I Can’t Breathe

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Kelle Brown

We are the church that is becoming, the church that is and will be. The church and all of her people are in the hands of the Maker God, who never has stopped the act of creation, and who is never disinterested or disconnected in God’s creation. God’s love and presence flows. Pours. Showers. Floods and splatters. For this, we give thanks.

In lieu of this assurance, I support the words of a fellow Presbyterian concerning the limitations of the resolution regarding the Black church and its connection and support, or lack thereof. The colleague shared, “It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level. Despite the resolution’s merit in naming the diminution of Black Presbyterian congregations as a significant problem, it does virtually nothing to stem the tide.”

Photo from the Plymouth Church Seattle United Church of Christ Facebook page

The tide has not been stemmed, and African American churches are ceasing to exist because of it. I resist saying dying, because Black churches are more rightly succumbing to the institutional supremacy that is pervasive without much challenge. The theology of the African American Presbyterian church is strong and life-giving. The people of the churches are as faithful as ever they’ve been. The intelligence, deep wisdom, willingness, and energy are all in place. Yet, no church is an island unto itself, and the best sense of our connectional covenant binds us together for the sake of our shared faith and sustenance. The PCUSA is gifted by the presence of all its peoples, and is blessed by its churches of color — not simply to fulfill some quota of diversity — but so that God can forge and knit us together as a vision of the Beloved Community.

While the acknowledgement of the larger church by way of the resolution is necessary and in many ways hopeful, we must acknowledge that it is a particular privilege to lament, assess, and consider while the most vulnerable congregations struggle. Black churches have been sharing for many years the disparity and being treated less-than-equally. Strategies are dreamed, and curricula are created, and prayers for reconciliation go forth while the systems of oppression churn along unhindered. Often, there is collective jubilance that comes too easily. Many celebrate the agreements of process that may one day down the road lead to equity. In the meantime, another church has died.

The slow pace of “justice” and creating inclusion in itself is an injustice. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” We have waited and watched, and this kind of church is exhausting and debilitating when the realities of the world call for the church to be a place of refuge and respite. It’s like taking the time to debate oxygen’s worth and efficacy while holding the hose and watching a person gasp for air. We have to become more spiritually agile and open to God’s movement when folks whisper, “I can’t breathe.”

In essence, the trickle down concept of which the quote references is a problematic American norm, and the myth of its effectiveness is perpetuated again and again, all while knowing that the paradigm is not infused with spirit, equity or justice-making. Reconciliation and healing don’t happen in a vacuum. Repair isn’t begun with thoughts and prayers, when clergy of color are often culled rather than cultivated. Repair in this sense has to be dedication to the clergy of color who dare to remain a part of the church. Repair must be dismantling systems of oppression, and acknowledging the present trauma of participation. Repair must be authentic discipleship, journeying alongside one another in courageous and liberative ways.

Let us honor the African American church and her resilience which is often the needed authentic voice in the world, and thank our Creator that God is endowing us grace to move forward. Let us believe that our collective right action will grow and sustain all of our churches. And let us endeavor on until we have stemmed the tide, and joined in the vision of Amos where God justice rolls down like a mighty stream upon us all.

Kelle Brown is the current lead pastor of Plymouth Church United Church of Christ. She is a recent graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, completing her D. Min, and is involved in justice work and reframing church as it pertains to systems of oppression and authentic welcome. She enjoys writing, singing and loving life with her daughter Indigo and grandmother Dorothy.