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June 2, 2020

To my white sisters in Christ

By Aleta Payne

Senior editor, Faith & Leadership

Faith & Leadership

Aleta Payne joined Faith & Leadership in November 2019. Aleta’s role as senior editor combines her experience in newspaper and magazine journalism with her work at faith-based nonprofits, including the North Carolina Council of Churches and Johnson Service Corps. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia, holds a certificate in nonprofit management from Duke, and has completed a two-year program on Anglicanism and social justice through the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary. 

Aleta writes occasional commentary for the opinion pages of the News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer and is also a published poet and essayist. She is a member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church where she serves as a lay Eucharistic minister and is active with several of the parish’s justice ministries.

iStock / PeopleImages

A Black mother of sons challenges white women to move beyond silence or tepid, timid outrage to work for a world in which all of God’s children can live more fully and fairly.

George Floyd died, a police officer’s knee on his neck, crying for his mother.

God’s greatest gift to me has been three sons. Young Black men whom I’ve held as feverish babies, frightened toddlers, frustrated teens. The thought that any of them should leave this earth under such horrific circumstances is gutting.

So I am writing in this moment to a group that has fallen short, collectively, in its ability to help me protect my sons. My white sisters in Christ, you have got to do more, and you’ve got to do it now.

Mothers of color have been protecting our children even when circumstances have limited us vocationally to raising yours. If you are stepping up on the battlefield of true justice for all, I thank you. But too many are not.

If we are worshipping the same God who loves us all equally, then there are no excuses for either your silence or your tepid, timid outrage. If we are all created in God’s image, then perhaps you can shift your attention from saving souls in Africa to figuring out how to save brown and Black lives here.

Dry your eyes. Your tears are too salty to water my flowers, and your emotional deflection does not solve the problem. As many women in the Bible knew, as this nation’s enslaved foremothers experienced, lament is fine, worthy, necessary. But action is what saves our children and serves our God.

Your excuses need to stop. If you have sought absolution from your only friend of color as proof that you are not racist, you need to realize that you quite possibly are — or at least were in that moment — and are being unfair to that friend.

If your family long had a woman of color as a loyal retainer — perhaps someone you loved as a second mother — you need to acknowledge that your family likely engaged in wage theft against her.

If you’ve ever had to call a family of color to assure them that what your child said was a joke, your apology may have been appreciated. But there’s still a lingering question of where your young person learned language like that in the first place.

Start by listening to people of color — listening to understand. Recognize that your help is desperately needed but that you are not in charge. Ask what role you can play, and then be prepared to play it. This is not your meeting to run.

Recognize that the decisions you make — from the local professionals and businesses you frequent to the politicians you elect — reflect your belief in the God-given worth of every human being. Seek out diverse spaces, and share them with humility.

Help create those spaces by being gatekeepers of opportunity, from church committees to C-suites. Map your power, and then invite others onto the grid.

Raise your children to be better. I am doing the best I can with mine. Whether you are mothers yourselves or you love with a mother’s heart, there are young people you can influence.

Understand that people of color are traumatized, over and over again. Your distress and concern are appreciated. Now please educate yourself. The resources are rich and deep, and many can be found online. Find the racial equity training in your area. Attend local hearings on policing, gentrification, affordable housing and access to health care. Read and listen to a wide variety of news sources.

Consider your reaction to what I’m saying. Are you angry, afraid, frustrated, genuinely concerned? Why do my words here make you uncomfortable?

Learn what white privilege means, and stop being defensive about it. Stop tolerating racism around you. Stop ignoring the comments. Stop laughing at the jokes. Stop making excuses. Racism kills.

Engage your church. Faith communities must do better, too. We must move away from the notion of missional assistance and accept responsibility for the ways that white Christianity continues to build structures of racism and xenophobia.

If your church is walking alongside refugee or immigrant families, do you treat those families with dignity and respect? When the police in your area do harm, does your church leadership take steps to hold them accountable?

If you are already doing those things, thank you for living as God requires. Now bring along some friends. I know you’re busy. Remember that even before America’s founding, people of color have had to organize themselves while feeding, nurturing and building a nation.

We all struggle. We all fall short. I continually have to adjust my suburban gaze and remind myself that my middle-class existence neither shields me from harm nor absolves me of responsibility.

Just as you have friends of color, I have white friends. So many of them are open to being allies, willing to hear what they can do differently, hopeful that they can live their lives so that all of God’s children can live more fully and fairly.

I have, especially in recent years, been more willing to challenge them when they are falling short. So consider this from one friend in Christ to another, for my children and for yours: Do better.

Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.

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