Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.
Almost 50 years ago, a Baptist minister stood before a sea of hopeful people in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial to share the dream God had given him.
On that day, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
Regrettably, King’s dream remains unrealized in many communities across America.
Rather than diminishing with the gains of the civil rights movement, alienation and inequality between races and classes are more prevalent in American society today than it was in 1975.
Black and white, rich and poor, educated and unskilled – these represent some of the groups at odds in today’s American communities.
King recognized that churches have a role to play in tearing down barriers and in building bridges to that vision he called “the beloved community.”
“The end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community,” King said. In the beloved community, persons and groups are reconciled to one another by God’s “divine love in lived social relation.”
The Apostle Paul affirmed the church’s mission as one of reconciliation. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18).
While many churches understand reconciliation primarily as a “private affair between God and the individual,” less emphasis has been placed on reconciliation between persons and groups within local communities.
Reconciliation, according to the Ubuntu theology of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is “bringing together that which is separated, alienated, ruptured, sick or broken.” Reconciliation, Tutu argues, is the ministry of the church and the “center of our life and work as Christians.”
In communities throughout the United States, there is much that needs to be reconciled.
In my state, Virginia’s history boasts both the grand and glorious, and the dark and ignominious.
From the colonial era through the Civil War, Virginia’s slave trade was robust. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – words penned by Virginian Thomas Jefferson – did not apply to Africans brought in chains involuntarily to the South.
The lingering effects of slavery, and the living descendants of slaves and slave owners, make it impossible for those in our community to escape easily the injustices of the past.
Reconciliation has also been defined as “a journey from the past into the future, a journey from estrangement to communion, or from what was patently unjust in search of a future that is just.”
Given Virginia’s colonial history, its role in the Civil War, and its resistance to desegregation, reconciliation must revisit the past with honesty, and then forge a new way forward.
In December 2005, our small, historic white congregation opened its doors to host a Boys and Girls Club, the first after-school club in our county.
As a result of that decision, dozens of children, black and white, descended on the church fellowship hall each weekday afternoon. This was the church’s first experience hosting a racially integrated program.
Because of the church’s involvement with the Boys and Girls Club, Chatham Baptist Church was asked to host the 2008 Martin Luther King Day celebration in Chatham.
At the conclusion of the program that day, the African-American pastor who moderated the meeting asked everyone in the congregation to stand, join hands and sing “We Shall Overcome.”
Before we began to sing, he looked at me as I stood at the front of the sanctuary. He said, “Pastor, people notice what you’re doing here.”
His words of encouragement confirmed what I had hoped for: reconciliation was possible in our community.
Some might argue that the alienation brought about by slavery, Jim Crow laws and segregation is a forgotten chapter in a long dead past. Douglas Massey, however, argues against that notion:
“History aside, there are also good social scientific reasons to expect that categorical mechanisms of racial stratification will prove resistant to change. We know, for example, that once learned, cognitive structures do not simply disappear. Racial schemas honed over generations tend to persist in the minds of adults and get passed on to children in conscious and unconscious ways.”
The story that is passed on to the children of any community is important.
For too long the children of our nation in both the South and the North have been bequeathed the cultural legacy of prejudice and privilege, of difference and discrimination.
For that to change, churches like mine must imagine and bequeath a new legacy through a ministry of reconciliation.
That would be a new story for this community, and one worth passing on to future generations everywhere.
Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Virginia.