“We come to the march behind and with those amazingly able leaders of the Negro Americans who, to the shame of almost every white American, have alone and without us mirrored the suffering of the cross of Jesus Christ; they have offered their bodies to arrest and violence, to the hurt and indignity of fire hoses and dogs, of derision and poverty, and some to death for this just cause. We come—late we come—but we come to present ourselves, our souls and our bodies to be ‘a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our reasonable service.’”
-Rev. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, Stated Clerk of United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., August 28, 1963 on the occasion of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
Late we come. At once an admonition, a confession, and a promise.
From my office, I can almost see the National Mall where Dr. Eugene Carson Blake delivered this speech nearly a half century ago. His words are as salient today as they were then. As a white American I do feel shame when I think, “We came late and have one foot out the door to leave early. Did we just stay for the snacks?”
Today, police tactics to quell protest have changed; pepper spray and tear gas have replaced dogs and fire hoses. Yet cyclical poverty and violence against Black  and Brown bodies flourish still in an election season of hate-filled rhetoric and assertions that America has moved “beyond race”. There is a crisis of killings by police officers in Black and Brown communities, the racial wealth gap is steadily growing, and our politics are awash with legislation to suppress the vote in communities of color.
This evidence of a political and criminal justice system founded in and sustained by white supremacy continues to push people into the streets in protests that blur the line between wake and uprising. We have seen the public anguish of Tamir Rice’s mother, Samaria Rice, at the non-indictment of the two officers who killed her twelve-year-old son. We have seen Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project 100, and other young activists shut streets down in Chicago in outrage and mourning at the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by police. We have seen the grief of Sandra Bland’s family as they struggle for justice after her death in a Texas jail cell following a routine traffic stop. Once more, Black Americans mirror the “suffering of the cross of Jesus Christ,” but where does the white Church see itself in this work?
In many ways, our timid response speaks volumes, for those watching us can see us shifting uncomfortably, vacillating, perhaps looking toward the door.
As we as a denomination test our courage to affirm that Black lives matter, it is important to understand the origins and the history (or ‘herstory’, as the founders call it) of the movement that bears that name. After George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, three queer, Black women named Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors coined the viral hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. In their own words, “We were humbled when cultural workers, artists, designers, and techies offered their labor and love to expand #BlackLivesMatter beyond…social media.” Garza, Tometi, Cullors, and many local activists worked to build the infrastructure to connect Black Lives Matter chapters in thirty cities in a vibrant network that is intended to fight anti-black racism and facilitate social action.
Each Black Lives Matter chapter is independent and may have its own priorities, guiding principles, and strategies. “Black Lives Matter” can refer to the specific network created by these three women, but is often used more broadly to describe the instances of collective resistance and ongoing campaigns to address extrajudicial killings, police brutality, and systemic racism. In addition to naming a network and a movement, the phrase “Black lives matter” itself is of course the critical acknowledgement that anti-black racism permeates our society, and so it remains imperative to affirm the worth of Black lives.
So again, where does the white Church see itself in this work? In the denomination I serve, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I see congregations taking action in their own communities. Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, distributes signs that read “Black Lives Matter” to their members and guests, and has publicly stated that “the insistence that black lives matter is rooted in the theological conviction that all are created in the image of God and in the hope for reconciliation and justice born from Christ’s resurrection.” Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, has published a #blacklivesmatter resource list and is engaging in conversation about how our faith calls us to respond to the national movement. Reading groups on The New Jim Crow, speaker series, and racial justice roundtables are emerging in congregations all over the country, and I am heartened to imagine that I only know about a fraction of the good work being done. Yet the fact remains that our institutional support for the movement has been relatively quiet. In many ways, our timid response speaks volumes, for those watching us can see us shifting uncomfortably, vacillating, perhaps looking toward the door. Are we really turning to leave in the midst of the struggle for racial justice in the US?
In addition to naming a network and a movement, the phrase “Black lives matter” itself is of course the critical acknowledgement that anti-black racism permeates our society, and so it remains imperative to affirm the worth of Black lives.
For inspiration on how to stay, perhaps we can look to the Unitarian Universalist Association, whose 2015 General Assembly called upon UUs to support the Black Lives Matter movement. They provided individual and institutional resources and are helping to curate conversations about Black Lives Matter and racial justice among UUs across the country. Unitarian Universalist minister Ashley Horan has taken up that call by supporting Black Lives Matter actions, intentionally sponsoring events that highlight the intersections of racial justice and other issues, and articulating the theological grounding for why faith calls us to uproot white supremacy. Chris Crass, another prominent Unitarian Universalist, has used his position to highlight the role white men have to play in undoing racism.
The United Church of Christ has also been increasingly public in their support of Black Lives Matter. states, “When a church claims boldly ‘Black Lives Matter’ at this moment, it chooses to show up intentionally against all given societal values of supremacy and superiority or common-sense complacency. By insisting on the intrinsic worth of all human beings, Jesus models for us how God loves justly, and how his disciples can love publicly in a world of inequality. We live out the love of God justly by publicly saying #BlackLivesMatter.”
It is my hope, both for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the larger ecumenical community, that we can release not a trickle but a flood of enthusiastic material and spiritual support for the movement. We have the resources and the spirit to make a great deal of difference, to interrupt the racist and xenophobic rhetoric that has poisoned our election cycle and stand firmly in our civil rights tradition. Let us make amends for our tardiness all those years ago by pulling up a chair to build beloved community and engage in the difficult conversations and courageous actions that line our path to collective freedom.
 To quote Black writer and intellectual, Toure: “I have chosen to capitalize the word ‘Black’ and lowercase ‘white’ throughout this book. I believe ‘Black’ constitutes a group, an ethnicity equivalent to African-American, Negro, or, in terms of a sense of ethnic cohesion, Irish, Polish, or Chinese. I don’t believe that whiteness merits the same treatment. Most American whites think of themselves as Italian-American or Jewish or otherwise relating to other past connections that Blacks cannot make because of the familial and national disruptions of slavery. So to me, because Black speaks to an unknown familial/national past it deserves capitalization.”
AUTHOR BIO: Nora Leccese serves as the Interim Associate for Domestic Poverty and Environmental Issues at the Office of Public Witness. She is an activist and advocate by nature who is deeply committed to racial and economic justice. In her home state of Colorado, she co-founded and chaired the board of a national food rescue non-profit and organized with the fossil fuel divestment movement. She graduated from the University of Colorado with a degree in economics and a focus on community leadership. As an Emerson National Hunger Fellow with the Congressional Hunger Center, Nora researched equitable food systems in Montpelier, Vermont, and served the Office of Public Witness where she focused on criminal justice reform and economic justice.
OPW Young Adult Volunteer Mara Sawdy contributed research to this article.
Read more articles in this issue Call to Confession: Race, White Privilege and the Church!