Valuing Black Lives: A Matter of Prayer and Action
Guest: Dr. Brad Gabriel
Growing up in Aldersgate Methodist (later United) Church, we were taught the power of prayer. We prayed the Lord’s Prayer collectively every Sunday. The Pastor prayed for the people and conditions and in the manner he (in those days, it was always “he”) thought best. We learned how to pray and the matters about which we should pray by observation, participation, and instruction. The last being accomplished in Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, and at home.
We prayed our thanks to God for all manner of things; nature, rain, sunshine, food, presidents, moms and dads and sisters and brothers. We prayed our personal needs; help on tests in school, the soul of household pets who had died, healing skinned knees, and upcoming trips to the dentist or doctor. We prayed for forgiveness for our errors, mistakes, and failures; calling the teacher a bad name, taking something that belonged to the aforementioned sister or brother, bad thoughts, chores undone, and more. We prayed for specific people and families as well when those people and families had needs beyond our own; the “Jones” family having a hard time, “Suzie” who had to have her tonsils out, grandma who was sick with something or the other. We knew (through such books as Tiger Tail Village, the 1962 VBS study) that other people were in need, often through no fault of their own. The follow up to the lesson was the reminder that we had a Christian duty to help in whatever ways we could.
The last prayer lesson became a staple in all manner of prayer groups and prayer times. We prayed before youth group, on retreats, at Church Board meetings. We always named the needs of individuals or families or groups. The veterans and matrons and working-class men and women and new professionals of Aldersgate UMC were never satisfied with praying alone. Without really talking about it, the ethos, as lived out, was, “Pray as though everything depends on God. Work as though everything depends on you.” Money was collected and sent to causes. Work teams visited the Bethlehem Center mission downtown. Quilts were made. Books were collected. Our prayers were always connected to action. The Church incarnated the old joke, “If someone in a prayer time is named as sick, start making the casserole.”
Prayer always seemed to lead to action of some kind. As well it should!
That Black people in the United States and the Colonies earlier have been treated worse than other groups is objective truth. From 1619 to 1863 (and beyond in too many places) people of African descent were bought and sold like cattle. Living conditions were abysmal. Prospects for improvement were non-existent save through the harrowing option of running away. The list of horrors may be found elsewhere.
The end of the Civil War saw a brief time of improvement. That time was shot dead in places like New Orleans, Wilmington, and Memphis. Legally established governments of whites and blacks were overthrown by violence. White supremacist regimes installed. Legal retreat from promises of equality was enforced with Jim Crow laws. Plessy v. Ferguson took its place alongside the Dred Scott decision, rulings that effectively claimed White Supremacy was the law.
While I cannot believe that our history constantly must be reviewed, the truth is that economic, political, and educational burdens were put on African Americans that neither my parents nor my siblings and I faced. My father could access all aspects of the G.I. Bill following his service in the Second World War. He did so, never realizing that people of color, even other veterans, were regularly unable to access those benefits for no other reason than their skin color. Home loans were restricted, making the following of jobs from the central city to the new suburbs difficult or impossible. Schools serving communities of color were regularly under-resourced. In my lifetime African American Memphians were restricted from access to municipal facilities their taxes supported. School segregation was as normal as the sun rising in the East and setting in the West.
A more thoroughgoing example of pervasive cultural racism is hard to imagine than my High School nickname and mascot. We were the Overton Rebels and Colonel Reb our symbol. Our ROTC unit shoulder patch was the image of a grizzled Confederate soldier with a battle flag and the legend, “Forget, Hell”. The American apartheid with its accompanying economic, political, and educational ghettoization was the nature of our nation. Political and legal actions of the late 1940s and 50s that began the legal change the nation, and ramped up in the 1960s and 1970s, have been under attack since.
Today we face the cumulative impact on a people of close to 400 years of deliberate injury, evil action, and callous disregard. The situation calls for prayer and prayerful action.
To pray that black lives matter is to acknowledge that a group and individuals in the group in our larger community need prayer and prayerful action.
To pray that black lives matter is to recognize that members of our human family, our faith family, our secular national family, have been injured and need service for as long as necessary to offset the injuries done.
To pray that black lives matter does not diminish the lives of any other group of people.
To pray that black lives matter does not attribute blame for past actions to those who inherited our current situation.
To pray that black lives mater calls on those so praying to learn where they have benefited from inequity and address the resultant inequity.
To pray that black lives matter avoids creating another superior/subordinate social situation.
To pray that black lives matter challenges those who pray to educate themselves to the causes of the injury, listen to the experiential knowledge earned by the victims of race-based injuries and take agreed upon, not imposed upon, action to heal the current injury, remove the source of the injury, and work towards a condition that prevents the injury from reoccurring.
To the Lord, our God we pray: black lives matter…to me, to us, and to You, O God.
Lord, hear our prayer. Now, Lord, lead us as we respond.