Unfinished Conversations

As I watched the funeral service of another friend and colleague from a distance, separated by COVID—19 and all of the other intrusions that life can bring, I began to think about what this really meant.  A flood of thoughts came to my mind.  Having just celebrated another birthday a few days ago, matters of life and death become even more real and sobering.  

As a pastor because you deal with death so often there seems to be the assumption that a teflon coat comes with the calling.  But these days ones own mortality has made the teflon more adhesive.  I’m beginning to come to an age where more of my family and friends are beneath the earth than above it.

As I listened to my friend and colleague Freddie Russell mention his first meeting with Russell Seay at Oakwood in 1976, I remembered that we all began that year as Freshmen in Cunningham Hall.  My mind thought about all of the guys who we began with that year and where they all might be today, beginning with my first roommate?  I will not bore you with a list of names but my mind began to wonder?

And then I thought specifically about Russell.  I cannot say we were close, but we were friends.  We knew each other and for me my respect for him was genuine and sincere.  In ministry after a few decades, you begin to learn who people really are.  The crucible of challenge and crises reveal the truth about all of us.  And from my observation Russell was one who had strong convictions and was unafraid to stand for them even if they placed him in an uncomfortable position.  This is a rare quality in life especially for those with personal ambitions or desires to ascend professionally in any way shape or form.  To be uncompromising is a rare quality to have and few possess it.  I found Russell to be one of those persons.  This was something that I valued and respected.

I also appreciated his unique insights and perspectives.  Whenever we had conversations about any subject I could count on Russell to share a perspective that was beyond the ordinary or conventional.  He would share a point of view that made you say, “I never would have thought of that.”  He was the kind of person the wise man was referring to when he wrote, “In a multitude of counselors there is wisdom.”  I, like many others, will sorely miss his counsel.

And so that brings me to my final thoughts.  What I regret most with Russell’s passing is the unfinished conversations.  The ones we were supposed to have.  I know I’m not alone in that category and am certain that many of those closer to him feel this even more acutely that I do.  But the question is, how do you process that emptiness?  How do you deal with that regret?  A regret that I have come to face more often that I would like to admit with the passage of time.  

After much deep contemplation something came to mind.  There will come a time when I can complete the conversations; in a completely different setting, uninterrupted and with the both of us having the full capacity of our faculties.  This is really not an unfinished conversation, but an interrupted conversation.  It’s like when you’re talking to someone on the cell phone and their signal dies while they’re passing through an area where the call drops.  When they pass through that weak area and get to a place where the signal is strong, they call you back and you continue the conversation.  Right now we’re passing through an area where the signal is weak.  The call between Russell and me has dropped.  But when He is resurrected by Christ to a place where our signal is strong, we’ll pick up where we left off and complete the conversation.  


The final most powerful response has been issued.  It came this past Sunday, June 7, 2020, when the top NASCAR drivers led by Jimmie Johnson released their strong video denouncing the heinous racist behavior that led to the George Floyd murder.  Their voices were penetrating, pointed and powerful.  They did not mince words.  They got to the crux of the matter as the voiced their strong displeasure for white racism in America against African Americans and called for change.  

Then at the Atlanta Speedway Race the NASCAR drivers stopping for a pre-race moment of silence in memory of George Floyd, while NASCAR president Steve Phelps spoke to the drivers and teams over the public address system.  These were his words:  Our country is in pain and people are justifiably angry, demanding to be heard.  The black community and all people of color have suffered in our country, and it has taken far too long to hear their demands for change. Our sport must do better. Our country must do better. The time is now to listen. To understand. And to stand against racism and racial injustice. We ask our drivers, our competitors and all our fans to join us in this mission. To take a moment of reflection to acknowledge that we must do better as a sport. 

For NASCAR, a community where some of its fans fly confederate flags at their events, to have its drivers and president release such strong public statements denouncing racism against African Americans and calling for the nation to do better; and risk offending its fan base and sponsors to do this, what possible excuse can anyone else have for their silence?  The acts by NASCAR were so powerful and moving that Bubba Wallace, the only Black professional driver on the NASCAR circuit, became faint when approached by reporters for a statement about what he had participated in and witnessed.

So the question is, when will the White Evangelical Christian Community Speak?  When will they publicly stand up in support of the African American community and denounce systemic white supremacy, police violence against African Americans and people of color; and join everyone else in saying “Black Lives Matter”?

They have not hesitated in voicing their disagreement with Gay marriage, abortion, women ordination, and those who oppose Donald Trump.  They had no problem calling former President Barack Obama the ‘Antichrist’ when he was in office.  So why have  they been silent and refused to speak in opposition to the attacks against George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Armaud Arbery?  Do they feel no obligation to defend the “least of these,” as Jesus Christ has commanded his followers?

As I perused the Christian networks in preparation for this blog, 3ABN, TBN, Daystar, Hope, I saw  AD’s for programming and pitches for donations but no visible statements addressing the recent events of the past few days related to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor or Armaud Arbery.  What’s wrong with white evangelicals when it comes to speaking out publicly against racism, bigotry and bias.  They have publicly stood up to voice their strong support for President Donald Trump, a person whose infidelity, objectification of women and pathological lying is public, open and without dispute.  But when it comes to systemic racism there is a deafening silence. When will this duplicity cease?  What possible excuse can they give as a community?

This past weekend I watched a powerful YouTube discussion hosted by Bishop TD Jakes about racism in the white evangelical community.  The program was titled: “TD Jakes Presents: The Church & Race Featuring Leading Voices of the Church.”  Jakes was the only African American on the broadcast and his guests were, Judah Smith, Christine Caine, Carl Lentz, Dr. Caroline Leaf, Ron Carpenter, all white.  Their response to the question I am raising in this blog is very revealing, truthful, heartfelt and insightful.  If you are interested in hearing an honest perspective about this issue from the White Evangelical community, I encourage you to find Bishop Jake’s YouTube broadcast and listen to it. 

I will close with the message of a leader from another faith community who addressed the recent events in our nation.  Here are his words:

“Dear brothers and sisters in the United States, I have witnessed with great concern the disturbing social unrest in your nation in these past days, following the tragic death of Mr. George Floyd.

My friends, we cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life. At the same time, we have to recognize that “the violence of recent nights is self-destructive and self-defeating. Nothing is gained by violence and so much is lost”.

Today I join the Church in Saint Paul and Minneapolis, and in the entire United States, in praying for the repose of the soul of George Floyd and of all those others who have lost their lives as a result of the sin of racism. Let us pray for the consolation of their grieving families and friends and let us implore the national reconciliation and peace for which we yearn. May Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of America, intercede for all those who work for peace and justice in your land and throughout the world.

May God bless all of you and your families. “

——Pope Francis, General Audience, June 3, 2020