Bishop Michael Rinehart
Baton Rouge has had a rough time following the shooting of Alton Sterling. A subsequent shooting in Falcon Heights, Minnesota and the shooting of five police officers in Dallas stood as a stark reminder that we are not in a post-racial society.
Recently a group of church leaders from the Gulf Coast Synod and the ELCA Churchwide Organization gathered with local leaders in Baton Rouge to be present, listen, learn, and pray together.
The first evening we had a large group gather to listen to local friends share their stories and perspectives. Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, Stephen Bouman (ELCA Director of Domestic Mission), Albert Starr (Director of Ethnic-Specific and Multicultural Ministries and Program Director for African-Descent Ministries), Brenda Smith (Program Director for Faith Practices and Missional Development), Judith Roberts (Program Director for Racial Justice Ministries), Gulf Coast Bishop Michael Rinehart, Chris Markert (Assistant to the Bishop-Mission Catalyst), Blair Lundborg (Assistant to the Bishop for Leadership, Robin McCullough-Bade (Director of Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge), Mike Button (Pastor at St. Paul, Baton Rouge), Kim Little-brooks, (Pastor at Our Saviour, Baton Rouge), Nancy Andrews (Bayou Conference Dean), and Interim Pastor at Bethlehem, New Orleans) met with Edgar Cage (Baton Rouge Together), Willie Johnson (member of Our Saviour’s and Baton Rouge consultant, former school principal, and VP of the Baton Rouge Chamber of Commerce), Tonia Causey (Holy Grail kitchen), Ashley Bennett (All Star Community Outreach), and Emanuel Milton (radio personality).
Baton Rouge is divided racially and has been for a long time. Home of the first bus boycott, North Baton Rouge is predominantly African-American. South Baton Rouge is predominantly Anglo. Alton Sterling’s is one in a long line of police shootings. This event is more public, but the folks with whom we met characterized this as “business as usual.”
When we mentioned that Philando Castile had been pulled over 52 times for “random” traffic stops, Emanuel shared that he gets stopped at least once a month. As you can imagine this can be incredibly frustrating. “I’m a nice person, but I find myself being grumpy and mean, because I’m not used to being in a hostile environment.” “Black young men are clearly being targeted,” Tonia offered. Edgar: “Police brutality has been the norm. We need to use this tragic situation to bring a change in how policing is done.”
Emanuel said this is not just about police. There are racial problems across the board: schools, poverty, and so on. Willie shared that she has seen very little progress in these areas. “People fail to see the connection between education and economics.”
“The church has failed,” said Edgar Cage. “You shouldn’t need anti-racism training. If you’re not hearing it from the pulpit, something is wrong.” Ashley added, “We need to bridge the gap, as a community.”
People are protesting because they are frustrated. They need to speak out. They need to do something that gets heard. Civil protest is about first amendment rights. “We need to create space for community deliberation. We need to educate people about civil protest. They need to know their rights and responsibilities. They need training,” Willie offered.
The next morning we visited the site of the shooting. Our objective was just to have prayer there. It is important for the church to show up at sites of violence and pray. We ran into a local Baptist pastor. She greeted us and thanked us for coming. Another gentleman was sitting outside the convenience store where Alton Sterling had been shot. He told the story and shared his frustration with policing in Baton Rouge. He called the church to speak out for racial justice.
The store cashier, from Jordan, had a similar story to tell. Before we prayed, a street evangelist approached us. “You clergy need to be the voice. I don’t see anywhere in the Bible where you are called to babysit buildings and guard offering plates. We are called to be a witness to the world.” We prayed for peace and justice then he went around and hugged each one of us.
As we were leaving, the press showed up. We were already late for an appointment with Roman Catholic Bishop Muench, so a few of us left for that appointment. Bishop Eaton and a few others stayed behind to answer questions, while the rest of us went on to the diocesan offices.
Bishop Muench and Vicar General Tom Ranzino welcomed us. Our schedules are a matter of public record, so the press showed up there as well. The diocese decided our meeting would be more productive if there weren’t cameras in the room, so we asked them to wait and let us meet. They subsequently reported that we met “behind closed doors.” We talked about the way the city was responding and the church’s role in proclaiming peace and justice. We discussed the need for conversations around race that build bridges between communities. There was also talk about the possibility for something like a truth and justice commission, so that people could share publicly their painful stories and have them acknowledged.
After our visit at the diocese, we stopped at City Park where many years ago the pool was filled in with concrete as a response to integration. They would rather lose the pool than have to swim together. A brief lunch at the Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge recharged us for our next visit.
Pastors, deacons, and some lay leaders, both black and white, gathered at Greater New Guide Baptist Church, a few blocks from the shooting. How can the church respond most helpfully in the midst of such turmoil? The frustration is at a boiling point. How do we help people voice that frustration in a way that leads to substantive action? Comments covered the gamut. We must create space for lament, call people to prayer, invite people to constructive action, preach Jesus’ gospel of non-violence, call people to denounce injustice, shed light on the darkness, build bridges, tear down walls of racism and fear, and dispel complacency. One pastor suggested that he had never heard the white church or the white community offer a clear statement of repentance. At the end of our time together, there was discussion of a march on July 24. This will be a march from Wesley United Methodist Church to the State Capital.
In the evening we gathered with a group of folks from St. Paul Lutheran in Baton Rouge. Pastor Mike Button offered devotion and invited us into small groups to discuss what love requires of us (1 Corinthians 13). Conversations like this help people put their thoughts out there and work through things. The conversations moved beyond policing to the realities of racial segregation and the cycles of poverty.
How much education you have is directly correlated to income. The U.S. trails behind just about every industrialized country in education equality; everything is impacted by this. Those born into poverty rarely get a college degree (less than 1 in 20). Historically education in the U.S. was the great equalizer, but that has slipped in the last two generations. There were a number of educators in the room, including one person who teaches at the school two blocks from the shooting.
Mean income goes up with education. The following are 2009 numbers:
Education Level – Mean Income
No high school diploma – $20,000
High school diploma – $31,000
College degree – $57,000
Master’s – $74,000
Professional – $128,000
Doctorate – $103,000
How much money you make determines how much house you can afford, which determines what neighborhood you are able to choose, which determines which school you get into, and so on. Income level determines whether or not you are able to send your children to college, and so poverty is passed on from generation to generation. Breaking the cycle of poverty is a huge challenge. “It starts with education,” said one educator.
Where do we go from here?
Bishop Eaton and the folks from the churchwide organization were extremely helpful. Their presence was quite supportive. They also brought perspective and wisdom from other situations around the country, having just come from Minneapolis, for example. It is a blessing to be church together, as opposed to independent congregations. This is something we too often take for granted.
Every congregation needs to establish a relationship, a partnership, with a congregation of a different race. Sunday is still the most segregated hour of the week in the U.S. There are plenty of African-American, Latino, and Anglo churches, but few are multicultural. Developing multicultural churches will be a challenge. We need to find good examples and learn best practices.
In the meantime, it is a huge step to invite people to develop relationships across traditional social barriers. Eat together. Study together. Serve together. Have Vacation Bible School together. Step out of the box. We will learn from one another and begin to see things with new eyes. Set the pace in your community. Show the world what Galatians 3:28 looks like. Instead of being behind the curve, let’s be ahead of the curve.