Livability and Race Realities in the Steel City (and the Implications for Its Churches)

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Back in early September, my heart was pleasantly warmed by the news that my nearest city, Pittsburgh, was named the third “most livable” city in the United States by a research group entitled the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“Way to go Pittsburgh,” I thought to myself. I was grateful that my city, often maligned or undervalued by other portions of the country, received some national affirmation and recognition for its many merits.

As is so often revealed, however, beauty always resides in the eye of the beholder—or the privileged. To put it another way, the “livability” of a city will always be judged differently by those who benefit the most and the least from its services. A highly livable environment for the privileged might at the same time become a territory of toxicity for those who find themselves marginalized or disenfranchised.

Case in point: Just yesterday, a friend and colleague drew my attention to two articles, also written in September. One of the articles was written by Brentin Mock for the website “CityLab.” The article is entitled “Pittsburgh: A ‘Most Livable’ City, But Not For Black Women.

The second article, written by Sakena Jwan Washington for the Huffington Post, was a deeply personal reflection on the first article. Here is a link to the second article, entitled “My City Was Named the ‘Worst Place for Black Women to Live.’ Is That My Cue to Leave?

Mock’s article sheds important light on troubling Pittsburgh statistics, many of which point to a city in which black girls and black women suffer from birth defect rates and death rates (along with school arrest, poverty, and unemployment rates) that are significantly higher than those of white Pittsburgh residents. These rates are also significantly higher than those of black people in the majority of other comparable cities.

To put this into perspective, consider these words from University of Pittsburgh sociology professor Junia Howell (whom Mock quotes in his article):

What this means is that if Black residents got up today and left [Pittsburgh] and moved to the majority of any other cities in the U.S. … their life expectancy would go up, their income would go up, their educational opportunities for their children would go up, as well as their employment.

As I pondered the statistic that 18 out of every 1,000 pregnancies for black women end in fetal death in Pittsburgh (as compared to 9 out of every 1,000 pregnancies for white women), I found myself undone by the enormity of what those numbers represent. In a city known for its teaching hospitals and medical technology, we have nurtured an environment in which fetal death is twice as likely among black infants than it is among white infants. At the very beginning of a life’s journey in Pittsburgh, there is a stark inequity that cannot be ignored or minimized.

In her reflection on Mock’s article (which is as poignant as it is eloquent), Sakena Jwan Washington, a professional “Black woman from Pittsburgh who also happens to be the mother of a Black girl,” gives voice to her own experience of Pittsburgh and its dynamics:

I wonder if I’m living in the dark. I’m surely not ignorant to the fact that most of my friends and colleagues are white. Or that finding a Black hair salon sometimes feels like going on a scavenger hunt, or that the Shadow Lounge ― a Black-owned lounge I once frequented monthly ― closed after gentrification shuttered its doors, or that my favorite jazz lounge closed for the same reason. It’s not lost on me that when an independent film like Toni Morrison’s biopic ‘The Pieces I Am’ comes to town, it plays in one theater in the entire city. I’m aware and I grumble about my observations every day. And yet, I’m still here.

I hear in Washington’s words the echoes of a marginalization that I will never be able fully to understand as a white male Pittsburgher but that I dare not minimize. The echoes compel me to wonder about the long-term impact of an institutionalized segregation that is so thoroughly embedded in a city’s ethos and daily patterns that it is routinely accepted as normative. “I might be able to operate in this sort of segregated atmosphere,” Washington writes, “but can my daughter? Will there be educational options in Pittsburgh that are both diverse and receive the same level of resources I had access to in my predominantly white private schools?”

These are questions that hang in the philosophical air, demanding the attentiveness of any Pittsburgher who longs for a city that is committed to justice and equity for all of its citizens and families.

I traffic in the rhythms of western Pennsylvania church life (United Methodist church life, more specifically). As a clergy person in a conference that has named “Dismantling Racism” as one of its areas of focus, it is one of my responsibilities to nurture the kind of spaces (and churches) in which racism in all of its forms (personal and systemic) is recognized, named, rejected, and actively dismantled. In recent days, I have seen deeply encouraging glimpses of my tribe’s commitment to this work.

A few weeks back, for example, during a time of anti-racism training, another white pastor spoke to me about one of his newly-energized priorities: “I have spent too many years giving lip-service to dismantling racism in the churches that I have served,” he said. “I am making it a priority in 2020 to help my [predominantly white] congregation and community to experience the kinds of resources, relationships, and conversations that will deepen their understanding of racism, privilege…and the sin of complicity.” His words inspired me to reflect on my own priorities in this regard—along with my own complicity.

At the same time, resistance to the work of dismantling racism finds expression in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I suggested to a ministry team recently that we read an article together entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (written by Peggy McIntosh), simply because I believed that the dynamics of white privilege were pertinent to the matters we were discussing. The body language in the room (which I have gotten fairly good at reading over the years) communicated a collective lack of hospitality to my suggestion. My interpretation of the body language was later confirmed by one of the team members, whose perspective I share with permission: “I know that racism still exists,” she said, “but when we keep fixating on it, all that we do is create resentment and enslave ourselves to the problem.”

I found the imagery of her words painfully ironic: “enslave ourselves to the problem.”

I wonder how that kind of imagery would fall upon the heart of an Asian-American or African-American pastor in Western Pennsylvania who is daily confronted by the reality of being the only person of color in the room (and in the sanctuary); or a person of color who regularly experiences both implicit and explicit racial biases that reinforce isolating and even dehumanizing presuppositions; or the black female Pittsburgher navigating the injustices and inequities illuminated by recent statistics. How can dismantling racism remain a focus when resistance to conversations about racism and a burgeoning sense of white fragility have begun to govern portions of the collective consciousness?

I suppose the dynamics that I am describing only serve to elucidate the complexity of the situation related to race. Racism is as real as it ever was, but far too many white people are tired of hearing about it. A pastor’s racial identity is still important enough to inspire a parishioner to leave a church, but the last thing that we want to hear is someone highlighting the issue of racism. The statistics related to black women in Pittsburgh are what they are, but we comfort ourselves with the manufactured belief that we have been completely delivered from our racist history.

If the United Methodist Church in western Pennsylvania is to succeed in keeping the dismantling of racism as an authentic point of focus, there are some governing convictions that white United Methodists in this region will have to embrace and guard. One of those convictions is that participating consistently in strategic conversations and training related to racism and privilege does not “enslave us to the problem” but rather generates a necessary spirit of galvanizing solidarity between the church and those for whom the problem truly is enslaving.  A second conviction would be that a condemnation of racism runs the risk of becoming anemic if it is not accompanied by a risky commitment from the privileged to utilize their voices in the fostering of expanded agency for the disenfranchised, disruptive truth-telling, and energized advocacy.

As a white male, my privilege often blinds me. I am painfully aware of that blindness, even as I type these words. It makes me all the more grateful for those souls in my journey (including my clergy colleagues) who love me enough to bring me into difficult but important conversations about race and who value me enough to hold me accountable for my ongoing participation in the relentlessly urgent work of dismantling the machinery of racism—a machinery that exists in both the hallways of our churches and the chambers of my own heart.

Sakena Jwan Washington concludes her article about Pittsburgh in this fashion:

The hard question for me is will my daughter struggle with connectedness the way I once did, and will a move to a city with a more robust Black middle class lessen her struggle? Is this a game-time decision, or must I act now?  Will I stay and be a pioneer for change, or will I leave to occupy spaces where I know, without question, my family will feel like they belong?

I hope and pray that she stays, but I know that my hopes and prayers are not enough. They must be accompanied by my commitment to the nurturing of spaces in which the kind of connectedness and belonging that Washington envisions can be pursued and experienced with integrity and hope. Only then will the “pioneers of change” get the strong sense that they are not alone in their pioneering.

On the Fiftieth Anniversary of Dr. King’s Assassination

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It happened fifty years ago. April 4, 1968.

Half a century has passed.

As a fifty-two year old, I was alive when it happened, but I do not remember the event. My mother told me that she held me protectively in her arms as she listened to the horrifying news reports.

At 6:01 p.m. on Thursday evening, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated outside of his hotel room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

We cannot hide ourselves from the violence of what transpired that evening. The single bullet, fired from a Remington Model 760 rifle, entered through Dr. King’s lower right cheek, about an inch to the right of his mouth. The bullet cut a sickeningly destructive path, fracturing Dr. King’s jaw and then traveling downward, severing his jugular and breaking several vertebrae before finally coming to rest in the right part of his back.

Dr. King was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Memphis, where medical professionals opened his chest and did all they could to revive his heart. He was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m.

He was thirty-nine.

The day before his assassination, Dr. King made his final speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis. Toward the end of the speech, Dr. King offered these important words, as prophetic as they are poignant:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Last night, during a visit to a Jazz club in New Orleans, I experienced a group of racially diverse musicians entertaining an equally diverse crowd.

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The front man and the bass player were black. The pianist was Asian American. The drummer was white. The appreciative crowd included a variety of races and ethnicities, all of whom were experiencing what felt like a sacramental engagement with a music that seemed otherworldly in its virtuosity. At some point during the music, I thought about what remains one of the most racially segregated experiences in American culture—the Sunday morning worship hour. Tears formed in my eyes as I began to connect the dots. An assassination fifty years ago. A church that still fails to incarnate the beloved community that Jesus envisions. A jazz club in New Orleans, offering a musical communion that the church has yet to celebrate fully.

Not very long ago, I recently heard a pastor offer what I think is a popular viewpoint concerning the issue of racism. I asked him for permission to share that viewpoint in this blog post and assured him that I would not use his name so that his privacy would be protected. He gave to me his permission.

Here is the pastor’s viewpoint, shared in a conversation among clergy colleagues:

I don’t know why we keep making racism such an issue. Most of us have been delivered from racism.  But when we keep making racism a point of focus (like we are in our annual conference and other places in the church), all we’re doing is beating a dead horse and highlighting a hugely negative thing that doesn’t deserve to be highlighted.

Days after my conversation with that pastor, I heard the following comment made by a United Methodist church member, who also permitted me to share her comment:

People have told me that they don’t want a colored pastor at our church. They’ve told me that they would leave if that kind of thing ever happened. Truth be told, I might leave too. I guess I just wouldn’t be comfortable with that kind of thing. I would feel like I couldn’t relate to my own pastor.

Those two viewpoints help to illuminate the painful complexity of the issue of race in the church. Racism is as real as it ever was, but we are tired of hearing about it. A pastor’s racial identity is still important enough to cause a parishioner to leave a church, but the last thing that we want to hear is someone highlighting the issue of racism. We prefer to comfort ourselves with the manufactured belief that we have been completely delivered from our history, our prejudice, and our dehumanizing presuppositions.

When contemplating this issue, my concern has to do with the simplistic way in which many of us define racism. I suppose that the American Heritage Dictionary’s definition of racism—“any form of discrimination based on race”—can be utilized as a bare minimum. But the kind of racism operative in the church is often far more elaborate and insidious than one-on-one discrimination. It is an institutional racism, often perpetuated by the structures and processes that many within the denomination are reluctant to change or even acknowledge. These structures and processes are often undergirded by an ethos of what might be called “white privilege” which, in its essence, is a desire to preserve the status quo because of the way in which the status quo guards and protects the privileges of the race in power.

Some have suggested that white privilege is nothing but an artificial social construct, created to further an agenda. My experience has led me to believe that this perspective is dreadfully misguided.

When I was first a United Methodist District Superintendent, I introduced a pastor of color to a Staff-Parish Relations Committee as part of a new pastoral appointment. The conversation covered many important topics that night. The topic that received the most time, however (over half an hour, in fact), was how the congregation was going to respond to a person of color in the pulpit.

As I drove home that night, the essence of white privilege became painfully clear to me. As a white male pastor in Western Pennsylvania, I will never have to experience my race or gender being discussed as part of a pastoral in-take. I will never have to hear people consider the possibility that my race might inspire some people to leave the church. Granted, they might eventually leave the church for some other reason—my preaching style, or my temperament, or my interpersonal skills. But I will never have to overcome initial prejudices that are based upon my racial identity. I have the privilege of not having to deal with such prejudices, and this privilege is decidedly white.

When one begins to take seriously a racism undergirded by institutional inequities and white privilege, one is compelled to move beyond defensive rhetoric like this:

“Hey, those black folks are just as racist as I am!”

Or this:

“Black people need to stop playing the race card in every situation, because nobody wants to hear that anymore. After all, I never owned any slaves. It’s time to get over the past.”

The danger of this kind of rhetoric is that it overlooks or, at the very least, oversimplifies the complex and institutional dynamics of racism. Moreover, such rhetoric often causes one to ignore completely the most crippling racism of all—specifically, the kind of racism that can only be generated and perpetuated by people in power.

I have no easy answers in the midst of all of this. But this much is certain: The current emphasis on dismantling racism in the United Methodist Church is, first and foremost, one of the many necessary consequences of both the sin of racism and the fervency with which that sin has been perpetuated. The aftermath of this particular sin is an environment in which Christ-followers will have no choice but to be creatively and prayerfully patient with the messy tensions that often exist related to this issue: tensions over how to create ethnically and culturally diverse communities of faith; tensions over the fact that there are so few ethnic minority clergy in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference; tensions between those who see racism as an ongoing problem and those who simply want people of color to “get over it;” tensions over what it means to have a church that makes tangible its belief that “red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight.”

These tensions are not going away any time soon, nor should they. They are tensions emerging from the unsettling presence of a Holy Spirit who stubbornly refuses to allow a church to settle for being less than what it has been called by its Savior to be.

Personally, in my life and ministry, I want to guard against the desire to oversimplify these tensions.  I want to live into an ever-deepening sensitivity to the sin of racism and all of its manifestations. Even more importantly, I want to lead by repentance. I want to name and confess all the different ways in which I have perpetuated the kind of racist presuppositions and patterns of behavior that have simultaneously fractured human community and broken the heart of God.

On the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s death, I am grateful that the bullet that ended his too-short life could not kill his urgent and still-unfolding dream. I hold that dream deeply in my soul, all the while praying for the courage to become one of the instruments through which a dream might be more vibrantly realized. As Dr. King once said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Unsettle me, Lord Jesus, that I might never be inclined to accommodate a hurtful and unjust silence.