Race and the American Church - Part II
June 1, 2015
This is the second article in the series. One can find the first article here ~ the Editor
I thought it might help the reader to know that God has been pulling me into places of racial interaction ever since I was young. As a southern white male, I believe God has gifted me with an ability to speak into the southern white Christian experience about race. I write this piece to display that this is all a work of His doing and not of my own. All I did was stumble along and make mistakes. I hope that gives you some comfort. We just have to be willing to stumble along, learn, grow and listen. It is only because God has lifted a few of the scales from my eyes that I am beginning to see. It's not because I am good or that I have understanding or insight. I was blind and now I see somewhat dimly. I ask the Lord and my African American brothers and sisters to continue to help me to see and to keep me from stumbling so much.
My journey started with an Otis. This was Dr. Otis M. Pickett, Jr. a small town family medical practitioner in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina and my grandfather. Papa "Beach," as I called him, was the gentlest, warmest and most loving man I have ever known. He was the kind of man people wanted to be around. I think it was because he was kind, loving, soft spoken and he listened to people with steadfast earnestness. He has been called, by some at the Medical University of South Carolina, one of the greatest diagnosticians of his age. I watched my grandfather interact with patients at his doctor's office and he treated each one with dignity, honor and respect. It didn't matter if it was the governor or a poor man who meandered aimlessly up and down Pitt Street.
Many of my grandfather's patients were African Americans. They were the proud descendants of the Gullah People. This is a people whose ancestry can be directly linked to ancient civilizations that mastered iron working and rice cultivation in West Africa. Amidst tremendous stresses of the middle passage and the institution of slavery, they have kept alive the language, food ways, blacksmithing and sweet grass basket making traditions that are several centuries old. Many of these folks knew and loved my grandfather dearly. I have more than once received the benefit of bearing the name Otis Pickett among African American friends and "family" in Mt. Pleasant, SC. I love this and I miss it. I especially miss the beautiful tongue and accent of low-country Gullah people. I don't know that I will ever truly be "at home" unless I am surrounded by these lovely people. Perhaps the Lord, in His grace, might give me a seat in eternity next to a Gullah friend as we people "of every tribe tongue and nation stand before the throne and before the Lamb." I had the blessing of going with my grandfather on house calls many times and both he and I, by extension, were treated like family members in the homes of these friends. He also treated each patient with dignity and with respect. Bear in mind, this was in the 1980s when I was a young boy. It was a wonderful thing that my grandfather modeled this to me.
When I was very young, perhaps 6 or 7, my grandfather and I would go on walks together on the beaches of Sullivan's Island, where our family home was (again I led a most privileged lifestyle), and (and as a former Marine and Navy man) he would tell me all about the Naval vessels that would come in and out of Charleston harbor. One evening, a young African American boy and his mother walked by us in the opposite direction. For some reason, the boy and I exchanged looks of disdain. We both attempted to throw sand and seashells at the other. I will never forget what my grandfather did. He jerked me around (this from a man who never laid a hand on me), got down on his knee, looked at me with teary-eyed resoluteness and said "You must never hurt anyone like this. Go tell that boy you are sorry." I went over and apologized to the boy. His mother and my grandfather exchanged smiles. I have never spoken or written of this moment until now. It is an experience that changed me forever. If that boy is reading this, I hope he will forgive me and I hope that experience didn't hurt him. This was the beginning of my education.
My story is also about my mother, Martha Westbrook Pickett. "Marty" was from the South Carolina backcountry (Monticello in Fairfield County) and was sent to boarding school at Ashley Hall in Charleston in the 1970s. She was not like other Charlestonians. She grew up with many African Americans and didn't really know a difference between them and her white friends. This is something I think she and my paternal grandfather shared in the often awkward father and daughter "in-law" relationship. She brought this mentality with her to Charleston; throughout her life she has modeled this in raising her only son. To this day, my mother feels more comfortable and "at home" around African Americans than she does with whites. One summer when I was 8 or 9, she insisted on me watching the entire black and white version of To Kill a Mockingbird starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. I ended up loving it and watched the VHS version over and over. I memorized many of Jem and Scout's lines and I think she took great pleasure in hearing me recite them around the house, but much of the plot was lost on me at the time. It has only been in my adult years and with my own children that I realized why she made me do this.
In the mid nineteen nineties there was severe racial tension in Charleston for a variety of reasons. Looking back on it, wage disparity, school board disputes, gentrification and a whole host of issues beyond my pay grade at the time were occurring. My mother and her best friend decided to go to a meeting in downtown Charleston of "concerned citizens" to discuss the racial tension and to pray. My mother took me with her to the meeting. I didn't really pay a whole lot of attention to what was happening or the historical and cultural significance of these meetings. However, a very kind man named Herman Robinson took an interest in me and my mom. I think he was struck by a white lady bringing her son to a meeting on racial tension and he invited us to his church: Trinity Baptist. My mom and I started going to the Reverend Herman Robinson's church and we were pretty much the only white people who attended. I loved it. I loved everything about it. I loved the music, I loved the genuine community, I loved how welcomed we were and how we were so cared for. Up until this point, all I had known was our stodgy Episcopalian church with its uncomfortable kneelers and Book of Common Prayer. Old stern ladies in big hats were what church meant to me. Most of all, I fell in love with Jesus and God's word as it was presented to me by the faithful preaching of Herman Robinson. Herman discipled me and he told my mom that I was going to be a teacher of God's word. He told her that God had marked me out and set me apart for great things that the Lord would do. I strive every day to live up to Herman's encouragements.
I became a Christian somewhere between my junior and senior year of high school. I began studying God's word and attempted, but mostly failed, to try and live out the Christian life. I went to Clemson University and mistakenly thought "Where would Jesus be if he was at Clemson? He would probably be in the fraternity houses hanging out with drunken people and teaching them about Himself?" It only occurred to me in my junior year through a wise RUF campus intern that God might have me in school to actually study and learn. I therefore told myself that this is what God was calling me to do: minister to fraternity guys, go to parties, and drive people home that were intoxicated to make sure they were safe. I occasionally offer a prayer at our meetings as well as hosted a seldom attended bible study in my official role as fraternity chaplain. I cannot tell you how many conversations about Jesus, religion and faith I had with inebriated brothers on rides home in my seemingly never ending role as chapter "DD" (designated driver). My prayer is that some of them will read this and know what I was trying to do, although doing it imperfectly. I pray they would give their lives to Christ and that the Lord might do a work in them, their families and their children. I pray that they forgive me for my frequent hypocrisy, weakness and failures. I am afraid I often did more damage to the gospel rather than good. Perhaps the Lord might use something of it for His glory and purpose.
While I love many of my fraternity brothers, especially my roommate who taught me Reformed theology, introduced me to my future wife and got me to go with him to RUF, Clemson Presbyterian and to meet with the RUF intern who was teaching him, this was not a good place for a young Christian to spend the majority of his time. Also, while we never chanted racist epithets (I think South Carolinians might be more genteel and covert in racism than our northern and western brethren), like what you have seen on buses at the University of Oklahoma recently, my fraternity was only white males and there was resistance to admitting African Americans for membership. Most of this resistance was not formal (it was not an any way official or part of the by-laws), it was seen only in informal conversation and in symbols of the old Confederacy that hung in brother's rooms. One simply understood, through the assistance of context clues, not to challenge this culture. Among the students body, it was largely seen as "African Americans have their fraternities and sororities. We have ours."
I largely just adopted this systematic self-segregation as normative. Even despite my grandfather's example, my mother's teachings and my pastor's modeling, I lacked the tools, language and ultimately, the strength, to challenge such an institution. I was already basically an outcast to my fellow brothers because I didn't participate in many of the normal "activities" of the fraternity because of my faith. To attempt to challenge them on racial inclusion would have made things worse. Also, I was scared and I was a coward. I want to personally thank my brother in Christ, Justin Jones-Fosu, for teasing this out in me in a very loving and grace-centered way on a phone conversation the night of the events at the SAE fraternity in Oklahoma. Thank you, my friend. Thank you for your grace, patience and for challenging me on my failure to speak as a young man. You did this in a very loving way. My friend Justin and I have a heart to go to churches and visit with them about racial inclusion, multiethnic worship and the theology behind multiethnic churches. He is a RTS student, current President of the African American Leadership Initiative at RTS, a brilliant speaker and thinker who will be a tremendous pastor. If you or your church are interested in us coming to visit then please feel free to contact me.
In the early years of the twenty first century, there was discussion of taking down the Confederate Flag from the State House of South Carolina. Many of my brothers took this as a personal challenge and decided to fly Confederate flags in their rooms and out of their windows in defiance. I myself, a history major who was proud of being a descendent of General George Pickett (although distantly), had a (more genteel and less abrasive) First National Flag of the Confederacy as well as a portrait of Pickett on my wall. Well, as was his yearly habit, Herman made a trip up to Clemson to visit me, minister to me, pray over my room and take me to lunch. I remember seeing Herman's face when he saw my living quarters for the first time. It was a combination of sadness, deep pain and disappointment. I had seen that face before on a beach in Sullivan's Island.
For the first time, I think I felt a bit of the pain that our African American brothers and sisters might feel upon seeing these symbols. For my white readers, you have to understand that these images are powerful and to many African Americans flying a Confederate flag is like saying "I'd like to go back to a time when African Americans were enslaved and I think it's ok to display that publicly." It can be deeply painful to see these images, especially in the homes and residences of people you thought knew better. I did know better. To my white readers, please learn from this and don't get defensive. Removing these images from your home is not "giving up the Lost Cause," it is caring for your brothers and sisters and lovingly laying down your own preferences to not cause pain to your brothers and sisters. I would say that people who have these images in their homes need to think about their home as an inviting space. Is it inviting and safe for African American friends and brothers? Would an African American brother or sister feel welcome and comfortable in your home? This I would call a laying down of pride and preference to better love, serve and care for our brothers and sisters.
Herman continued to care for me, come alongside me, pray for me and minister to me. He did not leave me in my state. Prior to leaving for Covenant Seminary in the summer of 2003, Herman and his wife came to our wedding and presented me with one of my most prized possessions. It is a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy kneeling in prayer on the streets of Birmingham. It hung proudly in his office for as long as I had known him. He handed it to me as if to say "let images like this decorate your new home." It is now the first thing visitors to our home see when they enter. I want my home to be a place of healing and reconciliation. It also encourages me to ask God for help, to pray to Him and to help me be strong to speak out when needed and not to be afraid to stand up for justice. My wife and I are routinely in the practice of using our dinner table as a place to invite African American brothers and sisters as equals into our home so that our children see that all people are to be treated with dignity, honor and respect. A home and a dinner table can also be an important place to build trust, loving relationships and solidarity with brothers and sisters. I want my home to be respite, a place of peace and rest for everyone, but especially for my African American brothers and sisters who visit. Therefore, Christ has allowed me to die to myself and my college-aged preferences. I do not hide my ancestry nor am I ashamed of it, but I wish it to be redemptive rather than destructive. I think, if my Confederate ancestors are in heaven right now, this is what they would want. They would not want to be lifted up and praised, they would want Christ to be lifted up and would want their lives to be used to unite people rather than separate them. My education continued.
Otis Pickett is Assistant Professor of History and Political Science at Mississippi College, Clinton, MS. You can follow him on Twitter @OtisWPickett