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Free At Last - Christian Racial Reconciliation

This is a menu of the topics on this page (click on any): Reconciliation    Free At Last    forgiveness    Racial Reconciliation    genocide    healing   .

Racial Reconciliation is a sermon preached by Gordon Cosby at The Church of The Saviour on Sunday, October 22, 1995.

Free At Last is the personal witness of Merdine T. Morris who was seated in the congregation on that same Sunday.

Free At Last

by Merdine T. Morris

I had been introduced to The Church of The Saviour through books by Elizabeth O'Connor and by word of mouth. I had wanted to attend a worship service there for a long time. Since I was going to be at the Festival Center for two days I decided to extend my time in Washington, D.C., in order to be present at the Ecumenical Service on Sunday, October 22, 1995.

We arrived a little late. I was uncomfortable because I had to sit in the front in the first row. I was sitting so dose to the pastor I felt as if I could touch him if I stretched out my arms. I quieted myself and positioned myself to listen.

I heard something that sounded like this- "I am going to preach this morning a sermon I preached to an Afro-American congregation. I had been invited by the pastor to be the speaker. As I looked out at the congregation I was wondering what to say to them:'

I sank into my seat and said to myself, "Here we go again-a white man talking about racism:' But then I listened and heard, "I am going to speak about anger and forgiveness. To my Afro-American Sisters and Brothers I will speak about anger. For all the dehumanizing things you have experienced: children being torn from mothers' arms, families being split, churches being burned, and being treated as animals, as non-humans. I remember a little white frame church (built by Afro-Americans who got tired of sitting in the balcony of a white church) that was burned because the fire station, which was two blocks away, could (would) not get there in time to save it: He continued to tell of how a white brick kiln owner refused to sell bricks to the Afro-Americans to build a fire-proof building. As the pastor continued his sermon I heard a litany of cruel acts aimed at telling a specific group of people, "You are not human. You really don't count. You are nobody." Then he said, "You can and should be angry for such treatment:,

I began to cry. Hot tears of anger slipped out of my eyes, flooding down my cheeks. The anger shot forth and I said to myself, "Yes, I am angry! I am angry because they broke my grandfather's back. I am angry for how they killed Uncle Charlie. I am furious that my husband, who both served in World War II saving white lives and was a good radar technician, could not get a job. When he was discharged he went to an airport to find work and was humiliated for simply applying for a job."

By then tears of anger were really flooding. I could not stop crying. I was indeed consumed with anger-finally admitting the anger for what had been done to me. No, I had not experienced the acts personally, but my roots had.

When the service was over I went up to Gordon Cosby, the preacher, both to apologize for my uncontrollable tears and to say, "Yes, I am angry for the treatment received in this country by Afro-Americans from Euro-Americans, and nobody has ever asked for forgiveness." Gordon looked at me and said, "Merdine, will you say this now?" I replied, "Yes, I want to:'

He called the congregation back. I stood there and poured out my anger. I told them how I felt the cutting pain that was so deep. I told them of the anger that had been buried, of being treated as less than human.

Then it happened.

They came-the Euro-Americans- asking, "Merdine, will you forgive me?"

The tears of anger became tears of relief and joy. They heard and they understood. I could touch. I could hug. I could both say and mean, "Yes, I forgive you. Yes, I want to hug you. Yes, I love you."

Racial Reconciliation

N. Gordon Cosby

For our Scriptural background and for the heart of our thinking today, let us consider a passage from the letter of Paul to the Ephesians, beginning with the third verse of the first chapter:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has conferred on us in Christ every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms. Before the foundation of the world he chose us in Christ to be his people, to be without blemish in his sight, to be full of love. To be without blemish in his sight and to be full of love-that is an amazing call.

And he predestined us to be adopted as his children through Jesus Christ. This was his will and pleasure in order that' the glory of his gracious gift so graciously conferred on us in his Beloved might redound to his praise. In Christ our release is secured and our sins forgiven through the shedding of his blood. In the richness of his grace God has lavished on us all wisdom and insight. He has made known to us his secret purpose, in accordance with the plan which he determined beforehand in Christ, to be put into effect when the time was ripe: namely, that the universe, everything in heaven and on earth, might be brought into a unity in Christ.

And then, from the third chapter of Galatians beginning with verse twenty-six:

It is through faith that you are all sons and daughters of God in union with Jesus Christ. Baptised into union with him, you have all put on Christ like a garment. 77tere is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female; for you are all one person in Christ Jesus. So, if you belong to Christ, you are the 'issue' of Abraham and heirs by virtue of the promise.

Last Sunday, October 15th, one day before the Million Man March on Washington, I spoke to an African American congregation in Washington. Everyone was thinking about the March-those who were excited about it because of the potential which they sensed, and those who were miserable about it because of the fear they were harboring. It happened that a mission group in The Potter's House had for some time been working with the problem of racial reconciliation. One member of that group, also a member of the Third Street Church of God, had arranged for an opportunity for me to talk with his African American congregation I believe that God had something to do with the timing of that talk of mine, for the selection of that day, which unexpectedly was the day before the March, involved a wisdom that was providential. Certainly it was no mere coincidence.

Interestingly enough, this particular congregation had a stronger. call to racial reconciliation than any church I have known in the Washington area. Their minister, Sam Hines, had this as the passion of his heart. Another man was there, John Staggers, with whom Don McClanen had worked to bring into being the Washington Leadership Group. Also, Tom Skinner was very close to that congregation, and many of us have been blessed by his ministry.

I started off by simply thanking them for the special call to re- conciliation, to which they have been faithful for over thirty years, and for the price they have paid to be faithful to that call. It has not been easy for an African American congregation to work at the point of racial reconciliation because of the oftentimes resistant attitude of the black community.

After I had thanked them for their own sense of can and for paying a heavy price for it, I told them that we, too, in The Church of The Saviour have struggled with this through the years. I recalled my eagerness when I was asked in the 1950's, over 40 years ago, to speak at the Easter Sunrise Service at the Carter Barron Theater in Washington. I thought that would be a wonderful opportunity to talk about what, for me, was the meaning of Easter.

It was a miserable morning, raining and rather gloomy, but I thought that would be forgotten very shortly because we would be living into the meaning of the resurrection. I talked about racial reconciliation, saying that the resurrection means that we become a new people-that we must belong to one another; that I hoped that every white congregation in Washington would be open and invite into it the black members of the community; and that every black congregation would be open to whites. About that time I saw people beginning to rise up-not in a good sense-but people rising up to leave. About a third of the congregation left. I knew then that I would never be a "popular preacher".

I said to the people last Sunday, "You've been working with this for thirty years and we've been working with it for almost fifty years. I carry with me a deep sadness in my heart and in my spirit this morning because, in spite of your efforts and in spite of our efforts and the common efforts of many, many people who have longed for reconciliation, the separation is deeper and the chasm between us is wider now than it has been in many years. So I come to you with a very heavy heart."

I think its very important for us to become Bible-toting Christians going back to our Bibles. Let us look again at the Scriptures to see what God intended, "He has made known to us his secret purpose, in accordance with the plan which he determined beforehand in Christ, to be put into effect when the time was ripe: namely, that the universe, everything in heaven and on earth, might be brought into a unity in Christ" (Ephesians 1:9). That's the plan whether we like it or whether we don~t like it, stated just as clearly as it can be. And there's just not any getting away from it.

The second Scripture gives a bit more specificity to the plan. "It is through faith that you are all sons and daughters of God in union with Jesus Christ. Baptised into union with him, you have all put on Christ like a garment. There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female..:(and we might add any of the separated groups of our time: Black, White, African American, EuroAmerican ... ).

In an article in the Post a few days ago just before the march, an Hispanic person was quoted as saying, "I feel like I'm only half a person because of all this black/white talk:, A longer dialogue is needed with all the groups in our society. In the little Festival Church in our early days we lost an Asian couple because we were trying to get the blacks and the whites and the Hispanics together. This couple observed that they never heard anything about Asians. So they left us. Somehow we must be all-inclusive. Although I am aware that the dialogue must be much wider, this morning I want to talk about the black./white situation.

Union means "bound together," bonded to others, in full intimacy. The differences of black and white are now bonded together in full union. There is a new race; a new corporate being is created because of what has happened in the coming of Jesus Christ. If we take Jesus as our Saviour and Lord, which a lot of us talk about freely, we take his family. Jesus never comes alone. He comes with his family. Jesus says, "I love you. I want you. You~re my beloved-but you must take all my beloved family." We often say, "I want you, but I don't like your family. Your family is not acceptable. I can't take these people."

Jesus says, "Tough! We come together." So I have to break away from what I call my people (people like me) to take on a new people. Those new people look quite different from our broken, fragmented, racially divided city. So, as I understand the Gospel, I simply have no choice. As I interpret the Word of God, my black friends don't have a choice either. The Gospel works both ways.

The Scripture is describing what is-not what should be, not what it would be nice to be, but what is. I can deny the Body, the union, but I'm denying my true family. Christ says, "I am in your family and you are in mine. That's just the nature of things. Better get on with it now, because that's the way it is and the way it is going to be. If you deny it, if you fight it, you are living in sin, and you will earn the wages of sin which is death." Racial division is sin, and we are reaping the wages of that sin, which is death.

In the fight of this, what is one to say that is helpful to African Americans and to Euro-Americans today? I must confess that, because so many years have gone by and I have listened to so much talk about reconciliation and have talked about it so much myself, I have very little hope in more talk. Rhetoric, talk, doesn't make things different. That Sunday morning I said what I really meant. I said, "I'm excited about just being with you. That's what needs to happen, and one of the sadnesses which I have carried in my heart at The Church of The Saviour through the years is that we have not been able to find a way to bring together the races at a deeper level. It's beginning to happen in a very wonderful way in some of the churches. And that's where I feel the hope of the future is-in the smaller communities. That's where I long to be, in a faith community where that occurs. It's very easy to talk about the facts. But it's hard for the facts to really penetrate our inner feelings.

Several weeks ago there was a statistic in The Washington Post which indicated that one of every three African American young men is tied into the prison system. He is actually in prison, waiting to go in, or is on parole. One out of every three! Six years ago it was one out of every four. That is a horrible 'fact. But that fact doesn't "do it" for us. Recently I've been trying to get more deeply into the feelings of people who are excluded and who are scarred by the white supremacy that we continue to perpetuate.

There is a new book by Jonathan Kozol called Amazing Grace. Some of us remember his earlier writings. He has been interviewing people in the South Bronx and Harlem, and he says:

I occasionally asked them what they heard when they heard America talking about them. On this subject as on others, I discovered that some of the young people were far more passionate and thoughtful than they are usually given credit for.

One afternoon, for example, I spoke with a group of black and Hispanic adolescents who had gathered in a Harlem storefront office that was being used as a youth center. These weren't the stereotypical ghetto youth portrayed by politicians and the entertainment industry; rather they were an articulate bunch, the pride of neighborhood adults, and they wanted a chance to speak to a writer.

I shared with them a statement that a boy from the South Bronx had made to me about how he felt "locked down"in his neighborhood. A 15-year old girl said, I think that's too strong. I would put it differently."

I asked, "How would you put it?"

"It's not like being in jail," she said. "It's more like being 'hidden.' It's as if you had been put in a garage where, if they don't have room for something but aren't sure if they should throw it out. They put it there, where they don't need to think of it again:'

I asked if she believed that Americans did not "have room" for her or people like her.

"Think of it this way,"said her older sister, a 16-year old named Maria. "If people in New York woke up one day and learned that we were gone, that we had simply died or left for somewhere else, how would they feel?"

"How do you think they'd feel?" I asked.

"I think they'd be relieved. I think it would lift a burden from their minds. I think the owners of the downtown stores would be ecstatic. They'd know they'd never need to see us coming in their doors, and taxi drivers would be happy because they would never need to come here anymore. People in Manhattan could go on and lead their lives and not feel worried about being robbed and not feel guilty and not need to pay for welfare babies:,

"Do you think thats how they really look at people in this neighborhood?"

"I think they look at us as obstacles to moving forward," she replied.

The students went out of their way to make it clear that they did not subscribe to rhetoric about "conspiracies" or "genocide," perhaps because I am white, perhaps because they know that such rhetoric is frequently discredited, perhaps because they truly don't believe it.

"It's not like, Well, these babies just aren't dying fast enough. Let's figure out a way to kill some more" Matua said. "It's not like that at all. It's like-I don't know how to say this..."

She held a styrofoam cup in her hands and turned it slowly for a moment. "If you weave enough bad things into the fibers of a person's life-sickness and filth, old mattresses and other junk thrown in the streets and other ugly ruined things, and ruined people, a prison here, sewage there, drug dealers here, the homeless people over there, then give us the very worst schools anyone could think of, hospitals that keep you waiting for 10 hours, police that don't show up when someone's dying, take the train that's underneath the street in the good neighborhoods and put it up above where it shuts out the sun, you can guess that life will not be very nice and children will not have much sense of being glad of who they are. Sometimes it feels like we've been buried six feet under their perceptions. This is what I feel they have accomplished."

"Put them over there in a big housing project," said a boy sitting beside her. "Pack them tight. Don't think about them. Keep your hands dean. Maybe they'll kill each other off:'

The way that Maria and her sister talked also strikes me as so very, very different from the abstract, cautious commentaries about 'racial sensitivities' and 'racial tensions' made at times by more serious newspapers in their editorials about these matters. A sense of justified and prophetic rage is usually absent from these commentaries, but the students here in Harlem voiced it freely.

Do you ever hear of cities that existed long ago and are extinct today?" asked Maria's younger sister. "I believe that this win happen here. Everyone will get so sick of life in Harlem and the South Bronx that we'll just give up and move somewhere else. But it will be the same thing there again until the new place is so sad and ugly it's destroyed and then we'll move again to somewhere else, and somewhere else, until the whole world is destroyed and there is nothing to look back on but the ashes'

Startled by her words, I asked her, as I found myself asking many times throughout a year of visits to the South Bronx and Harlem. "Do you honestly believe that?"

"Yes, I do," she said. "I believe that to a full extent."

So the question I would ask this morning is "How do we respond to this frightful state of affairs?" I know how we have been responding.

The question for me today is: how must we respond if we take Jesus seriously and take our oneness in, and with, Jesus seriously?. Oftentimes I cannot respond in the way I know to be right, but it helps me to get there if I know clearly what Jesus commands me to do. And I like to keep that tension between what I can do at the moment and what I know I must do if I am taking Jesus seriously. I spoke these things to the Third Street Church of God that day, and I wish there were more African Americans here today so I could speak seriously to them.

I have different messages for the African Americans among us and for the whites among us. In our American society we each bring a history which we cannot escape. It's a part of us. The blacks in our society have been oppressed and victimized. Whites by and large have been the oppressors. Each race represented brings its history to this moment. Those who have power over the economically weak tend to use that power for themselves and let the weak, the victims, pay whatever cost is necessary to maintain the power and privilege of the strong-and that cost can be terribly high. Remember the cost Jesus paid. Those in power made him the victim. He was sacrificed to maintain the systems-the religious systems and the governmental systems in power in his time. And he chose to suffer with the victims. The victims always pay a terrible price.

What do we do? How do we respond if we are in union with Jesus Christ? There are two words that I would leave with our black friends. At the risk of oversimplification-just two words. People worry about oversimplification, and I do too. But I would ask that we also worry about the risk of overcomplication. When we worry about the risk of overcomplication, we don't come up with anything. So I'm not worried about the risk of oversimplification this morning. What I would say to my black friends is "be angry - and forgive!" Two words.

Anger is a very important emotion. When we and our loved ones have been hurt and oppressed and been the objects of injustice for centuries, the awareness of that injustice invokes anger, even rage. Anger is, I believe, a Christian emotion. We should feel it. We are never to accept injustice as if it were right. It's an offense to God as well as to us. I think God feels it with us and wants us to feel it.

That is a long, difficult, painful journey for African Americans. Some African Americans have not let themselves feel it because it's so awful, and they wonder what would happen if they let the rage within them explode. But feeling the anger is a necessary part of the journey.

Then there is the next step. We are commanded by the Gospel to forgive. I honestly don~t know how you can forgive. If I had been hurt and had suffered and borne the cost you have borne in this racist society with all its scapegoating mechanisms-and had watched my children, loved ones, pay the cost year after year, I don't know whether I could forgive or not. I would surely have to get help from the One who cried out in agony on the Cross: "Father, forgive them for they don't know what they do."

Whether you can respond or not, I want to cry out to you on behalf of my people and beg for your forgiveness. That is what I said to several hundred African Americans last Sunday, and I meant it deeply. What we have done is awful beyond description. I grieve. I feel deep shame. How does one repent on behalf of a people? Who will let me speak for them? But as best I can, I want to ask your forgiveness and will pray that you will be given supernatural power to forgive that which, in your own power, you can't forgive.

To forgive is amazingly difficult-even to forgive the little hurts and pains of life. We all let one another down. just by being human", we inevitably hurt one another. In a love relationship of any depth there is hurt. We hurt those we love most-especially those closest to us. We fear intimacy because we know we will be hurt. And when we have been deeply hurt, it is difficult to forgive, to let it be, to put ourselves into the position of being hurt again. So we are talking about trust How do we trust people who have hurt us and are probably going to hurt us again? We make it extremely difficult for any oppressed group to hear the Gospel because the Gospel says that God loves them, and we have said to them, "You don't matter. We don't see you." Then we expect them to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We can't hear the Gospel ourselves because, when you're oppressing people, how can you hear that you are loved? So we are preventing anyone from hearing the Gospel just by the way we live our lives.

Let me now say two words to our white community. Two words. "We must grow to the place of feeling shame and then of giving up power."

I spend a lot of time trying to help people to become freed from "false" shame. There is, however, such a thing as genuine shame. What we have done was and is wrong, terribly wrong. What we have been and done in regard to race violates everything we know about the real God, the only God there is. It violates everything we know about Jesus Christ. Perhaps it was unconscious-we didn't know what we were doing-but we should have known and we should have produced a groundswell against it centuries ago.

My white friends sometimes say to me, "Surely I am not responsible for what my ancestors did. Don't try to make me feel guilty." We should feel guilty. We should feel shame for what our ancestors did not see, for what they did, who they were, and who we are as a result of what we have unconsciously absorbed into our own beings. We should feel shame.

Just this last summer when I was in Lynchburg, my home town, I talked to the leaders of a black church and learned the history of that little church. Having become tired of being forced to sit in the gallery of the First Baptist Church there in Lynchburg, they decided to build their own church. Out of their meager savings they built their own frame church three or four blocks from the First Baptist Church. One day their church caught on fire. Nobody can prove it, but every black person I talked to said that the church burned to the ground because the fire company located two blocks away waited and let it bum. They didn't want that church to be there. I believe that's true.

Once more those courageous people said, "We're going to build a church. It's going to be a magnificent church. It's not going to be a

frame church. It's going to be a brick church. We're going to be able to seat a couple thousand people. We're going to have some dignity in this town." They didn't trust the banks. They brought out their socks and their stockings and put together enough money to start building the church only to find that not a single brick factory in Lynchburg would sell bricks to them. They intended to build the church with their own hands. So they went down to Richmond and started buying bricks there, transporting them by horses and wagons and by ferry. When Richmond ran out of bricks they started getting them from Baltimore -and they built that church.

Now I want to tell you I'm ashamed. I should be ashamed. And you can take that sort of history and you can discover it in almost every part of the country. There's not going to be any reconciliation in depth until we can feel that shame.

The second word is: if our grasping of money and power and privilege and status has created this victimizing system in which we live, we must begin giving up power and voluntarily distributing the power among those who have been denied it.

When I said to my friends last Sunday that it's surely unrealistic to suppose that the white power structure in America is going to voluntarily surrender their frightening power, they had a hearty laugh. We wouldn't laugh because we are part of that structure. But they thought it was hilarious that I would even mention it.

Here today I'm talking to those of us who say we are in union with Jesus Christ and his one Body. One central reality concerning Jesus is that he who was rich for our sakes became poor. If we are rich and powerful and others are poor and weak, we must do as Jesus did and begin surrendering our power. Suppose that rather than enhancing our own privilege we were committed to giving it away and empowering those who are less powerful. No real authentic relationships can be formed unless there is equality of power: Man, woman in a marriage relationship-equality of power. It's not one obeying the other-it's equality of power. What does that mean? How can we talk about it and work it out? In my, understanding, this is central. If we skirt this issue, reconciliation will not happen.

I have talked to some of my African American friends as representatives of their race. I have talked to some of you as representatives of Euro-Americans, as we have called our race. I want to say that there is something beyond your people and my people. It is a new People-beyond your race and mine.

My deep conviction is that if I belong to Jesus and love him and am trying to be faiflffiil to the Gospel, I have no choice. I must reach out to those who are other than my own kind. God is very sad when segments of his/her children are separated and divided. We are one family. And we are richer when we are together and draw on the wonderful variety of gifts God has given us. Without you I am impoverished. Without you I am disobedient, and I cannot be an authentic follower of Christ unless I am reconciled to you.

As African Americans you need us and you must reach out to those who have been your enemies and done reprehensible things to you. You must ask for the supernatural grace needed to forgive us for all the baggage and prejudice that you have carried. You will touch new depths of friendship with Jesus as you do that, and you will be so dose to him in his work of forgiveness that you will become our spiritual teachers.

Where do we go from here? I have little faith in programs. I have been a part of interracial groups for six years and somehow I just can't get excited about them anymore. What do we do? A day or two ago Elizabeth O'Connor was sharing with us her feeling that we should have a day of atonement for white men and women. We should gather on the Mall by the hundreds of thousands to confess our sins. And we should say, "You, our black brothers and sisters, have led the way for us. Now we have come and this is going to be a real day of atonement. We're going to confess-and we're going to let the nation see that we feel-we sense-what we have done."

While that is getting underway, let me suggest one other thing. I would like to see us begin today to work one on one. Each of us could begin today to develop a close, intimate relationship in Christ with one person, transcending racial divides, asking for, hoping for that person to become a soulmate, working with the faithfull friend concept that Dorothy Devers; has laid out for us-with a person across the racial divide. I said to that congregation at the Third Street Church of God, "If I can find any of my white friends who want to have a real relationship of that kind with persons who are different in race than they are, will you provide that for me? Also, if any of your folk want that sort of relationship, Ill find for you a white person:'The minister of that congregation who has been there for thirty-five years said, "I'm ready."

This is no casual matter. I'm talking about a friendship in Jesus. Such a friendship across the racial divide takes ten times as much time and effort and focus as one with a person of the same race. That is what I would like to see, and in that I feel there is hope.

What I said to those at the Third Street Church of God I'll conclude by saying to you. "I am no longer going to be separated from you. I want you to love and trust me. If, because of the history I bring, you can't trust and love me, I'm going to keep asking you to forgive me and let me belong to you because I need you. I don't have any choice. I'm under the command of Jesus Christ, and I'm going to keep asking you until you finally forgive me or until I die trying to convince you to forgive me. I'm going to do ft. You are my sisters, my brothers. I cannot cut myself off from my family, from Jesus' family. I believe that the time is coming in history when this issue of race is so important that God is not going to release the Holy Spirit in miraculous healing ways unless we are willing to come together in Jesus Christ and suffer together."

This is where I place my hope for our racially divided city. If this is right, if this is part of the Gospel, lees get on with it. Otherwise we will watch our society go to pieces, for the wages of sin is death.

Let us pray.

This text is available as a pamphlet from:
The Servant Leadership Press, Washington, DC.
for a copy of this pamphlet contact:
The Potter's House Book Service
1658 Columbia Road, NW
Washington, DC 20009
(202) 232-5483

Visit the Potters House website at

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