An Apology to Cincinnati's African-American Community
On the weekend of February 16/17, I preached a sermon on racism. This was one of the most emotional and heartfelt sermons that I have ever preached at LCR. Part of the intent of my sermon was to “take the temperature” of LCR in regard to our relationship with Allen Temple AME Church. A Sunday School class followed the sermon and we had lively conversation. I felt compelled to convert my sermon into the letter which follows. The letter has been submitted to The Cincinnati Herald and will run in the newspaper on March 3. The letter was also submitted to The Cincinnati Enquirer with a challenge to print it as balance to the daily, negative stories we read about racism. Larry Magnesen offered a keen eye and wise advice in crafting this letter. It was reviewed by a number of respected people in both the black and white community before submission.
In addition to making a much-needed personal confession, my hope is that this letter sheds a positive light on Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, our sister Lutheran congregations in Cincinnati, and the ELCA. This is an effort in evangelism. I don’t expect African Americans to come flocking to LCR, but my hope is that there may be some disaffected Christian neighbors in Anderson Township that might view this letter favorably and consider looking into LCR. Peace, Pastor Zorn
Dear Neighbors in the African-American Community,
Last weekend, I did something for the first time in my 22 years of pastoral ministry at Lutheran Church of the Resurrection; I preached a sermon about what it means to be Christian in a nation in which race plays such a big part in our history and the evil sin of racism continues to afflict us to the present time. I preached this sermon because it is Black History month and black history is American history and Christian history. Because this is the 400th anniversary of the first slaves arriving in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Because of the chaos in the Virginia statehouse. Because, as African Americans since the civil rights movement have lamented, this message has been rarely preached in white congregations. Most importantly, I preached this sermon because I felt that I had finally overcome my ignorance and thought that I was competent enough to offer this word.
Over the past three years, I have read a lot of history and invested a great deal of time in establishing relationships in the black community. I have listened closely to the stories and heard profound expressions of pain shared by people of color that I have come to know. I am appalled at what I have learned in discovering this blind spot in my faith. For this, I am sorrowful.
I write this letter as a form of repentance because the essence of Christian repentance is to change one’s way, to go in a new direction, and to head back to the cross of Jesus. As I have undertaken prayer and reflection about the complicated matter of racism, it occurs to me that the sin can be overcome in a word; relationship. I have devoted myself personally, as pastor, and as resident of greater Cincinnati to the challenging work of building bridges to create relationships with black people and black communities. My study of history reveals that segregation after the Civil War and throughout the 20th century had the harmful effect that we don’t know each other.
When we don’t know each other, we tend to not trust each other. When we don’t know each other we trust the media which sensationalizes negative stories. When we don’t know each other we buy into stereotypes about each other.
Segregation was built on a lie; the lie that black people and white people could not live peacefully among each other. We bought into that lie and therefore we currently live in the mess called racism. My confidence is that the lie can be overcome in relationship with each other.
For three years, I have consistently heard people in the black community say, “We are tired of talking. We want to do something.” With a common faith in Jesus Christ, who has “broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:14) we have a foundation to do something. Lutheran Church of the Resurrection and Allen Temple AME Church have established a relationship since the tragic shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. We have fellowshipped and served in mission experiences together. As our relationship deepens I am hopeful that we can participate in regular worship exchanges whereby small groups from each church will worship together, then stay for fellowship and Bible study afterward. I believe the Spirit will open doors to all sorts of relationship possibilities. God wants dividing walls to be transformed into bridges between our communities. Once we know each other, there is much that we will find to do with each other. I offer this vision as both challenge and encouragement to black and white churches throughout our city.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Two segregated souls never meet in God.” My nuance of that adage is, “God gives us diversity as a gift. Whenever we erect walls that segregate us, we rob ourselves of that gift.” Dr. King was frustrated by the lack of urgency in addressing racism and the satisfaction with the status quo by white churches. Last weekend, I felt the urgency, perhaps late, to preach a sermon on racism and call my congregation to do something.
I offer the black community of Cincinnati just a glimmer of hope; for the first time in 22 years of preaching, there was applause after my sermon. We Lutherans are reserved Europeans not known for emotional outbursts or applause in worship! That applause was not for the preacher, it was in affirmation of the message that racism must be dismantled now.
In peace, Henry