‘You can’t reconcile a nation that’s never been equal.’ Three black pastors reflect on this moment.
We’re living through a historic time. On the heels of a devastating coronavirus pandemic that left over 100,000 Americans dead and 25% of Americans without a job, racist episodes started to hit our newsfeeds. We watched as Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man jogging near his home, was hunted down and lynched by his neighbors. We read about Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician, who was murdered in her home by police. And we watched as Derek Chauvin kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine interminable minutes. As the life drained out of him, Floyd begged for his life and called for his mother.
I wondered what this moment, and the immense and inspiring protests it has catalyzed, meant to young pastors in black communities across America. On Friday, I spoke to Pastor Derrick Hawkins from The Refuge in North Carolina; Pastor Leaundrae Bumpus, the founding pastor of Saving Station International Ministries in Mississippi; and Pastor Alex Williams from the Institutional International Ministries in Brooklyn. All three are millennials with big social media followings, and they have all made efforts at racially integrating their congregations, rejecting the propensity Americans have always had of segregated worship.
Each of the three pastors stressed different things about this moment. For Pastor Hawkins, the focus is the role of the church in fighting racism. Pastor Williams finds himself bridging the gap between the New York Police Department and his community. And for Pastor Bumpus, it was all about repentance. Here is a condensed transcript of our conversation.
Batya Ungar-Sargon: What does racial integration in church mean to each of you?
Pastor Bumpus: Hatred, racism, all of that is a learned behavior. It has to be taught.
When it comes to pastoring, when God sees us, he doesn’t see the color of our skin; He looks at the intent of our hearts. For me, is it is important that the next generation, even my generation, understand the importance of worshiping together. At end of the day, when we return to Him, there ain’t gonna be no color of skin there anyway.
It’s important to me to bridge that gap, so even though my grandfather and my friend Mark’s grandfather did not play together, me and Mark played together and then my children and Mark’s children play together, and pray together.
Pastor Williams: Martin Luther King said that the most segregated place in America is Sunday morning in church. I have to make this clear, though: Our goal is racial integration, not racial assimilation. It is my goal and my desire to unite believers as the kingdom of God, being all God’s children, but not to lose the essence of who you are. I hear so many people say things like — and this is no offense — I’ve heard several of my white friends say, “I don’t see color.” And yes, we are all God’s children, and this is not combating what my brother Bumpus is saying, but I think that being able to celebrate differences is important as well. That’s what makes New York special: the fact that you have different areas and different types of people.
Pastor Hawkins: Integration has always been slow and it’s 25, 35 years behind in the church. For me, integration is not me being a part of your staff or me being a part of your church, but my ethnicity being appreciated inside of the church, meaning that my culture is appreciated, that we do come together, it’s a melting pot instead of one demographic still overpowering the next demographic.
I want my children to be exposed to other races and cultures, but also still to appreciate and value their blackness. Their blackness is important because their blackness is what makes them different and unique. But at the same time, it still is something that can be threatening to white people who don’t look like them.
So what I’m fighting for is that we can be a picture of us celebrating our own race, but also appreciating that God is not looking at us based upon our race, even though people are.
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BUS: It sounds like there’s a difference emerging between Pastor Hawkins and Pastor Williams on the one hand, and Pastor Bumpus on the other hand, about whether a society should be colorblind or whether it should be celebrating difference. I wonder if, segueing from that, can you talk about the physical, spiritual, and emotional pressure of being a black man and a leader at this moment? Pastor Hawkins?
Pastor Hawkins: You’ve heard the saying that when white people catch a cold, black and brown people get pneumonia. I just led a church through a tornado, turned away from a tornado and went through a pandemic, then went from a pandemic to systematic racism and injustices throughout our country. Man, it’s absolutely devastating. We’re not afforded the same opportunities of people of non-color.
We’re in New York, North Carolina, and Mississippi and we face systemic racism every day that we get up out of bed. It’s a challenge to breathe, whether it is our churches because most African Americans struggle with getting the same funding that white churches have got through the pandemic crisis —
Pastor Bumpus: Oh, you’re gonna go there?
Pastor Hawkins: Yeah, I’m about to go there.
Pastor Bumpus: Go there! Go. There. We’re discriminated against even when it comes to PPPs! I’m sorry to interrupt you, brother.
Pastor Hawkins: No, no, no. That’s good. You hear that? It’s anger. It’s anger because we see George Floyd, we see Ahmaud Arbery, we hear Breonna Taylor’s name, and yeah, we are angry at those murders, but we’re more angry that there’s been murders that have happened before that have never been dealt with, people not being prosecuted. And we’re also angry because you don’t need a KKK right now. You really don’t need a mask, because right now people are hiding behind systems that have been created to keep black and brown people away from the opportunities that white people get.
Pastor Williams: On Monday I was at a press conference because I’m the clergy liaison of the 80th precinct. And people are literally heckling me. I’m getting messages saying, “You’re on the wrong side,” because I work very closely with the police department. Our captain and our current commanding officers are proud black men. The captain before was a proud black woman. And I know that of course, in every department you have police officers who are corrupt, but the ones that I work with are good brothers and sisters. And then I go from that on Monday to a peaceful protest on Tuesday. I try to be the bridge.
But if I take my collar off and put a fitted on, or put a hoodie on, I’m not looked at as Pastor Alex. I’m a 30-plus year old black man. So that struggle, that balance as a faith leader and as a black man and as a community activist who is also working as a liaison, it’s a juggle. But at the same time, I believe that God will grace you and God has been gracing myself and my brothers to really navigate these waters.
Pastor Bumpus: What I’ve been feeling is helplessness. Because nobody has the answers. You can call your pastor, but your pastor’s like, “Hmm, just keep on praying.” All of us have been in a position where we somewhat feel like, “OK, God, where are you in this?” Eighty-seven percent of our church is 22-45 years old, so some of them are a little hostile. Some of them want to go out and destroy things and clown with people. It’s being a mediator, being like, “Hold on, chill out. Protest another way.”
I had a whole meltdown the other day because my 9-year-old son saw on CNN what happened to brother Floyd. And he asked me a question and I didn’t know how to respond to him. I’ve never had a more hurtful feeling than to have my son look to me for guidance, ask me a question and I don’t have the response. He asked me, “Why did they do that to that man? Why was he calling for his mama like that?”
It’s difficult to make sure that you keep peace when you’re angry. It’s a mix of emotions.
Pastor Hawkins: I’m going to take a turn to the state of the church in this. I’m a member of staff for a predominately white church in the Bible Belt. And it’s been challenging for me. I’m grateful that my church and my pastor stepped up to be more vocal about racism in our country. But for centuries, the evangelical church minimized racism and the effects of racism and systemic issues. We can stand on the front lines for abortion, we can stand on the front lines for poverty, but we’ve never been out there in the same way for racism. Never until now.
I don’t know what was so different about this public lynching that we all experienced for eight minutes and 46 seconds that it just erupted. I don’t know if it was a mix of the pandemic, people being stuck in their homes for two or three months or people not having money, a job, whatever it was, but something grabbed the attention of the nation and for the first time, we actually had white pastors take a stance with us — prominent voices stepping up and saying, this is wrong, racism is wrong. For the first time, I’ve seen pastors saying Black Lives Matter, and not All Lives Matter.
My sons are 11 and nine. They have been afraid to go outside. They are asking questions like, “Daddy, what’s going on?” I’m having to lead through all of that and still be vocal, on the forefront, not wanting to say the wrong thing to offend the white church, not wanting to say the wrong thing to offend the black church. But then at the same time, I’m cringing because I’m hurting and I’m sad.
BUS: I’m wondering, Pastor Bumpus, are you also seeing in Mississippi support from the white community or recognition of racism?
Pastor Bumpus: [long pause] God bless. Put that in writing: “There was a pause.” What we’ve got to understand is that some things, in some areas, they don’t change as fast. And even though I may be a progressive leader, this city and this state is still about 30 years behind. I have some Caucasian friends, and they spoke up, but they did not stand up in their pulpit and they did not say it then. If you’re not saying it to the people you lead who follow behind you, you might as well say nothing.
I love Hawkins and I love Williams, and I’m not saying they are not experiencing anything, but what we experience in the dirty dirty dirty South — make sure you put it like that — “dirty dirty dirty South” — it’s not what you all experience. Yes, you experience racism. But it’s different.
Pastor Williams: The major thing is the fact that we all experience it in different ways. So whether it be more overt in the South or whether it be with red lining up here in New York, the way neighborhoods are drawn, the way people are kind of kicked out of neighborhoods. We all kind of face it in different ways.
What’s common amongst us is that we are fighting through being black, striving to be progressive, striving to be an example, but also relating to the people in our congregation. We just saw three murders of black people back to back. There’s Covid. We are burying our black grandparents and mothers and fathers at a disproportionate rate than our white counterparts. And there’s people in our church who don’t have health care.
How do we make systemic changes? OK, we reform police in the way they deal with African Americans. But how do we change access to health care? How do we change the funding that go into our schools?
Pastor Hawkins: You can’t reconcile a nation that’s never been equal, that’s never walked in unity, without there being some admission that there’s an issue. Black people were considered the lowest animals, considered as monkeys. We have to admit, we have to take ownership that there’s something wrong with our country, that there’s a sickness. The nation is sick and the earth is groaning. You’re not giving us a chance to get back in a race that we were already losing.
BUS: What is the role of the church at this moment?
Pastor Hawkins: The role of the church should be to be on the forefront and to lead, not to be passive, not to be dismissive. And we have to lead with the wisdom that comes in the Holy Spirit.
Number two, the church’s role is to protect unity. We cannot be covered by the blood together if our innocent blood is being shed on the streets and we don’t speak up about it. The role of the church is to be the voice. We are the ones who should be crying out in the wilderness like John the Baptist, like the revelation that was given. We have to be the ones preparing the way for the coming of Christ, and God is coming back for a church without a spot; he’s coming back for a unified church, not a divided church.
The issue is that the church has not stepped up into its rightful place as being the catalyst for change and revival.
BUS: What would it take for America to heal at this point?
Pastor Bumpus: Repentance and God.
BUS: So you feel that that the racism and the police brutality, that all of this stems from a lack of spirituality, a lack of belief?
Pastor Bumpus: I don’t know that it’s about belief. Once there has been repentance, whether are you are a Democrat or a Republican, whether you are black or whether you are white, we will come together for the common cause of righteousness, which will make us do what is right. But first we need to repent. And we need to ask God to heal us.
BUS: Let me just clarify something: To many of us it seems like the problem is racist white people and the victims are black people.
Pastor Bumpus: It’s just America, period. When I say repentance, I’m not talking about color. I’m just talking about as a country, we need to repent. We need to repent from the White House; this is the land of the free, but we’ve literally caged up children and Hispanic people, and we didn’t give them an opportunity to come here and dream and believe. We need to repent. We’ve got to think about how would Christ treat people.
BUS: But surely you and your racist neighbors have different levels of repentance to do, no?
Pastor Bumpus: No, no, no, no, no. Sin is sin. All of us have to repent. Every day I wake up, I repent. Every day I ask God to forgive me for stuff I don’t even know I’ve done. We all have to be in a state of repentance, and we need to get the country in a state of repentance.
Pastor Williams: The reason why there’s a lack of repentance is that there’s a lack of acknowledgement. Before there can be repentance, there has to be an acknowledgement of the sin. You have to acknowledge 400 years of sin. You have to confess that there’s an inequality in our school system. You have to confess that there is an issue with healthcare in our country. Once you acknowledge, then you can repent.
Pastor Hawkins: If we’re talking Scripture, David didn’t even acknowledge his sin until Nathan called his sin out. Sometimes there has to be voices to acknowledge that there’s sin before it’s called out. Our whole country has to come back to obedience to the heart of God. To the face of God. And be led by the spirit of God. What the church has to do is to acknowledge that we have played our part in dividing our country with religion.
Derrick Hawkins is a pastor at The Refuge in North Carolina. Leaundrae Bumpus is the founding pastor of Saving Station International Ministries in Mississippi. Alex Williams is a pastor at the Institutional International Ministries in Brooklyn. Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.