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Instead of defining progress as building bridges, consider what the work requires

Late last spring, I stood at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge with a group of about 20 church folks. The asphalt and metal span curved upward ahead of us, obscuring the view of the other side. We were about to walk across, warmed by brilliant sunshine and inspired by our dayslong pilgrimage to some of the most significant civil rights landmarks in Georgia and Alabama.

The bridge, of course, was the site of Bloody Sunday — a vicious, racist attack on 600 peaceful civil rights marchers on March 7, 1965. Agents of the state made up the mob that beat them — armed troopers and deputy sheriffs backed by white supremacy.

In photos and on film, it’s not completely clear that you can’t see what’s on the bridge’s far side until you reach its peak. But in person, the bend blocks your view until what’s ahead is inevitable.

As we crossed the narrow walkway, the Alabama River below us, history felt proximate, more like memory. Within my lifetime, a movement rooted in the essentials of human dignity had marched into the face of terrorist hate. The structure at that march’s center stands still as a memorial and monument to a Ku Klux Klan leader.

Faithful people talk a lot these days about building bridges —working to close divisions through conversation and collaboration — but the Edmund Pettus Bridge reminds us that not all divides can be solved with compromise.

Some modern-day bridge builders are committed to the holy work of healing, fully recognizing that reparative justice is required first. But the anguished sincerity of others can feel more like performative reconciliation, perhaps focused on easing their discomfort more than on resolving conflict.

Bridge building requires effort from both sides. What can be lost in earnest eagerness to move past differences is the work and sacrifice of all the people whose tenuous status in this nation has already required that they concede essential parts of themselves to survive. Members of marginalized communities have had to be builders, constructing connections on the pillars and pilings of their ancestors’ bodies in the process.

That can get washed out in the language of “healing what separates us.”

If the request is for further sacrifice, whose dignity stands to be compromised? How faithfully Christian is it to crush someone’s soul so that the dialogue can be “fruitful” and “productive”?

As a quote often attributed to James Baldwin explains, some things must be nonnegotiable: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

The violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge was not about finding common ground. That would have required those powered by white supremacy to lay down their arms and for the marchers to be empowered.

Beyond the heroes of great liberation movements, there is the work of the day to day. For all the people who have ever modulated their voices, moderated their tone, changed their hairstyles or otherwise essentially altered who they were, that is the unacknowledged work of staying safe, employable and marginally accepted. How much more than self-abnegation is required?

In “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness,” Austin Channing Brown writes about her name.

“We knew that anyone who saw it before meeting you would assume you are a white man,” her mother explained the choice. “One day you will have to apply for jobs. We just wanted to make sure you could make it to the interview.”

Later, Brown shares her experience with a series of demeaning microaggressions only to face the suggestion that she spend more time with the offender so she “could see his heart.”

“Oftentimes the responsibility to extend compassion falls on me,” she writes.

The transformative, liberative work of collaboration and community wouldn’t be possible without compromise. But that requires more than shallow demands for a middle ground.

Among her prayers in “Black Liturgies,” Cole Arthur Riley writes:

Thank you for being a God who enters the suffering of the world — who doesn’t run from those in pain but rushes to the site of blood, of tears. Release us from empty cravings of unity that come at no cost to the oppressor, and guide us toward a solidarity that demands something of us. Let us learn to risk ourselves on behalf of the vulnerable, believing that when one of us is harmed, we all are. Help us to remember that justice and liberation are not a scarcity, and that our survival and dignity are wrapped up in one another. And God, keep us from those who will demonize the fight in us. Who would prefer us complacent and far from one another. Secure in us the courage to stand, knowing together we will restore what the world has tried to suffocate in us. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led marchers on their second attempt to cross the Pettus Bridge, but he turned back when the group was confronted again. They completed the 54-mile journey from Selma to Montgomery on the third try, under federal protection.

The marchers were never the ones holding up progress. Far more than building a metaphorical bridge, they were actively building beloved community. That reality, their reality, our nation’s reality replays like the music from a scratched vinyl record, skipping crucial parts and repeating others.

Even when well intentioned, the talk of bridge building too often misrepresents or fails to acknowledge those who have long been doing the work as well as those who have actively opposed it.

If that work truly matters more than a sense of personal ease, then on whom, to whom and for whom are we building? Who has already done their part? And who is yet to do the work required of them?

We were fumbling with the coffee maker.

Standing in our church’s newly renovated, post-pandemic-lockdown kitchen, we were thrilled by the much-needed additional space, by the thoughtfully repositioned appliances and fixtures, by the opportunity to open new cabinets and drawers on a treasure hunt for tablecloths and votive candles.

But on this particular morning, as our group prepared to set up for coffee hour, the process of how to do that with equipment we couldn’t recall stumped us for a moment. We had collectively prepped for this between-services social time on dozens of occasions before COVID-19 — tables, snacks, coffee, tea and a big jug of reconstituted lemonade powder for those who partake. Now, some parts of those rituals had changed.

Then someone stepped forward who had never made coffee in the old system before — someone who was comfortable following the directions because there was no comparative “not quite how I remember it” to block progress. Our group’s hosting of the weekly hospitality proceeded.

By combining the wisdom of those grounded by where things were with the ingenuity of one unrestricted by where they’d been, we were able to co-create several excellent pots of coffee.

Let the church say, “Amen.”

That is a simple (but real!) example of where I think churches are right now. Headed into the first Advent in three years with few to no restrictions anticipated in most houses of worship, faithful people have been drawing on the experience of the pandemic years to reevaluate our communal life. The last few months in particular, as programming has picked up and more activities have returned in person, we have been remembering what we’ve forgotten while discovering what we still need to know.

Which keys have been changed, and who needs replacements?

When did we start using this church school curriculum, and why?

How do we regather when we are still frayed, frightened and in some cases irritable? How do we reclaim the soft skills required to be together?

In response, our first instinct might be to create something new. There is little that church people love to do more than to “fix it,” whatever “it” is. (There are also folks who don’t mind breaking things, and we’re seeing some of that too.) But that first instinct, often out of a combination of love, responsibility and discipleship, is to create what is needed.

That raises challenges. First, too often in our Western culture, creating is seen as a solitary endeavor, an “I’ll fix it myself!” mindset that focuses responsibility and concentrates authority in the hands of one (or a very few). There are obviously times when we create alone, sometimes because the work is personal or because the medium doesn’t lend itself to the task of an eager committee.

But the hierarchical models of many institutional churches can perpetuate the pattern in which a single person takes over work that would be better done by a group.

Second, we’re often focused on re-creating. When we set out to re-create what we had — another option for making the coffee, planning the mission trip or leading the meeting — we presume on some level that nothing has changed and that our way is still the best.

Same pot and brewing system, except it’s not.

Same number and types of kids going on a mission trip with the same checklist of needs, wants and concerns, except they’re not.

Same format of dear faces gathering at a conference room table with a pile of mints and chocolate candies to share, except the tables are our own, separately, and the faces are on our screens. For reasons of convenience, safety and efficiency, the meetings will continue this way indefinitely.

Re-creating ignores these realities. It glosses over what we’ve all been through with COVID-19, racial pandemics and political disruption and ignores what remains ahead of us. Rather than building on the hard lessons of the pandemics, it assumes that we’re gearing back up to do what we’ve always done, much as we always have.

But our world has fundamentally changed.

Maybe, just maybe, this kin-dom season is calling us instead to co-creation — the beautiful, intentional, messy and incremental work of envisioning and growing together. Indeed, it’s already happening! One of the delights of my work is that I get to see the wonder of co-creation all the time.

Even in COVID’s darkest moment, even as our nation was shaken to its racist underpinnings, the stories of faithful people working in spaces of collective liberation and collaborative wonder were flashing across my screen.

Every two weeks, my colleagues hear me say that this story or this issue of Faith & Leadership is my favorite, and I mean it every time. Many of the efforts we have highlighted started before March 2020, but what they accomplished in a time of great uncertainty has only reinforced their work in partnership with others and with an openness to what newness offers.

Maybe, just maybe, this kin-dom season is calling us instead to co-creation — the beautiful, intentional, messy and incremental work of envisioning and growing together.


Sometimes they knew that what was next needed to be different. Sometimes they listened, open to what next might be.

Just before COVID shut down churches for Lent 2020, for example, we posted the story of stained-glass windows that New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church has installed over the course of years to more fully represent the community, its history and its present.

From Nashville, the story of former churches that became boutique hotels and now provide funding for agencies working with the unhoused. From Minneapolis, how New City Church and Holy Trinity Lutheran Church were alert and responsive after the murder of George Floyd.

When leaders in Black churches assessed COVID’s impact in the communities they serve, the response was significant and successful. When a Massachusetts congregation wanted to do right by the debt owed to the creators of Negro spirituals, they put their money where the music was.

The work done by and with young people has been astounding, from feeding their community to building a community beyond ministry walls.

From big, multiyear projects to slow, intentional internal work to community-inclusive crisis response, co-creation is a worthy model for generating growth and renewal. The examples we see at Faith & Leadership so often embody a deep commitment to beloved community and to collective transformation.

A new church year is upon us, and this liturgical season is marked by watchful waiting and anticipation. It is also a time for reflection. Our regathering with intentionality is a counterbalance of sorts to the pandemic’s forced isolation.

What might this next year hold? Can we be open to the possibility of newness rather than tethered to the ways that worked (or perhaps really didn’t), given the existential reset of the last three years? How might the coming year be different if we faithfully enter into partnerships and collaborations that draw on the experiences and wisdom of many rather than a few?

What will happen if we take the time to build what’s next together?

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.