Written by J. Bennett Guess
June - July 2008
Many white people are "lured away" from a sacred conversation on race for two reasons, according to the Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president.
First, they think it's no longer necessary.
"We don't see pictures of Bull Connor's police dogs snapping at the feet of black men and women anymore; we don't see fire hoses scattering protesters like limp dolls in the street," Thomas said in a May 18 sermon. "'Colored only' signs are never seen at lunch counters today, but only in civil rights museums where racism is portrayed as historical artifact rather than living reality."
Second, our tendency to lead parochial lives keeps us separated from much of the evidence that points to the urgent need for a national dialogue on race.
"Most of us don't ride the bus through the black and Hispanic neighborhoods of Cleveland or Oakland where foreclosure signs tell an evil story of poverty and predatory lending," Thomas said. "We don't usually compare the schools of our suburban communities with those of the urban core to see first hand how unlevel the playing field really is for our youth. We don't often have to sit for hours in the emergency room with our screaming child waiting for a doctor to prescribe antibiotics for her raging ear infection. We don't live every day in fear that our sons will be sucked into what Marion Wright Edelman chillingly describes as 'the cradle to prison pipeline' for African American boys."
Thomas, who preached on race on May 18 at Danville [Calif.] Congregational UCC near San Francisco, quoted Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote in 1963 from a Birmingham jail of the "fierce urgency of now."
"We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability," said Thomas, quoting King.
"[Justice] must we won and defended in each generation," Thomas said. "There is a fierce urgency today. Friends, we need a sacred conversation on race."
On April 3, speaking at a press conference at Trinity UCC in Chicago on the 40th anniversary of King's last sermon in Memphis, Thomas called for the UCC's 10,000 active and retired clergy to preach on race on Trinity Sunday.
"We've seen how ugly a conversation on race can be," Thomas told United Church News at the time. "This is why we need a sacred dialogue."
Speaking in Danville, Thomas urged a crowded sanctuary of worshipers to resist the lure of denial, but also to reject the hopelessness of despair.
"Fearful of saying the wrong thing, we say nothing. Fearful of doing the wrong thing, we do nothing," Thomas said. "...Many of us feel a paralyzing sense of collective guilt for a history of racial oppression that comes to us as an unwelcome but persistent legacy, something we didn't ask for but can't divest ourselves of either."
At the close of his sermon, Thomas conceded that such a weighty conversation on race is "daunting, indeed."
"But we do so in the knowledge that by grace, we have been made, not for futility, but rather little less than God, crowned with glory and honor, and given responsibility for the serving, the stewarding of all the works of God's hands."
Read the full sermon at www.ucc.org/news/significant-speeches.