In the wake of George Floyd's death, and that of Breonna Taylor, in the state where Ahmad Arbrey was shot, and in which too soon after police killed another black man, Rayshard Brooks, churches gathered.
13,000 black and white Christians came together in Atlanta to try again to exorcize racism from their city. Together they marched to the capitol, prayed for the new chief of police, worshipped with praise music that unified both races, and the preachers preached ways they and their churches were planning to rectify the racial inequalities and violence torturing their city.
Late in the afternoon one of the old black pastors said, "We did this very same thing back in the 90's but nothing changed. We asked for help but the white churches were silent." That looming apprehension was met by the hope that God could do it differently this time. We would have to try harder.
There was a word that was preached into that crowd just before the masses were dismissed. It was in the middle of a bigger speech and passed through them like a wave, unnoticed by many. But it planted a seed in many who didn't even realize it. The word was "imagination."
Wooing other churches
Six months later, on one of the first Sunday mornings churches were opening after COVID, an African American pastor showed up to his church an hour before the service was to begin. They were in a small town on the outskirts of Atlanta. He was surprised to be met with a flood of flowers stacked high and wide around the front door and spreading out into the lawn. The pastor recognized one of his faithful parishioners in her purple church dress and hat kneeling, reading a card. Her hand was under her nose and the pastor heard her sniff, maybe holding back tears. When she saw the pastor approaching she held the card out to him, without meeting his eyes.
He took it and read. "We have watched your church and seen the beautiful ways you work in our community. We deeply apologize for the ways we have neglected to support you, and for the ways we have operated out of our inherited privilege. We now bow to your leading and long to learn from you. We long to love and be loved by you. We are attracted by your people and Christ we see in them. We give you these flowers as an effort to woo you. We want to romance you. For we imagine that together your church and ours working in this community together, in close partnership, and almost as one body, could do so much more for our community and our common savior."
It was signed by hundreds of names. It was from the other big church in their town, a white church a few blocks away.
Repenting to other churches
A few weeks later, four quiet, nicely dressed white people walked into another mainly African American church. They lifted their hands and sang quietly while the black worship leaders led their congregation, dancing and shouting joyfully in the aisles.
The pastor then preached a powerful message, meeting the current concerns of the hearts of his congregants, enflamed by the most recent injustices. Then he opened it up to the floor for the prayers and concerns of the people. This was out of the normal order, but the guests had come to the pastor earlier in the week and he had suggested they do it this way. The normal congregants spoke up names of people who were in the hospital, or had an 80th birthday, or a child who was sick. But then as the pauses between the prayers became longer, an unfamiliar voice piped up. A man's voice, shaky and loud. It was one of the white guests sitting near the front. He had stood up and was saying, "We come to your church as pastors on behalf of our three mainly white churches in this city." And he listed them. But then he went on to pray, "We have come to sincerely repent of our implicit roles in the oppression of black people." He and then the others went on to list the ways they had accidentally or knowingly reinforced racism as their separate church bodies, and even as individuals. This went on for ten minutes, for they had each taken a long inventory of their racial sins and by the fourth minute two of the pastors were on the ground in the aisle, their faces to the carpet, crying and praying for forgiveness.
An elderly woman approached them first. She knelt alongside the woman pastor. She put her hand on her and began to pray. Soon most of the church was surrounding them and praying with them.
Supporting other pastors
On the same Sunday, across town, in a white church a visitor walked in late with her friend. The congregation in the trendy warehouse sanctuary was watching a livestream projected on the walls at the front. On it a black man in a bowtie preached from his pulpit in his own church, to his own church body. The visitor looked at the little blue branding on the video feed and asked her friend, "Do they always stream the sermon in over facebook?!"
Her friend smiled and replied, "No, they've partnered for a season with a church down the road to learn from them. They wanted to listen and lift up black voices for a season. Maybe longer."
A woman paid for her coffee and stepped to the side as she looked around the coffee shop. She took off her big dark glasses as she noticed something strange. She glanced from table to table from the corner of her eye. Except for a few people working alone on their laptops, and a group of teenage girls giggling at the plush chairs by the windows, every table had one black person talking to one white person, usually of similar age and gender.
When she got her drink she put her dark glasses back on and purposefully sat at a table where she could overhear as many of them as possible. After a few minutes she gathered what was going on. Black and white pastors had reached out and wanted to work together and share strategies and resources to meet the needs of their respective congregations. She kept hearing from the whites, 'we want to learn,' or 'teach me.' The youth pastors were talking about events they could organize together. The children's ministry ladies were showing pictures of their church's nursery spaces. She heard a messy sniff come from someone behind her. A white man in his 70's was holding back tears as a similarly aged black man held his hands across the table and prayed something over him. Tears were also coming from his eyes. She listened harder. They were praying repentance and forgiveness over them.
Supporting black-owned businesses
One day in the following weeks a black coffee shop owner turned around to see something unusual. Five or six white people had just walked through the door. Gen Z-ers in loose vertically striped faded shirts, loose jeans, and one had a skateboard. They asked about the menu, were pretty polite, and each ordered a drink. They sat and were generally having a good time. How did they find themselves in this neighborhood?
Then another group of white people came in. A little older, and were full of smiles. They ordered and sat down. This happened throughout the day, and continued throughout the rest of the week. Late on Friday he walked by a white couple that were hand in hand, enjoying themselves and admiring the art on the wall. "Sorry love-birds, we're getting ready to wrap it up for today." They looked at him and immediately started to gather their things. "Oh no, you have a few minutes. no need to rush. I really appreciate your business."
"Oh good we hoped so!"
The coffee shop owner paused at the comment."Could I ask, how did you guys find out about our shop."
The girl looked at the guy across from her who responded, "We go to a church up in midtown. Our pastor sent out a list of black-owned businesses that he encouraged us to support. And yours was on the list. We really want to do our part, even if it's just ten bucks here and there."
The owner smiled and replied. "Well, we certainly do appreciate it. We opened a shop in Stone Mountain and really didn't get much love from that mainly white community. And we especially didn't expect much white love down here in Castleberry Hill. But I love it. If I could ask, what church do you go to?"
The couple told him and he told them what church he went to as well. They were still chatting half an hour after the shop was meant to close.
As they walked out the door, the white young man called back, "I'll text you on Saturday night for deets on coming to your church."
The black pastor was getting through his snail mail late on Monday afternoon when he came to an envelope from a church he did not expect. The big white mega-church on the north side of Atlanta. It was addressed specifically to him. He neatly sliced it open and pulled out a hand-written letter. It was signed by the famous pastor himself. Then a check dropped out. He picked it up and his hand began to shake. $100,000.00. That would double his little churches' yearly budget but God knew they needed it if they wanted to make the renovations his old church building severely needed.
The note addressed him personally and then read, "We each have different types of resources and God has richly blessed our church with some wealthy members. We know that in this country's system resources don't naturally flow to those who sometimes deserve it the most. We researched a lot of churches and we would love to give you a gift out of our abundance so that you can do better what your church does well. We are particularly impressed with your missions in Kenya and how your church has sponsored as many children through world-vision as you have members in your church. But we give this with no expectation of how you will use it. It was for a project in our building fund but we want to build you up instead. We hope that it can help in whatever way you choose to put it to use. We also hope to learn from you so that we can do what we do better. I would love to get coffee with you sometime and forge a friendship with you, if you would have us."
Learning from each other
"Wait, hold on." The middle aged white guy with a slight pot-belly said to the young black worship leader strumming beside him. "You mean you climb the chord progression on the quarter beat?! Who does that?!"
The young black guy turned from the microphone and looked at the older guy with a smirk. "You gotta get wit the times, old man! This is how the next generation does it!" He turned to his black worship team and they all exchanged smiles.
The old white guy picked up an electric guitar, ducked under the strap and began to strum. He fumbled through the new rhythm that was so unnatural to his fingers. He glanced around to his mainly white worship team behind him who were all smiling at him. He failed several times and clenched his fist in frustration. He looked up at the other worship leader with a gleam in his eye. "This is so unnatural to me!" He tried it one more time and hit it on the wrong beat again and as he raised his hands in frustration everyone in the room burst into laughter.
"Don't get mad, old man! You asked to learn from us! I know it ain't easy to teach those old fingers new tricks! You'll get it. You'll get it. We have time."
Visit other church
They started to play the organ music and it seemed like it would be like Sunday Services used to be. They were eager to meet after COVID had prohibited it for so long. The ladies in big colorful hats trickled in as the old men in ties prayed quietly up and down the aisles. But as the pastor looked up he saw a white family come in and find a place in his pews. Then some more. They looked friendly and received the warm greeting he was proud his congregation was offering to them. By the time they began their service the pews were twice as full as usual, and half of the people were white. The pastor held a secret smile. The worship was beautiful. Before long the white people were lifting their hands and their voices joined the others in these previously unfamiliar songs.
Then came the time where the congregation greets each other. "Get to know someone new. It looks like we have a few new guests this morning." The noise of warm greeting instantly filled the large sanctuary. He walked down to the pews and was met by a white man in his 60's flanked by his wife. They shared a smile. Then the white man said, "Thanks for this suggestion. They were eager to listen and learn from you all." He looked out at the people meeting each other.
The black pastor nodded and looked out as well. "Well, I am grateful you asked how you could help. You are welcome here. We are ultimately one body under Christ and we can try to work through all this together."
I write these fictional episodes specifically to white Christians in Atlanta, to expand our imagination of what reconciliation could look like. I ran these ideas past a Black pastor because it is important that we Whites don't assume what would be good. We need to ask. I encourage you to act on one of them or if you do something similar that these inspire, first ask them if it would be helpful. Perhaps they will have a much better idea of how you can help.
Some actions like these are already happening as you can see in this article about a fund to help support small churches who are particularly at risk. I would love to be able to say in 30 more years that even though nothing changed back in the 90's, in 2020 a new movement began. They would say something changed in Atlanta. Something changed in America. It is up to us as a city, to listen, and to act. It is up to our imagination to start a real and beautiful change this time around.
Feel free to add to this list of ideas in the comments.