears were like tears of relief. These tears reminded me that before God, it CAN be about my mental health, my fears, my pain and my grief. They even reminded me that what makes me good at my job is the ability to value a person's life regardless of race, occupation and background. They reminded me that it is okay for me to feel and care and love… That it is okay for me to want justice AND hope that Jason Stockley will someday know Jesus Christ. I have always known that my pain will never touch the surface of what the families of these murder victims feel, but in that moment, my pain followed by those tears showed me why some young black Christians demand their pastors address racial injustice. It became so very clear to me that if we can’t talk about these things before God and use His word as a foundation for how we address such issues, then we truly are a lost generation. Who else are we supposed to unpack our burdens and heavy loads in front of if not God Himself?
As Christians, it is our job to fight for the weak and oppressed and love even our enemies, but it will become harder and harder for us to do that if we avoid the conversation. Can you imagine how many people in that church would have NEVER thought to pray for Stockley? Can you imagine how many of them had thoughts about him that were contrary to the Word of God, and yet called themselves Christians? Can you imagine how many white Christians have justified the murder of Smith? How many of them have spent years worshipping a flag, their guns and the National Anthem instead of really, truly getting to know Jesus and understanding His love and desire for people’s hearts regardless of race, criminal history and economic status? Can you imagine how many of these people go to church with us every week and think they are correct because even the church isn’t telling them otherwise?
Truth be told, I don’t really want to know the number, but I pray now that pastors won’t hide behind being politically correct. I pray that they will understand addressing these issues with Christ as the foundation is not only good, but necessary. I pray that they won’t even consider it politics, but that they will consider it their duty to make sure the hearts of God’s people are in the right place and that we are headed in the right direction. I pray that the church will not remain silent and stagnant on this issue, but that we will seek God's direction.
I also hope that as the pastor said, we will not become numb, but that we would carry a righteous anger, one that will seek change.
*Note: The pastor’s words are paraphrased (even though I put them in quotes). I was unpacking a lot within myself during service so what’s written doesn’t touch the surface of what he said and how he said it.