What Black Covenanters Want to Say to White Covenanters: A Companion Reprint

CHICAGO, IL (April 1, 2014) — Editor’s note: The April issue of the Covenant Companion features an interview with Alex Gee, pastor of Fountain of Life Covenant Church, in Madison Wisconsin, whose 3,000-word opinion piece in a local newspaper about racism in the city sparked an unexpected response. Near the end of the interview Gee addresses the question, “We’ve talked about these issues before. What’s different now?”

It’s a question we continue to wrestle with in the Covenant. Recently Covenant News Service re-posted a blog entry titled “To the (Probably White) Person Who Says It Shouldn’t Be About Race.” It unintentionally echoed the title of this article from the June 1996 issue of the Covenant Companion—one of many on this topic the Companion has published over the years. (The identifications of the writers remain as they appeared at publication.) In 1963, the magazine published a letter adopted by ministers at that year’s Annual Meeting.

A series of videos in which Covenanters share their experiences of being racially profiled also highlights the need for reconciliation to be sought with other racial groups as well.

Original editor’s note: A year ago at its Annual Meeting the Evangelical Covenant Church approved a resolution on racism. It calls on “individuals and ministries” to address “the injuries of racial injustice and the challenges of racial reconciliation.” This issue is part of the Covenant Companion’s effort to do just that. In the following article we ask all Covenanters, black and white, to listen to brothers and sisters as they speak of the injuries and confusions and affirm the opportunities, challenges, and joys of reconciliation.

Denise A. Isom

The word “daunting” doesn’t carry with it enough fear, emotion, or turmoil to capture the weight of this task upon my heart. After years of not being invited to the table and years of not being heard once there, silence is tempting. For at least in the silence there will be rest from proving our pain exists, protection from the questions and assumptions that devalue our lives, and an isolation that will at least feel like peace in absence of its presence.

We—all of us—can no longer be satisfied with the trappings of brother and sisterhood. We have for too long invested ourselves in imitations: familiarity instead of intimacy, politeness substituting for truth, separation perpetrating as trust, appeasement and tolerance in opposition to fellowship and understanding. I believe there is a better way.

Embedded in Isaiah 58’s description of God’s fast is a promise for our lives. “And those among you will rebuild the ancient ruins, you will raise up the age-old foundations; and you will be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets in which to dwell” (Isaiah 58:12). Isaiah’s words resound as a call to all of us, for today we abide in the ruins of social injustice and cultural misunderstandings, we live and have grown accustomed to “the breach.”

To fulfill that promise, we must first be willing to acknowledge the brokenness. We cannot repair a breach, rebuild ruins, or heal a wound we are busy ignoring. The first step in living this promise is being willing to see the pain and fear of the other.

Upon realizing the brokenness exists, we must then discover its causes so as to not fall victim again. To raise a foundation we must know what tore it down. The history that both binds and separates us must be embraced. Until we discover together where we have been, we will go nowhere.

To rebuild we must have a plan, tools, and materials. Too often we have thrown around the term “racial reconciliation” as if it were an emotional state created by good intentions and strong enough wills. We must have a plan. To restore we have got to know the original state of existence, the end product, and the steps needed to get there. The pursuit of knowing what God intended our fellowship to be and the directed establishment of life-changing relationships will compel us to be people who seek God’s vision for love, who take the risk to truly understand culture and difference, who become gatherers of the tools and materials for restoration.

Last, Isaiah’s words call us to action, to not solely talk about, dream about or pray about, but to become repairers. When the work of Isaiah 58:12 is done, the people are left with places to abide, foundations on which to stand, and the means for community identity that create life and life abundantly.

Denise A. Isom is assistant professor of education and executive director of the Center for African American Studies at North Park College in Chicago.

Willie B. Jemison

We came to the Covenant with a rich ethnic and Christian heritage. Though our backgrounds are as far as the east is from the west yet there are some similarities. Both of us came out of an oppressive past. Ours a little harder, yet there are some parallels.

The big farms were run by a prince in Sweden. It was almost impossible for one to save enough to start his own farm. The religion was not free and open, causing you to start your Christian heritage even at the expense of your life and the well-being of your family. Yet, you took risks of dying just to express yourself to God as your conscience dictated. You left what little you had to come to the strange land and make a new start with nothing.

We were brought here, not of our own will, but discovered there was a God who cared about us in our lowly estate. We trusted him and began serving him at the risk of our lives. We too lived on big plantations (farms) with no hope of ever being free of the oppression of the rich and religious. We took a chance by faith and came to a land that held a rich promise. We left the little we had to come and start fresh with nothing. God has blessed us who had nothing to become educated and independent. We, like you, have started many institutions that will secure and retain our rich ethnic, cultural, and Christian heritage.

We thank God for being involved in a group who understands how important it is for one to retain some of the rich norms that helped to hold it together as a people. We appreciate the wonderful work God has wrought in you and hopefully you will continue to appreciate the work the Spirit of God is doing in the lives of the Afro-American Christian who has come to be a part of that rich Covenant that has its roots in Europe.

Willie B. Jemison is senior pastor of Oakdale Covenant Church in Chicago, Illinois.

Robert and Hazel Sloan

In the words written by Alex Haley, “When you clench your fist, no one can put anything in your hand, nor can your hand pick up anything.” These words came to mind when we were asked if we would be willing to share what we, as African American Covenanters, would want to say to white Covenanters. Admittedly, over the past thirty years, at any given time, our response might have been quite different.

At this point in our history, we respond to this opportunity with unclenched fists. It was through much prayer, discussion, discernment, and an extended open hand of a loving, caring, and nurturing minister, and a culturally diverse Covenant church, our family chose to become Covenanters. This happened approximately thirty years ago.

We live in a diverse society. As Christians we are called to respond to each other through mutual love, trust, sensitivity, and acceptance. Diversity is a way of life. It cannot be ignored, sidestepped, tiptoed around, or fenced out!

Our denomination has always been proud of its rich Swedish culture, history, theological heritage, and identity as “Pietists.” We acknowledge, respect, and celebrate that. We, as African Americans, are also proud of the identity we share as faithful children of God, and our rich culture and heritage as a people. A history, which was lost, stolen, and hidden, has survived through God’s faithfulness and our perseverance. It is a history and heritage we have maintained in spite of the injustices of hatred and the spirit breakers of desolation, alienation, and hopelessness; a heritage we have maintained without excluding or discounting the value of others.

As a denomination, we are continually challenged to rise above the crippling limitations of stereotypical attitudes and prejudicial behavior. This frees us up to share, learn of, and use the untapped resources of others to equip, strengthen, and spiritually revitalize the vineyards in which we are called to serve.

We have offered our hands and clasped the outstretched hands of many welcoming and a few reluctant white Covenanters. We can affect each other by affirming and embracing our differences. In this manner, the “heart of Christ” is truly reflected through word and deed. We believe Jesus’ work on the cross, in the shedding of his blood, binds us together. We are your brothers and sisters. In this spirit, may all fists remain unclenched and all hands open to be grasped.

Robert and Hazel Sloan are members of Community Covenant Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Robert is supervisor of the Veterans Administration Hospital, and Hazel is a retired employment supervisor of U.S. West Communications.

Everett Jackson

As I look out across the landscape of the Evangelical Covenant Church I see enormous possibilities for enhanced and expanded understanding across racial and ethnic lines. The reason for my saying this is because during the last ten years of my sojourn with the Covenant, I have recognized the people of the Covenant to be people of exceptional good will. As it is often said, however, there are exceptions to every rule and there are obvious exceptions to my observation. For the most part, though, I think my observation holds true. I cannot imagine another denomination, given my theological perspective and certain other factors, in which I could be more comfortable.

The reality of the society in which we live does force me to ask, “Is it possible that much of this ostensible good will could be of a surface nature in which relationships remain superficially cordial at best?”

Sincere and honest good will is something that is, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, devoutly to be wished for. Good will is obviously preferable to the lack of civility that is so prevalent today. But I wonder if much of what passes for good will can, like latent hostility, be a way of holding people at bay or keeping them at arm’s length.

One could certainly conclude that the failure to have much significant discussion in this denomination on the subject of race, which has historically been of almost “ultimate concern” in this society, is surprising and telling to say the least. W. B. Dubois, considered the foremost African-American intellectual of the nineteenth century, predicted that race would be the number-one problem of the twentieth century. I don’t think that is likely to change in the next century.

Robert J. Samuelson in his book The Good Life and Its Discontents suggests that “the expectations we might have of true racial harmony along with certain other things could be nothing more than a pipe dream, the excessive optimism of the early postwar decades.”

I would hope that the Covenant Church has not reached a similar conclusion and simply decided to deal with the hard and thorny issues of race with individual and personal good will. Good will is certainly laudable in itself but by itself can come to look very much like the old political strategy of “benign” neglect.

Racial justice will continue to be both complex and difficult to get a firm handle on, but should we not take seriously the words of Robert Browning: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for.”

Everett Jackson is associate professor of pastoral care at North Park Theological Seminary and a chaplain at Swedish Covenant Hospital in Chicago, Illinois.

Raymond W. Cunningham Jr.

We moved from Cleveland, Ohio, to rural West Virginia when I was in kindergarten. To say that the culture was quite different is an understatement. However, all during my growing up years there my parents constantly stressed that I must always strive to be accepted as a person rather than by my race, special talent, or skill. They provided a loving and challenging environment that underscored that philosophy.

Throughout college and the first part of my professional career, I naively operated under this philosophy—even during the civil rights era. However, in the past several years, I’ve had a number of experiences that have made it patently clear that I’m almost always first looked upon as an African American, someone different.  Some of these experiences have been subtle, some quite direct.

In spite of these, however, my experience during the past fifteen-plus years at Winnetka (Illinois) Covenant Church has affirmed my parents’ beliefs. Although I’m one of the few people of color in the congregation, I firmly believe folks there relate to me as me! It’s been that way since my first visit. I’m an integral part of this church family. No special concessions. No subtle hints that I’m different. No missionary effort to evangelize someone different.

So what’s my point? We’re all different (even those of the same race and color). Put aside the baggage you might have when you meet an African American and relate to him or her as another human. You may be pleasantly surprised at the positive feedback you’ll get.

Raymond W. Cunningham Jr. is a management consultant for Physician Reimbursement Systems and a member of Winnetka (Illinois) Covenant Church.

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3 Comments

  1. I appreciate this reprint, and remember first hearing about the call for racial reconciliation within the evangelical movement in the late 90’s. At that time, the conversation was predominantly Black/White – and still often is. It’s time to expand the conversation. Thank you for the breadth of profiles in the Companion videos on “Hitting a Nerve” – http://covenantcompanion.com/profiling-videos-hitting-a-nerve/

  2. Well this is quite a surprise and so refreshing. I am a white girl who grew up in predominantly white places and for most of my life, I just wanted us all to get along without talking about differences. Sankofa trips and patient African-American friends and professors have impacted me greatly. To these writings, I respond with an open hand, asking God what my role is in this journey between acknowledging the differences and relating to all people as humans. Thank you to all the writers for putting yourselves out there and sharing a piece of your heart with the readers.

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