Were you in church last Sunday? If so, perhaps you heard your pastor speak out against the false equivalency narrative of “both sides” in the Charlottesville incidents of Aug. 11 and 12. The testimony of Christians, including many clergy, who bore witness to the actual events as they occurred at a rally organized by white supremacists in North Carolina is clear: There was one side that brought an ideology of evil, hate, bigotry and murder to the public square.
To suggest, as President Trump did days later, that a racist protest by the likes of the KKK, the alt-right, Nazis and skinheads is the moral equivalent of counter-protests on behalf of racial equality and civil rights is not only un-American, it’s perverse.
So if you were in church on Aug. 13, the day after those incidents in Virginia, what did you hear? Though it’s not always easy to change one’s sermon at the last minute, many clergy across America did just that as a result of the actions of avowed racists who marched in our streets.
I listened to two sermons on that Sunday and contacted several other Waco clergy to ask them to send me their sermons. I was not disappointed. Prophetic voices were heard from Waco pulpits on that Sabbath, on the Sunday after one of our own predominantly African-American churches — Willow Grove Baptist Church near Speegleville — was vandalized by individuals who wrote pro-Trump hate rhetoric in the church’s fellowship hall.
The gospel lesson for that Sunday from the common lectionary was Matthew 14:22-32 where Peter, at the call of Jesus, stepped out of the boat into the storm and walked on water. Several themes emerged from the Waco pulpits on Aug. 13.
The boat was a considerable distance from the land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. Erin Conaway, senior pastor of the Seventh and James Baptist Church, said: “We are in the midst of a terrible storm. The strong winds of bigotry and racism are crashing against us and threaten to capsize our union with every swell.”
Senior pastor of the Lake Shore Baptist Church Kyndall Rae Rothaus echoed this theme: “Family of God, I want to talk to you about some very real and present storms. Maybe I’m not the only one who woke up to thunder yesterday afternoon. I know I’m not the only one who’s been caught sleeping through the storms of racism. From the demonic gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, to the vandalism of Speegleville’s Willow Grove Baptist Church, you might look out at our country and say a storm’s a-brewin’. Or, if you are what they call woke, you might say the storm’s been raging a mighty long time. The thing about this storm is, those of us who are white aren’t even in the boat. We’re grounded on land. We’re on top of the mountain, praying to Jesus, and, if we wanted to, we could stay mostly oblivious to the storm clouds behind us, the people in peril beneath — after all, we’re relatively safe up here where the winds of prejudice don’t target.”
The disciples were terrified and they cried out in fear. This storm wasn’t in some faraway place, they were in it. Calvary Baptist Church’s senior pastor Mary Alice Birdwhistell reminded her congregation that their sister church in Speegeville was only a few miles from where they all were sitting that Sunday.
“Their church was founded in 1871 by two men who were former slaves, A.J. Crawford and Buck Manning,” she said. “Amidst the vandalism that was done by those who broke in and ransacked the church office was graffiti bearing Nazi symbolism scribbled in mustard and ketchup along the fellowship hall floor. Today, I grieve with this beloved church in our community. I grieve with the people who now feel even more fear and trepidation because of these horrific events. I grieve when I see videos of people chanting such unimaginable hate. I grieve for those who are in such a dark place that they would do something so blatantly hurtful.”
“Some say that we are at a tipping point,” continued Rev. Leslie King, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Waco, “and that the residual work left from issues of slavery and the incomplete work of civil rights is still being sorted out.” We are full of “anxiety,” she said. We are all afraid.
Take courage! Don’t be afraid, said Rev. John Guzaldo, pastor of the St. Louis Catholic Church: “Step out of safety. Be brave. Step out into the water. Our temptation is to sit in our boat, curl up and hope the waves stop. But it is up to us to stop the perpetrators.”
“The thing about stepping out of the boat is,” added Rev. Rothaus, “the choice is right in front of your face. The thing about being on land is you gotta follow Jesus out into the storm and give up your own security in order to do so. The thing about courage is, you don’t wait around until you personally feel threatened. The thing about following Jesus is, Jesus walked into the storm. They call it following for a reason. You can’t follow Jesus if you only ever pray from the mountain. I don’t know what courage is calling you to do in this hour, but I know that it is calling. In the midst of all the tumult, you may only catch a glimpse of that courage. You may doubt whether it really is Jesus. ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come.’ And the ghost will reply, ‘I already did.’ Honestly, there’s no promising that you will be safe if you follow. But you will be brave, and brave is better than safe, the cross of Christ teaches us.
“Those who step out are never alone, for God does not remain aloof from the storm,” she said. “If you want to meet God, don’t stay in the boat. Walk into the storm. The boat is false peace. Fragile peace. Christ is real peace. Strong peace. And let there be no doubt about it, Christ is in the storm. May we join him there and may we be brave.”
Rev. Conaway concluded: “I’m afraid what God is saying to us is ‘come.’ Come out of the boat and stand against this evil. Come out of the boat and know my presence as you peacefully protest against the injustice in your own town as Willow Grove Baptist Church was vandalized. Come out of the boat and know my presence as you advocate for legislation that ensures freedom for all people, not just the ones who look and believe and worship like you. Come out of the boat and know my presence as you stand arm in arm against the rallies of hate groups as they fear the waves of inclusion and equality we are charged with creating. Come out of the boat and know my presence as you do your part, the part to which I’m calling you. That will indeed bring about peace in this land. Come out of the boat.”
I conclude this collective “sermon” from Waco’s prophetic voices with last Sunday’s benediction from DaySpring Baptist Church given by Rev. Erik Howell, pastor. The benediction was written by Winn Collier, pastor of All Souls Charlottesville (son of Pastor John Collier at Parkview Baptist Church in Waco): “Almighty God, who in the person of Jesus knows exactly what it is to endure evil and to be murdered by rage, we ask you to come and help us and to be near to Charlottesville in our crushing sorrow. And we ask you to be near to Waco, to our brothers and sisters of Willow Grove, and to our congregation. Be near each of us, for we confess it is through each of us that the fault lines of sin run deep. Forgive us, our Lord. We ask these things with tears and boldness, and with hope and faith in the name of Jesus, who with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, rules and reigns over our city and our church and our streets, now and forever. Amen.”
If you missed church last Sunday, I hope you will consider attending this Sunday. Your pastor may just have something important to say.