We were deep into a conversation about racial reconciliation one evening in the Deep South when a Black man surveyed the white men and women in the room and posed this question: “Will you march with us?”
That moment took place more than 14 years ago on a bus tour of civil rights sites in Georgia and Alabama. I was traveling with members of the Evangelical Covenant Church.
I am sorry that it took so long to answer the call.
On June 19, more than 700 of us from 46 churches walked the streets of downtown Renton to protest wave after wave of unjust deaths of Black men and women, culminating with the murder of George Floyd.
While millions of people all over the world have taken to the streets to proclaim “Black Lives Matter,” the church has largely been silent on this issue. And that’s what prompted the peaceful Juneteenth “March to Surrender” that was organized by the Rev. Michael Thomas, a Black senior pastor at Radiant Covenant Church in Renton; his wife, Kim, the church’s pastor of administration; and the Rev. Greg Yee, superintendent of the Pacific Northwest Conference of Covenant churches.
Rev. Thomas called for the church community to come together, to “acknowledge the sin of silence, surrender the idols of indifference, and as followers of Jesus, pick up the mantle of mercy and justice.”
I am a white man of privilege. I didn’t really appreciate what that meant until I went on the bus trip in 2005 called “Sankofa,” a West African term that roughly translates to “looking backward to move forward.”
We walked the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, trying to imagine what it was like in 1965 when marchers were met on the other side by billy club-wielding Alabama State Troopers in what would be known as “Bloody Sunday.”
We visited the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four black girls were killed by a bomb planted by the Ku Klux Klan during Sunday school in 1963.
We walked into an old, musty county courtroom in Georgia, the scene of unjust sentencing of Black men and women. An image I will never forget, it had an eerie resemblance to the courtroom in the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Members on the trip were paired with a partner of the same gender but of different ethnicity. One night in our hotel room, my Black roommate wept as he recounted the racism he had experienced not only as a child but as an adult.
While the term “white privilege” was new to me then, it’s a part of our vernacular today.
Not all white people accept this term, and I’ve even gotten pushback on it from the Christian community.
“Why should I feel guilty for something my ancestors did?” I have heard.
Of course, we abhor the atrocities our ancestors committed during the time of slavery, the lynchings that followed and Jim Crow laws. But our forefathers created a culture that was built for white people that still exists today. It devalues Black lives — police brutality is a prime example — and is the arbiter of unequal distribution of justice, including the vastly disproportionate incarceration of Black people.
The Sankofa experience described white privilege as this: White men and women are driving out of the parking garage with the spikes down, in the right direction. Black men and women are driving into the parking garage with the spikes up, pointed in the wrong direction.
Not all of my Christian friends are as a passionate about the Black Lives Matter movement. But when you consider that much of Jesus’ ministry was spent defending the poor, marginalized and oppressed, why wouldn’t this issue be in Jesus’ wheelhouse?
Jesus and justice are not separate. They are one.
Part of justice is standing up for your brothers and sisters of color. That’s what the Black man was asking us to do that night on the Sankofa trip, even though it was long before the BLM movement. I’m sorry that we as a nation haven’t come further on the issue of race.
Yet, on the 155th anniversary of Emancipation Day, we did as he asked. We walked together with our Black brothers and sisters, some of whom were on that 2005 trip.
As a white man of privilege, however, I will never know what it’s like to walk in their shoes.
An earlier version incorrectly stated the march in Renton took place June 13. The correct date was June 19.