Racism presents ‘different set of challenges’ today, pastor sayscomment (0)
February 7, 2013
By John L. Cantelow III
Let me preface this article by stating that I am not an expert on race relations in Birmingham or America for that matter. Neither am I someone who has the authority or who has done the research to speak for all African-Americans. I think that would be both presumptuous and misleading to the readers of this article. I am simply a pastor of one of the historic black churches in Birmingham, Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, where I formerly served as an associate under Dr. John T. Porter, who was my pastor and mentor. It was Dr. Porter, along with Dr. Harold Carter who now resides in Baltimore, who served as an assistant minister in the pulpit to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery. It was Dr. Porter who was installed by Dr. King as pastor of Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in 1962. And it was Dr. Porter who marched and was taken to jail along with Dr. Nelson Smith of New Pilgrim Baptist Church and Rev. A.D. King, Dr. Martin Luther King’s brother, during the Civil Rights struggle in Birmingham.
I am a beneficiary of that centuries-long struggle for equal rights in this city and country, for which many people of different ethnic groups and Christian denominations suffered, fought, bled and died. The stories of my grandparents, parents, neighbors and church members who lived during that time — my maternal grandmother (now deceased) was born in 1902 — and the lessons they learned were passed on to me as a means of survival and wisdom. I say that because racism and its effects don’t cease when a law is passed, but it is an organic thing that lives on in the minds, the bodies and the souls of the people who experienced it. They, in turn, share those memories and lessons to the succeeding generation. I was born in 1969, and though the struggle continues, I believe my generation is faced with a different set of challenges.
Although my mindset was shaped by my grandparents, parents and community, which includes the church, I never experienced the sting of racial inequality like they did. My children, I hope, will experience it even less than I have. Only a couple of times in my life has a white man or group of white men yelled out the “n” word to me and that was more than two decades ago. To date, my children have never experienced that. Also, as it relates to the term race, even though we commonly understand its meaning, I believe our use of it is outdated. In Acts 17:26 (NKJV) Paul said, “And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings.” This indicates that all of us are a part of the human “race” which is made up of different ethnic groups and nationalities. Africans, Europeans, Asians and mixtures of the same are all part of the human race. This acknowledgment may help us in how we view our cosmetic differences.
Shortly after I returned to Birmingham 16 months ago, I witnessed something that still stands out to me. I was driving through a neighborhood in Hoover and saw a large group of children of just about every ethnic group playing football in someone’s front yard. Honestly, I had never seen that before. I saw blacks, whites, Indians and maybe Hispanics and Asians just doing what kids do — having a good time. Admittedly I was shocked because I grew up in an all-black neighborhood in the city of Birmingham. It is not that I had never seen children of different ethnic groups playing together — I had seen that at school. But I had not witnessed it on that level in the neighborhoods of our city or in the metropolitan areas. How long the neighborhood will stay that way is anyone’s guess. But that stood out to me as a sign of progress and inclusion.
- The fact that people of different skin tones are no longer forcibly segregated by law is a sign of progress.
- The fact that an environment of apartheid is a thing of the past is a sign of progress.
- The fact that a particular group of people no longer has to live in fear of being robbed of their human dignity at a moment’s notice by the capriciousness of a member or members of the majority is a sign of progress.
- The fact that blacks and whites play on the same athletic teams and attend the same universities is a sign of progress. In some cases, they sit on the same boards and attend the same educational, political and corporate functions.
To my ancestors this would be nothing short of a miracle. It is a miracle that most of them would attribute to the grace and mercy of God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ.
Many of them prayed for and sang songs of deliverance.
Many of them by faith looked forward to the day when the lash of the whip and the chains of iron and the tearing apart of their family units would be a distant memory.
Many of them believed that God was with them and their suffering would come to an end for their children’s sake.
Like Hebrews 11:13 (NKJV) says, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” Now I am fully aware that this verse of Scripture is referring to the Old Testament patriarchs and elders of the Hebrew faith, but the quality of faith that this verse speaks of refers to what some of my ancestors — to what some of our ancestors — also possessed.
With such a checkered history of how blacks and other ethnic groups have been treated in this country, should we not all, at some point, applaud the election of President Barack Obama?
Regardless of political affiliation should we not all recognize and celebrate that such a moment has become a reality in American history?
It is now a fact that someone other than a white male can be elected to lead our country. This is not a slight to those who have previously served this country as president with dignity, courage and wisdom, but I honestly thought I would never see such a thing in my lifetime. It was not something to which I believed my son could have aspired.
But beyond a shadow of a doubt what happened in 2008 and 2012 also speaks of progress and inclusion. I believe the church of the Lord Jesus Christ should always be the first to recognize and celebrate the tearing down of strongholds that have devalued people.
But along with the presidential election, Southern Baptists and Christians of all denominations should applaud and celebrate the election of Dr. Fred Luter Jr., who is the first black president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
I only wish the people of God who are Baptists could have achieved this before it happened on the secular level. I firmly believe that those things that make for peace and reconciliation and demonstrate the goodness and the inclusiveness and the power of God should be exhibited first by believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.
There are still quite a few areas where separation exists among the people of God as well as the culture and country in which we live. Most churches are still segregated along the color line. The same can be said of many neighborhoods and schools, although economics play a role in this as well. The city of Birmingham is a prime example of this.
And the segregation of which I now speak is not a forced segregation, but it is one that has occurred by choice. Even the way we vote has a tendency to be divided along the color line.
This very human drama is possibly something that will be played out until the Lord returns. Only He can change minds and hearts. Only the Lord can bring about the unity among His people that so many — black, white, red, yellow and brown — long to see and experience.
Nevertheless I believe Christians need to lead the way in proclaiming and living out the gospel. I believe it is imperative for us to be prudent in how we respond to the issues our country faces. Jesus once said to His disciples in Matthew 10:16 (NKJV), “Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”
We are not here to condemn as Jesus said in John 3:17, but we are here to teach and help and pray for the people around us. There is a better way of living that has yet to be fully tried and tapped into. That way is the Lord Jesus Christ. Once we drink fully from the fountain that flows from His throne, and once others taste and see that He is good, then what once appealed to them and us will no longer hold our attention or allegiance.
Let us challenge our church and our culture to seek a better way. Let us lead the way in building bridges that bring people together. Isn’t that what the Lord did for us? Let us take advantage of social media and talk about family and community and forgiveness and courage and tolerance and truth. I don’t believe anyone can speak to the issues this country faces like the church can.
Whether the issue is equality and justice among people or whether it is how each person, regardless of skin tone, should treat one another, the church is uniquely suited by the grace and power of God to speak the truth in such a way that people are drawn to the gospel and not away from it.