(RNS) — C.J. Rhodes, pastor of Mt. Helm Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, was grabbing lunch from one of his regular spots when the restaurant manager made an announcement to all the patrons.
“Guys, we have to shut down. We have no water pressure.”
On Aug. 29, flooding from the nearby Pearl River caused complications at the O.B. Curtis Water Plant, resulting in a loss of pressure and running water for the entire city.
At more than 160,000 people, Jackson is Mississippi’s largest city and the state capital. Schools, which had only just commenced classes, had to be shut down, and the city lacked water for even emergency services such as firefighting.
The crisis quickly made national news, and people from around the country turned their attention to Jackson seeking explanations and ways to help.
Within the city, residents quickly organized to help their neighbors and communities. At the center of these efforts stood faith leaders.
“Churches throughout the city of Jackson across denomination, class and race have engaged in water distributions at their churches or by giving water away in other ways,” said Rhodes.
His church became a water distribution site. As provisions flooded into the city from around the country, churches like his became hubs for supplying residents. Sometimes churches filled in where municipal distribution efforts were limited. They could stay open after hours to serve people who couldn’t make it to the city’s distribution sites before closing.
Jennifer Biard, lead pastor of Jackson Revival Center Church, lost water several days before the city-wide announcement. She came home and found the faucets simply didn’t work.
While dealing with her own water troubles, she led her church in providing for others in the southern part of the city where they have a campus. Throughout the crisis many water distribution sites were set up at various locations, but Biard and her volunteers went even further. They loaded up cases of water and hand-delivered them to individuals and businesses.
“One thing people don’t understand is that when you have people who are disabled, people who are without transportation, they may not be able to go out to the distribution sites,” she explained.
Individual churches were not the only bodies that got involved.
Reginald M. Buckley is the pastor of Cade Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. He is also the president of the General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi (GMBSC), an association of churches providing mutual aid to member congregations.
“There’s only so much any local church can do … (the convention) acts as a connector,” Buckley said.
His goal was to mobilize people and supplies from across the state and nation to help people in Jackson. The state convention has its own 18-wheel truck as well as an extensive network of churches and personnel they contacted to help.
“Though this is a trying time, one of the things that I am most grateful for is the unity that people are able to observe, how they are seeing pastors and churches come together regardless of race, regardless of denomination, regardless of anything that would divide. They are seeing the body of Christ come together like never before,” Buckley said.
Despite the efforts of churches and faith communities to provide relief, the water problems in Jackson are much deeper than a breakdown at the water plant.
The city had already been under a boil water notice for a month before the entire water system failed. Even after the city’s water pressure was restored nearly a week later, the boil water notice has remained in effect.
Although the water plant has come back online, the infrastructure issues remain.
“Now that the plant is up and running, water is flowing again, now we have to live with pipes bursting … We still have lead leaching from the pipes into the water. We still have the EPA saying the city has failed to do a number of things and if they don’t remedy those things, there may be federal seizure of the water system,” Rhodes said.
Given the continued failure to bring Jackson’s water infrastructure system up to date, Buckley said he is preparing for the next crisis.
“What we’re absolutely convinced of is that we’re going to be faced with this again, and not in the distant future but in the near future,” he said.
Buckley is working to build a stockpile of supplies to have on hand the next time the city loses water. “We are inundated with water right now. We are partnering with the Church of Christ Holiness to create a reserve and supplies center to house water, buckets and all kinds of supplies,” he said.
The constant lack of clean water and water pressure has worn on Jackson’s residents, 80% of whom are Black.
“We should have water,” Biard, who is white, said. “We should have water whether it’s cold or hot or snowing or raining.”
Jackson exists alongside wealthier suburbs including Madison, a community north of the city that is also the wealthiest in the state.
After years of experiencing a crumbling infrastructure alongside the comparative wealth of nearby towns, a freshman college student who is Black asked Buckley, “What’s wrong with me?”
“We assured her there was nothing wrong with her. There is something wrong with the world,” said Buckley, who tried to help his young parishioner understand that the fault did not rest with who she was but with external factors and decisions made by others.
Anticipating the need not only for material supplies but spiritual relief, award-winning gospel artist John P. Kee volunteered to perform a benefit concert in Jackson.
A friend of Kee’s in Jackson connected him to Biard, and he immediately knew she was someone who could help him set up the concert but also become an ongoing partner.
“I wanted to come in and partner with such a ministry where we could actually connect, and when I’m gone I’ll stay in touch, and I’ll be family,” Kee said.
Fixing Jackson’s pipes, water plant and other infrastructure needs requires resources that exceed what local churches can provide. Yet the lightning-quick response of faith leaders and their communities when the hour of need emerged provides evidence that help will be there in a crisis.
The show of unity by churches in Jackson may even be a sign of greater changes to come.
According to Biard, “I believe that this may be not just the initiation of a fresh start for Jackson, I believe it’s going to be a comprehensive fresh start … I believe that the Lord is getting ready to do something for Mississippi as a whole.”
To support local efforts to address the water crisis in Jackson, donate below.
(Jemar Tisby, PhD, is a historian, author and speaker. He wrote “The Color of Compromise” and “How to Fight Racism,” and he frequently writes about race, religion and politics in his newsletter, “Footnotes.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
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Jemar Tisby generated a lot of necessary conversation about the intersection of race, social justice, and the global church in 2019 with his best-selling book, The Color of Compromise. With that book, he laid the historical foundation of racism in the church. In the last chapter of the book, Tisby shares practical tips for fighting racism. In his new book, How to Fight Racism, Tisby continues the conversation, but this time around he provides an actual framework that churches and Christian groups can use toward racial reconciliation.
“In a lot of ways, they [the books] pair together really well. Now, they can be read independently of each other. So, I don’t want folks to get scared if they didn’t read the first one. You can dive into the second. From my perspective, the second book is what I wanted to be the first book. I was really passionate about getting in there, getting involved in doing something about racism. But in conversations with publishers and advisors and things like that, it became apparent that we really needed to lay the groundwork for the problem of racism and white supremacy in this country. Especially as it relates to the church. And basically, diagnose the problem before we jumped to solutions,” said Tisby.
Tisby’s solution is built around a model he created called the ARC of Racial Justice. ARC is an acronym for awareness, relationships, and commitment. From Trayvon Martin through the Black Lives Matter Movement and even the tumultuous racial conflicts during the Trump presidency, many people have become more acutely aware of our country’s problems centered around race. But committing to developing relationships with people who may not have the same views as you do or are coming from a different cultural perspective and, in doing so, breaking down racist structures takes more of a plan for change.
“What I’m hoping for is that this sparks ideas for people to gather a group of folks around them and say, ‘Hey, let’s do something.’ And I am really looking forward to stories trickling in over the next year and two years or whatever, so that when we do the updated and revised version of How to Fight Racism, I can include stories from the field, so to speak,” Tisby said.
So, what about Critical Race Theory (CRT) as a way to combat racism? CRT argues that diversity training and changes in the laws are needed to combat structural obstacles created by white people that make for an unequal playing field in our society when it comes to people of color. Some people believe that CRT is a huge threat to the church. Tisby doesn’t see it that way. He says people who are dismissing it are using an old tactic — from tactics during the Civil War, when pro-slavery people used terms like “carpetbaggers” and “scallywags,” to the Jim Crow segregationists’ labels of “outside agitators,” to modern usages of Red Scare smears of “communists” and “Marxists.” Now, the label is “Critical Race Theory” proponents and is being used by people whom Tisby says want to defend a racist status quo.
“All of these things are about controlling the narrative. And what happens is, if I can use a label like Critical Race Theory, I can paint it as bad, slap you with it. Then I can put you in a box, put you on the shelf, and I don’t have to actually listen to what you’re saying about racism and white supremacy,” Tisby said. “What we have to do is not get distracted from the main issue, which is Christian nationalism. It has infected so many parts of the church in the U.S. and even beyond.”
Many white Christians don’t experience racism the same way as Black people and other people of color because the Christian nationalists are in their families, in their churches, and some cases, they’ve acclimated to that way of thinking. Tisby says it’s hard for them to see it as an urgent existential problem that the marginalized and oppressed people do. That said, he has noticed that the social justice marches and movements have had an impact. White women in particular, from a 30-something who teaches Bible study at a nursing home to 70-year-old women, have reached out to him via social media and seem catalyzed to start taking action.
“It might’ve had to do with the past year or two and what they saw, especially politically. White Christians are starting to realize, ‘Oh my, like these differences are real. They’re salient. They’re in my church. They’re in my family,’” Tisby said.
It’s no easy task to be as explicit as Tisby directs white Christians about calling out Christian nationalism and white supremacy in their ranks. We know how it’s infected historically and theologically what they do. He often praises Fannie Lou Hamer’s efforts, who became a nationally known civil rights activist after seeing a presentation about voting rights at her church. Tisby admires how she always connected her activism to her faith. With that in mind, what should Black Christian activists be doing now?
“We are going to have to protect our peace. We are living in perilous times right now. And I find myself even just scrolling through Twitter or social media and whatnot, that I’ve got to take breaks because the flood of negative news, the flood of anti-Blackness, all of that stuff is too much to handle all at once. So, we will have to cultivate communities that affirm our dignity, that affirm our being made in the image of God. You got to go out and seek it and find it.”
(RNS) — In his book, “The Coming Race Wars?,” theologian William Pannell foresees the poor and disenfranchised engaging in violent urban uprisings and revolts across the world similar to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. It will only be a matter of time, he writes, “before some cop blows it again in his or her treatment of a Black person, probably a Black man.”
Police brutality, racist and discriminatory lending practices, lack of well-paying jobs could push Black people and other marginalized communities to revolt, Pannell predicts. And the evangelical church — with all its influence, resources and its supply of missionaries across the world — is ill-equipped to address social issues at home, he argues.
Pannell, professor emeritus of preaching at Fuller Seminary, pushes back against the notion that Jesus is all people need to make it.
“I really do believe that people — all people — need Jesus,” Pannell writes. “But to make it in society, white Christians realize they need a lot more than salvation. They may expect Black people to be content with salvation in Christ. But that is not enough for the white Christians themselves.”
While the debate has been “between those committed to evangelism and those committed to justice,” Pannell writes that “what we should be striving for is a spirituality that will inform both evangelism and social transformation.”
Pannell wrote “The Coming Race Wars?” nearly 30 years ago.
“The interesting thing about this book is that it sounds so contemporary, even though it’s about 30 years old,” Pannell, 92, told Religion News Service. “Why is that? What is there about this book that makes it so painfully contemporary after so long a time?”
The book was first published in 1993, in the wake of the 1992 uprising that erupted in Los Angeles after a jury acquitted four LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney King. Now, in the wake of 2020’s racial justice uprisings after the killing of George Floyd, Pannell has released an updated version.
“The Coming Race Wars: A Cry for Justice, from Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter” was published in June, and features a new introduction by Jemar Tisby, author of the book “The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism,” and an afterword that Pannell began writing before COVID-19 struck the nation and prior to the police killing of Floyd that sparked protests across the country against police brutality and in support for Black Lives Matter.
In the afterword, Pannell explains that he essentially began writing it nearly 30 years ago, when Rodney King called for an end to the riots, publicly asking on television: “Can we all get along?”
“The question of the Black man from Los Angeles loomed large thirty years ago and it still throbs with meaning,” Pannell writes.
Pannell, in the new epilogue, seeks to answer the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s question, “Where do we go from here?” But the meaning of “here” is something Pannell grapples with.
He underscores the death of King and recalls the crowd leaving the March on Washington “wondering about the future.” He highlights Billy Graham’s 1970 “The Unfinished Dream” speech in front of a predominantly white crowd and how his “power and prestige legitimated the marriage of God and country.” Pannell documents Graham laying the foundation for evangelical support for conservative agendas. After his death and the “evangelical movement shattered along ideological lines,” he asks, “What’s next?”
Pannell brings readers back into the present, to the Black Lives Matter protests and to former President Donald Trump’s speech at Mount Rushmore where he “drove the dagger of division deeper into America’s heartland,” and asks again, “Where do we go from here?”
“The here, unfortunately, is pretty much what it was 30 years ago,” Pannell told RNS.
To Edward Gilbreath, vice president of strategic partnerships at Christianity Today, the expanded and new version of Pannell’s book serves as a historical reflection but “also as a statement on how far we haven’t come.”
“Dr. Pannell was not afraid to speak the truth to power in evangelical circles at that time. He was very much engaged and a part of the predominantly white evangelical community,” said Gilbreath, who in 2019 helped spearhead Pannell’s updated book when he was an executive editor at InterVarsity Press.
“This gave him a very intimate perspective in terms of being trusted and someone who is not just criticizing for criticism’s sake, but he really cared about the church and wanted to see real change because he loved the church,” Gilbreath added.
With this version of the book, Gilbreath said he hopes to introduce Pannell to a new generation, those who may know about evangelist Tom Skinner “but have not heard the name William Pannell.”
Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said it’s crucial to contextualize how the original book was published at a time when L.A. was reckoning with the aftermath of what’s been described as one of the worst race riots in American history.
“It was important to talk about the ways in which evangelicals hadn’t paid attention to race,” said Butler, author of “White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America.” “He was already working on that book when the L.A. riots happened.” Butler dedicated her book to Pannell.
Butler juxtaposes “The Coming Race Wars?” with Pannell’s 1968 book, “My Friend, the Enemy,” where he seeks to explain how white people, including those Pannell knew and loved, could “at once be both friend and foe.” In it, he centers his experience as an evangelical Black man among Christians who seldom challenged white supremacy.
“That book was trying to address back in 1968 the same kind of issues that he was addressing in 1993, and here we are in 2021 with the updated version, and evangelicals still haven’t gotten it yet,” Butler said.
Pannell recognizes that a majority of evangelicals supported Trump and his administration. “It has become clear that this segment of the church is deeply divided and segregated not only by theology but by political ideology,” he writes.
The race wars may still be coming, Pannell writes, but he also highlights how the “command of the risen Christ to his followers was that they go into all the world and make disciples of the nations. Not build churches; not make converts. Make disciples.”
“It seems fairly clear today that we have far more churches and Christians than we have disciples,” Pannell writes.
In his afterword, Pannell poses the question: “What, after all, does it mean to be the people of God today?
“Moving forward from here will require a greater investment in discipleship, a deeper commitment to beloved community, and a reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit,” Pannell writes. “In other words, we’ll need to be the church.”
The investigative news agency ProPublica released a photo showing three white students from the University of Mississippi posing with guns in front of a bullet-riddled marker dedicated to Emmett Till.
White men lynched Till, a 14-year-old black boy visiting from Chicago, for supposedly flirting with a white woman at a store in Mississippi in 1955. His murder, along with his mother’s defiant decision to display her son’s mutilated face in an open casket, helped spur the civil rights movement.
Upon seeing the photo, one of my first questions was: “What church do these young men attend?”
To ask about their churches is to inquire about the role communities of faith play in perpetuating or dismantling racism in its various forms. The young men may not go to church. They may not even be Christians. But in an area known as the “Bible Belt” the cultural influence of Christianity is strong. So how the church influences the racial understanding of white Christians deserves probing.
The young men positioned themselves in front of this marker like big-game hunters proudly displaying their deceased prize. It’s as if Till, his memory, his murder and his legacy were all just a game to this grinning group.
One of the people pictured even posted the photo on his Instagram account. It garnered almost 250 “likes” before being taken down when reporters started asking about it. One person who saw the photo filed a complaint with the University of Mississippi back in March, but officials there did not take any action. Instead they referred it to the FBI where the case stalled because officers said the photo “did not pose a specific threat.”
Other entities took more decisive action. The three men pictured all belong to the Kappa Alpha fraternity. According to its website, the fraternity cites Confederate General Robert E. Lee as its “spiritual founder.” When fraternity leaders were made aware of the photo last week, however, they immediately suspended all three frat brothers.
Aside from the disciplinary actions, other issues remain.
Did these young men bother to read the historical marker behind them to learn about Till and the significance of his life and murder? Did they think twice about posting this picture publicly and what it communicated about how they regarded black people? Did the teaching of their churches help or hinder their sensitivity concerning race?
The primary question is not whether churches are endorsing overt racism; they almost certainly are not. The question is about how church leaders understand race and what they are teaching their members about it.
It could be the case that churches are not teaching much about race at all. Pastors remain relatively silent about racism from the pulpit, Bible study groups may not touch the topic, and few church members in homogenous white congregations ever bring it up.
In other cases, churches may talk about race, but in unhelpful ways. Oftentimes, they try to do so in a “colorblind” way by emphasizing commonality and by minimizing or ignoring differences.
They claim they “don’t see color” and that all believers are brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of their race or ethnicity. These teachings become problematic when the varied life experiences, racial hardships, and history of black people is blotted out in a blob of contrived sameness. Unity does not mean uniformity.
Other churches may have a truncated explanation for how race works. White evangelical Christians, in particular, tend to think of race in individualistic terms. The problem, they say, is bad relationships — as when a person doesn’t like another because of race, or when someone uses racial slurs. The solution, according to this line of thinking, is to have more positive relationships across the color line.
Relationships with people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds is a necessary part of bringing about racial justice, but it is not sufficient. Personal relationships have little impact on structural racial inequalities such as anti-black police brutality, high rates of maternity-related deaths among black women, or the racial wealth gap.
No amount of one-on-one lunches, small group discussions or coffee meetups will automatically impact the broader issue of institutional racism.
White churches have to be attuned to how they may implicitly reinforce racism. Some Christian churches have started private schools. If those schools do not intentionally embed racial awareness into their curricula and practice, they are likely perpetuating misunderstandings.
Some churches, in effect, make adherence to the Republican party platform a litmus test for Christian orthodoxy. Most black people are not Republican, so political differences can create barriers to belonging.
If churches want to improve the way they teach their members about race, they should start by examining their understanding of the term.
Ask church leaders to define the words “race” and “racism.” Oftentimes there are as many different answers as there are people answering. The key here is to move beyond a narrow concept of racism as only an interpersonal phenomenon. Christians must acknowledge the ways race operates on systemic and institutional levels. Developing a shared language and definitions is a key to improving racial responsiveness.
Churches also have to talk about race. On any divisive topic, the temptation is to avoid discussing it for fear of offending someone. But people are already talking about race— at the dinner table, at work, in group text messages — and they often do so in unhelpful ways. With a shared language and mutually understood concepts, pastors and church leaders can be the guides their members need for talking about race in nuanced, spiritual and morally informed ways.
What if those young men who proudly posed in front of a defaced sign dedicated to a lynched boy had been deeply educated by their church about race and racism? What if they’d had a Sunday School class on the history of American Christianity and race? What if they learned to see what the Bible says from Genesis to Revelation about how to understand and celebrate differences? What if those young men had learned a robust doctrine of the image of God to better grasp the dignity of all people?
No one should need specialized teaching to know that standing with guns in front of a plaque detailing Emmett Till’s murder is racist. An elementary understanding of U.S. history and a modicum of concern for other human beings should prevent such offenses. Yet, whether churches lend more to perpetuating racism or providing remedies remains a pressing concern.
If churches, which have historically had such a large role in driving racism, do not effectively teach their congregants about race, then many Christians will continue to be part of creating racial problems rather than helping enact solutions.
(The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)