Joseph Castleberry, president of Northwest University, an evangelical school in Kirkland, was sitting at his desk in early May when he started seeing Facebook posts about a Black man killed while jogging through a coastal Georgia town.
As Castleberry read about 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, fatally shot by white men shown on video chasing him down, he said: “It just broke my heart.”
“It was so obviously a case of unjust vigilantism, and it sure looked like racism to me,” said the university president, who is white, and acknowledges intimate knowledge of racism from a childhood in small-town Alabama.
“Something had to be said,” Castleberry concluded. “I had to say something.”
He had occasionally spoken out before about violence against Black people. But this was different, for a reason Castleberry can only explain as “the Holy Spirit at work calling us to conscience.”
Around the same time, Harvey Drake, an African American pastor presiding over Emerald City Bible Fellowship, in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, was also issuing a call — on Facebook, naming Castleberry and other white evangelical leaders he considers influential. “I’m tired of apologies and I’m tired of sympathy,” Drake said, explaining the gist. “There’s got to be something else you can do.” He suggested a news conference or an open letter.
Castleberry already was drafting a condemnation of the Arbery killing and statement of solidarity with African Americans he wanted the university’s board members to approve, which they did. Spurred on by Drake, he invited evangelical leaders nationwide to sign it. Eight hundred have done so.
Castleberry also sent it to Scott Dudley, senior pastor of a 4,000-member evangelical congregation at Bellevue Presbyterian Church. Dudley broadened it into a letter of lament and repentance, and nearly 200 pastors from around the region signed that.
“We recognize the special suffering of African Americans, as such atrocities represent an unconscionable continuation of a long litany of injustice that stretches back to the origins of slavery in America and seems to have no end in sight,” read the letter, which appeared as an ad in The Seattle Times and The Seattle Medium, paid for by Bellevue Presbyterian. “Further, we repent of the silence of the Evangelical leaders on this issue.”
It was an awakening that soon took on even more urgency with the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and soul-searching that has cut across every segment of society, including churches, mosques and synagogues.
While many churches often advocate social justice, white evangelicals are better known for opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. They consequently voted in overwhelming numbers for President Donald Trump even as he was giving succor to white nationalists by calling Mexican immigrants rapists. While evangelical churches and schools sometimes engaged in “racial reconciliation,” they did not generally offer searing indictments of racism or advance deep societal changes.
“I think it is a tipping point, honestly,” said Royce Yuen, pastor of Common Good Church in Bellevue. Pastors — including, he said, Asian Americans like him who often come out of the white evangelical tradition — are talking about racism from the pulpit.
Castleberry traveled to Minneapolis for Floyd’s memorial service, at a church headed by a pastor he knows, and had what he calls a “mind-meld” with civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton. Other local evangelical leaders — including from Bethany Community Church and A Seattle Church — have participated in protests, invited speakers on racism, launched study sessions on relevant books and films, and are looking for ways to take action. One, Aaron Monts of United Church in Seattle, spent many nights at an “interfaith table” at the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) zone.
To be sure, some evangelicals from here and around the country also visited CHOP to pray and defend what they see as threats to Christian statues. And others are moving cautiously in a generally conservative community where the Black Lives Matter movement, nevermind talk of defunding police, is associated with left-wing politics.
Yet, some half-dozen pastors spoke passionately about Black lives and white privilege at a prayer rally Yuen helped organize at Bellevue’s Downtown Park in late June, attended by several hundred people from 15 churches.
“I have benefited from a system that gave me an advantage simply because I was white, and I did not know it, and I did not try to know it,” Dudley told the crowd. “Oh Lord, I want to do better.”
Young Christians, including evangelicals, are especially attuned to the moment and eager for diversity, said Jeff Keuss, a theology professor at evangelical Seattle Pacific University who as part of a research project is looking at attitudes of 20- to 29-year-olds at 16 churches in the region. A watershed was Trump’s election with evangelical support.
“‘Evangelical’ has become such a nasty word for a lot of people,” said Monts, the pastor who spent time at CHOP. Although the 40-year-old pastor allows it’s a fair word to use for his roughly 80-person congregation, some refer to it as “post-evangelical.”
The current outpouring of grief and anger has not just moved the young, though. Dudley is 59, Castleberry, 60.
Nationally, Ryan Burge, an assistant professor at Eastern Illinois University who studies the intersection of politics and religion, said he’s also seeing things “edging toward change,” if not as much as in the liberal Seattle region. Polls show Trump’s approval rating among white evangelicals — while still between 59% and 72% — dropped as much as 10 percentage points after Floyd’s death and the president’s warning that protesters who cause damage and breach White House security would face dogs and guns.
Burge also noted the Mississippi Baptist Convention, a powerful and large constituency, called for the removal of the Confederate emblem from the state flag, which last week became state law.
Still, Burge is skeptical of how far these changes go. He said the evangelical elite tends to be more moderate than the rank and file.
A 2018 survey looking at what researchers call “racial resentment” — asking people to agree or disagree with statements like “if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites” — showed white evangelicals scoring far higher than any other religious group.
Pastors who stray too far from their congregants’ views, Burge said, risk being fired.
Some evangelical leaders themselves have big qualms about the movement that’s swept the country since Floyd’s death. Joe Fuiten, long active in conservative politics and pastor emeritus at the sprawling Cedar Park Church in Bothell, said reading Facebook posts from Black people he knows hit home. “If you’re Black and male, you’re going to be looked at with suspicion.”
But he described the protests as “counterproductive,” characterized by burning buildings, throwing rocks at police and tearing down statues — even though they have been largely peaceful. An “anti-Christian,” pro-gay marriage, “Marxist agenda” dominates the Black Lives Matter movement, he said.
As an organization, Black Lives Matter asserts LGBTQ rights as well as racial justice.
Bishop Garry Tyson of Goodwill Missionary Baptist Church in Seattle grew up in Florida seeing Ku Klux Klansmen lighting crosses. Decades later in Seattle, Tyson, who is Black, came out of a bookstore to find police, investigating a bank robbery, pointing a rifle at his 13- and 14-year-old children, who had been waiting in the car.
Asked about white evangelical pastors speaking out about racism, Tyson said: “They do not get it. And when they say they get it, they still don’t get it.”
“I think you’ve got to do more than write a letter and put it in The Seattle Times,” Tyson continued. “You need to be involved in a community. You need to get to know the African American pastors so you can understand … what we’re really going through.”
Drake agreed but called the letter, which he was asked to read before publication, “a good first step.”
“White evangelicals have the clout and power and influence to bring about radical change — if they want to,” he said. “White people listen to white people, by and large.”
“Man, it’s about time,” added Bishop Reggie Witherspoon of Mount Calvary Christian Center Church of God in Christ.
In mid-June, Castleberry and Dudley joined Witherspoon for a conversation livestreamed for the bishop’s Central District congregation, each of the white men describing their past failings and commitment to racial justice. The bishop pressed: “What are you going to do in your spheres of influence?”
In short, they’re figuring it out, in part with the help of Witherspoon and Drake. The four have been holding weekly video meetings — first with just them and then with other pastors of different races. Drake also went to Bellevue Presbyterian for a livestreamed conversation with Dudley.
It’s too early to say where this is headed, those involved said, and it’s not the first of such interracial conversations. But Witherspoon is optimistic. “We’re going to see something big come out of it,” he said.
Andrè Taylor, who is one of the current protest leaders and whose brother Che Taylor was killed by Seattle police in 2016, said many Black churches themselves are being awakened — or rather reawakened. In the forefront of the civil rights struggle, African American pastors have not played the same role in the Black Lives Matter movement, led by a new generation of leaders.
Pastors of color are certainly involved now, though opinions, like those of protest leaders, vary on the role of police and other issues. Taylor said he’d like to sit down with white pastors, too, if they’re planning on “entering into an activist space.”
At the Bellevue prayer rally, organizers ended with suggested actions that would not be out of place at any Black Lives Matter event: Commit to anti-racism, educate yourself, give financially to Black-owned organizations. They did not make political demands. “We wanted to do our best to stay in our lane as a faith community,” Yuen said, adding that they also wanted to avoid co-opting the Black-led movement.
Dudley talks about a “third way,” one that avoids polarization and looks toward Scripture. “What’s the church’s voice? What expertise does the church bring? What’s our unique contribution?”
Those are the questions the Bellevue pastor said he is trying to answer. He said he’s been on this path for four or five years, as video after video emerged of shootings of unarmed Black people. “You can try to explain each one but there’s a collective,” Dudley said. “You put them all together and there’s a pattern.”
He started noticing things: He went to lunch with Witherspoon in the African American bishop’s nice car and the valet asked Dudley, getting out of the passenger seat, for the keys.
Dudley began preaching regularly about the many biblical passages urging racial and ethnic unity. “How did we miss this?” he has asked.
“I was surprised and impressed,” said Anthony Ballard of a sermon on the topic he heard three years ago when he first visited Bellevue Presbyterian. Ballard, who is African American, now heads a racial justice ministry, which puts on events like “Facing Racism,” where speakers discussed experiences with discrimination.
After Floyd’s death, hundreds of congregants poured onto Bellevue Way carrying signs saying “racial justice” and “peace.” Bellevue Presbyterian put a message on its website celebrating Juneteenth.
Still, the focus on racism has angered some people in the congregation, who feel the church is turning political, and a few have left, Dudley said.
Castleberry said he has gotten questions about a scholarship in Floyd’s name he created. “People want to know, why are you doing that?”
Something of a maverick, Castleberry came out with a book ardently supporting immigration as Trump was attacking it, but has by no means abandoned his conservative convictions.
He also praises Trump’s executive order creating incentives for law enforcement reforms, though critics noted the president’s failure to mention racism, and defends most police officers as fine people.
As a former Assemblies of God seminary dean, he has a lens, like Dudley’s, that is profoundly religious.
The moment Castleberry had his mind-meld with Sharpton was as the African American reverend began to speak about Floyd calling out for his deceased mother. Castleberry said he was thinking what Sharpton said next: Floyd’s mother was calling to him from heaven.
“I felt a powerful sense of Christian brotherhood with him,” Castleberry said of Sharpton, a onetime Democratic presidential candidate known for his liberal activism.
“I’ll never look at the situation exactly the same again,” Castleberry said. Surrounded by African Americans, he felt: “Their problem is my problem now.”