An Open Letter of Apology to My African-American Friends

My God, this is horrible. After recent events, and as a follower of Jesus, I feel like a disciple at the cross today, watching a friend die, or living with the possibility that they might. The last time I felt like this was when I thought of my daughters on the day of the Newtown shooting. They weren’t shot that day, but what if they were? My life would never be the same and I would be upset until the day I died.

My White brothers and sisters don’t hear of your plight because they don’t know you and our media never tells your stories in any sort of way that seems moral or spiritual or decent people.

I, however, am different. People may not know it now, but nearly 20 years ago I was the only White clergy person in the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance — the ostensibly Black Clergy group. I helped bring an African-American church into our church’s building, and met my wonderful friends, the Claytors — Benny and Gerri and their daughters. I was the chair of my local denomination Committee on Racism. I led a suburban/urban camp for the CT Conference UCC, and — in one of the proudest moments of my life, at the behest of some congregants, was acknowledged for my work with diverse communities in Bridgeport by the CT State Senate.

I should be proud of all of this, and I am. But today it is also the cause of my shame. All of this is speaks to how much I knew about your situation….Yet, here we are nearly 20 years later, and you are dying. I can’t imagine a worse fate for either of us, but mostly for you.

Ferguson is just the start. In the wake of Michael Brown’s death, we have heard more and more and more and more stories of policemen and African-American men getting killed which give testimony to the African-American condition in this country. In the wake of Trayvon Martin, I have heard about an African-American woman who was standing her ground against her violent man and the law that got George Zimmerman off didn’t apply to her. The list goes on.

This last thing, though, kills me emotionally. In Ferguson, the Grand Jury was given the WRONG burden of proof to determine Darren Wilson’ s guilt. The Grand Jury heard from the defendant, which is not supposed to happen. The officer involved went home with the evidence. His superiors talked to him for hours privately. His gun was washed off! The police militarized and attacked non-violent demonstrators — all to protect the man they feel killed Michael Brown. Darren Wilson is a problem, no doubt, but he is by no means the only one. The ADA, the clerks, the lawyers, the police, the National Guard ALL conspired to prevent justice from happening.

As the stories come of 12 year old being shot by police and a man who — after being beaten by police was charged with destruction of property because he BLED ON the uniforms of those who beat him, after those stories become more and more frequent, somehow I — who knew how bad things had been — had forgotten to watch after you. I had been led into a false sense of security while places like Ferguson, MO existed.

I was aware of concepts like systemic racism which are vague and require proof to the White community. But I was also aware of the harsh realities of my African-American friends, brothers and sisters. But, somehow, if someone had told me that whole communities like Ferguson still exist in America in 2014, I would not have believed it.

But here we are and I am shocked. You are dying because of our sins. You are dying because slowly we stripped away your rights and your growth and I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything when the clerk in the grocery store or the bus driver gave you a dirty look. I didn’t say anything when someone told a racist joke, or portrayed President Obama as a monkey or… or … The list went on.

Now, if anything happened to my friend Greg or Margo or Gerri or Bennyta or any of the Black clergy in Bridgeport or anywhere else, it would be as if someone shot my daughter or my wife in a senseless tragedy that I should have seen coming.

But, while racism has put you on the cross because of our sin, I am aware that God will not let this stand. God and the Christian community can and should redeem the whole country, perhaps world, in the face of such tragedy. It has happened before and it can happen again. We can learn from the unnecessary death of Innocents who are confused with the guilty. We can learn from what seems like a summer of slaughter and we can say something about the stray look or the angry man with a gun or the police academy cadets who think it’s good to be aggressive. We can protest the mayor or council person who makes what they think is a cute racist remark . In short, we can repent.

A lot of us out there think that “repentance” means saying you’re sorry. It means more than that, though it’s a good start. The Hebrew word for “repent” is “shoov”, which means “turn around, go back” and it means return to the way it’s supposed to be with God and each other. THAT is what I want us to do today. But as one of my 12-step friends says, “if you walked 10 miles into the woods, you now have to walk 10 miles OUT of the woods.

It has been far too long that we as a nation have been walking into the woods. It is time to turn around, it is time to “shoov”, it is time to repent. It is time for us to travel TOWARD the dream of one of AMERICA’S greatest men ever, Martin Luther King, Jr, rather than away from it .

I, for one, pledge to try to keep my eye on the sparrow and keep walking out of this weird place we’re at in this country when we know better. I knew better. I should have paid attention. We all should have. But never again, brothers and sisters. Never again.

If any of my Black friends around the country were to die because of the way are in this country — for driving while Black or walking while Black or shopping while Black — I would grieve for the rest of my life because they were my FRIENDS. But at least I’d know I was walking in the right direction. For now, all I’ve got is “I’m sorry” . It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Peace,

John

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