The Cost of Racial Reconciliation
Overwhelmed by the sting of unforgiveness and the ...
If you are already familiar with the events surrounding the “It’s Time” video, feel free to skip to paragraph 3. For those who
have been living in the Cave of Addulam haven’t heard, Pastor Jaime Kowlessar was invited to speak at Andrews University as part of the 2017 Black HistoryMonth celebration. His sermon wasn’t posted online (for reasons explained later), so he posted his manuscript for the public to read for themselves. His message touched on areas of race and social justice. Because it’s relevant. Because it’s needed. Yet, some white students felt the content was offensive. Complaints were lodged with the University administration. As a result, Kowlessar was asked to “tone down” his rhetoric for the following evening vespers. He was also solicited for an apology. Before his vespers sermon, Kowlessar read a prepared statement—the manuscript of which can also be found online. Apparently, his statement was not adequate in the administration’s estimation and the week after the chapel, the provost delivered an apology to the student body for Kowlessar’s message.
This, in turn, elicited a response from students who were shocked that a response to the hurt feelings of White students could come so promptly—7days later—while black students waited at length for recognition of and restitution for racial inequities toward them. Black students and faculty including Chaplain Michael Polite recorded a video asking for a response from administrators in the same amount of time: 1 week. To her credit, President Andrea Luxton replied swiftly, first by letter. Next, a series of meetings took place culminating in an especially poignant chapel service that featured a heartfelt speech as well as a formal video reply.
In various parts of the interwebs, the reaction was mixed. Among those white people who were unaware of Andrews racial past, I noted two main reactions. The first has been of shock and sympathy, “I had no idea this was happening! How could this be? I’m hurt for you. How could you possibly endure such abuse!” The other has been antagonistic and delegitimizing, “you people are always disrupting things with your militant aggressiveness and exaggerations of perceived slights; troublemakers!” I need both groups to dial it down a bit. If we were as tragically defeated as the first group imagines, we’d be curled up in the fetal position in someone’s corner unable to go on with life. If we were as angry as the second group intimates, there would be no problem, because the school would be razed to the ground by now. However, we are neither so fragile nor so destructive. What we are is resilient. Those who have grown up in brown/black skin in America have lived with both overt and subtle racism since time immemorial. It’s a part of our reality. But while some may view it as a normalization and adoption of a defeatist attitude to admit that racism is a component of our sinful present, I view it quite differently.
You see, pretending a problem isn’t a problem doesn’t make it go away. There are those who avoid physicians’ visits because they don’t want to know there’s an issue. But if we can name and diagnose something, it doesn’t mean we are resigning ourselves to some sad inevitability—on the contrary—we can now do something about it!
There are plenty of realities that are not the ideal. But instead of simply giving up because “that’s the system”, we need to practice active engagement. That was the fire that spurred on those who made the “It’s Time” video. That mindset is the only way we’ve progressed as much thus far. And we have Black History Month precisely because we acknowledge that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and faced challenges head on. So the question becomes, what are WE doing to make sure future generations have a place to stand?
With regards to Andrews, the administration has acknowledged past wrongs and collaborated with faculty and campus leaders to lay out concrete steps toward rectifying injustices. Among them increasing representation of black faculty. But what are we, black ministers, doing to help encourage the university toward that goal? Are we encouraging our young people to pursue scholarship? Do we advocate for our people to attain advanced degrees? Are we ourselves as ministers encouraging each other to do the same? Because how can we complain about a lack of representation in the seminary if we have no one in the hopper to fill those slots? Going even younger, are we exposing our children to positive stories of successful people who look like them? Octavia Spencer bought out an entire theatre so low-income families could see Hidden Figures. What an awesome opportunity to reach our youth in our congregations AND our communities if our congregations across the country had done likewise! And though The 13th is definitely for far more mature audiences, are we even addressing the issues surrounding the prison industrial complex? Are we engaged in programs that prevent young people from becoming one of the 1 in 3 that goes to jail?
The black church has a history of social engagement. Sadly (with some notable exceptions), Adventism hasn’t been at the forefront of that narrative. While the situation at Andrews needed to be tackled, as Dr. Luxton alluded to Nelson Mandela, we can’t stand on this mountain too long: there are more mountains to climb.
We can’t be comfortable being a big fish in a small pond and amassing outward trappings of a fruitful ministry. That’s not Matthew 28:19,20. We need to look beyond the walls of our church and seek to be a blessing to those generations that are looking for shoulders to step on. Let’s not forget that this most recent incident at Andrews was catalyzed when one of our own stood up and unapologetically called out the indignities currently being carried out by our nation. We all need to stand up just as boldly—both in word AND deed—and challenge those systems both inside AND outside our church.