Let the unheard speak

May 5th, 2015

“A black man can raise his voice and you don’t have to be intimidated.”

These are the brave words from a young black man in Baltimore. On the evening of April 29th, he confronted Geraldo Rivera on the streets of Baltimore just before Rivera was going to report on the riots for Fox News. You may watch a candid video of the confrontation here, courtesy of the Baltimore Sun. Here are a few quotes.

“I want you and Fox News to get out of Baltimore City. Because you’re not here reporting about the boarded up homes and the homeless people under MLK. You’re not here reporting about the poverty levels up and down North Avenue.”

“You’re not here for the death of Freddie Gray. You’re here for the story.”

“I want to talk to you without the cameras.”

“I want the white media out of Baltimore City until y’all gonna report the real story.”

“This is the real Baltimore. This is where people have to wake up and wonder where they’re gonna get a meal.”

In the church, we have a word for this young man. We may call him a prophet.

Prophets still exist, and videos taken by smartphones now immortalize their voices. Prophets see realities that go unseen by most. Prophets see what we would like to un-see. To un-see something means more than that simply not seeing it. To un-see something means deliberately evacuating from your mind what you just saw. The act of un-seeing is a default defense mechanism. Some realities are so difficult to see that we default to erasing them from our vision, sweeping them under the rug so our eyes will not hurt anymore. But prophets are too brave and too stubborn to take the easy way out. They will not avert their eyes. They will speak about what they have seen. They give voice to the un-seen.

I believe that this prophet standing on the Baltimore asphalt is doing what we in the church often fail to do: he’s trying to have a real conversation. He wants to speak frankly and openly about the realties of Baltimore’s history, which the national media networks covering the Baltimore riots are not giving adequate airtime. He wants to talk about the historic racial poverty in his city. He wants to talk about real anger and fear, emotions black people in his city have to live with everyday. He wants to talk about the real issues that drove black people to riot in the first place.

One of my colleagues, the contemporary worship director at my church, likes to employ this saying before difficult conversations: “Let’s call a thing a thing.”

The thing is this: many Americans assume that the Baltimore riots are about angry young black people setting fire to private property and looting convenience stories. But to assume such a thing is to un-see the truth:

Racism is alive and well in 2015, and it is oppressing millions of people who do not have the power to change it. 

It’s not about Fox News.

It’s not about setting fire to a CVS.

It’s not about “thugs.”

Let’s call a thing a thing. It’s about the systems of racism that turn a blind eye to a young black man whose spine was broken in the back of police van. It’s about Baltimore having a poverty rate that is almost double the national average. It’s about young black men not being able to finish high school and find stable employment. It’s about violent crime and drug use, and a lack of access to healthcare and higher education in historically African-American neighborhoods. The fires in Baltimore were burning long before April 2015, as in every city in the United States where poverty and systemic racism are two sides of the same coin, but, tragically, we were not talking about it.

It’s about the failure to have a real conversation about the reality and effects of racism in the United States. We are reaping the sins of our obvious lack of uncomfortable conversations.

It’s time we start having real conversations about the difficult issues that make us uncomfortable. The church is notoriously bad at this. We shy away from awkward conversations like medieval towns avoided the Plague. We do this with any issue that will certainly dampen the mood in a room. We avoid talking about hot-button issues that might label us as “conservative” or “liberal.” We don’t know how to talk about racism, just like we don’t know how to talk about sex. What could be topics for productive conversation have become fear-induced taboos that we pretend don’t exist. Our churches are not governed by brave transparency but by fearful, closed mouths. 

Further — and if we really are going to call a thing a thing — it is normally the people in power who are quick to shy away from candid conversations. Those without power, the oppressed and the marginalized, would be happy to speak their mind about the state of things if given a safe space. And yes, that means majority white people sitting down and listening to non-white people paint an ugly but accurate picture of America. The problem is, white people like myself can always choose not to sit at the table.

But that is the nature of power, isn’t it? Power lies in having options. You know you’re in power when you can choose not to listen to the truth. You know you’re not in power when no one will hear you talk about the truth. 

If there any place on earth where people should (not can, but should) come around a table and have a frank conversation, it’s the church. Christians are table people. The core of our faith is a table where a misunderstood Jew told his confused friends the truth about love. The church must be the place where confused people sit around a table and tell the truth with one another. 

My church is by no means perfect, but it does do table well. We celebrate Communion every Sunday, which is helpful for a community where not every member speaks English. The body and the blood preach in a language that all people may understand. 

My community is located in southwest Houston, in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country. It’s a neighborhood of Congolese and Rwandan refugees; Guatemalan and Salvadorian immigrants; Pilipino, Thai, and Chinese families; and older white couples who did not flee the neighborhood when the gangs moved in. Conversation is a matter of survival for us. If this church community could not sit around a table and speak honestly about racism, then it would have shut its doors years ago out of sheer necessity. We sit around tables and talk about fleeing refugee camps. We discuss why some members have bars on their windows and others don’t. We argue about citizenship and documentation. But at the end of the day, no matter the awkwardness, we had the conversation, and we drew closer to one another.

Take this as a call to conversation. We must not let fear of awkwardness and uncomfortable discussion deter us. People want to talk about racism if we would just sit around the tables in our churches over cups of coffee and slices of pepperoni pizza. Let the table, not fear, win.

Talk. Lay down your power. Be honest. Listen. You may learn that the issue you thought was most important is not important at all. Let the truth have its day. Have a real conversation. Call a thing a thing, and you won’t be sorry. 

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