Dear Former Self,
Your non-threatening demeanor and disposition created great opportunities for you in White Evangelical churches. They loved that you could sing and play guitar with just enough soul to give them credit for hiring a POC, but not so much that it was uncomfortable for the majority white audience that sat in the seats. You learned so much as a man and a leader because of the spaces you led in.
When you worked at churches, you and the white folks that hired you, celebrated what it meant to have a black man leading within the church. You thought that the optics were important. After all, diversity is the buzzword of the modern church. They all knew that black skin added value to the church daily requiring zero effort. You are black, and every day you went to work, you were doing a huge part of your job. Up top! That’s a hustle! It opened the door for you to work for churches and provide a decent living for the family. You did what you had to do.
Everything was great! You laughed at the same cliche black jokes. “You’re the token black.” “We figured you’d be late.” “Is that your girl’s real hair?” All cannon fodder for humor that the white folks and you thought would help you relate to each other. You even initiated some of the fun to try and amuse your colleagues with your wit and self-deprecation. You kind of thought you were subtly reinforcing the authentic biases that lied beneath the surface of that humor, but also thought they were just jokes. You thought laughing and making those jokes helped you fit in, and for some of them, I agreed. For others, I believed you were complicit in the defamation of our blackness. I felt like our ancestors were somehow disrespected, but you never wanted to think about that too much. You didn’t feel like we could object without becoming a problem for our white partners in ministry. I wasn’t sure, but I went along with the plan. However, humor wasn’t the only area where you didn’t feel we could object.
I remember how many times they used you to do their dirty work. You were asked to have tough conversations with black volunteers or board members about things the white leaders you worked for were too scared to talk about themselves. You found a way to justify their neocolonialism and jumped into a fight that didn’t belong to you to keep your job. Once I started to come alive, I felt uneasy with a lot of what was said and done, but you never wanted anyone to know I was at work with you. You felt like I was the angry side that no one needed to see. How about the time the pastor snapped at you in a room full of people with a tone only your mom and dad had used towards you? I was ready to educate him, but you held me back. You tried to convince me that there was a greater good in being quiet. You felt like you needed to keep a good relationship with the white men who lead you. You believed that your black skin with a leaders salary and title was a giant step for them, and neither of us wanted to put the wife and kids in jeopardy. As examples of racism in culture became more vivid, I could no longer hold my peace, but you still had a job. We agreed I’d be quiet work as long as I got to speak my mind in public through social media and other public forums.
I think we both recognized that what happened to Alton Sterling and Philando Castille was heartbreaking. I don’t remember which one of us wept most about what happened, but I do remember it was becoming harder and harder to not see privilege, systemic racism, and bias all around us. But, again, we still had to feed the family. It was emotionally taxing for both of us to suppress feelings of anxiety, anger, disappointment, and frustration for fear of playing the “black card.” Maybe that anxiety is why it was so important that I find an outlet for my truth.
I started to speak up about injustice. I used #blacklivesmatter on social media. Then I realized just how many people had never met me before. How many “I didn’t know you were so black” comments did you get? You laughed. I snarled. You didn’t want to be labeled, miss out on opportunities, or lose your job. I wanted to tell the truth, and I was growing more and more dissatisfied with holding my tongue in the face of systemic racist structures. You believed there was no place for a “pro-black” message within the gospel. I wasn’t sure either. After all, neither of us had heard very many sermons about racial justice. We had only heard that we are all one race, and encouraged not to see color.
Even in the absence of theology, I felt I had to speak up. Eventually, we found common ground in theology, and everything changed.
You were no longer the godly version and I the angry black version. We found that the New Testament is full of language that encourages diversity and unity. Jesus and Paul both warned about supremacy. Injustice has always been something God opposes, and it’s always been an evil that humans shouldn’t tolerate. Justice is not a curse word, but a word that can just as easily be substituted for righteousness. In our theological wrestling, we found our voice. The duplicity we thought we needed to keep the peace is now a burden to us. It was cumbersome to try and be two different people. You had to learn to accept me and trust that I wasn’t an evil to despise, but truth to embrace. The world needed me to speak out about injustices as much as it needed you to sing Well Done.
I wish I could tell you that you were wrong about the white folks you were afraid would reject you if they ever met me. You weren’t. Many of those people you were worried about have bailed. You have lost some friends, and some people who once seemed to be fond of you don’t reach out anymore, but life is lived better from a sense of genuine self than from a safe place of oppressed apprehension.
I use my voice freely now. I write about justice, faith, and culture, and I bear witness to the black experience. I’m contending for a better world, and there are quite a few white leaders who have embraced the message and me. There is opposition and people mislabeling this gospel as political rhetoric, but I live in the peace that comes from knowing that God is with me.