AIDS, homelessness, wars fought at a distance and quickly, famine in far-off countries, marriages, deaths, cocaine addiction and alcoholism, divorce, youth struggling with coming of age, sickness. These were the issues that I thought would make up my ministry when I was in seminary in the early 1990s. The first funeral I conducted while I was still a student was for a woman who’d died of AIDS. I’d worked with “at risk” youth in public housing as a volunteer and then on staff at a Boys and Girls Club. Peers in college had dabbled in drugs like marijuana and cocaine; one was in AA by her junior year.
My classmates and I watched Operation Desert Storm unfold like a video game on CNN, and not two months later decisive victory and a cease-fire was declared. Perhaps all that angst wasn’t warranted after all. Wars like Vietnam and World War II were a thing of the past given this new technological age. This assumption, like so many others, has proven to be wrong.
The AIDS epidemic is not headline news anymore, even as it still rages in parts of the world and in parts of our country. Heroin and meth have outpaced the scourge of cocaine, and marijuana is legal in some states.
Weddings, funerals, divorce, homelessness and all manner of poverty did, and do, compose much of the landscape of my ministry. But there was one issue I did not, in my naiveté, see coming.
In recent weeks, I have been meeting with a group of area pastors to plan a response to a series of rallies coming to the university town of Charlottesville, Virginia. A branch of the KKK has requested and been granted a permit to gather in a few weeks. Another, likely larger, gathering of the grassroots organization Unity and Security for America is being planned for August 12. Also this summer, the Virginia Flaggers will come to town. According to their blog, they “stand with our flags against those in opposition in a peaceful, yet forceful manner, to educate and inform the general public and in open and visible protest against those who have attacked us, our flags, our ancestors, or our heritage.” The flag to which they are referring is the Confederate one.
I did not in my wildest pastoral imagination consider that in 2017 my ministry would be consumed with matters related to the KKK and the Confederate flag. Opposing systematic racism? Yes, I knew that would be part of God’s work of justice. Blatant hate and white supremacy? I did not see that coming.
The African-American residents of Charlottesville haven’t had the luxury of my ignorance. Some have expressed weariness rather than shock. There is a “here we go again” quality to their comments. One man, a local African-American farmer, said that his main worry isn’t about the outright alt-right and their ilk, as much as it is the self-proclaimed white liberals who call the cops when he drives in their neighborhoods to deliver produce. In a post that went viral he wrote under an image of Flaggers at Lee Park: “Truth is, as a black dude, I’m far less bothered by the flag wavers in this picture than this town’s progressives assuming its race problem has nothing to do with them. The former is a visual inconvenience. The latter could leave my daughters without a father.”
While it may be weakly defensible for me to be shocked by the visible reemergence of the KKK and their close kin, it is absolutely indefensible for me to assume that this town’s and this country’s race problem has nothing to do with me. People chanting “blood and soil” or those wearing white hoods are obvious manifestations of much deeper and more pervasive racism. Standing against vitriolic public displays of hate is a requirement of my faith, but so is the harder work of taking the log out of my own eye.
Of all the activities, issues and people I thought would take up my pastoral energy, I did not envision torch-bearing white supremacists among them. I did not see such evil coming because I’ve had a log in my own eye and these deeply disturbing events have forced me to stop pretending it isn’t there.
Grace and peace,