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Former Police Officer, Now Pastor, Preaches on Race

We can preach faithfully and sensitively on racial issues.
Former Police Officer, Now Pastor, Preaches on Race

Matt Woodley talks with Joshua Aaron Moody, pastor of Three Village Church on Long Island. Moody is a white pastor and former police officer, and he will explore the topic of preaching on racial issues from his ministry context.

Matt Woodley, PreachingToday.com: We know that race issues are a very tense topic in our society today, but let's start with you. How has this issue personally impacted your life?

Joshua Moody: My experience of race issues goes back to growing up in Nashville during the 1980s and early 90s. When desegregation of public schools meant that I was constantly interacting with many people of different races, often in the midst of racial tension, both in their neighborhoods and my own. I grew up with some extended family members who, while being active in their Christian churches, perpetuated a mentality of racial prejudice toward African-Americans and Latinos. My parents did everything in their power to show me and my siblings the sin of racism and the need for reconciliation.

Where there is, in fact, oppression and injustice, God's people need to be at the forefront of repenting and correcting it.

I became more keenly aware of issues pertaining to racial justice during my years as a police officer in Baltimore. I served in the Southeast District for three years. It was there that I first encountered the broad hostility that minorities in the inner city often feel toward members of law enforcement. During that time, I also became involved as a volunteer leader with an urban Young Life club. The students who came were mostly black teens. The area director, who oversaw me in that ministry, became a close friend, who would eventually stand beside me in my wedding. He is also a black man. Through my relationship with him, and with those students, I began to see some of the racial tensions—especially associated with law enforcement—through a different perspective. It was surprising to me that my friend would be stopped for "driving while black." As I gained trust through those relationships, I was also able to give insights to my friends in that ministry about a police officer's perspective on their sometimes-frustrating encounters. Most of the kids there actually didn't know I was a cop until months into our relationship. They were surprised to find out about my job, but having the trusting relationship already established went a long way toward growing together.

When I went to seminary at Gordon-Conwell, my M. Div. had an Urban Ministry concentration, and it was through my urban ministry classes that my experiences came full circle. One class in particular, called "Christianity and Racism," enabled me to see some of the systemic injustices that Christians have not only ignored, but often have even perpetuated. I also developed some other close, valued friendships with African-Americans during that season. The safety of those relationships allowed for honest dialogue about race.

You serve in a predominately white church and yet you preached a very powerful, heartfelt sermon on this topic. Why? And what were you trying to accomplish in your sermon?

There were basically three reasons that I felt moved to preach this sermon. The Ferguson grand jury decision had just hit the news and I knew that the Staten Island decision would be released soon. As I processed all that was happening that week, I wrestled internally over whether to address these events from the pulpit. What was clear to me was that at a minimum there is great mistrust and misunderstanding between law enforcement and minorities, and a greater conversation needs to happen about this chasm. The notion I wrestled with that week was the people of Jesus need to be at the forefront of this conversation. To ignore the issue would be insensitive and unloving toward my black brothers and sisters.

Secondly, as I heard people react—on national news, social media, and in conversations with church members—all the responses seemed to fall into one of two categories: "The Ferguson decision was another example of injustice, police brutality, and racism that continues to run rampant in the USA," or "Racism is a thing of the past, the police are just doing their job, criminals need to take personal responsibility, and the protestors need to get a life." I do not think that either position is completely correct, and I want my people to have some biblical guidelines on how to think and dialogue about the issue.

Thirdly, since the majority of my congregation is Caucasian, I know that many of them are unaware of the fact that racial injustice still happens. I felt that they needed to hear my voice, as their under-shepherd, explaining that fact and how we are to respond.

What was your text, your big idea, and how did you develop the sermon?

This was a rare occasion when I did not stick to one text or one homiletical idea, given the circumstances. I gave my people four biblical principles that I thought were the most pertinent to the current issue. The text that was most foundational, however, was Jesus' Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, in Matthew 18:21-35. I feel that the core principle in this parable needs to frame our conversations about this volatile issue.

  • We are on equal footing before the cross: equally desperate, equally loved, and if we have trusted in Jesus, equally redeemed. What I want my people to see, before anything else, is that whatever our stance on the issue, we are not in right standing with God because of our record, behavior, right thinking, résumé, race, income, or any other external factor. We are in right standing with God only because he is merciful. The reason that this truth is so crucial to the matter at hand is that when we realize this fact, it will cause us to approach this conversation with humility and grace.
  • Our identity is first, "in Christ." That is the preeminent facet of who we are as Christ-followers—before we are black, white, Latino, Asian, etc.—and it must frame how we see and discuss the issues.
  • We must be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry (James 1:19-20). It is so easy to spout off what you think about an issue, and why the other side is wrong—especially on social media. I believe we need to spend more time listening—especially if we are Caucasian—to our brothers and sisters who are minorities. I used this time to share an experience from my police days that would hopefully shed light on the use of force (see story below). Here's the story I shared in my sermon:
Every day, when I drove the 20 minutes from my apartment in North Baltimore to my police sector in SE Baltimore, I had a particular prayer that I prayed that went something like this: "Lord, I do not want to harm or kill anyone. I want to be an agent of justice. But I realize that in the nature of this job, that could become necessary. Please thwart any violent situation before it comes to that, and in the moment of decision, by your Spirit, give me the discernment to do the right thing."
One night I got a call of burglary in progress. A man was breaking into an apartment, and I was just a block away. I quietly pulled up to the front of the apartment and walked around back to peek around the corner, put eyes on the suspect and wait for backup. But when I peeked around the corner, the suspect was right there, 10 feet away from me, standing in the shadows, still trying to pry the door open.
He saw me. I couldn't see his hands, so afraid that he could be armed, I ordered him to show me his hands. He cursed at me, and continued fiddling around with his hands. I drew my gun and pointed it at him and ordered him again to show me his hands. All in a flash, he spun around, pulling something out of his waistband and pointing it at me. In that fraction of a second, the glimmering object looked like a silver handgun. I started to squeeze the trigger. In the last instant when I could have stopped, the suspect threw his hands up into the air, and threw the glass bottle that he had been holding.
Why he spun around and pointed a bottle at me I will never know. But I had this much time (snapping my fingers) to decide if he was holding a gun, and if I was going to shoot. I sincerely believe that it was the HS alone that stopped me from shooting. The man went to jail for various charges.
I trembled for the rest of that night, because I realized how close I had come to taking a man's life and changing the trajectory of my own. And I knew that although legally, I would have been justified in shooting, in the eyes of public opinion, I would have been another white officer who shot an unarmed man. I share this for several reasons: 1) To give you perspective when you hear about these events in the news; 2) Because I think we need Spirit-led Christians in law enforcement, whose split-second decisions are led by God; and 3) To ask you to pray for police officers, that they will be agents of justice and peace, guided by the hand of God. Be discerning about what you hear (and what you share) in the media.
  • My final point stated a counter-balance: Where there is, in fact, oppression and injustice, God's people need to be at the forefront of repenting and correcting it. I was able to share about a time when I had unwittingly perpetuated an unfair stereotype, which required acknowledgement and repentance (see story below). I elaborated on how we may discover examples of racist practices in our community, such as exclusionary zoning, that we must take action to correct. Again, here's what I said in the sermon:
In the drug-infested neighborhood that I patrolled, the streets were just barely wide enough for one car to drive down. The homes were row-homes, with a small lawn of about 30 x 15 feet. The young, street-level drug dealers would often leave large items in the road in order to prevent police vehicles from following them.
One day I noticed some guys selling drugs from a distance, and I sped around the corner and onto the small street where they were to apprehend them. They saw me and started running. As I tried to catch up to them in my car, I came up to a large piece of junk—a pet cage, or crab trap, or something bulky like that—in the middle of this narrow road. I had to jump out of my patrol car and throw it out of the road onto one of the adjacent lawns. I jumped back into my car and sped after the drug dealers, but it was too late. I had lost them. I did a 3-point turn and drove back the way I had come, and the bulky item was right back in the road. There was an old lady sweeping her front stoop in the yard where I had thrown it, and she had just thrown it back into the road. I yelled something at her in anger, about helping the drug dealers, and probably threatened to charge her with aiding and abetting, and then sped away.
Later, as I reflected on that picture, I realized what had happened. That woman wasn't trying to help the drug dealers. She was cleaning her front lawn. It wasn't much of a lawn; it didn't have much grass; but she was one of the few people on that block who took the time to keep her place clean. She had just finished cleaning up her lawn when I threw a large piece of trash onto it. Of course she would set it back out in the street. Her dignity required keeping her lawn clean. And I had assumed that she was just trying to help the drug dealers and hurt the cops, so I had yelled at her. I went back, but I couldn't find her to apologize. Sometimes we will have to apologize for our own perpetuation of injustice.

If a preacher wants to preach on race, what are some things NOT to say or do?

I think there is a danger for those of us who are Caucasian to become "paternalistic" in our approach to race issues. Without saying it in so many words, we can speak as if we are worthy of praise for desiring to help minorities, and as if they would be helpless without our help. It can be a subtle form of racism in itself. This is one reason why it is so important for us to be quick to listen, and to evaluate our own motives in discussing the issue.

By encouraging people to go to their minority friends with an eagerness to listen to their experiences, I could unintentionally turn the minority members of my congregation into "token" black or Latino people. They could have hoards of well-meaning white people trying to take them out for coffee in the interest of having a minority friend. We have to speak carefully in order to avoid this possibility. My hope is that they would already be in relationship with minority members, through small groups or some other venue, and that they would have a new humility in those relationships that produces a greater willingness to listen and understand.

Likewise, what are some of the things a preacher should do or say?

One thing that is clear in the current debates around our country is that well-meaning, Jesus-loving, Bible-believing Christians disagree with one another, and can be found on all sides of the issue. Whenever that is the case, I think it is crucial for us as pastors to speak with humility, to major on the truths about which the Bible speaks clearly, and to acknowledge where our brothers and sisters may see things differently from us.

We also need to realize where our own perspective is limited. Especially if we are Caucasian, then we must approach this kind of sermon with an even greater dose of humility and tact. As I was preparing this sermon I reached out to several of my black friends, including two who are in full-time ministry. I asked them what they were feeling about the issues at hand, what they would be saying to their congregations, and what they would encourage me to preach. I told them what I had in mind to preach, and asked them to give me feedback. I did a great deal of listening, because I wanted to make sure that I was practicing what I was going to preach, and that my perspective wasn't limited to my own experiences. Interestingly, they wondered what I was feeling as a former police officer, and my perspective was eye-opening for them as well.

Joshua Aaron Moody is the Lead Pastor at Three Village Church on Long Island. Prior to studying at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, he served as a police officer in Baltimore, MD for three years

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