May 25, 2008. The Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The issue of race drew sharp focus as Barack Obama’s contentious split with his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, played out in a national glare. In response, the United Church of Christ and National Council of Churches USA called on 10,000 ministers to initiate a “sacred conversation on race.”
To listen in on that conversation, Associated Press reporters across the nation — and Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Robin Farmer in Richmond — engaged pastors and parishioners about their individual experiences with racism.
At New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss., Bible study classes have been reading about the concept that all God’s people are connected. In small groups, hovering over Bibles, members were taught that mankind is descended from Adam and Eve and that blood shed by Jesus Christ is a means to salvation for everyone of every race.
The spiritual revelation has not, however, erased the root of 84-year-old deacon Jesse McGee’s concern. McGee, who is black, confesses that he had a problem with his son’s marriage of nearly 30 years to a white woman, until the Bible study classes offered enlightenment.
“In the South, the white man and white woman have always had more freedom than the black man and the black woman,” he said.
Jean Brooks understands her father-in-law’s feelings. “He’s a wonderful, remarkable human being. If you think of his life experiences . . . he’s been to war in World War II as an African-American.
“He’s had his share as a Mississippian with race. I think their concern about my race was mostly concern about their son. They didn’t want their son to get injured by being seen with me,” she said.
. . .
The victim was an unarmed black man shot 50 times on the eve of his wedding. The police detectives acquitted in the New York case: black, Hispanic and white. Like so many who questioned the outcome, the Rev. Gabriel Salguero wasn’t surprised by an e-mail asking what he had to say about racial injustice.
His reply, profound in its brevity: “Love.”
Salguero shared his response with the multiracial congregation he has served for nearly three years. His wife and co-pastor, Jeanette, translated his every word — periodically switching between English and Spanish as her husband did.
Another e-mail followed asking what the pastor meant.
“It means you are committed to sitting at the table to hear a different narrative,” Salguero said.
Salguero, who has relatives on the police force, negotiates the minefields of racial injustice and reconciliation with thoughtful diligence rooted in experience. He, too, has been stopped for “driving while brown.”
Members of his Lamb’s Manhattan Church of the Nazarene climb three flights of stairs in a building that once housed a library to hear the bilingual sermons, a feature introduced by the Salgueros. The diversity goes further: Salguero brought in Pastor Shih Fong Wu, who on the first floor simultaneously leads Sunday services in Mandarin to accommodate the large number of Chinese immigrants in the Lower East Side neighborhood.
Outreach ministries at the church, which catered mostly to the homeless when it was in Times Square, now counsel a group that contends with legal, cultural and financial hardships and alienation daily.
“When we come to church, we do not ignore those realities,” Salguero said in his sermon. “Justice demands that we recognize that people are oppressed and that the gospel is the liberating message.”
. . .
The Rev. Tyrone Nelson, pastor of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, can’t recall any overt, racist experiences as a child growing up in Richmond.
But as a young adult, subtle racism drove him away from the world of commerce to the clergy.
“When I became an adult I understood that racism isn’t always in-your-face or when people call you names,” said Nelson, 34.
He had just become licensed as a minister and worked as manager of a retail store. There, he was among a handful of African-American managers.
He recalled awkward business meetings where “there was always an undertone about [store] locations . . . and people didn’t want to work in certain areas” where many African-Americans shopped, such as Southside Plaza in South Richmond and what was then Eastgate Mall in eastern Henrico County.
Stores that were very profitable were off-limits to black managers. His disillusionment peaked after he was placed on a diversity team, he said.
During a district meeting, a white manager who worked in a black community joked, “If you want to increase sales in the African-American stores, all you have to do is to get someone to cook pigs’ feet and they’ll come running.”
Nelson was not amused.
He soon left the company to work as a youth director for the Baptist General Convention of Virginia.
But there is no escaping racism, Nelson said, not even in the church. As president of Richmonders Involved to Strengthen Our Communities (RISC), he’s working to change that.
“There are only a handful of churches in the country where real multiculturalism exists, only a small percent that embrace a diverse worship experience,” Nelson said.
In Richmond and the counties in the metro area, most churches are largely one race, he said.
“It’s amazing to me we live in a world where we bash Dr. Wright . . . — and everyone is so appalled as to what he said — when most of us, if we are in church, are segregated.”
Made up of 15 congregations diverse in racial, socio-economic, denominational and geographic backgrounds, RICS addresses poverty and injustice.
“I’ve never been a part of a group like that before, and now I am,” Nelson said. “I have pastors who don’t look like me that I can consider friends, and we can pull our churches together and learn from each other.”
The diversity of RISC is its greatest asset, he said.
“That is what brings us power. We got someone in the group who can connect with everyone in the city. The group is about working for the social good but doing it together.”
. . .
The choir soprano glances up from her sheet music and scans the sanctuary.
The curved oak pews, hand-carved by former slaves. The vaulted ceiling, outlined by sturdy wooden beams and converging in the center to form a cross, a star and a circle. The stained glass panels in the pointed arch windows, illuminated by the glow of a setting sun.
Antioch Missionary Baptist Church is not just Jacqueline Bostic’s church. It’s home.
The history of the 142-year-old Antioch, the oldest black Baptist church in Houston, is intertwined with the history of Bostic’s family. Her great-grandfather, Jack Yates, whose portrait hangs from a balcony, was the first pastor.
And the strength of Antioch’s founders, nine freed blacks who started the church just seven months after slaves were emancipated in Texas, is a strength running deep in this 70-year-old woman. Raised in a segregated Houston, she refused to bow to segregation’s rules.
As a young woman, Bostic balked at sitting in the back of city buses and sat where she pleased. On a trip to Birmingham, Ala., she once defiantly strode up bus steps labeled “white,” much to the dismay of the driver. No words passed between them, but she could read exasperation on his face.
“I felt this should not be, so why is everybody accepting that?” Bostic recalls, with a look that says she would do it all again. “It was not going to be something I accepted for the rest of my life.”
The source of her assurance? Family and faith.
Antioch, she says, is “a very special place to be, to be able to worship God in spirit and truth and shut out other things we were confronted with. It reaffirmed my belief that no matter what your challenges are, God gives you the ability to get through it.”
One of those challenges was breaking racial barriers during a 32-year career in the U.S. Postal Service.
In 1960, when Bostic first joined the postal service, African-Americans and women were not allowed to rise above entry-level positions. Determined to vanquish those rules, Bostic applied for — and got — higher-level jobs, opening the door for others. She retired in 1992 as a postmaster.
Today, Bostic looks at her four children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, and hopes they will live in a world where they will be judged by their character, not their color.
But, she fears that may never happen. “I’m afraid they will be subject to the same kinds of things I was subjected to. But I always want to have hope that at some point people will accept each other regardless of ethnicity, religious background, or what country they’re from, that we will see that we are all people who are blessed to share the Earth.”
Until then, she will worship.