Can We Talk? - J. David Waugh

As I rapidly approach my “three score and ten” with good health and prosperity, I am deeply conscious of how slowly I have moved in addressing the egregious ills perpetuated by white male privilege, privilege from which I have benefitted, sometimes knowingly but most often unwittingly. For the past twenty-five years I have talked and written about the importance of sustained intentional dialogue across lines of diversity, be they racial, gender, religious, cultural and/or sexual orientation. In fact, I have been fairly proud of myself as one who wasn’t a racist misogynistic homophobic nativist. But of late, my true-self and my self-righteous self have entered into an intense internal dialogue.  I have had no choice but to engage. It has not been a comfortable conversation. I wish decided to share some of it with you because it is a conversation which was repeated in multiple venues during the June General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Beyond the recognition of the ministry of Suzi Paynter as our retiring Executive Director and the installation of Paul Baxley as our fourth Executive Director, the focus of this year’s annual meeting wove around the topics of racial reconciliation, justice and civility. Truth be told, these topics are much easier to talk about than do, but talk and listen we did, moving toward a deeper resolve to act accordingly. Even the music chosen for our worship sessions dreamed of a time when the barriers which separate us would tumble like the walls of Jericho so that all would experience welcoming affirmation in the fellowship of God’s community on earth. To that end the program of the assembly as well as the diversity of those in attendance reflected greater racial diversity than I have experienced in the past. At the same time, the confessions shared by our presenters in the stories which they told were constant reminders of how far we have yet to go if we are to live the walk which we talk.

One pastor reflected on the history of the beautiful church house in which the congregation he serves once worshipped. It was built just before to the War of Southern Treason (okay, The Civil War). Prior to its construction, the congregation’s membership had been comprised of both whites and blacks (slaves) with the blacks relegated to balcony seats. A recent study of the church’s records from that period revealed that during the building fund campaign for the new facility, a goodly number of the white slave owners had sold some of their slaves in order to donate to the building fund. The slaves who sold sere their fellow church members. Christians selling Christians, splitting up families, so that they could build a more elaborate house for the worship of God! With time the black members split off and built their own church so that there became two First Baptist Churches in that town. Today, led by their respective pastors, those two congregations have entered into a covenant of truth telling and reconciliation working toward just reparations. Dialogue which moves from words to action is hard but important stuff which cannot be shunted aside. I happen to believe that the CBF of Mississippi is on the cusp of modeling for the entirety of the CBF the joy and the hard work of what it means to put aside white privilege and become an inclusive welcoming and affirming body of Christians – white, black, straight, gay, male, female, and all the variations in between.

It was as a twelve-year-old white boy that I first encountered the hard lessons of social stereotyping, inequality and injustice that carried the stench of death every time we breathed from our mouths words of religious piety. On the day that I turned 12 my neighborhood playmate, James, suddenly took to addressing me as “Mr. David”. Overhearing this new title bestowed upon me, my father took offence. As Dad was blind, he insisted that I walk him over to James’ home. He needed to speak with James’ parents. So, I gave him my elbow. It wasn’t a long walk as Dad was the pastor of a congregation near the invisible boundary which divided and segregated our town.

James’ parents were home and invited us to join them on their ragged, but neat, front porch for a glass of iced tea. Not waiting long past the initial cordial pleasantries, my Dad suddenly burst out with, “Why has James started calling David, Mr. David? He was David yesterday and he will be David tomorrow. Gosh (closest to swearing Dad ever got), they have been friends for years and just because he is now 12 there is no difference!”

“But you don’t understand, Brother Jay. If our son doesn’t learn now to show deference and respect to your son, he might grow up believing that he don’t have to show no respect to any white man. You know what that means don’t you? He could get himself beat up or worse by the whites. So, Brother Jay, from now on my boy will address your boy as Mr. David.”

They talked about it for some time, my father arguing his point from a Biblical perspective and James’ parents arguing theirs from the reality within which we lived. Then there was silence. No more could be said. Then, after thinking about it a moment longer, my father turned to me and unequivocally stated, “Then, David, that being the case, from now on you are to call James ‘Mr. James.’ He’s no less equal than you and you will not treat him so, nor will you allow him to treat you as better. Others will never cause us to treat anyone as less than equal because of the color of their skin.”

Over the past weeks I could not help but recall that conversation between neighbors which ultimately helped shape my life.  And over these weeks I have heard or read multiple responses from African-American friends who echoed the very real fears shared by James’ parents. African-American parents continue to be aware of the care which they have to exercise in instructing their sons on how to conduct themselves when outside their homes. I have thankfully acknowledged how a conversation between parents, a dialogue about common concerns, helped build understanding and transformed relationships for me far into the future. Yet I cannot get away from the fact that now, 58 years after that conversation, the very same systemic racism to which it introduced me remains the truth to nwhich Black parents have to introduce their young sons. “Don’t run in public spaces;” “don’t play with toy guns like the white boys do;” “don’t stick your hands deep in your pockets, behind your back and most certainly near your waist band if stopped by a police officer or store security guard;” “don’t reach into your car’s glove box to retrieve auto registration and insurance papers when stopped by the police when driving;” “don’t demonstrate team spirit by rallying in the street following a team victory;” don’t…..don’t…..don’t…don’t do hardly anything which, should a white boy do it, would be entirely acceptable. We look one another in the face, black and white, and clearly see that we continue to deal with the vestiges of a social sin, a dis-ease, which has corrpted us. We wrestle with one another and with ourselves; we wrestle with anger which has been building generation upon generation; we wrestle with God however God may be understood; and we hold on grasping for hope and a new future.

This is the struggle which the Church has long denied and which it is now beginning to face. Following the Ferguson Grand Jury decision to not indict the police officer who fired the fatal shot some of us white clergy busy penning condemnations of that decision were challenged by an  African-American pastor to be just as bold with our pronouncements while we stood safely in our pulpits the following Sunday. He challenged us to remain very public in the wrestling of dialogue through the nights ahead. Instances such as Ferguson have continued since those days. If we are to walk together into the light of a new day we must maintain a consistent witness in our public and private face.

Another African-American friend, the proud new father of a son, envisioned how he would hold that future, inevitable conversation with his son warning him of the dangers of being a black boy in a white man’s world. A white pastor friend penned a letter to his daughters exposing the dangers which they would face growing up in a white patriarchal society where the frat boys’ version of the events carries more weight than the physical evidence condemning their abusive behavior.  How much harder it is for anyone who is black or female to see justice prevail in the court of public opinion, much less the law. White privilege is deeply rooted from the court house to the church.

As delusional as it may sound, I still believe that open, honest dialogue between individuals remains one sure way to transform individual hearts and to overcome systemic or institutional racism. While I may understand the ethos that gives rise to anger vented in mob violence, I also understand that fear of the “other” fuels those actions which drive us further apart. In the safe space of honest dialogue fears are pulled off the heat of the flame as personal stories are shared. A recognition of common humanity along with common aspirations and concerns nurtures those who were formerly “the other” into “brother/sister” from another mother. And, while there are some who would argue that “we can no longer talk about this,” talk about this we must! But such talk will not, and must not, come cheaply. Honest dialogue requires much of those who are willing to participate. Old opinions and self-deceits must be placed aside. Hearing the hurts and pain of another can open up personal wounds of our own. There can be moments when nothing short of restitution in some form must be freely given. Personal and systemic patterns of behavior must be placed aside and the hard work of developing new patterns and systems be put into place.

Interracial dialogue most often occurs in response to a particular ‘crisis event’.  A coalition of leaders may put aside their historic differences to address a critical concern, and then, return to ‘business as usual’ once the crisis has passed.  Yet, many of our deeply rooted human conflicts are seldom addressed in such negotiations.  The concept of “sustained dialogue” offers a means of addressing the chasm created by the basic mistrusts often found between groups.  Models such as those offered by the New Baptist Covenant build strong bridges across the racial divide which continues to exist within the Baptist church culture. Sustained dialogue around issues of race is essential tool for facing our fears, our historic grievances and injustices while discovering our common roots, hopes, dreams and even, faith. They demand the formation of sacred covenants between groups long divided by systemic racism and misogyny and homophobia. The covenantal approach is an interactive process designed to change the core of troublesome relationships.  Its intention is not to bring together contending parties to get equal pieces of some real or imagined pie.  The intent is to lead the participants to probe the dynamics of conflictive relationships which lead to the problems experienced in community.  By developing a capacity for change and then designing actions to change the ways in which they relate for the better, participants are then able to decide how to take those steps to the wider community.

And it is to this end that the CBF of Mississippi’s programmatic focus has turned over the past three years. Our congregations are more concerned with being servant communities openly embracing the rich diversity of those with whom we live than we are with maintaining peace with those religious institutions from whence we have come in the hope that they will join us if we do not speak the truth which we have come to embrace. We are not going to grow by building walls to segregate us from “the other” but rather by tearing down those walls so that we can walk alongside those same “others.” We will embrace “the beloved community” by entering into partnership covenants with churches, organizations and individuals once ignored, if not distained, so that elbows in hand, we might be led into walking the walk we have so eloquently talked. Genuine partnership implies the possibility of being changed by the experience; therefore, such covenants are inherently risky! 

I continue to reflect on how the dialogue held so many years ago on the porch of James’ parents shaped not only who James and I came to be in future years but impacted individuals and systems that we encountered since then. For me, that dialogue did not end that one afternoon. It has continued internally through the course of my years. Trials of personal wills and social unrest call me daily to face the issues of racism and white male privilege within my psyche and within my society. Just as we all are.


J. David Waugh, current Moderator of the CBF of MS, has served pastorates in VT, RI, NY and MS as well as serving as founding director of Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries in NYC.