An electrifying example of Christian love in the face of great racial tension occurred in 2020 immediately after the horrifying murder of George Floyd. Scott Hagan, then president of North Central University, welcomed Floyd’s grieving and traumatized family to the Assembly of God’s premier university where the family had asked to hold a funeral for Floyd. News coverage of the funeral may have reached well over one billion people.
This act of compassion and courage, standing up for a man who had been unjustly killed at the hands of the police, was later vindicated by the conviction of the murderer, Derek Chauvin. Today a scholarship in honor of George Floyd at North Central University benefits the young man who now deeply regrets his role in bringing the police to the scene where Floyd was murdered. And several other schools have established similar scholarships. The message promoting justice still echoes around the world today; Christians defend those who are the victims of injustice even when it is costly to do so.
Religion in the civil rights movement
Through the prophet Isaiah, God tells us that the fruit of his justice is peace, calling his people to act as Scott Hagan did. Racial problems are rooted in a long and bitter history of slavery and oppression, which has left intractable systems that still pose enormous barriers to African Americans.
The most important step is to educate ourselves about the issues. Our churches, mosques, temples and synagogues provide the perfect venue. Spiritual leaders can develop reading lists of accurate, balanced accounts of the history. They can establish study groups among their congregations and teach on these topics in their sermons.
People of faith can learn how sharecroppers were trapped in poverty because white farmers repeatedly cheated them. And how successful Black people, in places like Black Wall Street in Tulsa, repeatedly had their property destroyed and their lives ended by envious white people.
Educate yourself on the experience of Black people
Education is the basis for action. One fruitful approach is to build relationships with local Black churches, supporting their work on issues in their community, establishing friendships over time with pastors and members. The partnership between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a network led by the Azusa Christian Community in Boston, which distributes several tons of food to the needy, is one example.
The famous friendship between the Rev. Dr. Martin King Jr. and Abraham Heschel is another. Contact like this is an opportunity to learn how racism affects people’s daily lives. Many Black people are trapped in poor neighborhoods because, as recently as the 20th century, the New Deal implemented in the 1930s was designed in a racially biased way that created a lasting and growing racial wealth gap, although it also brought undeniable benefits to Black people. Redlining in northern cities such as Chicago and Detroit established the basis for the wealth of the white middle class while blocking Black people from accessing the same resources.
Rectifying these injustices is consistent with God’s commands to the ancient Israelites to protect the widow, the orphan and the stranger. We too must act to defend those who suffer.
Collaborate with Black congregations
Further action can grow out of collaboration between Black and white congregations. Much of the injustice that African Americans have experienced has been the product of policy decisions by the U.S. government, from codifying slavery to implementing redlining.
Current disadvantages like entrenched residential segregation, extremely limited access to high quality education and subtle employment bias continue to hold Black people back. Steps to implement policies that reverse that harm must be taken. Some recommendations, such as increased funding for inner-city public schools and protection of Black people’s voting rights, are obvious.
But a deep understanding of the problems is essential in this process. So, we must oppose efforts to limit the study of an unvarnished history of the United States.
Finally, our congregations can provide philanthropic support for families in need, for scholarships for Black youth, and for other local, statewide or national efforts to support the advancement of African Americans.
Reducing the racial tensions in our society is no easy lift and will take courage, resilience and persistence. But as people of faith, it is surely a critical task to which God calls us.
Jacqueline C. Rivers is Executive Director of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies.