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When Your Church Is Silent by Enuma Okoro

On Saturday, George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the trial for the murder of teenager Trayvon Martin. I was and have remained in shock. No—not shocked—devastated and dumbfounded, at a loss for words. Thinking immediately of my two little nephews who are growing up black and unarmed in America. Thinking for the first time that maybe, possibly, there is a silver lining to the fact that I don’t have children? Could the ache for motherhood be replaced with the relief of not having to raise my own little black boys to believe themselves valued, loved and irreplaceable despite what the world tells them? No little black boys to teach the endless rules of how to try and survive when walking down the street, even in “safe” neighborhoods. No little black boys to become icons of injustice even before they are grown.

On Saturday I heard the verdict. On Sunday I went to church.

I won’t lie; it’s been a month of Sundays since I went to church. For me, church so often feels like a game I just can’t seem to get right. But I went to church yesterday because I needed to hear someone say something coherent and wise about how, as a Christian, I should remain hopeful about the world. How I should remain active in the pursuit of justice, even when attaining it this side of heaven seems so very far-fetched. And to be honest, I went to church because I needed to hear some blessed person remind me that no matter what goes on in the justice system or in congress rooms or in police offices, there are still places in this country apart from my family and friends where people who look like me count.

Really, I suppose I went to the church because there’s something in me that still prays the church can meet me in places where the world can’t.

So, it’s hard to express my disappointment when the pastor—a trained theologian and ordained minister at one of my city’s most renowned congregations—did not say one word about Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman or the trial even. Not one word.

I didn’t expect an entire sermon on it but at least recognition of the deep pain many are feeling as a result of the verdict, and the growing racially charged chasm that’s ensued. Maybe the pastor said nothing because the congregation was predominately white, upper-middle class. Maybe it was because the pastor didn’t want to come across as being “the activist type.” I don’t know. But I imagine words were spoken in countless black churches in America yesterday morning as people tried to make sense of the trial’s outcome.

So after the sermon in that nice, big church with the mostly white congregation, I said the Apostle’s Creed, joined in with the prayers of the people, and then walked out. Is there a silver lining in the fact that as a black woman I have no children? No little black boys to take to church on the morning after such a verdict, hoping to hear a word from the Lord, or at least from the pulpit, affirming the narrative I’ve given them about how they are seen and cherished.

Some might ask why didn’t I just go to a predominately black church yesterday? I had hoped that on such a morning it wouldn’t have mattered which church I went to. That no matter where I went, I would have heard some attempt to make Kingdom sense of the deep grief felt by millions right now. To acknowledge the ways our country is divided.

I am continually learning that not every church views the issues of racism and injustice as significant and applicable enough to the life of their particular congregations to speak about it from the pulpit. And I wasn’t the only one with this experience. I asked on Facebook and Twitter and more people than not said they heard nothing from the pulpit. I know there are countless churches who did offer a much needed word and practical counsel on what could be done next. But for every person who said their church did address these issues, there were too many who said they heard nothing.

I am not trying to cast stones at any particular church or pastor. I am trying to voice my deep concern that not enough churches believed this was an important enough topic to engage on some level. The acquittal of George Zimmerman was just another of many unfortunately ideal opportunities recently by which to engage Christians to work toward the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven—to truly look and see one another as equally made in the Image of God. Regardless of which side of the defense Christians fall, it is crucial the church has conversations around both real and perceived issues of racial inequalities and injustice. Yet the few times I’ve written about race in America and the church, I inevitably get comments from people who think I am overreacting or bringing up strictly political issues with “nothing spiritual about it.” Well, I need to confess something: I happen to believe being a Christian is a deeply political issue. And if we traced the strands of the racializing of America, (how racial categories emerged) we would find it interwoven with the Christianizing of America. Being black, white and other in this country has always been politicized, spiritualized and bound to access to power. And it’s time we own up to the consequences of such historical beginnings in our churches.

Just a few hours before the jury read it’s verdict, I emailed my agent my fourth draft of a proposal for a book about race relations and Christian discipleship. I have been reading and thinking a lot over the last year about how much notions and beliefs about race still factor into how we “do” church in this country, whom we recognize as our equal neighbors versus those neighbors for whom we “stoop” to assist, to sometimes hear “their” stories, or to sympathize over one of “their” issues. I wonder when we will get it—that as next of kin to one another in Christ, the dark and seemingly endless history of the racialization of America and the American church is everyone’s story and everyone’s issue. W.E.B. DuBois was once asked what it felt like to be the problem (as a black person.) And yet I keep asking myself, “What does it feel like America, with our laws and our churches, to be such a big part of the real problem?” If we can sit with that question long enough to really make us uncomfortable, then maybe we will start talking openly, honestly, and courageously to one another, both in and out of the pulpit.