How the Black Church taught me why #BlackLivesMatter
Throughout the 2021 observation of Black History Month, I’ve been revisiting the writings of Toni Morrison, James Cone, Cornell West, Ibram X. Kendi, and the work of other Black artists, theologians, and activists. But one of the most powerful experiences was watching the two-part PBS documentary, “The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song” hosted by West Virginia native Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I wanted to conclude the month by sharing a piece I wrote last year about my own transformative experience with the Black church. This article first appeared June 16, 2020, on joewebbwrites.com.
What I Did on My Summer (2014) Vacation
In the summer of 2014, I served a ministry internship at Henry Logan Memorial United Methodist Church in Parkersburg, WV. It was my final seminary assignment: to serve an internship in a cross-cultural setting.
I don’t take the term “life-changing” lightly. There are a very few things about which I would use that phrase in my own experience…my marriage, the births of my children…that’s about it.
But the three months I spent with the folks at Logan literally changed my life. They set things on a different trajectory than the one I thought I was on.
Henry Logan Memorial UMC is one of a handful of Historically African American Churches in the West Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church. It has a 150-plus year history in a vastly white city and region.
In fact, the overwhelming whiteness of the area made it very difficult for me to even find an opportunity to work in a cross-cultural ministry setting.
I’m forever grateful that I did.
And even more grateful that it was at Logan UMC.
Even though the church membership had become fairly diverse by the time I served my internship, the people deeply honored their heritage as a Black congregation. People whose families had served in leadership for generations continued to occupy those roles.
I could write pages and pages about what I learned at Logan and how the experience changed the course not just of my ministry career, but my entire worldview. Here, though, are the main highlights:
1. I learned what it meant to benefit from white privilege.
One of the first things the pastor under whom I was serving encouraged me to do was to attend Logan’s United Methodist Men’s meetings. He wisely counseled me to be a listener, and to set my role as a leader aside.
It was only later that I understood that advice as helping me to identify my tendency (largely born out of my assumed position as a white male) to try to fix other people’s problems.
As I formed relationships with the men of the congregation—especially a couple of retired gentlemen with whom I got to spend a fair amount of time—and as I listened to them tell stories about their lives which naturally included their experiences of targeted racism, I started to really understand the things they had to deal with on a day-to-day basis that were totally alien to me.
Things like being followed distrustfully by shop owners. Like watching white people cross a street to avoid them. Like car salesmen doubting they could afford the payments on a new vehicle despite being employed in relatively high-paying industry jobs.
Two things impressed me in their telling of those stories:
First, they never complained. These were not “woe is me” tales of hardships. They were simply relating the facts of their experiences.
Second, they trusted me to hear their stories. Not just listen to them, but to really hear them. They were not scolding me for my whiteness and my up-to-then unrecognized implicit biases.
They were teaching me.
Ever so gently, ever so compassionately, they were helping me see that my world and their world were not the same.
2. I learned what it meant to be in the minority
I’ve written before about my experience traveling to Russia in 2013, and how I had the epiphany of realizing the difference between thinking of myself being in a foreign country and being a foreigner in someone else’s native land.
I think that experience, along with the sage advice of my mentor, helped to set my context for my time at Logan.
Even though I could not erase the overarching demographics of being a white man in the overwhelmingly white Mid-Ohio Valley region, at Logan I was a white man in a predominantly Black community.
I suppose there could have been two ways to approach that situation. I could have taken the attitude that my cultural experience was normative and people from other cultural contexts should desire to conform to it.
Or, I could try as best I could to remember that, in a sense, I was (for lack of a better term) the foreigner in someone else’s homeland.
I did my best to try to learn from other people’s lived experiences rather than impose my own. Although I’m sure my efforts were far from perfect, I attempted to defer to those who lived full-time in the community in which I was a part-time, short-term visitor.
Of course, the biggest difference between experiencing a small taste of minority status and living full-time in a minority community is that I was never treated as a minority.
Which brings me to my final and most enduring lesson:
3. I learned what it meant to be unconditionally loved.
The people of Henry Logan Memorial United Methodist Church never made me feel anything but fully accepted, fully respected, and fully loved.
The hospitality shown to me and my family by the folks of that congregation was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before or since.
Toward the end of my time at Logan I asked one of the matriarchs of the church about that…about how it was that they were so genuinely and naturally able to accept someone like me into their community.
And her answer, maybe more than any other single aspect of my experience there, is the thing that made it so life changing.
She told me the folks at Logan knew what it was like to be on the outside of society looking in. They knew what it was like to not be accepted. To not be trusted.
And they were committed to not letting anyone else feel like that, ever.
The moral of the story
I decided then and there that that was what I wanted my life to be about. Not letting anyone else ever feel like an outsider. Unwanted. Mistrusted.
I would never want anyone to feel like their life didn’t matter.
I still have a long way to go. I have much more to learn than I’m probably even aware of today.
But I am grateful to the beautiful people at Henry Logan Memorial United Methodist Church for the lessons they taught me.
And that Love Always Wins.
Header image: Logan Memorial United Methodist Church (photo credit: West Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church). For more on West Virginia’s Historically African American United Methodist Churches, click here.