“A divided church will never heal a broken nation,” the Hispanic minister said. Seated next to him, the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., affirmed: “The trauma has to be healed.”
As seen recently with incidents in Charlottesville and in St. Louis, racial tensions continue to divide America. This past week, Dr. Bernice King of The King Center in Atlanta discussed the state of race relations in an hour-long televised dialogue with two evangelical pastors.
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez hosted the talk with King and Mike Hayes, who recently moved to Washington, D.C. after leading a Dallas church for decades. The three sought out common ground, believing Christians must lead the way in racial healing and justice. “We still see the absence of the church on these issues,” said King.
She alluded to the Charlottesville riots on August 12, when a neo-Nazi activist drove his car into a crowd and killed one young woman. “I believe God allowed this season not only to position the church, but to wake up the church,” said King. “If we don’t take advantage of this hour, we’re going to be dismissed as irrelevant and unnecessary.”
Has History Been Ignored or Forgotten?
“A lot of people don’t remember that Dr. King was a pastor, first and foremost,” began Mike Hayes, who now leadsthe Center for National Renewal. “But the church didn’t really hear his message, so he went to Washington.”
The white pastor offered a unique view of the great civil rights leader, best known for leading the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. “Government embraced him,” Hayes continued. “They started changing laws, but you can’t force love.” Bernice King affirmed, “That’s right!” as the diverse crowd listened.
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Hayes spoke of how schools, corporations and the military were all integrated in the 1960s. But he pointed to a missing piece of the puzzle, as King joined in the dialogue. “We never really dealt with the issue of racism,” she said. “We kind of swept it under the rug after my father’s assassination.”
After speaking at a church in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down on April 3, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel. The site now serves as the National Civil Rights Museum, with the hotel preserved so visitors can memorialize that fateful day.
“The church was very silent during my father’s time and that was his number one issue,” said King. “What he called the ‘moderate white Christians’ were not getting involved in the struggle that he was in during the 50s and 60s.”
When Stats and Stories Reveal the Full Picture
Recent studies of evangelical churches back up these leaders’ concerns. LifeWay Research revealed that 86 percent of Protestant churches are predominantly of one racial group. The study also found that two thirds of Christians believe their church had done enough to reflect racial diversity.
The hour-long program produced by Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) includes short segments that illustrate how racism is still present in society today. A pastor related how cops often stop him solely because of his skin color. An investment banker in New York City tells how one client came to meet him after months working together. “This lady literally fainted,” he said, when she found a black man had been managing her money. Others recount similar recent stories.
“If you haven’t experienced all of this, it’s very difficult to really understand it. It takes a lot more time, work and listening.”
Asked why such attitudes persist, King answered, “If you haven’t experienced all of this, it’s very difficult to really understand it. It takes a lot more time, work and listening.”
Rodriguez, who heads up the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, empathized with her grief. “I thought I was going to see Dr. King’s dream be a reality in my generation,” he said. “Yet I find myself looking at my kids, having to explain to them that we’re back.”
He observed how people tend to stay isolated along political lines, when the church is called to transcend those labels. “The idea of being either-or is wrong and it’s not biblical,” the Hispanic minister said.
“The Cross is both vertical and horizontal,” Rodriguez began to preach. “It is both righteousness and justice, sanctification and service, holiness and humility, conviction and compassion! It is both Billy Graham and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! It is both-and.”
Becoming Agents of Healing
The three diverse leaders came to consensus, saying that fostering genuine love and respect across racial lines undergirded their efforts.
Hayes recounted how his understanding of race issues has expanded. Years ago, he had to confront racist family members. It led him to a realization, he said: “We have tens of thousands of Christians who are not haters, but they’re not yet healers.”
Having preached at his Dallas church, King recognized Hayes for being unafraid to address difficult topics. “It takes people like him multiplied to reach out to other white pastors,” she said. “What I’m hopeful about now more than ever is that more and more white people recognize the problem.”
“There’s never been an hour where we have a better opportunity as the Body of Christ to be the answer,”
She pointed to the Better Together initiative started by The King Center in April. Atlanta-area pastors who opt in are paired with a pastor of another race, to learn from each other’s experience.
“It’s more than just switching pulpits,” she said. “It’s a long thread and a long history [to understand.] You cannot separate slavery, the Jim Crow era and current racism… Our fuss is less about the hate, and more about the institutionalized racism. Before you can get your congregation there, you have to get there.”
Rodriguez praised a similar effort by two members of Congress. Senators Tim Scott (R-SC) and James Lankford (R-OK) have been promoting what they call “Solution Sundays” over the past year. “We challenge each family to give one Sunday lunch or dinner for building relationships across race, to literally be part of the solution in America,” the two Senators wrote in a joint op-ed last year.
The leaders see hope ahead. Mike Hayes noted many pastors in various Christian streams are starting to preach on race issues. “There’s never been an hour where we have a better opportunity as the Body of Christ to be the answer,” he concluded.