Martin Luther King, Jr. once famously said that 11 a.m. on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours in American life. Despite that sad historical truth, studies have shown movement, albeit slow, toward the integration of congregations. That progress is in danger of being reversed, however, with black worshippers leaving their mostly white churches in droves in recent years. We’re being pushed out by a failure of our churches to apply their professed values to racial injustice and, as I experienced, to the issue of police brutality.
I joined my church in 2005 when I was just 17 years old, having been invited by a family friend. Despite few of the members of the congregation being black, the messages I heard there resonated. Further, as I would tell new members when I led church orientation years later, I joined because of the love and warmth I felt from the people. To this day, I still believe that the congregation has some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Unfortunately, there were limits to that warmth that I could not abide.
In my 11 years as a very active member of the church, I had known that my pastor and a good number of the members were politically conservative, but it never bothered me much. I believed that our shared faith superseded any racial, social or cultural divisions. There was no room for strife in Christ, I thought. Then Philando Castile was murdered.
Castile was shot and killed by a police officer in St. Paul, Minn., in July of 2016. Upon learning the circumstances of his life and death, I was floored. Castile was employed as a school cafeteria worker and took pride in his job. He knew each one of the children he served lunch by name. He would pay for the lunches of students who couldn’t afford them and was considered a role model by his co-workers.
The officer who killed Castile, Jeronimo Yanez, shot him to death in the passenger seat of his car after being informed by Castile that he was carrying a firearm for which he had a permit. According to reports, Yanez panicked and fired at Castile as he reached for his license and registration, not the firearm. “I wasn’t reaching for it,” was reportedly the last thing Castile said as he died and his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter screamed in horror. There’s no way anyone could deny that was wrong, I thought.
But deny it they did. I was mortified as I watched conservative pundits, politicians, and people I know wave away the circumstances and blame Castile for his own death. Ultimately, the response I heard from my then-pastor was the most disturbing.
In the middle of a Sunday sermon, without referencing the case directly, he spoke of a traffic stop he had some time before. In his story, he said that he informed the officer that he had his license and registration in a bag on his passenger seat after being asked for it. The officer asked him to reach for the license slowly and he did as he was asked. The rest of the encounter proceeded smoothly, he said, adding flatly at the end of the story, “And I didn’t get shot.”
It was like a punch in the gut.
I grew up in Ferguson, Mo., and my experience there as a black man provided an understanding of the tense relationship between black people and the police. I’ve had first-hand experience of being unjustly targeted by law enforcement—stopped by police on the suspicion of burglary as I helped my sister move, ticketed excessively for driving while black (I personally paid more than $1,300 in traffic fines while I attended my former church.)
Not long after the sermon, I decided to write a letter to my pastor. It explained, in part, what I felt was his inappropriate and divisive response to stories of police brutality from the pulpit. The letter was heart-wrenching to write, and I made several dozen revisions and consulted with others, including my parents, before sending it. He sent back a terse response: “Hey Anthony...I read your letter. Your ‘version’ of truth is not truth. Keep listening to CNN, and you'll be on the spiritual junk pile before long...and you won't even realize it...just like you don't realize you're off now.”
I struggled to continue on in the congregation despite being demoralized by the reply. It may sound strange, but I’d felt traumatized by Philando Castile's death. I’d expressed that to my pastor—a man I considered a spiritual adviser and friend—but instead of being met with compassion, there were only deflections and accusations.
In the end, I was unable to reconcile my pastor’s preaching of the Gospel with his views on racialized police brutality and I finally decided to leave the church early last year.
While there are probably some mostly white churches that get it right on issues of racial justice, studies show that the majority don’t. According to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, white evangelical Protestants stand out as the religious group most likely to say the criminal justice system treats people of color and whites equally with 57 percent endorsing that belief. More specifically, 62 percent say that police officers treat blacks the same as whites.
The distance between these beliefs and reality suggests that white Christians are failing to hear their brothers and sisters of color. And that failure raises serious concerns about the ability of mostly white congregations to advance the gospel of Jesus, a victim himself of state violence.
As police continue to shoot and kill black Americans at disproportionate rates and with little accountability, white Christians must learn that the unjust treatment of their black brothers and sisters is not something to be waved away. Instead, churches should facilitate healthy dialog within their walls with the goal of increasing understanding. After all, addressing prejudice, injustice and systemic inequality is not a distraction from the Gospel. On the contrary, it is the heart of it.
Anthony Fowler Jr. is a writer and illustrator from North St. Louis County.