By Rev. Dr. Yolanda Denson Byers and Shari Seifert
Yolanda: When I first heard about George Floyd’s murder, I was not hopeful that change would follow. I preached a sermon entitled, “Let the Fires of Your Justice Burn,” begging for help so that no one’s child would ever have to endure the public agony that was George Floyd’s last nine minutes upon the earth.
This sermon has been viewed over 10,000 times on Facebook and YouTube. I am uplifted by the good work and ministry of actively anti-racist allies like Shari Seifert and the members and friends of Calvary and Holy Trinity Lutheran churches in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They are modeling a commitment to steward their white privilege in ways that will affect real, lasting, and systemic change in America.
George Floyd’s death awakened a “sleeping giant” amongst white people of goodwill. I teach that stewardship pertains to how we choose to invest our time, talent, and treasure in the Kin-dom of God. Martin Luther once said, “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.”
It is imperative that my European-American siblings examine the stewardship of their resources closely to ensure that they are in alignment with their professed anti-racist ideals. It is easy to do performative allyship like a peaceful BLM march, donation of a bag of diapers, or the writing of a big check sent to a location one will never visit. It is harder to stay in the fight for justice, over the long haul, dismantling white supremacy in the church and in our world.
Shari: I have been amazed by the generosity that I have seen in the form of mountains of donations rolling into our churches. Many feel the need to “do something” to meet the immediate needs of people faced with no public transportation or functioning grocery stores. This help is right and necessary.
However, we white folks need to be careful not to fall into the “white savior” role with our trips to Costco meant to solve other people’s problems. This is but a short-term fix. To achieve the lasting, structural, change for which we all hunger, we must dig deeper and do some serious soul searching.
We have to see how we are broken, put forth the emotional labor to examine our complicity in the sin of racism, and assert that our “right to comfort” is not more important than professing in word, thought, and deed that Black Lives Matter. If we fail to do this, we will continue to prop up white supremacy in our churches, and in our world. (See Tema Okun’s Characteristics of White Supremacy to see what characteristics of white supremacy may be showing up in your church.)
Let us not squander this historic opportunity. Changing systems and abdicating roles that we have been in for four hundred years is not going to be comfortable! But getting to the other side—bringing about the reign of God, justice, and the beloved community—that is the sweetest place we can ever imagine. Another world is possible, and the only way we can get there is together.
Yolanda & Shari: We believe that systemic change must occur. It will occur when our denominations invest in the retention of students and clergy of color, fully fund the budgets of churches serving the marginalized, pay clergy of color at synod guidelines, and our churches choose to reflect the beautiful diversity of God’s creation in stained glass, song and reading choices, and/or dolls in the nursery.
It will also happen when European-American pastors and lay leaders,commit to being uncomfortable, risking rejection or rage, to boldly declare that Black Lives Matter in all that we say, think, and do. All of this requires deep commitment to interrogating our stewardship of white privilege in the church. It will demand the investment of time, talent, and treasure. It will take a changed heart and a willingness to put life, limb, reputation, and finance on the line for the sake of Christ. Will you join us?
About the Authors
The Rev. Dr. Yolanda Denson-Byers currently serves as the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Becker, Minnesota. They are a missional church which affirms that, “All are welcome; with no exceptions!”
Shari Seifert helps people buy and sell houses, works for collective liberation and to dismantle white supremacy in the ELCA. She is currently VP of the European Descent Lutheran Association for Racial Justice.
Yolanda and Shari also co-authored Unpacking White Privilege: The Important Work of Making the Church Less Harmful.