He Remembers Emmett Till

“What one begs the American people to do, for all our sakes, is simply to accept our history.”

14EmmettTillBefore_(2534273093)14-year-old Emmet Till was lynched in 1955 down in Mississippi. His funeral – open-casket at the demand of his mother, Mammie Till Bradley, and attended by thousands – was held at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, just a couple of miles from where I sit on Chicago’s South Side.

Conceptionally I understand the likelihood that at some point I’ve crossed paths with someone who remembers that funeral, someone for whom Till’s name means more than a history lesson about America’s obsession with policing young black men’s bodies. It’s been a mere 63 years. I’ve been inside the church. But still, it seems a very long time ago.

Or it did. On Saturday my friend Mr. Young, a lifetime resident of the neighborhood, remarked almost casually that he’d been at Emmet Till’s funeral. He was eleven and his grandmother insisted on bringing him, wanting to instill a deadly important lesson about white people’s capacity for violence. It’s a lesson, he confessed, to which he never paid much attention. But he was there. He processed passed the casket of a child just a few years his elder, beaten beyond recognition. He saw people much older fall out in that church, the grief too heavy a load, at least for the moment.

I’m not sure what to take from this. I read enough history to know that historians lament the average American’s disinterest in the past. Maybe that’s true. But Mr. Young’s testimony is about more than remembering what shouldn’t be forgotten; I think it’s about how close these things are, about how incredibly quickly we relegate flesh and blood to memory’s sterile shelf.

In 1965 James Baldwin wrote an essay, “The American Dream and the American Negro”, in which he explored the country’s fraught relationship to its history. “The American soil is full of the corpses of my ancestors, through 400 years and at least three wars. Why is my freedom, my citizenship, in question now? What one begs the American people to do, for all our sakes, is simply to accept our history.” Maybe that’s what I felt listening to Mr. Young’s firsthand account of the Till funeral. We’re so accustomed to historical obfuscation that when someone says something plainly – I was there – it’s a revelation.

Baldwin goes on: “When I was brought up I was taught in American history books that Africa had no history and that neither had I. I was a savage about whom the least said the better, who had been saved by Europe and who had been brought to America. Of course, I believed it. I didn’t have much choice. These were the only books there were. Everyone else seemed to agree.” Baldwin’s reflection on his own childhood in Harlem is one he applies more broadly to each of this nation’s citizens, that what passes for our history is actually a collection of history-obscuring myths. The fog of memory leaves poor white people consoled that “at least they are not black” and young black people, as Baldwin remembers himself, thinking that you “belonged where white people put you.”

I wonder whether we leave these malicious myths unchecked because they seem so distant, built deeply into the foundation upon which too many of our assumptions are built. But Mr. Young remembers walking into Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in the fall of 1955 to memorize his contemporary. And, to take another example in my community, Michelle Duster, Ida B. Wells’ great-granddaughter, is raising money for a statue to commemorate the woman who is the singular figure in the anti-lynching campaign. The threads are everywhere, ready to  traced backward to people and events whose influence remains brilliantly latent, available to dissipate myth and fog. Our historical amnesia might be intentional but it isn’t inevitable.

 

Friends are Better than Books

On the (obvious) limits of books written about urban ministry.

A friend recently posted a link on his Facebook page to a webpage cataloguing a list of “Top Christian Books on Reaching Cities.” I’m not linking to the page as the entire site is a bit confusing and the list itself seems flimsy as pointed out in my friend’s commentary: “How to justify educated, upper middle-class white folks moving to the city to plant churches that end up gentrifying neighborhoods.” You can imagine, given his sarcastic description, what he thinks about the list. I’ve not read any of the recommended books, so I can’t speak to their content, but the list does strike me as overwhelmingly white, male, and mostly coming from a particular evangelical tradition. There may be some helpful books on that list but I wouldn’t know.

However, because I’ve pastored in Chicago for 9 of my 14 years of ministry, I am interested in why lists like this one exist. There’s clearly a market for books that attempt to help Christians reach cities with the gospel. (We’ll leave, for this post, the question about what is imagined by that seemingly innocuous word, reach.) I’m sitting next to my well-stocked bookshelves as I write this and I can’t find a single book about urban ministry among my many, many books. I have to imagine that certain pastors have been helped by such books but I’ve never once felt the need to read about urban ministry over these years, especially from the perspective of those authors – often white – who aren’t homegrown to the contexts about which they write.

Making the Second GhettoNow, I read a lot and many of these books are uniquely relevant to the life and ministry of our urban congregation. This year, for example, I’m doing a deep dive into housing policy and federally-mandated segregation. Books like Making the Second Ghetto,  GentrifierThe Color of Lawand Jim Crow Nostalgia are helping me to see our city and neighborhood more accurately and to think more carefully about our presence within a city that continues to experience the harsh results of hugely complex economic and social forces.

I also read a lot that isn’t geared to urban realities but, given my context, I work to apply those books – wether theology, sociology, history, etc. – to our city and neighborhood. There’s nothing unique about this; it’s the kind of thing pastors in our neighborhood do all of the time. Sometimes the contextual application comes relatively easily while other books require the thoughtful reader to spit out a lot of bones to get to a bit of meat. So it goes. The idea that I would limit my reading to books written specifically for my context or demographic seems odd, thought I suppose this is how much of Christian publishing operates.

So I’m ambivalent about books lists like this one but I do feel very strongly that no list can remotely approximate the wisdom of friendships with those who know more than me. When I think about urban ministry I’m rarely thinking about a book or article; I’m almost always thinking about a person or a congregation whose authority has shaped my vision and commitments. The danger – not small in my experience – of book lists like this one is that it gives the reader, often a white pastor with good intentions, the sense that he or she has read enough to do good ministry. But it’s not possible! Nothing can replace the embodied wisdom and accountability that comes from friendship, mentoring, partnerships, and collaborations in which the long-term residents and congregations set the agenda, goals, and metrics of success.

Maybe this takes more time than working through a list of books, but it’s also so much better. And frankly, it’s not all that complicated, though I suppose someone could write a book about it… or maybe they already have.