Preaching While White on MLK Sunday

I first wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here. It was obviously written for MLK Sunday, but I think the content remains relevant.

A few years ago a friend invited me to preach at his mostly white suburban church the Sunday before MLK Day. I happened to have a couple of friends who attended this white pastor’s church – an Asian American woman and an African American man – who would have been excellent preachers for that Sunday. I also asked my friend if he wouldn’t prefer a mutual friend of ours, an African American woman who is the best preacher I know. No, he replied. My people need to hear about racial justice from a white man.

I’m guessing that a lot of mostly white churches will have guest preachers in their pulpits tomorrow. Most of these will be back men and women who will preach godly sermons that will convict and encourage the congregations to pursue the biblical mandate to seek justice and mercy. But I keep thinking about my friend’s decision to invite a white preacher into the pulpit on MLK Sunday.

My friend’s decision, if I’m remembering right, was motivated by a sense that white people are more likely to hear challenging things about race from other white people than they are from people of color. And because he was self-aware enough to know his own limitations and knowledge, he wanted another white pastor to preach the gospel of the kingdom on that particular Sunday.

His instincts, I’m hate to admit, were good. Over the years my colleagues and mentors of color have pushed me to speak to other white people about race and racism. They’ve experienced enough cold shoulders and turned backs to know that, for many white people, it’s just not possible to hear the truth from a person of color. And as long as this ugly dynamic persists, I’m personally committed to showing up in those white spaces when given the opportunity. Perhaps I might do a bit of the spade work that will allow those same colleagues and mentors to be heard and believed some day in the (hopefully) not too distant future.

But as I was working on my book and thinking about these things through the lens of discipleship, I thought about another expression of my pastor friend’s pulpit supply wisdom. When it comes to race and racism, white people have been formed to locate the center of those conversations among people of color, especially black people. Over this country’s history, the reality of racism and racial injustice has been couched as the “Negro problem,” the “race problem,” or the “problem of race relations.” For white people, the problem is over there and we expect to hear about from people who come from over there.

You can hear hints of this assumption in the recent interview Joe Biden did with the editors of the New York Times. He was asked, “How specifically should the country confront its history of slavery, discrimination and plunder of black America?” After responding that those who are acting oppresively must pay if their actions are criminal, Biden went on to describe a reason some families of color might be struggling today.

And the people who don’t show up on the nights when there’s a parent-teacher meeting are not people who in fact don’t care, but folks from poor backgrounds. They don’t show up because they’re embarrassed. They’re embarrassed the teacher’s going to say — and it’s hard to say, “Well, I can’t read,” or “I don’t …”

In the former vice-president’s imagination, the focus of addressing the impact of racism is on the families who’ve experienced racism. This tends to be how white people perceive the so-called race problem: It’s theirs. And we can be sympathetic or callous but most of the time we’re not going to see it as ours.

So it’s reasonable for a church that has few people of color in attendance or leadership to welcome a preacher of color to the pulpit once a year, on the Sunday we’ve set aside to acknowledge the existence of a reality we will spend the rest of the year ignoring.

And this is why, in hindsight, I think my friend’s invitation was brilliant. By inviting a white man into the pulpit on MLK Day Sunday, he was messing with our assumptions about the gravity of race and racism. He was, subtly perhaps, helping his white congregation understand their own complicities and responsibilities. He was lining up with what Frederick Douglass said so many years ago, “The true problem is a national problem. There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own Constitution.” Or, in the case of the church, whether we have enough faithfulness to live up to kingdom of God.

So, if you’re in a position to invite some guest preachers next year, maybe mix it up. Have a thoughtful white preacher step up on MLK Sunday. And then invite your colleagues of color to guest preach on some other Sunday, on any text or topic they want. Help your people see that our responsibility is greater than we’ve typically imagined and that our sisters and brothers of color have expertise and experience much broader than we’ve been led to believe.

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