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Heat and Light
During the 1993-94 season I coached basketball at Faith Lutheran School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Our team won the state Lutheran tournament in Florida and received a bid to play in the Lutheran National Tournament in Valparaiso, Indiana. That season was a glorious ride and I will never forget those 13 young men or what they accomplished. They also gave me one of my most cherished memories.
One of my starters was named "Gables" Clark. His real name was Samuel Clark; I never found out where "Gables" came from exactly. Samuel was a namesake for his uncle Samuel Hammond. Samuel Hammond was shot in the back by South Carolina Highway Patrol in 1968. Samuel was a strapping 18 year-old football player who was killed along with two other young men in what is known as the Orangeburg Massacre. There were also 27 wounded on February 6, 1968; they were all unarmed; they were all black; and all the bullets came from the guns of Highway Patrolmen. At the time United States Attorney General, Ramsey Clark, called the actions of the South Carolina Highway Patrol, "murder." No one has ever been prosecuted in connection with these shootings.
I have lost touch with Gables. He is in the team picture that hangs on my office wall, but I don't know what became of him. That is my loss because he was a fine young man in 8th grade and I would like to know the man he has become.
In 1995, his mother gave me a book that tells the story of the Orangeburg Massacre. I read the book and what happened to Samuel Hammond has been with me for the past 20 years. The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri brought him to mind once again.
Trevin Wax, a Christian Blogger, wrote: "Ferguson is ripping the bandages off the racial wounds we thought were healing but instead are full of infection." Derwin Gray, Pastor of Transformation Church a multi-cultural church in Tennessee, sees the events in Ferguson as a call for Christians to strive for "genuine pictures of Gospel-inspired reconciliation."
From my own experience as a white man who is in ministry in an urban setting, I am convinced that Christians need to take up the difficult task of talking about race and connecting it to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That won't be easy because it is a very personal subject that brings back very personal (and painful) memories for many people.
With all due respect to the memory of Michael Brown and with sympathy for those who mourn his loss, the events of the past month are bigger than one individual or one town in Missouri. It is either naÃ¯ve of intellectually dishonest to consider the recent events in Ferguson as happening in a vacuum. There is a broader context found in centuries of racism, oppression, and segregation in the United States. More than that, Black Americans have their own, very personal stories of how they have felt the pain of injustice. Christians of all people need to talk about race and how the message of forgiveness and reconciliation brings healing to all wounds and a way forward that is not haunted by the tragedies of the past.
For me, the most distressing aspect of the events of the past month came from a piece of research conducted by Christianity Today. The results of this survey make it clear that Black and White Christians think very differently about race. In 2006, 51% of White evangelical Christians believed that "one of the most effective ways to improve race relations is to stop talking about race." That same year 24% of Black evangelical Christians held the same view. In 2012, 69% (two out of three) of White evangelical Christians surveyed believed race relations will get better if we stop talking about race.
Silence on any subject that separates us may keep us from feeling uncomfortable, but it rarely heals the underlying brokenness. To use a metaphor: silence won't create any heat, but it won't bring any light either. To extend the same metaphor: if Christians are going to shed any light on the subject of race, we're going to take some heat.
I am deeply grateful to Mrs. Clark for telling me about her brother and his story has made me a better person by broadening my understanding of how personal injustice is. I think it is in telling our stories and listening to the stories of others that we gain a deeper understanding of Christ's death to redeem all people from all their sins. Telling our stories and listening to the stories of others may generate some heat, but I think the light those stories will provide is worth is worth the heat.