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OPINION: North Fulton pastors decide showing up matters

Alpharetta clergy pose for a photo after a recent Thanksgiving Day service.
Alpharetta clergy pose for a photo after a recent Thanksgiving Day service.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Several weeks after the death of George Floyd, the Rev. Michael T. McQueen sent an email to white Alpharetta clergy inviting them to a zoom meeting to discuss ways they could address racism from a spiritual perspective.

It should be noted that McQueen, pastor of Alpharetta’s predominately Black, St. James United Methodist Church, wasn’t seeking their help. The ministers, stunned by the senseless and brutal murder of Floyd and other Black people, had reached out to him.

“The raw emotion and desire to act has gripped our St. James Church family and we are attempting to let the Lord lead us to appropriate actions with our congregation and community,” McQueen wrote. “Thank you to all that have reached out to us and offered concern and support to our black community.”

It wasn’t the first time.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

In the 14 years since McQueen became pastor of St. James United Methodist Church, he has built a relationship with many white clergy, including, the Rev. Steve Browning, pastor of First Baptist Church of Alpharetta; Father Dan Stack of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church; and the Rev. Oliver Wagner, pastor of Alpharetta Presbyterian Church.

Over the years they’ve gathered for dozens of interfaith events. Annual Martin Luther King Day and community Thanksgiving services. A prayer vigil at Alpharetta City Hall after the Charleston AME tragedy and other gatherings with local leaders.

McQueen suggested they meet June 9 to develop a plan of action to address where we are and where do we go from here.

They each said yes. Count me in.

Explore How black, white ministers are working to bridge racial divide

This is important because far too many white Americans and their ministers are eager to convince themselves that we have already reached the Promised Land of a Post-Racial America. It is important because just showing up in the midst of a discussion about race and racism can be fraught with verbal landmines. Even when your heart is in the right place, it’s so easy to say something that will hurt or offend people.

The Rev. Michael T. McQueen is pastor of St. James United Methodist Church in Alpharetta.
The Rev. Michael T. McQueen is pastor of St. James United Methodist Church in Alpharetta.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

For two hours, they talked about the need for change, to address police brutality and the racism permeating society. They agreed the root cause is sin and in addition to a repentant heart, much prayer and specific action is needed before change will come.

As Wagner and McQueen shared with me their efforts, I remembered this passage from the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s letter from the Birmingham jail: “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

I knew in my heart of hearts, indeed they themselves know, that peaceful justice might not be possible.

Listening, though, I couldn’t help feeling hopeful.

We’ve been here before but this seemed different from the Rev. Andy Stanley tweeting his support for Black Lives Matter, for instance, then retreating like a vapor; different from the deafening silence that, sadly, is rather common among white evangelicals.

Come what may, this network of North Fulton faith leaders was ready to take their fight to the street and beyond, ready to coalesce around their Black brothers and sisters publicly and for the long haul. In my mind, it was another important sign that perhaps a shift was happening here and across the country for good.

As Wagner put it, the timing is such that this is too important for any congregation to do this alone and only in-house.

“You have to do it out in the world,” he said.

Days later, in fact, Wagner, along with his three associate pastors, sent a letter to members of his congregation, first to express their sadness and anger over George Floyd’s death and then encourage them to become “active” participants in calling for racial justice and systemic change.

ExplorePolite conversations about racism and other hard issues

It’s one thing to try and free yourself from the culture you grew up in, to work to grow out of the biases and negative assumptions, but it’s important to go beyond there.

Sure, we must become anti-racist but we also must seek to do good.

The Rev. Oliver Wagner is pastor of Alpharetta Presbyterian Church.
The Rev. Oliver Wagner is pastor of Alpharetta Presbyterian Church.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

When we talked last week, Wagner, McQueen, and the others were putting the finishing touches on a manifesto as a witness of what they believe and what they stand for. Specifically, they are calling for monthly communal prayer over racial justice, advocating for equity, fairness and greater opportunity for all of those who have for far too long suffered from racism, and leading their congregation to love one another as God has loved us.

They have done this hoping every faith leader will join with them but knowing full well it could cost them.

Wagner, for one, has already felt the sting of rejection in his inbox. An Alpharetta resident wrote him recently to say his pastoral response to the death of George Floyd was one-sided. He asked to be removed from the church’s mailing list.

“That didn’t deter me,” Wagner said, “because I have also heard from dozens and dozens of church members who wrote to say ‘thank you,’ ‘you are right on the mark on this’ and ‘this is the kind of leadership our community needs right now’.”

“These are unprecedented times,” the Rev. McQueen added. “This is a critical moment, our opportunity to model what the kingdom looks like, and if we don’t how are they going to see it.”

The ministers had hoped to hold a prayer vigil and then a march but decided, because of the surge in COVID-19 cases, that wouldn’t be in the best interest of their members or the community.

Those things can wait, of course, but the work must begin now and continue for as long as necessary.

I wish them every success.

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