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Preaching on Race: Why We Can't Wait

How can we speak out faithfully and sensitively on racial issues?
Preaching on Race: Why We Can't Wait
Image: Bob Miller / Stringer / Getty

Reverend Lawrence Aker, III is senior pastor of the historic Cornerstone Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York. Cornerstone's rich past includes dynamic connections with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. PreachingToday.com's editor Matt Woodley sat down with Rev. Aker for wisdom on preaching on racial issues well.

Matt Woodley, PreachingToday.com: Racial issues are very tense topics in our society. Preachers need to address them. But before we get to the social issues, I'd like to hear your story. On a personal level, how have racial issues impacted you?

Rev. Lawrence Aker, III: As an African-American male, it is grievous to see how things have been unfolding—especially in our judicial system. Historically as a people (as African-Americans), we've seen a bifurcated judicial system with numerous cases going back from Emmett Till to the Scottsboro boys in Alabama. When you look at capital punishment, the electric chair, and other types of punishment, you see an over-representation of African-American males. And to see the two probably milestone decisions in 2014 which are obviously carrying over right now—Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York. It's very challenging, and just trying to make sense of it.

Racial issues impact congregations of all colors, because the Fall of Adam continues to trickle down.

That's the environment we learn to live in. We try to cope with it, overcome it, and constantly combat it—whether it's the classic "first grab" in the elevator, or that look of suspicion in a department store, or the guilty-until-proven-innocent motif that we actually live with. I mean, I live in New York City, I live in Brooklyn, New York, and I have four sets of ID with me in case I get stopped. I have my license, I have my clergy pass, I have my New York clergy pass, and I have my passport. And if I have any tickets that haven't been paid I have those copies in my glove compartment and a picture on my phone.

We learn to live that way, because the system isn't balanced. Fortunately, when I have been stopped I have been able to show my ID, resolve things, and move on, or settle it at the precinct.

Let's talk about addressing racial issues from the pulpit. Why is it important to speak out?

Let me answer that two-fold.

Personally, I have to address it—because in my community, it's our reality. I can't just sweep it under the carpet. We have to deal with reality; have to nail our message to the now. And now is a crucial time in history for our society.

Then, look at the biblical passages. Amos declares that justice should run down like a mighty stream. Micah talks about what the Lord requires—to walk humbly, to serve, and to know the Lord. Jesus says, I came that you might have life and have it more abundantly, and it's challenging to have abundant life when you're having second-class treatment and overt struggles with racism. Not that I'm going to take the pulpit and circumvent the transforming power of the gospel, but in terms of relevant social application it has to be mentioned in the pulpit.

Historically, as an African-American clergy member, the African-American preacher has always been the spokesperson—all the way from the slavery days, from the antebellum period. Remember, in the days of slavery the slave preacher would preach? Many of them were unable to read, but memorized passages, and when the slave master wasn't there they could preach in a different way. We've always been that prophetic voice to our community. From Nat Turner, to Denmark Vesey, to David Walker, and then of course from what we're seeing always now of Dr. Martin Luther King, the quintessential American prophet.

Powerful. When a preacher realizes that they need to address this from the pulpit—what should they not say or do in their sermon?

First, don't try to ignore it. It is a biblical and culturally relevant issue. Don't throw up your hands and say, "Well, it's too complicated. Who knows what to say? I'll just let the Black church deal with this." The Old Testament prophets said, "Woe to those who take their ease," and even Dr. King said that, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

This issue affects all of us. Racial issues impact congregations of all colors, because the Fall of Adam continues to trickle down. We live in a fallen society. Even if you're talking about a predominantly white church, you've still got people whose kids at least have relationships with African-American and Hispanic kids at some point. To act like nothing is happening is like a Rip Van Winkle situation—snoring while the world changes.

On the other hand, don't turn the issue into your "bully pulpit" where, for example, you say that all policemen are bad. Too many preachers have a lot of passion about this issue, they preach with fervor, but they haven't done their homework. To just get up and preach with fervor and anger isn't a good idea. You need to be prayerful, to study, and make yourself aware of the issues at hand, the families that are involved. Have some understanding of the scope of the situation before you start preaching on it.

What should they say or do?

Dr. Jennifer Harvey, author of Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Reconciliation, poignantly states that we still have work to do before we can even start thinking about how to preach on race matters. She also recounts the well known epitaph that 11 A.M. is the most segregated hour in America. How then can we begin to mend and reconcile? Here are two steps to at least get people talking about race: 1) Take a Leap of Faith. By that I mean seek to empathize with congregations that don't look like yours. Ministry is always venue-specific. There are numerous challenges that face African American congregations that are devoid in White congregations. We live in a society with a systemic bias that produces red-lined neighborhoods where bankers do not lend, income disproportion, biased incarceration practices, and educational inequities—just to name a few injustices that African-Americans face.

Harper Lee's protagonist, in To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch states "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. … until you climb in his skin and walk around in it." Finch was explaining to his daughter race relations in the fictional Maycomb, Alabama. However in real life Christianity we would do well to have White pastors take a study of African-American history to understand the backdrop to many hopes, concerns, and struggles.

As an African American pastor, I would be honored if a White brother or sister would pick up the phone and call me and say, "I think I've been missing something here, and I'd like to get your perspective on the racial issues in our country. Can we sit down and talk? I'd like to get your perspective."

2) Build a Ministry Partnership. Once a greater understanding of culture has been gained people can begin to work together. Maybe it would look like a White pastor meeting an African American pastor at Starbucks, just to break the ice. Or perhaps two congregations could have a movie night and then discuss what was seen and gleaned. The recent film Selma could foster a robust discussion on race relations. Also local seminaries could assist as ambassadors to help partner and place churches together.

Perhaps the next chapter of Christian history can be written by those are willing to leap over the color line.

Racial tensions are high in our culture right now. As a white guy, I know that we are sometimes well-intentioned but we tend to tiptoe around these issues. What's helpful? What do you long for from your white brothers and sisters?

I long for more multi-cultural affiliations and fellowship. I would mean a lot to me if my fellow white pastors would just call or reach out to me and say something like, "Hey, brother, praying with you, praying with your community. What can I do, what do you need?" Or to say, "This is how I see the situation; tell me if I'm missing something? Am I seeing the same thing that you're seeing?" But I think when we're patronized or someone just glosses over it, more tensions build.

Besides preaching, what are you doing and what is your church doing to address racial issues in Brooklyn?

We're working with our local precinct. Once a week the community affairs officers in that department are sending over people to speak with our young people. On Friday nights, kind of like a family night, our gymnasium is open until almost midnight. So we've got tons of youth and young African-American men. We've done this before, but now it's on another level in terms of intensity to ask, number one, "What should I do if I'm stopped or questioned by a police officer?" Number two, "What are some things I should not do?" Do not make any sudden movements, do not speak in a discourteous manner. It's not a time to start doing a lot of hand gyrations. Just answer questions, show your proper ID and you need an adult present.

We had one of our promising youth get caught up in a round-up. The kid is going to college in the fall, and got caught in a round-up and spent the night in jail. So they're just releasing the name today and said, "Sorry, mistaken ID." But he's a 6 foot 7 kid, so he stands out. I think education and awareness and trying to create a line of communication and relationship with our police officers because theoretically and in a perfect world they are to protect us against the "evils of society." But we want to make sure that they know our community. Now more than ever I am determined to try the best I can to force that relationship with my precinct.

You're in Brooklyn, a pretty strategic city in the U.S. How do you see racial tensions in our nations playing out over the next few years? What kind of trajectory are we on here?

Prayerfully, things could get better. We can dialogue and set up some things. But I think racism and Jim Crow-ism is something that is not going to go away. I mean, that's realistic, right? It's not just going to go away—so how do we manage it, live with it, and fight it? How do we educate people?

This isn't anything new, this has been going on since civil rights and free civil rights days. But I hope that as more leaders emerge, as there's more understanding between Republicans, Democrats, Tea Party, Independents, more, we can find a stronger toleration of our differences … as well as the things that we have in common. Racial tolerance.

How do you see the church playing a strategic role in issues of race in our country and in our communities?

The church is definitely going to be a focal point to usher in change, transformation, peace, and dialogue, as it has been in the past. I definitely want to be connected with people who are of that mindset, and the church is one of the major tools that can be used to accomplish those types of actions.

Lawrence Aker III is the senior pastor of the Cornerstone Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York.

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