EFCA SE District Superintendent inspired upon President Kevin Kompelien that the District Superintendents visit The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. As a result the EFCA leadership visited the museum and memorial to lynching victims in March of 2019. In a series of blog posts by both Kevin Kompelien and other EFCA leaders and personalities they reflect on the experience and the challenges that racial injustice poses today and how it needs to be dealt with. This ends with some suggestions for the EFCA on this topic.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Martin Luther King in a Letter from a Birmingham Jail
“As I think back on our time together in Montgomery, many thoughts fill my mind. First, I am thankful for the opportunity to see “ground truth” on our national history of slavery and its ongoing impact in our society. Often, conversations today related to race and ethnicity are filled with political agendas, in-group bias and personal attacks. They are usually more heat than light and can leave us feeling paralyzed and discouraged. This trip was different, leaving a lasting mark on my heart and giving me hope that our EFCA family of churches can move forward together, especially in our all people efforts.”
EFCA North Central District Superintendent Brian Farone
“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.”
Isaiah 55:6 NIV
From right to left in bottom row. Eddie Cole, Kevin Kompelien, Sam Huggard, Mark DeMire, Neal Brower, Mike Martin, Steve Highfill, Bob Rowley, Rick Thompson, Jeff Powell and John Payne.
From right to left in the upper row. Glen Schrieber, Noah Palmer, Steven Weathers, Alex Mendes, Brian Farone, and Fritz Dale
In the Evangelical Free Church of America District Superintendents get together twice a year to discuss business, the EFCA and issues that are coming to their attention. Glen Schrieber leads the SE District of the EFCA. The SE District is responsible for Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi. Glen proposed to EFCA President Kevin Kompelien that they meet in Montgomery, Alabama and after business visit The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Glen is very much concerned with issues of racial injustice, incarceration, and discrimination issue. Kevin Kompelien thought it was a great idea and threw his weight behind the suggestion. As a result the meeting was planned in early March of 2019. As I study the photographs from the blog posts it appears as if the District Superintendents from Hawaii, Pacific Northwest and the Northern Plains District were not in attendance.
The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice
In the fight for civil rights Montgomery, Alabama was a key city that dealt with a lot of racism and a long history of discrimination. Montgomery was the city that helped launch Martin Luther King in his fight against injustice. Today in Montgomery you have a museum that displays the history of racism and slavery in the United States. The museum looks at other issues such as mass incarceration of blacks, discrimination and injustice. The Legacy Museum is new having opened on April 26, 2018. One of the exhibits that has attracted attention is a collection of soil from each location a lynching took place across the country. This museum will challenge you on the issue of racism and make you realize how prevalent it is today. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a memorial to all those who have been lynched – 4,400 – in the United States. The goal of the memorial is to acknowledge past racial terrorism and advocate for social justice in the United States.
Kevin Kompelien and Three Blog Posts at the National EFCA Blog
At the national EFCA blog Kevin Kompelien wrote about visiting The Legacy Museum and the Lynching Memorial. This is how he starts the blog post.
“I’ve been to Auschwitz. I’ve visited Holocaust museums, both in Germany and the U.S., and have seen the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda. I thought I’d seen enough evidence of tragedy in my life for my visit to this museum not to shake me. However, standing there with three of my African American friends, looking at photos of thousands of people cheering and celebrating the lynching of African Americans absolutely shook me to my core. At the other memorials and places I visited, the injustice happened “over there.” What I was seeing now happened here, in my country! I stood there, brokenhearted.”
The EFCA President then goes on and discusses his experience in Montgomery and how his senses were assaulted. Three key individuals inside the EFCA that address racial injustice and discrimination and are black pastors themself participated in the event. The one aspect to Kevin Kompelien’s post that this writer found moving was about his experience inside the museum.
“Entering the museum, we saw a visual of the incredible growth of the domestic slave trade following the end of slaves being brought into the United States from Africa. My heart broke as I saw accounts of precious human beings traded like cattle to support the economy in southern states. Families were ripped apart, transported to other locations and sold. Hearing stories of horrific injustice and seeing photos alongside newspaper ads for the sale of slaves broke my heart.
The story of slavery didn’t end with the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. In many ways, slavery simply took on a different form as the “leasing” of prisoners remained legal in the U.S., resulting in the mass incarceration of African Americans. Lynching and racial terrorism, along with Jim Crow laws, continued to promulgate the lie of racial inferiority.
What most affected me was seeing African American children and their parents walking through the museum with us. Watching fathers try to explain all of this to their children is something I can’t get out of my mind.”
The EFCA President who has a background in history wrote about how the experience moved him to address the issue of racial injustice. The blog post closes out with Kompelien stating.
“I walked away with questions ringing in my ears: “Who else needs to experience what we did in Montgomery? Who do I need to take with me to wrestle with these things? What must I do in response to what I learned and experienced?”
The wretched legacy of this stain on America still deeply touches the soul of our nation. I am committed to take others with me as I walk this journey to both understand the impact of these atrocities and proactively take steps to address the issues of injustice still plaguing our culture.”
You can read that post by the EFCA President in, “Two Days in Montgomery.” Two other posts are also worth looking at. The second post interviews Noah Palmer the District Superintendent of the Midwest District, Neal Brower of the Western District and Brian Farone of the North Central District about shared their thoughts and feelings of the experience in Montgomery. Mark DeMire also shared his perspective in that post. You can read that in, “Surprise, Astonishment and Pain.” The last post deals with Alex Mendes who is the executive director of the EFCA’s All Peoples Initiative, which addresses grief pain and injustice. In a challenging blog post he starts out by saying the following.
“Two common questions surfaced among those present in Montgomery. This first question came from witnessing and experiencing the stories and evidence of the slave trade, lynchings and Jim Crow: What would I have done if I were there? If I were standing in the crowd in those photographs of public lynchings, how would I have responded?
The second brought the issue past personal reflection, into the realm of movement-wide application: When will we ever move beyond this? When will we move past these feelings of awkwardness, guilt and discomfort, given neither we nor our associates were involved in these terrible events?”
Alex writes about moving past feelings of grief and discomfort and how that would result in missing compassion and justice. Bearing each other’s burdens is an important step. In what for me is horrifying Alex Mendes shares a couple of personal stories about racism and how its left its ugly imprint on a couple of people he knows or as interacted with. He goes on in the post and explains why there should be both a missional reason and a theological reason for combating racism and injustice. Because as Alex then addresses racial injustice is a major issue for millennials as well. Consider what he says in the following paragraph.
“For too long, we who lead the Church have ignored the passion for justice that is second nature to our young people. Anger and passion alone have little eternal value, but together, we can help them channel that anger and passion into true transformation. The future Church is theirs, and 1 John values the contribution of all generations. God has given them a prophetic voice on these issues. Taking that voice seriously can both strengthen the Church and help seal a generational breach.”
If you would like to read Alex’s article you can do so in, “Are We Comfortable Being Uncomfortable?” And in briefly looking around I noticed that EFCA District Superintendent Brian Farone from the North Central District wrote about his experience at the District blog which you can read at, “What We Saw in Montgomery, Alabama.”
My great-uncle’s grace at Arlington National Cemetery
What Injustice Means to Me and Experiences Over the Years
In my lifetime I have seen or experienced a number of things that have been challenging in my time in California, Montana, Wisconsin and the Washington, D.C. area. In addition I come from a family that has a history of fighting injustice, I will explain below. In the past few years I became more cognizant to the issue of white privilege. Its hard to write this but I can’t deny that it very much exists. I also became concerned with anti-Semitism. Concerns about how immigrants are treated has bothered me more over the last few years especially as I aged a little.
Growing up in California I lived in a city that was largely divided. Fresno was white and mostly affluent on the north side of town while the southern part of the city was mired in extreme poverty, crime and gang warfare. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I moved away and experienced other parts of the country. One conversation that haunts me to this day is one that took place at a summer time job when I was 20 or 21. I knew an elderly Japanese American in his 70’s who is most likely deceased. He shared with me what it was like to be rounded up and incarcerated in California during World War II – just for being Japanese. He described the pain and how some members of the Japanese American community lived with such anger that they spent a part of their life behind barbed wire. I wrote about that in, “What a College Kid Learned from a Japanese-American who was Interned During World War II; Are Evangelical Christians Going to Take Responsibility for the Current Refugee Crisis?”
Another aspect of life that impacted me was when I lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Milwaukee is a very segregated city. Its how the city is designed. Its troubling to see blacks locked in a cycle of poverty in the inner city and know that many resources were going to the suburbs. Privately when I lived there it bothered me deeply but I didn’t know what to do or if I could do anything. I actually have a friend from my days of Campus Crusade who has a history with the EFCA in Lodi, Wisconsin as well; who lives in the inner city and feels strongly about these issues. I am grateful he does. But Milwaukee is one of the most segregated places that I lived and even today in Milwaukee it remains a major issue.
One situation that also impacted me was when I visited the Smithsonian Museum of the African-American. That museum to this day remains one of the most challenging museums that I have visited. When I wanted to attend I couldn’t get a ticket and as I was walking away someone who was black told me they have an extra ticket and gave it to me. It pains me to say it but whites avoid this Smithsonian Museum. The displays on slavery, the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings were hard to process. The hardest to process was to walk past the casket of Emmett Till. When I was there at the Smithsonian Museum of the African-American I noticed that I was one of the few whites there. It was like I stepped into another world. I got a taste of what it was like to be a minority in walking in the hallways or eating in the cafeteria. I still remember that feeling as I type this post. I wrote about it and shared pictures in the following posts, “A Visit to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture; Plus Some Thoughts on Evangelical Christians and Racism” and “The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the African-American History and Culture, In Pictures.”
Another aspect that also deserves to be mentioned is the reaction I had to the Charlottesville riot. Charlottesville is not far from Washington, D.C. and that was a shock to go through in Virginia. I didn’t go to church that weekend because I was afraid as to how it would be handled. I remember thinking to myself, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” what does that mean when I am nervous or afraid over how my place or worship would react? A couple of days after the riot someone I know shared with me how his mother-in-law who was in their 80’s hid in fear in their home as Neo-Nazis drove wildly and waved shotguns outside the window. I was angry when I heard that and let me explain why. Up above you see a picture of a grave of my great uncle. John W. Bonner died before I was born. John was involved in liberating one of the concentration camps in Europe during World War II. He also collected evidence and built cases that were used to prosecute Nazis at Nuremberg. I am proud of that history and his commitment to fighting anti-semitism moves me to this day. When I have gone to the Holocaust Memorial Museum I think of John and remember his service and commitment to injustice.
One additional point in this section has been a number of black friends and even blog sources who have shared about the issue of racism through their experience. Having diverse friendships and relationships is incredibly healthy.
Why the EFCA is Probably the Best Positioned in Evangelicalism to Deal with Racial Injustice
This blog in analyzing and writing about the EFCA is going to repeatedly bring up this one point. The EFCA, as a denomination, is probably the best one to tackle issues of racial injustice. Here’s why the EFCA due to its history of immigrants from Scandinavian countries is uniquely qualified to tackle this topic. Its history as a denomination originally comprised of immigrants will allow it to relate to other organizations and groups. I wrote in detail about this in, “The Strategic Role the EFCA can Play in Racial Healing; Plus Did the EFCA Allegedly Remove a Church from the Denomination that Had Ties to the White Supremacist Organization the League of the South?”
The Southern Baptists in contrast are not going to be able to address racial injustice. While the denomination has tried the problem is that it takes one step forward and then two steps backward. The Southern Baptists were formed on the premiss that slavery was Biblical. They believed it was so justified that they broke away from the Baptists of the north in Augusta, Georgia in May of 1845 before the Civil War. So slavery is the foundation of the Southern Baptists and it haunts and hangs over them. The response by a number of Southern Baptists to J.D Greear Tweeting about the New York Times 1619 Project affirmed for me that the denomination will not be able to address this issue properly. Plus there are cultural issues as well that will hold the denomination back. When the Washington Post was analyzing and writing about how evangelicals voted in 2016 . In an article you can read here it comes out that a number of Southern Baptists in Alabama believe that slavery was actually good for blacks. Slavery as some thought provided shelter, medical care and more. My take on this is that there are parts of the Southern Baptist Convention that hasn’t moved very far from what was said in 1845.
Where Heather Heyer was killed in Charlottesville, Virginia
Suggestions as to How the EFCA Can Build Bridges on this Issue of Racial and Other Injustice
Honestly I think our culture and society is fragmented, and its getting worse. And it pains me to say this but I am wondering if there are organizations and groups in the United States wanting to see it Balkanized. Last night I was reading through the Washington Post and I read an op-ed that made my mouth drop. Pamela Constable is a foreign reporter who has spent time in Pakistan and Afghanistan covering the ongoing war against the Taliban. As her career comes to a close after three decades she writes about what it is like to watch the fragmentation of the United States from afar. How the the increasing polarization and break down of society worries her. And from Afghanistan this reporter who boldly cover the war asks herself, what am I coming home to in the United States? You can read her op-ed in, “After years in Afghanistan, I’m going home to an America I don’t recognize.”
So that brings me to the EFCA. If the denomination wants to tackle racial injustice and more these are some suggestions from an outsider.
- Why not have the EFCA do a project on black history and encourage its churches to get involved? What if at theological conferences the EFCA asks a major historian form the outside to come and speak about segregation, racism, slavery and more? What if at the next EFCA One the denomination had someone like University of Washington historian Quintard Taylor speak? Think of the bridges that can be built and a way to emerge from the evangelical bubble? There are a number of incredible prominent historians from places like Yale, University of Missouri, UCLA, Southern Methodist University, etc.. that can teach the denomination and lead to frank discussions.
- The EFCA needs to tackle the issue of Christian nationalism. Christian nationalism is a major treat and its raised its ugly head in a dark way in 2016. Many evangelicals are a driving force behind such nationalism. While mainstream Protestants and organizations like the Roman Catholic church reject the concept many evangelicals have tragically. Its one thing to have a conservative belief, its quite another to think that the reason why Jesus suffered and died at Calvary was for a Supreme Court seat. Christian nationalism is deeply divisive and its fueling racism today. Its also leading for millennials to reject evangelicalism and Christianity altogether. Some of these issues are interconnected when you think about it.
- What if the EFCA got behind the New York Times 1619 Project? What if all district superintendents pushed the 1619 Project in their districts? I wrote more about the project in, “The New York Times 1619 Project on Slavery and how Some Baptists Reacted to J.D. Greear on Twitter. Also the 1619 Project Needs to Comprehend the History of Slavery in the Convention.”
- Have regular presentations on the effects of racism among individual churches. What if each district had people that would go around and share the effects of racism? What if it targeted churches in the suburbs and allowed for them to convey stories and experiences?
- Put to bed alternative facts. Can I be honest? Many parts of evangelicalism are struggling with alternative facts. Alternative facts give rise to conspiracy theories and help support injustice and hate. Evangelicals have a massive problem with alternative facts. That Washington Post article I linked in where its discussed that slavery was good for blacks is a good example.
- In the last couple of years there has been an uptick in anti-Semitic crimes. That needs to be on the radar of the EFCA also. There is a huge difference between nationalism and patriotism. One of the down sides to nationalism is that it leads to anti-Semitism. Its on the rise in Europe and the United States.
- The United States is also polarized over immigration reform. The country hasn’t had meaningful immigration reform since 1986. The laws are outdated and its hurting the country. What if the EFCA took the lead in evangelicalism in explaining how immigrants and refugees matter to God and why there should be sympathy and support? What if the denomination developed its own equivalent of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission that address issues like immigration?
These are just a few suggestions that hopefully will lead to conversations behind the scenes at the EFCA. This blog has been wanting to write this post for a while and just got around to completing it. As always I wish the organization well.