Just over a year ago, my wife, Kelly, and I visited Primm Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in South Seattle. Primm is less than a mile from our house. Our visit four days after the horrific shooting at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, was not accidental. I longed to do something – anything – to take a stand with my sisters and brothers in faith, to grieve with them and stand in solidarity. Not knowing what else to do, I simply went to be present.
The AME Church is a historically black church, formed in the midst of deep racial division, discrimination, and slavery in the early 1800s. The divisions between people with different skin tones split not only society but also the church. Still today, the AME Church provides a community gathering place and safe-haven for people of color. Although it is becoming more diverse, it is still a predominantly black church; the most recent PEW Research survey found that nationally, the AME Church is 94% black. On the other end of the spectrum, the Episcopal Church is 90% white.
When Kelly and I visited Primm AME that Sunday morning, for one of the few times in my life, I was very aware of the color of my skin as we walked into a community that was almost exclusively black. I wondered what a person of color experiences when they walk into St. Thomas. I was also aware that I could very well be viewed as a potential threat. Just four days earlier, a young white man walked into an AME church, was welcomed with grace and open arms, and then with immense racial hatred murdered nine innocent souls. Although I was present in solidarity, the community into which I walked knew nothing of my intentions or of me. Yet, they greeted us with the open arms I imagine the shooter in Charleston experienced.
Since that visit to Primm AME in June, I have developed a friendship with the pastor, the Rev. Mercedes Tudy-Hamilton. We meet every couple of weeks to share our lives and our ministries and to support one another as we minister in our communities. Over the course of our conversations, we both expressed a desire to connect the youth of our congregations, and we started to dream about ways for us all to step out of our places of comfort, strengthen our congregations through diversity of relationship, and learn from one another’s experience of life.
In December, a group of youth from Primm visited St. Thomas to worship with our community. The youth from Primm joined our youth for our annual Christmas party. In early January, youth from St. Thomas visited Primm to worship … in a service for which “lively” is not an adequate description. All of those experiences were intended to lead up to our January High School Youth Group meeting. On January 10, youth and adult leaders from Primm met with our high school youth for a very intentional, frank, and open discussion about race in our world. The stories, perceptions, and experiences that were shared by youth from both congregations were sobering and honest. When we ran out of time, we all felt like the conversation was just beginning; there is much more conversation to be had and work to be done. We don’t know what the next steps are, but we know that we need to do more.
To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t know what I am doing. I don’t know how to have these conversations. I am fearful of saying something offensive. And I suspect that I’m not alone. Our confusion and fears too often keep us from engaging in conversations about race. But we need to have these conversations, especially in church, where we commit in our Baptismal Covenant to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” These conversations are too important to not have.
Our hope is that the youth of St. Thomas and Primm AME will start a crucial conversation and that it will grow into our congregations. We hope there will be opportunities for our whole congregations to be in conversation and relationship. We don’t yet know what that will look like, but my hope and prayer is that the people of St. Thomas will be open to encounters across denominational, cultural, and racial lines. That is, after all, what the kingdom of God looks like.