Dismantling Racism:
Tear Down Every Wall

May 20, 2018
Pentecost Sunday

Scripture Lesson: Acts 2:1-8, 12-21
Pastor Jeff Wells

     What a fantastic story we heard in the scripture lesson Lina read for us. And, what beautiful and powerful movement our dancer offered up! Let’s applaud our dancers again.
So let me provide just a bit more context for this lesson. After Jesus’ death and resurrection and right before the events of the Feast of Pentecost, he appeared to his disciples and talked to them concerning the kingdom of God. He told them to stay in Jerusalem and said, “Wait for what God promised: the promise you heard from me. John baptized in water; you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit. And soon… And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.”

     Jesus’ disciples – men and women – were together, eating, praying, waiting a sign from God. At that amazing moment, “there was a sound like a strong wind, a gale-force wind” – and it was so loud and unusual that a great crowd ran to see what was happening. There were dozens, maybe hundreds, from among the thousands of Jews and and others who were in Jerusalem for the Feast. Just as suddenly, “like a wildfire,” or maybe like a tornado, the Holy Spirit touched down and spread through the ranks of the disciples, and they started speaking in different languages they had not been taught. They witnessed to this large gathering of people of many nations, colors, cultures, and languages. They were women and men, wealthy and poor – rulers, overseers, peasants, shepherds, and day laborers. They included the devout and the not so devout. But here in this extraordinary moment, they could hear and understand these Galileans who seemed to be speaking in all of their own languages. And maybe they could even hear and understand one another. You see, the Holy Spirit had broken down the barriers of language and the walls of ethnic suspicion and animosity that separated the people who gathered. In that amazing event, the Spirit had opened up these very diverse people to one another’s humanity. For that brief time at least, the walls between them had come down. God had broken down the walls. Surely, this was a kin-dom moment.

     Jesus has shown us the way to break down the walls. I believe that Christ has broken down every wall that keeps us separated from one another, and calls us to learn what it means to live into that truth. Here is how my friend, Mark Miller, put it:

Christ has broken down the wall,
Christ has broken down the wall.
Let us join our hearts as one,
Christ has broken down the wall.

Now, today, we are talking about a very big wall. The wall of racism and white supremacy has been constructed and reinforced over a very long time. It is a high wall and sometimes feels impenetrable. God’s call on us to dismantle that wall – to see and live into God’s vision of love and justice – that call can sometimes feel impossible. That wall can look insurmountable. What we see and experience of this wall in the world around us and for so many of us in our own daily lives, can lead us to despair.

     I was born in 1957, less than two years after the Montgomery bus boycott initiated the mass movement for civil rights. Over the course of my life, I have witnessed and been an active participant in many struggles and efforts to resist and dismantle racism. I have often felt like the cause of freedom and equality is continually going two steps forward and one step back – and, yes, sometimes, even one step forward and two steps back. And yet I have persisted. I have persisted because I know God calls me – calls us to persist. We must persist, because lives are at stake. Children are at stake. Families are at stake. The well-being, thriving, and abundant life of whole peoples are at stake. I would even say the future of humanity is at stake.

We have had a very rich, deep, and challenging worship series for seven weeks on the theme of Dismantling Racism. It has been a profound and powerful experience for our community and has had an impact well beyond our community, as others have observed and been inspired by what we are doing.

     Even through the Church of the Village has long identified as a radically inclusive, welcoming congregation that intentionally seeks to be a diverse community and to celebrate our beautiful variety of colors, ethnicities, and culture, we felt the need to go deeper. Even though we have self-identified as an anti-racist community, and racial justice and equality has been a crucial aspect of everything we do, we felt the need to go deeper. We felt the need to respond to God’s call to live into this vision, this dream of building beloved community – of actually joining together our hands, hearts, minds, and spirits to construct something that begins to resembles the kin-dom of God.

     We have done this imperfectly. I confess that I have been an very imperfect leader. In hindsight, have taken some actions that were not well thought out or were ill-timed. When I first arrived at the Church of the Village three years ago, I acted arrogantly. Two weeks before I arrived, a hate-filled racist named Dylan Roof murdered nine members of the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Then, over the next few weeks, nine predominantly African-American churches were burned in response to efforts to take down the Confederate flag. I arrive in the midst of all of that. I also followed Bishop Alfred Johnson, a very popular and charismatic African-American bishop, who had pastored COTV for ten years. In my first month, among other things, I said in a sermon, “It’s great that the Church of the Village is welcoming and celebrates diversity, but we need to be an anti-racist church.” Some members rightly said to themselves, “Who does this guy think he is, telling us to be more anti-racist?” I don’t think my impulse was terribly wrong, but I introduced it very badly and without enough conversation or first developing relationships with leaders and members of the congregation. Since then, we have actually taken on this mantle of anti-racism. We have had some successes. Other times, our efforts have fallen flat. Some persons have left our community over these efforts. Some left because of me. Some left, perhaps, because they concluded beloved community was a utopian dream to begin with. Others left because they felt I or the community had failed them personally. And, yet, we persisted and we continue to persist. We persist because we are called. We are called to tear down the wall and to be witnesses to the world.

      I see at least three levels on which we have to work simultaneously to dismantle racism. The first is at the societal level of undermining or transforming the systems and institutions that perpetuate white supremacy. The second is the level of community. We can work on building beloved community among ourselves. The third is the personal level – the work many of us need to do overcome the ways our thought patterns, knowledge or lack of knowledge, our attitudes and behaviors have been shaped and affected by our upbringing and social location. For some of us, that will mean undoing the ways we have been indoctrinated into white supremacy. For others, it will mean counteracting the effects of oppression, discrimination, and even internalized racism.

     As a small community of faith, we have the least influence at the level of social systems, yet our efforts get joined together with others and our voices and actions can be a powerful witness and inspiration. At the personal level, we all have work to do, but that does not happen in isolation from relationships and community, so we can and will continue to support and encourage one another on our journeys.

     In addition, I believe we are called at this moment in our life together to put a major emphasis on building deep relationships shaped by grace, openness, curiosity, vulnerability, risk-taking, forgiveness, and love. We want to promote conversations in twos and threes and in small groups and even in larger community gatherings about how racism and white supremacy have affected us as individuals and have harmed our families and communities. We want to make possible an open sharing of our stories, our pain, our struggles, our challenges, our successes and failures, and our laments and our joys. In all of our ministries, we need remember who we worship and claim as our savior. Jesus was dark-skinned and a member of an oppressed ethnic minority. He spent most of his time with people on the margins and lifted up their experiences, their pain, and their stories. We need to do ministry in that image. I believe that doing all of this as a community will provide us the best foundation for growing and thriving in our personal journeys as well as in participation in the broader social struggles to dismantle racism.

     Some people might ask, “What can we do? We are a small community.” But let’s remember the model that Jesus gave us. He did not spend most of his time in evangelistic preaching to crowds of thousands of people. He spent most of his time being in relationship with and teaching a couple dozen close followers. I say a couple dozen because if we only focus on those the New Testament calls “the twelve disciples,” then we leave out the women who Jesus also had deep relationships with and taught to be leaders. From such small beginnings, a world-wide movement was born.

     Let’s remember what Rev. Dr. Derrick McQueen said last Sunday referring to our efforts to dismantle racism. He said, “What you are doing here at this corner is not a small thing.” He told us in the conversation after worship that he had gotten two hundred responses on his Facebook page about his participation in this worship series. One comment said, “It’s about time churches start talking about this.” People are hearing a sound like a strong wind and they want to know what’s going on. I have a vision and I hope you have caught it too – a vision of building an amazing and beautiful community together. I see us tearing down every wall. I can see that God is filling us with the Holy Spirit so that we will be able to be witnesses for the kin-dom, witnesses for Jesus in dismantling racism and building God’s beloved community.

We will tear down the walls!
We will tear down every wall!
God has called us one and all,
Christ has broken down the wall!
Christ has broken down the wall!