Rarely do I write in the first person, because I consider myself a pluralistic and corporate being always accompanied by a great cloud of witnesses and the triune Godhead. This missive in this moment is a deviation from the norm. I want to be crystal clear I am writing on my behalf, expressing a personal perspective and have not sought support or consensus from any other entity or persons I am associated with in anyway. In the words of Dr. Martin King, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Black lives matter!
Yes, I am an episcopate in the Lord’s Church, humbly serving during this season as Presiding Prelate of the Western Episcopal District and the president of the Board of Bishops of the Freedom Church, the church of Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, James Walker Hood, Solomon Seay, Stephen G. Spottswood and a host of others who are now members of the church triumphant. The church of those who lifted their voices for God and their race while occupying the church militant. This is the church of my parents, grand parents and great grandparents, Niles and Caroline Powell.
Anyone who remotely knows me is aware of my roots in Hallsboro, a rural agrarian hamlet in the southeastern tip of North Carolina. There I was quite familiar with farm life and domestic animals. One of the motivating factors for my academic pursuits was to escape the toil of agricultural labor. Many of the sayings from those days continue to guide me. One such statement, “the chickens have come home to roost,” was popularized in the sixties by Malcolm X and caused him to be censured by the Nation of Islam. This is a concept which dates back to antiquity. Being a farm boy, chickens coming home to roost was a daily occurrence. During the day, chickens would roam around the pastures and yard, but at dusk they would always return to the chickencoop. Basically, it means, “you reap what you sow” or “what goes around comes around.”
Long before the death of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, however, we were mourning the murders of a number of our sons and daughters across the nation, to name a few: Corey Patton, also killed in Georgia; Sean Reed, Sandra Bland, Lennon Lacy, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner Breonna Taylor, all murdered. Lives which are valued less than a canine. And, we continue to mourn the souls separated from the bodies at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston.
Frustration, anguish, hurt, despair and great outrage being played out in major cities throughout the nation have passed the tipping point. The naked realities and atrocities which gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement six years ago has hit again as white policemen commit outright murder witnessed by all.
From the streets of Minneapolis, where Mr. George Floyd went limp after a police officer knelt on his neck for nine minutes, to outside the White House gates to the hundreds of protestors who besieged cities like
Atlanta, New York, and Los Angeles, America is once again haunted by its shameful history of systemic racism. America is confronted with its human brokenness and shameful past. The voices of a hurting people demand to be heard.
In the final analysis, the riot is the language of the unheard. What is it that America has failed to hear?” Dr. King questions. “In a sense, our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our winter’s delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these occurrences of riots and violence over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.” When is America going to act and respond to the more than 200 years of compounded racism against black people? Racism remains America’s original sin.
Events of recent weeks have broken the heart of all faithful followers of a loving God and Jesus, the Prince of Peace. While I decry the violence and destruction of property across the nation, people are far more valuable. Property can be replace. Our progeny is invaluable and irreplaceable.
Efforts employed by protesters to eliminate the long-term systemic violence of white privilege and white preferences are one of the few avenues left to communities abused decade after decade. With the words of our mouths, we have declared our opposition to such abuse, but we have yet to repair the breach with transformative action.
Those persons who are not of color, cannot imagine the current anquish and suffering of so many black and brown families repeatedly watching their children lying in streets slaughtered at the hands of murderous mobs clothe in police garb, talking about “thugs.” Not even the infamous Bull Connor of Birmingham, Alabama was seen soiling his hands and knees on someone’s neck. Indeed, there can be no salvation for any of us if we fail to recognize and change the pervasive, persistent, pernicious infiltration of tolerance for racial violence among this nation’s institutions, churches included.
Systemic racism is not the thoughts or even the actions of an individual. The violence it breeds is the crushing trauma to black and white, which makes shooting of black bodies expected, and the rage such unjust killings incite the only response. Such violence is the poisonous, inevitable fruit of the tree of hatred rooted in centuries of manufactured “whiteness;” a division solely aimed at maintaining power and wealth on the back of black and brown human beings.
To the extent that communities of faith have been complicit in this abuse and violence, I am doubly ashamed. As a follower of God who chose to incarnate in a brown, outcast, minority religious body and taught all persons were precious in God’s sight, the perpetrators have much to atone for in turning the savior of the world into a savior of some, the lighter the better.
I am unapologetically an ecumenist, however I refuse to give a nod to those who are overtly white-preferential, as institutions and always partner with the empire of white wealth and white power, all built on the suffering of black and brown bodies. Some have repented in words and some deeds. But it has not been enough and as Isaiah 58 reminds me, what good are all their festivals and prayers if they are built on the abuse of others? How can God hear anything but the cry of the mothers weeping in Ramah—or Louisville, or Minneapolis, or Ferguson, or Brunswick, or Bladenboro– for their children?
Further, it must be said that the actions of fear perpetrated by so many white Americans, have also been systemically cultivated in our society. Giving permission to shoot looters is unacceptable. These fears have been taught to insulate and then deflect white recognition of the disease and real culprit. I am sick of victims being vilified for being underprivileged and less fortunate. If George Floyd had access to unlimited resources and nepotistic privilege, he would not need to have what appeared to be a fraudulent bill.
White perpetrators of violent acts, recent and historic, are victims of lies told to them about whom to fear and why; lies told and repeated to maintain an inequitable power to white people, and turning their
best impulses of love and protection to corruption and denial of their neighbor. When people are trained to deny the humanity of others, we destroy God-given humanity in themselves. We are all diminished by continuing to disregard the disease of racism, but it has been brown and black citizens who have died because of it. Melanic people are created in the “imagio dei.” Melanic people also sing America.
In the coming days, I call on the Freedom Church to work diligently to address these issues both within your congregation and across the connection to mobilize in supplying needed responses in this moment. As these avenues become known, I will ensure these resources on the websites, www.wedamez.org and www.amez.org.
I will also be formulating an action plan to engage political leaders and ecumenical partners in a coordinated plan for change. The moral reformation that we institute for ourselves we will also expect of our governments, city, and state, and we hope to be an engaging force for such reform.
White privilege is a disease that has killed far more than any other pandemic, and wounded the souls of so many more, black and white. I cannot and we will not sit idle or remain silent while our sons and daughter, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews continue to be unapologetically publicly slaughtered and suffer. I urge you to trust God, love like Jesus, and be transformed in the renewing of our collective heart and mind: For the sake of Christ Jesus who died for our life, let us not be hearers of the word only, but faithful, persistent, builders of God’s Kingdom on earth. I plead with you not to rest until justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. There can never be peace without justice!
Anointed to Serve,
Episcopal Servant of the Most High
Presiding Prelate, Western Episcopal District
President, Board of Bishop, AME Zion Church