Updated: Aug 14
One night years ago in a Baptist church where I was serving as the pastoral intern for youth, a few adult volunteers and I had put together an overnight event called Disciple Now. As we sat around a table awaiting the arrival of 20 or so teenagers who would be in our care for the next 18 hours, we paused in our anxiousness and prayed together. The person who led the prayer started it with four words that gave me assurance that night and these many years later: “God, you are here.”
Last night at a public event that brought nearly 80 people together from Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, The Brazos Valley African American Museum, North Bryan New Birth Baptist Church, the Episcopal Health Foundation, and Friends Congregational Church, I heard a pronouncement that expanded on that prayer with continued assurance and forthright conviction: “God is here. God’s people are here. God’s work is here.”
The person who spoke that prayerful pronouncement was Constance Perry. She and her spouse Dain Perry were co-facilitating a presentation and discussion on a documentary called Trades of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, in which the filmmaker discovers that her New England ancestors were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. The filmmaker and nine of her cousins, including Dain, retrace the Triangle Trade and gain powerful perspectives on the racial divide in America, and on the profound effects that structural, cultural, and individual racism had and have on minority populations and our broader communities. Dain stated that “until we talk about the issue of race and racism, and until we learn how it came about in this country and how it is affecting people today in such terribly negative ways, we’ll never succeed in overcoming racism. Knowing our history is critical in how we move forward.” And then, before the film began playing, Constance spoke that powerful truth: “God is here. God’s people are here. God’s work is here.”
When the film was over and the lights came back on, our co-facilitators instructed us to take a few seconds of silence and to find one word capturing the emotions we were feeling in that moment. We were then invited to say that word out loud: “Frustrated.” “Confused.” “Hopeful.” “Angry.” “Helpless.” “Peace.”
It was moving to hear the cadre of reactions to the film and the emotions it churned in each of us across our differences in age, race, and cultural backgrounds. What happened next was even more moving. Constance and Dain invited us to stand and speak into a microphone for everyone in the room to hear, to repeat the word we chose, and to “tell our story.” It was an opportunity for us to say something—anything—that was on our head and heart about not only the feelings evoked by the film, but the experiences of and testimonies about racism in our lives; because, as the co-facilitators, who are an interracial couple, pointed out, racism affects all of us no matter our skin color, but in different ways.
A white retired school teacher of 30 years voiced her frustration over slavery being taught less and less to young people who have a dwindling understanding of that reality in our country’s recent past. A Black alumnus of Texas A&M with a niece currently pursuing a PhD through the university voiced his despair at the fact that the enrollment of Black students at TAMU 41 years ago was three percent, which his niece informs him is the same percentage now. Through tears, a white mother of two children voiced her sadness about two Black children who, the film explained, had been taken away from their mother and sold into slavery: “I feel helpless at the thought of my kids being taken away from me like that.” A Black pastor voiced his yearning for equality after being denied a loan to refinance his church’s mortgage with no clear reason cited by the banker, while that same banker then granted a loan and a hearty handshake to a white farmer without question: “Walk a mile in my shoes and you’ll understand why we must say, ‘Black lives matter,’ and not, ‘All lives matter.’” No one tried to one-up each other. No one pointed any fingers at each other. Everyone spoke honestly from the heart. There was powerful vulnerability in that space that is needlessly impossible to find in the polarized spaces we occupy every day, spaces designed by racism that has yet to be recognized and then reconciled if peace is ever to encompass and unite us all.
“God is here. God’s people are here. God’s work is here,” she said. That was revealed to me in part over twenty years ago on the cusp of a youth event that sought to transform teenagers’ lives in some small way for the better. It was revealed to me more fully last night in a civic center filled with people from various backgrounds whose loving kindness, courageous honesty, and powerful vulnerability made that space feel like a sanctuary. I am encouraged that the places I will be called into and the people I might come into contact with this day will be accompanied by God’s presence, and that the work placed before us to be honest about the past, intentional about the present, and hopeful in building an equal, equitable, peaceful future will be shared and not shied away from. If God is for us, who can be against us? So, why be afraid to face the reality of racism? If we don’t do that—all of us—we’ll never succeed in overcoming it.
God is here. God’s people are here. God’s work is here. Be assured, be convicted, and do not be afraid. You are not alone.