Conversations on race and violence
Race Issues | Reactions to the recent shootings from a cross section of American Christians
by Emily Belz & Sophia Lee
Posted 7/16/16, 03:51 pm
The July Fourth week of violence in America—the police shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minn., and the sniper-attack killing five police officers in Dallas—has elicited numerous debates about the root causes and what we as a country should do next.
We contacted a number of American Christians of different ethnicities, professions, and hometowns and asked how they found out about the shootings, what they felt that week, what conversations they had with their families, and what they’ve done since. They all have different reactions to the shootings but offer a snapshot of what Americans have experienced. These are their first-person narratives, from a black pastor near Ferguson, Mo., to an engaged couple of different races, to a white pastor in Dallas, among others.
Chaundra Kennedy, 34, is a case manager at a faith-based nonprofit homeless shelter. After being removed from an abusive home, she was raised by her aunt in South Central Los Angeles. Kennedy currently lives in Northridge, Calif.
I found out what had happened on Wednesday night, when I got a text from a friend who wrote, “I’m praying for you. Let me know if you need anything.” I responded with a question mark, and then she told me what happened. And I thought, “Again?” Immediately, I felt angry, just really, really angry. It’s not like this just started happening, but these publicized shootings are another reminder that this is real, that this is still happening.
I didn’t have the emotional capability to view the video footage of the shootings. Everything was just too overwhelming. I thought about my friends who have gotten shot by the police, or my brother who’s frequently pulled over for no good reason other than the fact that he’s a big, black guy. And I remembered the narrative toward cops that I heard growing up: If you’re stopped by the police, keep your hands on the steering wheel, never turn your back on him, never talk back, because it’s easier for cops to shoot a black person. I had all these fears: What’s next? How many more people are going to be killed by a police officer? How are my people going to respond? What is going through my brother’s mind right now? How am I going to walk into my church, which is majority white, on Sunday? As all this ran through my head, I cried out, “Oh God, how do I respond to this as a Christian?”
So I was in that mode of anger, numbness, and confusion when I got a phone call from my pastor asking me to read a lament on stage. I felt honored that my pastor would ask me to do this. It felt natural to read Psalm 77 on stage, because I was already lamenting, and I know there were many black people out there who are also lamenting over this injustice.
That Sunday, my church dedicated an entire sermon on this issue. It was the first time I was able to take the time to process all the anger and fears I had about what happened. As I was reading through Psalm 77 on stage, the words felt really powerful and alive. It’s a lament about feeling like God has abandoned us, that He’s not there, all this confusion and questioning about the horrible things that happen, yet concluding that God is faithful and good. As I read through these words, the past events ran through my head and I prayed for God to usher His people to open hearts and to unify us as a church.
I did anticipate that there will be some people who will look at me, a black girl reading a lament, and think, “Oh great, there’s the token black girl they can check off a box.” And sure enough, some of the responses I heard did reflect that. A part of me can understand why some people would be uncomfortable with it. But I didn’t feel tokenized. I felt confident and honored about what I was doing for the church and the black community in the church.
You can’t please everyone. Addressing this issue in church is going to be messy, and nobody is going to get it right, but we must recognize that we’ve got to start somewhere, and you can’t start without having these conversations. I’d rather my church be brave enough to go there and deal with some backlash than not talk about it at all. Because I know my church is truly gospel-centered and that my leaders are seeking Jesus’ heart and asking for humility and justice for the minorities, I feel valued and respected and known. But this is not the end of it all. There has to be a call to action other than just having conversations, and I don’t know what that is, but I want to be prepared for that.
Currently, I’ve moved away from anger, but I’m now more hurt than anything else. My heart is grieved at the injustice that took place, the tragedy of the loss of lives, and the reality that because of the sin and brokenness in this world, we still hold prejudice against people. This breaks my heart and I’m praying, “OK, God, I don’t know how to deal with these emotions because it’s so hard and painful. I am so uncomfortable right now that I don’t even know how to be in my own skin. Oh God, I need you. We need you.”
Artair Rogers, 28, is a senior consultant at Kaiser Permanente. He was raised in a small rural town in Mississippi, where he graduated at the top of his high school class but personally experienced deep racism. Rogers now lives in Los Angeles.
I was home on Tuesday when I noticed posts of the Alton Sterling shooting on Facebook. Honestly, my first reaction was to feel like this was just another incident. But what struck me most was watching his video. It was one thing to see the police officers bringing this man down to the ground, but it was another thing to hear the shots go off, the screams, the crying that proceeded after the gunshot. A feeling of fear came across my body as I heard the shrills from the young lady as she realized that the guy was murdered right before her eyes.
Both shootings seemed to happen all in one night, because I woke up the next morning emotionally exhausted, and I saw yet another shooting. And that video … honestly, it still haunts me to this day. It brought tears to my eyes to see this guy bleeding, to see his girlfriend and her young daughter having to witness it all. When you see a man take his last breath … that never leaves you. Seeing that man just die in front of my face was very sobering to the fact that I’m a black man in America, and that can happen to me.
What stings is that every time an African-American male is killed, people begin to pull out his entire history and highlight every negative thing he’s done in his life. When I see that happening, even within the church, it bothers me, because the crux of my Christian faith is that I’m not righteous on my own but fallen short of the holiness of God. I am equal to any person that was killed. I can’t say that I have had the same experience that Alton Sterling or Philando Castile or Trayvon Martin or Sandra Bland did. There is not one black experience. We are not a monolithic culture. But I identify with them in that they are created in the image of God—and that’s what grieves me.
Would we be having this huge dialogue about racial injustice and police brutality if we did not see those videos? We as a church cannot allow ourselves to be a reactive entity that simply responds to a tragedy that is systemic injustice. My biggest fear is: What’s going to happen a month after Philando and Alton’s death? A year later? Their families are still going to be wrestling with their deaths their entire lives. If we’re going to continue being a church that’s dragging its heels about a systemic injustice that we’re continuing to see, then we’ll see other people stepping up to lead a movement outside of the church, because people are hurt and wounded. That should cause us to cringe a little bit.
After the Ferguson incident, a lot of people wanted to hear my story, but what I felt after was: You want to have one conversation and that’s it. You check a box, and then you move on with life. Conversations about what this looks like for me on a day-to-day basis didn’t happen. After the Philando and Alton shootings, people texted me, “Love you, brother, mourning with you.” I don’t know how to respond when someone out of the blue sends me a message like that. I think for me, the people who really touched me are the people who had been walking alongside me prior to these incidents. It means the world when they text you, because they know your heart, you know their heart, and you can feel them lamenting with you. But those people are only a handful. That grieves me, because I feel like something should have changed from conversations I’ve had a year ago. I shouldn’t feel like I’m still walking alone.
Right now I’m definitely emotionally exhausted and confused. I’m questioning a lot of things, wrestling with a lot of emotions. A continuous question to God is: “If I truly believe in who you say you are, and what your Word says you are, I don’t know what to do if you put me in a structure that’s continuously asking me to be patient about the injustice that’s going on in America and the world. I want to know how to respond to that, how to glorify you in this crisis.”
This is practical for us too. I have a sister who’s 11 years my junior, and I think the reason why I’m so desperately engaged in this issue is because I desperately want a better life for her and my future kids. We pray for that, and I want the church to desperately cry out for that too, that my kids can have it better than I have.
Christine Reyes, 29, is a nanny in Culver City, Calif. She is half-Filipino and half-black. She recently became engaged to blue-eyed, blond-haired Joey Cumbo.
I was coming home from work on a Tuesday evening when I saw that one of my friends posted about Alton’s death on Instagram. And I just knew that it was another situation where I’ll have to watch a black man die at the hands of a police officer. At first, I was numb to it. I didn’t watch it until later that night, but I was still numb. The following morning I watched it again, and that’s when it hit me, especially after I read Jackie Hill Perry’s tweet: “This is an image-bearer of God.” I started crying, completely broken over it, knowing this is a human being, a loved one, whose life should not be dehumanized nor demonized as it was. So it brought up a lot of anger and questions: “What would possess a cop to shoot someone in a situation like that? Why is that someone mostly black men, women, or children? Will this ever change?”
Honestly, the first thing I wanted to do was pray, but I didn’t because I was so angry, broken, and hurt by this. It was so difficult to go to God because I felt like I would have to conclude, “Oh, God is sovereign, just trust Him, this is not a big deal, and I don’t have to be involved in it.” I had to really process my emotions first and see where my heart was. It’s so easy to default to: “Let’s just pray” and over-spiritualize the whole thing and diminish my feelings.
I was so used to white people who respond with “All lives matter!” when I try to have a dialogue with them about racial issues. So many responded with resistance, statistics, or dismissal. After the Ferguson incident, I remember one white man telling me, “Well, if they weren’t dressed like thugs, if they didn’t cuss like that, it would be different.” How do you tell a guy like that that we’re hurting and angry and upset for real? When people quote statistics at a time like this, we are steering away from the discussion that is placed before us, away from the empathy and compassion that a life was lost. We want to be heard, to be able to suffer together, to not be isolated.
So when I called my fiancé Joey late Tuesday night after I heard about Alton Sterling’s death, I was upset. I responded poorly to him because of my preconceived notions that white people just don’t or don’t want to understand. So these presumptions did make it hard for me to have a conversation with my fiancé at first. Later, for the first time, Joey and I started talking about what it would look like for our future as an interracial couple. And he prayed for me when I couldn’t pray.
I’ve started to pray again. I pray about how Joey and I can get involved with our community physically and spiritually, how to have open dialogue in a Christ-centered, safe, nonjudgmental space. I’ve recently started praying too that I wouldn’t be afraid to speak out and hear the views of people from various races, to see how God can use us as ministers of reconciliation in our community, because that’s all I can do right now.
Joey Cumbo, 23, is an Irish-American dancer and actor. He grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City, Mo., and now lives in Culver City, Calif. He is engaged to Christine Reyes.
My first reaction when I saw the video of Alton Sterling was a discomfort against the injustice. Watching the video really disturbed me, seeing as my fiancée is a black woman—not necessarily fearing that she’ll be shot by a cop, but that she’s going to face racial discrimination. It really hit home for me that as the future leader of our family, I’m going to have to protect my black wife and children against such discrimination.
I also felt a lot of anger toward the authorities and the misuse of power. Unfortunately, our authority figures happen to be predominantly white. I have friends and family who are or want to be in law enforcement, and I know they do have a subtle racial prejudice. I grew up in a majority-white suburban area of the Midwest, and I’ve heard a lot of white people around me spit out racial slurs. And as a dancer in hip-hop, I’ve befriended a lot of black people, and I’ve had many hard and difficult conversations about race with them. Their experience with cops and other authority figures are so different from mine. So I know there is still such a deeply ingrained racism or racial prejudice in the hearts of many white people in America.
As a white man, whenever I hear race being discussed, my knee-jerk reaction is to say, “Oh, that’s not me, don’t put me in that group,” and put the focus on me and make it a self-issue. After all, my family came to America after slavery, and as Irishmen, they were discriminated against as well. I’ve had many encounters when I’ve been called ignorant or racist simply because I’m a white man. Because I grew up in the hip-hop culture, I was constantly told that because I’m white, I can’t do certain things: “Hey because you’re white, you can’t jump high, you have no rhythm, no soul, you can’t dance.”
The best way to argue is to not argue. I’d rather seek out grace and love, not just through words but by my actions. I’ve had to learn to not enter the discussion saying, “Hey, I just want you to know that I’m not ignorant or racist,” but instead say, “Hey, how are you feeling with all this? What’s going on in your heart? I want to listen.” Once a context of relationship and trust is established, then hopefully I can speak about my perspective, but to do that, I must first be trustworthy, be loving, and listen.
That’s what happened when my fiancée called me to talk about the shootings. Our first discussion started out rough. Her first reaction was to tell me that I did not understand, and my first reaction was to argue that just because I’m white doesn’t mean I’m ignorant. I had to go against my desire to react and argue my side of things. I really had to force those feelings aside and give her a chance to speak first. After she was done talking, I then asked if it was OK to share my point of view. I wanted to first validate and understand that she’s hurting for real. Since then, Christine and I have had many discussions about race. But I think the discussion will continue to go much further.
Rodrick Burton, 47, is pastor of New Northside Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis, located in a predominantly African-American area that’s 4 miles from Ferguson, Mo. He had firsthand experience with the unrest there. He also sits on a board that reviews police shooting investigations after the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office finishes its investigation.
I was at home watching the news when I saw what happened to Alton Sterling in Louisiana. … And I was automatically praying for the family and the community because I know from our community how terrible this can be. … Things can blow up and be very terrible.
Then the next day, when it was about Philando Castile … I watched the video that his girlfriend put out. It’s hard. On one hand it wasn’t hard to watch because you see so much violence in the news in our region. In some ways you get desensitized to it. We pastor in the inner city, so we deal with violence all the time. So it wasn’t as much of a shock as it was for people who live in the suburbs.
I was concerned that [Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend] didn’t put the camera down and render first aid to her boyfriend. But on the other hand, she was very composed and she kept her composure on behalf of her child. Her composure lent itself to a compelling story.
White America, if they see something like this, if she were cursing and emotional, in my experience they would discount the experience. Her calm, level control of the delivery, her respect for the officer, even though she was greatly sinned against—to me that video will start conversation in areas that it wouldn’t otherwise be.
The [police] massacre really—that one was, emotionally, it caused fear. My feeling was, will someone copy this? … I was just praying with churches all over the country that that would not be a tipping point to kick off a violent race war, because America is heavily, heavily armed.
One of the things I’m seeing happen is—the protests in Black Lives Matter and that kind of thing—political figures will use incidents to gin up emotions, and they’ll reduce things, and oftentimes people don’t like to look at the details.
That these videos are a daily occurrence for the African-American community—that’s just not factual. Is there police profiling all the time? Yes there is. People being pulled over? Yes, that stuff is going on.
I’m dealing with violence in my ministry all the time. I’m working on what can we do as a church to reduce it. The trauma that’s happening … they’re conflating that trauma. All that stuff is being mixed up and it’s being manifest when these police shootings happen.
I’ve been in the protests in the Black Lives Matter movement, and there’s not a humility there. People are decrying dehumanism in police tactics, but I have watched people use dehumanizing language, threats, actions. There’s no humility. Because I’m being victimized, I can protest that victimization in any way, and it’s justified. Ultimately, there’s not going to be a success of the Black Lives Matter as there was of the civil rights movement. Prayer, humility, that was central to the civil rights movement.
Of course, we need police who are accountable, but at the same time, as a faith leader, I told our congregation, God ordained the police. When Paul wrote that, the police were part of the system that were oppressing Christianity.
As I’ve been working more with police, I’ve been thankful, pleasantly surprised, about how much the St. Louis County Police Department has been doing to institute change. This is something that the Black Lives Matter movement—they’re winning. And that’s good for everybody. But that’s not acknowledging the good that is happening.
[At the church service Sunday] there was a sadness. Before the service was over I managed to say, “God hears and He understands, and it’s good to pray about this situation, but it’s good to praise anyway.” We came in and there was a lot of praise. But there was something restraining it.
For African-Americans, there have been worse weeks than this in our history, and God is able. He has brought us through. … I got people in our congregation who can remember lynchings. Some folks from down South remember the dogs. They remember when things were far worse. And I strive to say, we need to thank God things are not worse than they were. I praise [President Barack] Obama for saying that. This is not a regular week in the 21st century. It’s not an everyday thing. We’ve come such a long way. … Give God the glory for what He has brought us through. To say nothing has changed—we have a black police chief, and nothing has changed? That is preposterous.
We’re going to be meeting with a group of African-American pastors who were brought together by a pastor of a white megachurch. We’re going to meet Monday to talk about what can we do in relation to this.
When stuff like this happens, a lot of white people kind of just go silent, they won’t say anything. … I was saying to my son, that’s what needs to change, whites do need to be talking about these issues.
Patrick Lafferty, 44, is pastor of Christ the King Church, a Presbyterian Church in America congregation in Dallas.
It’s all so close that it feels jarring. We adopted an African-American boy who is 6-years-old, so we feel it in a unique way. We have two biological white children. My wife and I talked about it—it’s possible that two of my children could have two different experiences with law enforcement. It’s possible, but Dallas has a reputation for equity and care. … So that’s sobering to think. My boy, he’s still really safeguarded, and that may change when he gets older.
My children—they’re aware of the officers that died. We had conversations in the past for other reasons about understanding racism. Our black son is at the moment of recognizing his distinctiveness but still feels as much a part [of our family] as any biological child.
As a pastor I felt the burden—how to shepherd the community that is predominantly Anglo but has some minorities. Not to address this issue would be a dereliction of duty. I said to my elders, we have to change the sermon, change the liturgy. We turned it into a service of lament. … We began with the end of Psalm 139 [“Search me, O God, and know my heart’]. … Part of what accounts for the problem of our city is what lives within each one of us.
But I felt deeply unequal to speak to the questions swirling in everyone’s head. … I don’t think that I’ve had a more challenging preaching time. … How to solve the race problem? That’s beyond my particular scope. But how do I speak to my people, not parroting what they hear on Facebook? … It turned out to be a good service. People were weeping.
I met a local pastor who is African-American, and we’re going to lunch next week. I’ve been overwhelmed—what can I do as a pastor of a modestly sized church? … But surely there’s something I can do. I can become friends with pastors of other ethnicities and see how I can learn from them.
We’re so … insulated from what’s happening in the black community that unfortunately it takes something like this to awaken us. That’s to our discredit. Hopefully God will bring something out of this that lasts, but that’s the hard part.
Randy Brashears is an African-American police chief in Massachusetts who worked for 20 years in the Baltimore County Police Department on criminal investigations, community policing, and internal affairs, the unit that investigates police misconduct.
On Friday, I sent an email out to my department to encourage them. I got a text message from the pastor of my church … and he invited me to attend all three services on Sunday and come on stage with him and have a special time of prayer. And I said, “Sure, I’d be happy to do that.” I applauded him for doing that. All too often, when an incident occurs, the church ignores it and goes on with its program, thus communicating to the church and the world that what we’re doing is irrelevant. … I read 2 Chronicles 7:14 about “humble ourselves and turn back to God and then he will heal our land.”
A lot of people in my [predominantly white] church didn’t know I was in law enforcement. A lot of people shook my hand and thanked me for serving and for praying. The pastor said let’s all grab hands, and we did on stage. He was looking at it more, “Let’s bring the races together,” and I was more thinking, “Let’s educate about the plight of law enforcement in America.” So we tried to accomplish both things.
I keep thinking of responsible parents having this talk [about police interactions] with their sons. I have two sons in their 20s. … I started questioning myself, have I had this talk? … I thought, why haven’t I? And I thought through the implication of what they’re saying. What they’re saying is cops are out there, a few of them, hunting black people like animals. And therefore you need to be careful that you are not hunted. It’s very offensive, the implication of that.
I know the police aren’t perfect, as no group of professionals is. When I worked in Baltimore, I worked in internal affairs, so I investigated police. I have fired police. So I get that. But to say this is a rampant problem—to say people have to be more afraid of the police than the criminals in the street, that is sick.
I realize there are agency cultures, and there are agencies I wouldn’t want my sons working for. And there are good agencies. They run the gamut.
Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the The New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @emlybelz.