With the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests in more than 100 cities across the country (and world), ‘Congregational Creativity in a Time of Crisis’ has become even more layered and complex. In this current moment, religious leaders are being called to respond not only to the impact of COVID-19 upon their congregations and communities but also economic anxiety, structural racism, white supremacy, and police reform.
The Reverend Dr. Frances (“Toni”) Murphy Draper, founding pastor of the Freedom Temple AME Zion Church in South Baltimore, joined ICJS’ weekly Congregational Leaders’ call on June 4 to discuss the role of religious leaders during this time of upheaval. A self-described “child of the Civil Rights Movement,” Draper spoke of the ways that the current moment is both similar to, and different from, social movements of the past. Draper was joined by her daughter, Andrea Evans, who opened the call with a powerful spoken word video she had put together based on Floyd’s final cries of “I can’t breathe.”
Draper asked, “What are we prepared to do as clergy leaders? What does reconciliation really look like and what are we teaching, what are we modeling, and how intentional and how aware are we in recognizing that we have a responsibility for educating ourselves and educating our congregants?”
In reflecting on the continued truth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assertion that eleven o’clock Sunday morning is “the most segregated hour in America,” Draper noted the different educational responsibilities leaders of various congregations hold. “As I told one of my very close White [pastor] friends,” she noted, “it’s not [Black people’s] responsibility to educate your congregation.”
From school curriculum and educational programs that affect our youth to the messages and sermons that religious leaders share with their congregants, there are many changes that must be made before reconciliation can be possible.
An understanding of the history of enslavement and violence that surrounded the founding of this nation, as well as root causes of white supremacy and racist structures, helps to shed light on current unrest. As Bishop Aubrey Harley of Healthy Choice Ministries highlighted, “This is what happens 400 years later when nothing changes.”
Draper also spoke of the significance of technology and how it “levels the playing field” by highlighting injustices. She also noted the need to interrogate the reliance upon technology, however, asking, “If there was no video, no cell phone, and no social media, and we heard that there was a Black man who attempted forgery, resisted arrest, and subsequently died while in the custody of law enforcement, even as clergy people, would we take that at face value or would our first response be that there has to be more to this story?”
“I think those persons who are out there, hitting the pavement now, are operating with a moral imagination,” said Dr. Darrell L. Greene, of The Secret Place Kingdom Ministries. “They are imagining things, changes, to be better. That’s why they’re marching, …it’s the imagination that’s firing them up to work for change. And I think it’s important, I think we need to teach that moral imagination in our churches…. And that’s more than using the rhetoric of religion. That’s making the faith our reality and moving us to action to become change agents of God.”
Evans also shared her thoughts on change: “I have a responsibility to train the next generation to make sure that they don’t have the same mindset that previous generations had, and that goes beyond racial lines,” she said. “So everybody has a collective responsibility to help train the next generation.”
“We don’t deal with structural and systemic racism in a real way in our churches and our schools and our communities,” Draper concluded. “We will continue to have these conversations over and over and over again [until we do]. We have a collective voice that no one else has. God has given us a voice, and we need to use that voice to demand change.”