That’s What You Call Racism!

Years ago, my church had a national gathering in Seattle, WA, One of the purposes of the meeting was to discuss and vote on Resolutions regarding the church’s statutes. I looked forward to the event with great anticipation.

One day, sitting at my desk, I had an inspiration for a Resolution, which I felt was from the Holy Spirit. My wife was out of town at the time, visiting her spiritual father. I called her so that we could discuss the fine points of my idea. My Resolution was basically that the church should make an effort to evangelize the African American community, which is greatly underserved in American Orthodoxy. We wrote this up and submitted it as required. I was pleased with the Resolution, thinking it to be a groundbreaking evangelical tool for us.

At the meeting, when my Resolution came up for a vote, it was discussed, as specified in Roberts Rules of Order – pros and cons. I was surprised that many White delegates objected to it in part on the grounds that it was too “exclusive.”  I was shocked, as I thought everyone would say “Good idea! About time!” I was standing to present my  Resolution, and was actually weak in the knees, something that hadn’t happened since maybe the time I was taken to jail, as a youth. Since my early years, I have not considered myself naive, and have always been aware of dissension around me. But this time, I was blindsided. I had an “All Lives Matter” moment. I and other Black people feel that “All Lives Matter’ dismisses the specific needs and the pain of African Americans. Of course, all lives matter – that goes without saying.  After much discussion, the Resolution came up for a vote, and it passed. I sat down at a table with Native Alaskans, who said they were proud of me because I stood up for my people.

That evening, I had dinner with a friend who hadn’t been at the meeting, and when I told him what had happened, he exclaimed, “Now that’s what you call racism!” However, when I thought of those who had objections, many of whom I’d known and truly loved for 30 years or more, I did not see them as racists. Instead, it seemed to me that they were acting upon ideas that weren’t really theirs but were part of a bigoted rhetoric that could be mistaken for notions of “fairness.” So how did this happen? Here’s a story that may shed some light.

My wife and I lived in Atlanta when we were first married, and she helped out with a street ministry. One day, she was asked to drive a homeless man back to where he “stayed.” They wound around a residential neighborhood until he finally directed her to stop at some crumbling steps in front of an overgrown empty lot. As he climbed to the raggedy shrubbery, she heard within a loud, indignant voice: “He lives in the bushes!! He lives in the bushes!!!” This was really surprising. She knew that a few years earlier she might have lived in the bushes herself, so where did all this judgment come from? It was her father’s voice she heard – not hers.

In America now, we have the opportunity to make progress in healing the national wound of racial discrimination. But our efforts (and we must make an effort, regardless) won’t be very effective if we don’t start with ourselves. To uncover the predispositions and attitudes that lie within us, but aren’t really ours, takes a lot of very hard work. St. Ignatii Brianchaninov is quoted as writing, “If you want to be a true, zealous son of the Orthodox Church, you can do so by the fulfillment of the commandments of the Gospel in regard to your neighbor. Do not dare to convict him. Do not dare to teach him. Do not dare to condemn or reproach him. To correct your neighbor in this way is not an act of faith, but of foolish zeal, self-opinion, and pride.” Heeding the Saint’s words is a good starting place for us. 

We must learn to love one another, treat each other with kindness and always listen to what others are truly saying, although they may not be able communicate it in the clearest way. Let’s try to avoid off the cuff reactions. As the poet Leon Russell says, “Listen to the melody, ‘cause the love is in there, hiding.” Having reflected on the event and considered my feelings of betrayal, I was able to leave the dinner with my friend feeling more reconciled with the opponents of my Resolution. May God help us in these difficult times.

LOOK AWAY BEYOND THE BLUE

When we first moved back down to the family farm in 1998, we’d often have an Akathist to the Mother of God in our little cemetery, built in 1875 and dedicated to “Slaves, Paupers and Indians.” It’s on the Greene County historic sites registry, and the National Registry of Historic Places. It has three Osage Indian mounds, and one of Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad associates, Mother Charity James, is there as well.


On one occasion, several nuns were with us to sing the Akathist, in a Valaam special melody tone. Also in attendance were my mother and several other elderly kinfolk. After the beautiful service, my dear old “Aunt” Willetta Johnson, of Springfield, MO, said, referring to the ancient Orthodox hymn we’d just completed, “that’s the way the old folks used to sing.”


At first, I thought that she was just being kind, because the older people in my family had always been kind and supportive of me, even when I lived a lawless life. To me, the Akathist sounded like nothing my relatives would ever have heard. But I knew of their kindness. I recall one occasion when I came back to Missouri after living in Salmon Creek commune in Big Sur, California, bringing along a group of my friends, who looked like a motley crew. One girl had on a mini dress which was quite scandalous. Miss Effie Yokum and my grandma Mamie Berry, both children of slaves, were there when we pulled into the yard. Miss Effie turned to Mamie and said, “That girl should be ashamed of herself for wearing that dress, and your grandson should be ashamed for bringing her here.” My grandmother responded, “Effie, you remember those long dresses we used to wear?” Effie certainly did. Grandma said, “You know, we could get those long dresses up just as quick as they can get those short ones up.” She said this not to defend me and my scantily dressed friend, but to cover my nakedness and lack of sensitivity. So you see, my relatives have always been kind and supportive of most things I did and said. Not that there weren’t any consequences, but they gave them to me later, because they knew who I was. My great grandma Zona Long used to say to me, “God takes care of old folks and fools” and since I wasn’t very old, you can imagine what category I fell into.

Back to the cemetery – I thought my relatives were once again just being tolerant of this musical form that I’d supposed was so foreign to them. But it came to me later that the reason it reminded them of the way the old folks used to sing was because both musical expressions – the traditional old time Black gospel music and the Akathist to the Mother of God sung in a Russian tone, embodied an otherworldly “joyful suffering.” When my relatives sang “I’ve got a mother in Beulah land who outshines the Sun – look away beyond the blue!” in a mournful melody, longing for the day when they would be reunited with their families, having been before the dread judgment seat of Christ, it was the same as hearing in the Akathist, “the wise children did not adore the golden idol, but went themselves into the flame and defied the pagan gods – they prayed in the midst of the flames and an angel bedewed them, the prayer of your lips has been heard.” What resonated with Aunt Willeta and my mother in the Akathist was that peace wasn’t to be found in this world, but only in the world to come would we find consolation. That’s what reminded them of ” how the old folks used to sing.”

I think that those generations of my ancestors, bound with manacles of iron, were freer than me, bound by the chains of modernity. They knew where their true home was. In this world, they were only passing through.

This photo is from 1951 and shows my grandmother and her sisters. You can see Grandma Mamie on the left, above the first row. My grandfather Luther is the only man in the picture. It was taken on the front steps of the house we live in now.

“Boy, take the low seat!”

My great grandfather, Robert Long, the child of a Slaves, was a Methodist preacher in Greenfield, MO. My fondest childhood memories were of his church. It was a beautiful church, a one room wooden building. The walls were adorned with life sized murals from the life of Christ, painted by my mother, who was quite the artist. We would have basket dinners in the front yard, and churchgoers and non-religious people from our community would gather for a grand meal.


Children were taught to obey our elders and to “act right” in church. For example, once my brother Charles and I were cutting up in the pew, and our Aunt Josie stood up behind us, laid her hands on our shoulders, and shouted loudly, “Unleach him, Satan!” We straightened right up and thereafter kept our mouths shut (at least for the rest of the service!)
At those basket dinners, we children often ran to the front of the line and tried to crowd our way forward. My great grandfather, speaking in his deep baritone, would say, “Boys, get to the back of the line. Take the lowest seat!”

This admonition has served me well throughout my years.
In 1989, His Holiness Shenouda III, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa of the Holy Apostolic See of St. Mark the Evangelist of the Coptic Orthodox Church came to St. Louis, MO. A reception was held for him in a hotel grand ballroom, and there were dignitaries from across the Midwest. The proceedings began with a procession of bishops led by Pope Shenouda from the center of the ballroom out into the hall, in which he carried the very cross of St. Mark the Apostle. The hall was lined with the faithful who’d come to hear a word from their beloved leader. When he came to where I was standing, the Pope paused. He walked through the crowd to me, took my pectoral cross in his hand and laid the cross of St. Mark upon it. He asked if I was from Africa, but then intuited that I was American. He then continued in the procession. I felt puffed up – out of all those people, Pope Shenouda recognized me and spoke to me! I was special, and everyone could see it.


When the procession was complete, people went to their designated tables. There was a three tiered dais at the front of the room. On the top level was Pope Shenouda and Bishop Moussa of Cairo, flanked by the Cardinal of the St.Louis Catholic diocese and the mayor of St. Louis. The second row was reserved for the Coptic bishops and priests. The third row held Orthodox clergy from throughout the area. I looked for my place card, but it wasn’t there. I figured that was because at the time, I was in an unrecognized jurisdiction. When the host of the banquet saw that I was looking for my seat, he quickly took me to the very back of the room and set me at a table full of unruly children. After my upset and embarrassment about not being included with the clergy, I consoled myself about being with the kids in the back of the huge room, repeating to myself, “you came to hear Pope Shenouda, not to be seated in the right place.” Then my great grandfather’s admonition came to mind. “Boy, take the low seat.” This really helped.


After a short while, through the crowd came Bishop Moussa, Pope Shenouda’s right-hand man, who told me that the Pope wanted me to come a little closer. So I started towards the front, where the priests were sitting. Then the Bishop said, no – he wants you by him. So I spent the evening seated next to Pope Shenouda. We had an edifying and entertaining conversation, and he showered me with gifts. When I went home and told this story to my wife, we agreed that it was an almost “biblical” parable – the last shall be first.


From that point on, I’ve always tried to take the low seat. After all, we should not think so highly of ourselves as to consider that we ever deserve the high place.

I COULD HAVE KNOWN A SAINT ~

A few years ago, I attended a nationwide church gathering in St. Louis, MO. It was held at the St. Louis Union Station convention center. After lunch, a friend and I were talking in the lobby, when an Afro-American man crossed our path. He was young, wore a black hoodie, black Levi jeans, and a pair of vintage-type Air Jordans. His pants were hung low on his hips, and he walked briskly. My friend, a fellow minister, said “how disrespectful!” stating that this young man must be up to no good. I asked him how he knew. He answered, “well, just look at him!””Let me tell you a story,” I responded, and began.

In my home town of Ash Grove, Missouri, there was a lady named Miss Olivia Murray. She was born in 1897 and died in 1991. She was the daughter of an enslaved woman, Fannie Murray, who was 12 years old at the end of the Civil War. Fannie’s master set her free and on her own to roam the Ozark hills. Later, when word of this got to my great-grandparents, also freed slaves, they set aside a parcel of land for Fannie, where she could live out the rest of her days.

Miss Olivia was a tall, strong woman who walked around town with a bonnet on her head and a long dress and apron going nearly to the ground. She often carried a basket under her arms, and her little dog Wiggie ran in and out around her legs. She was quite an embarrassment to me, in the late 1950’s, when were trying to shake off the fetters of subserviency. There she was, looking like Aunt Jemima. I don’t mean the new, cute Aunt Jemima, but the old “Hattie McDaniel” version. I once complained to my mother about the way Olivia Murray looked. My mother asked – do you know what she has in that basket? She has eggs from her chickens and canned goods from her garden, and she goes around giving them to people who are down on their luck. Mom went on to say, “She’s saved many a family around here, including ours.” I felt so ashamed. I could have known a saint.
We often accept or dismiss people on equally as flimsy evidence, and we could have known a saint. So be careful, brothers and sisters, how you treat your neighbors. Watch out, and don’t make up a backstory for them based on a glance. You could miss someone precious, just like I missed knowing Miss Olivia.


This is a photo of Fannie Murray, approx. 1935.

“Start before you’re ready”

I’ve been getting a number of calls most recently from well-meaning and fair-minded brothers and sisters across the country asking me to weigh in on the seemingly recent situation of racial unrest. I say “seemingly” because this has been going on forever. There were no “good old days” for some people. I respond, yet I say to myself, “If I hear one more seasoned Orthodox Christian say, ‘I’m just a White guy – what do I have to say on this subject?’ I’m going to come undone.”

We Orthodox, who have been given the fulness of the Faith that cures all ills, whether they be racial or political or psychological, have much to say, if we use as our starting point and guidance the Tradition of the Church – the teachings and the lives of Saints. When someone asks “What shall we do?” my first thought is, “what have you done so far?” and the answer is usually “nothing.” They should have something to say, whether it’s “I’ve been sowing seeds in my neighborhood” or “I’ve been on my knees, streaming tears, pleading to the Lord.”

In 1975, when I was 25, I was a street preacher and pastor in Detroit. I opened a drop-in center for troubled youth near East Grand Blvd and Jefferson, which at that time was a rough area. I was in relationship with many other young ministers, who often expressed a desire to come and help me out at the center. I always said, “no” because evidence had shown me that they were more interested in “relating” to these at-risk youngsters at what they considered to be “their level”, than actually lending a hand, and their help wasn’t productive.One day, a friend of mine, Michael Harris, who was in the original Broadway cast of “Hair,” asked if he could come down. Since he was my dear friend, I agreed. He arrived at the center where there was a piano. He sat down and began to play show tunes for these inner city kids, something that seemed incongruous if not wildly inappropriate. The kids were very attentive, and began to sing along with him as he taught them the lyrics to songs such as “Hello Dolly” and tunes from “Oklahoma.” They were so engaged that they began to dance around the room in glee. It was a most successful evening, and one I’ve never forgotten. I learned that night that ministering to people means giving them yourself, whatever that might be. “What you have may not seem much, but when you yield it to the touch of the Master’s loving hand, life will never be the same.” (from the song, “Ordinary People.”)


There is no new approach to ministry – all that’s required is that we give all that we have, just as the multitude was fed, from the fish and the loaves of bread. When we give what we have, God has room to reach through our inadequacy to change lives. I’m not opposed to programs and strategies for outreach, but we already have the talents, given by the Lord, whatever they may be. Let’s start there. Like the saying I attribute to an old friend, Fr. James Barfield – “start before you’re ready.” God will help us along the way, but first we must make an effort. All that we can give this world is what we have – we are not here as problem solvers, but as ambassadors for Christ, giving our heart, mind, and soul. How can we say that we love God, who we have not seen, and yet not love our brother standing next to us, needing help. An expression of love can be as simple as a show tune.

Bearing insults

My grandmother Berry was the daughter of a slave, and I found refuge in her house as a boy. I was there more than I was at my own family’s house because she was so kind and understanding. She was “pleasant as well as challenging.”

One day, after school, I came home to Grandma Berry’s house after being in a schoolyard fight with one of my little friends. My clothes were disheveled. Grandma asked me what I’d been up to, and I told her that my friend Marvin and I had been in a fight because he’d hurt my feelings. She said, “You know, as Jesus said, you must turn the other cheek!” I said, “Grandma, they can get one cheek, but they can’t get two.” “Aha, “she said, “I see you’re in league with the Antichrist.” I’d never heard such strong language from her, who’d never had a discouraging word for me. “What do you mean?” I asked. “If you don’t do what Jesus told you to do,” she said, “you’re in opposition to Him. You’re standing side by side with the Lord, and telling him that your idea is just as good as His.”

We are often offended when we’re slighted or misunderstood. St Moses the Black, one of the early Christian desert fathers, was present at an assembly of his peers and accused of being unworthy to be in their midst. They even, according to Holy Tradition, insulted him about his skin color. Some people asked him, afterwards, if he wasn’t offended, to which he replied, “I was grieved, but I kept silent.” We can benefit from this story by recognizing that St. Moses’ accusers have long since been forgotten and the exact words they said are lost to time. But St. Moses’ words remain to this day as instruction for proper Orthodox behavior. For me, this means that there is enormous power in humility, and sometimes we must simply keep our mouths shut. Not to compare myself to Jesus, but even the Lord, before His accusers,”never said a mumbling word.”

Grandma Berry surrounded by us children (circa 1961 – I’m on the far left)

You never know…

A young Orthodox African American woman from St. Louis told me that she didn’t feel comfortable going to a certain church in town. She said that the last time she attended that church, she received a less than warm welcome. I told her a story about that very same church, that happened to me, around 1987. 

This church was having an open house to display its wonderful mosaics. I saw the event in the newspaper, and knew I had to go, as I’d always been attracted by icons and mosaics. When I entered the crowded nave of the church, on a Friday afternoon, an official person approached me and said “How can I help you?” I knew what she meant by that question, by the subtle tone of her voice. In my experience, this always meant “what are you doing here?”  I replied, “no thank you ma’m, I’m just looking.” A few moments later, the priest approached me and again asked, “How can I help you?”  I replied, “Father, I’m interested in Orthodoxy, and I just want to look around at the mosaics.” He said, “I think you’d be happier in the Coptic church.”  I also knew what he meant – that there wasn’t room for someone like me in his church. (The Copts, after all, were more likely to have people of color.) I was wounded, and in my madness, pledged to myself that I’d never darken the doors of that church again.  I’d go out of my way to avoid even driving near it, as it was a trigger for me of that unpleasant memory. 

Years passed, and a young man who I’d helped mentor, a graduate of Holy Cross Seminary, was now an associate pastor of that very same church. Not knowing my history there, he asked if I would come and give the Sunday of Orthodoxy homily. I was torn between my natural inclination to steer clear of that place and the request of my spiritual son.  I gave in to my better nature and agreed to go. 

I started my homily by saying that we must be very careful about how we treat people, and always treat them with lovingkindness and respect. If we’re not careful, we will offend our own brothers and sisters. As we read in Proverbs, a brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city captured. I continued my homily by talking about what happened to me at that church. At the end of the service, there was a reception, during which a little old lady came up to me and said, “I was the one who approached you all those years ago,” and she began to cry, and I began to cry. And there we were, in the middle of the church hall, in front of all these people, holding hands and crying over our offenses to one another – hers of rejecting me, and mine of being resentful of her for my rejection.

I told the young woman that we don’t go to church to get accepted by other people, although that’s a wonderful thing, but, rather, to be in the presence of Christ. After all, even our Lord did not always have the warmest of receptions. It is your choice, I continued, whether or not you go back to that church, but don’t be confused as to why we go to church in the first place.

WOKE or AWAKENED

A young man told me most recently that he was “woke.”

After reflection, I remembered being woke myself. In 1971, I was incarcerated, in solitary confinement, when I had an awakening. After many months in this place, which we referred to as a “mean camp,” I had a nudge from God. This left a clear impression on me about the Prodigal Son. I saw that in my Father’s house, there were even servants, hirelings, who were better off than I was, having my soul in prison as well as my body.  And I knew from my upbringing that the countless descendants of slaves, (who I’m numbered among) had breathed sanctity into me and had taught me right from wrong. And there I was, in the belly of the whale. 

Then it occurred to me (or perhaps I was informed by something from the Eternal) that if I would turn away from evil and do good, my soul would not forever be lost. It also occurred to me that everyone else in the prison, through God’s love for mankind, also had an awakening. God wouldn’t give that only to me. The problem was, that once they knew from this experience that they must turn away from evil and do good, many of them, having no foundation, didn’t know what “good” was. I believe that many of the rudderless people of today are indeed “woke,” but find themselves in the arena of life clueless as to how to begin to do right. This is a direct result of my shortcomings in ministering to them. Rather than not recognizing that they have been awakened to a certain degree, I should start providing a foundation for a true awakening to a life in Christ.

BLACK LIFE MATTERS

During the Ferguson disturbances, near St. Louis, MO, a young Black Orthodox man told me that he would like to be involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, to which I replied, “By all means, do it right away, but you must take my direction in this matter. I want you and your friends to carry banners with Jesus Pantocrator and the Mother of God of Kazan and one of St. Moses the Black. You must also carry beeswax candles and burn frankincense as you march, while singing, “The Cross is the Guardian of the whole world. The Cross is the might of kings, the Cross angels glory, and wound to demons.” To which he replied – that would be out of character with the energy of the movement, and I said – we don’t take our cues from this world. Instead, we inform them as to what is proper.

Black lives have always mattered to me. I remember suffering as a young man under the yoke of the godless authority (police) in Jefferson City, MO, who bound me in handcuffs and threw me in the back of the squad car and told me, “we’re going to take you over to Cedar City and let the wolves eat  you.” If it wasn’t for a fair minded officer, Don Klein, who intervened, Heaven knows what would have become of me. My crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time, nothing more. And also disobeying my grandma Dorothy, who said, “if you keep running around with these white folks, you’re going to end up with your ass in a sling.”

It’s about time that we, as men and women of good will, address the ills of our society and not on its terms, but on the terms of otherworldly Christianity, which will always be in opposition to the wisdom of this world.