I recently returned to a place where I spent a significant amount of time in my life and ministry professionally and personally to be a part of a celebration for a colleague’s retirement. I was a part of the pastoral staff that he led for four decades and my years there (16) were significant in my life and very career shaping for me as well as for my family.
As I sat in the section designated for the former pastors watching the program that tracked the path of his professional pastoral journey at the church, that was quite significant and extremely impressive, I was struck by what was missing. It was the lack of recognizing any significant impact that his ministry made to address the issue of racial diversity. The one segment in the program that alluded to race, was done by another white male, a former administrator that mentioned a sermon that impressed him to make a public apology to a conference in his union for racial wrongs in the past. But no mention was ever made or alluded to about anything that had ever been done in his ministry to effect any significant racial or cultural change during his 40 years of ministry where he served as pastor.
If such was indeed the case, why was it omitted from the tribute? Are such things so opaque or vacuous these days and so unpopular amidst a cancel culture that is outlawing the teaching of African American History and Critical Race Theory, that to mention a Christian Pastors attempts to effect racial change during his 40-year ministry out of place? Really?
As I watched the female pastors, ushered to the podium to be recognized as hires by the pastor being honored, which is a significant achievement in a conservative conference that opposes women’s ordination, it also crossed my mind that at the same time, only one African American Male Pastor was hired during those same 40 years. I said only one. And I am not the one.
To be fair to the honoree, the omission was not by his design. He was not the orchestrator of the event, rather the recipient, therefore he had nothing to do with its choreography. During his ministry he made attempts to address the cultural and racial inequities that existed in the community. He allowed non-anglo cultural groups to use percussion instruments, particularly drums, to accompany their musical performances in the worship service; something that was never questioned or challenged when anyone of European descent did the same. He preached sermons on the issues of race and social justice and gradually broached the subject of “white privilege,” a third rail issue for some in his own community. Some of his public positions and stances on the issue were not popular, they were with risk and cost and as a result some of his members left the congregation and attended more conservative churches in the area. So again the oversight was not his, but those that planned the tribute and never carried the same concern for the issue. To them it was invisible and as such not worth mentioning or causing unnecessary discomfort.
Please do not misunderstand me, this was his retirement celebration of 40 years of distinguished and preeminent ministry and service to the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the community where he labored. He was and is more than deserving of every accolade and commendation that he received. I have no issue with him, but rather with those that were charged with planning the celebration. Most who played a significant role in the planning of the afternoon tribute had little to no involvement in the ministry of the church community and knew little to nothing about the reality of ministry that happened in areas that did not concern them. Their knowledge represented a small slice of what the reality of his ministry was and they seemed disinterested in exploring beyond what they deemed as unimportant to them. Their vision could not see and did not extend beyond themselves; and that is the tragic reality of life. And while I was not surprised, I was still greatly disappointed.
“The Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison’s classic novel from 1952, that was declared the greatest novel of the 20th century, tells the story of an African American male that lived in the subterranean cavities of New York City. He assumes this posture because of the way he is treated by the world that he encounters where he is constantly treated as ‘invisible’. No matter how much he tries to fit in and assimilate with the expectations of others, he is still treated as invisible, overlooked and bypassed, never able to measure up to others expectations. The novel is one of the most powerful metaphors for the reality of life in America for the African American Male. And as we enter the third decade of the 21st century the invisibility of African Americans continues to obtain and in fact seems to extend.
In every segment of the American construct the African American’s visibility continues to recede. While other groups move forward and are becoming more prominent, they do so at the expense of African Americans, not by joining us at the table but by “replacing” us. As more Women, Hispanics, Latinos, Asians, African Caribbeans, Africans, and other immigrant groups assume more prominent and significant roles and positions in the American tapestry, they do so at the expense of African Americans, so that as they increase, African Americans decrease. Should this be the case? Should this be an either or construct among non-white groups; being pitted one against the other by the power structure to contend over the few seats left at the table?
It seems that the most comfortable position for someone like me to be placed in when associating with the larger society professionally or otherwise, is to remain visibly invisible. To be seen and not heard. To be a part of the photo opt but not deciding where the pictures should be placed in the scrap book. To possibly read the script but not write the script or direct the screen play. To always make myself silent, uncomfortable and disadvantaged so that others can always remain comfortable, advantaged, happy, laughing, smiling and feeling self secure in their success. Like the African Americans of the Antebellum south, persons like me are still, best seen but not heard. We are the silent participants in the success of others, remaining in the background to smile and applaud their achievements.
I applaud the success and achievements of my friend with whom I hold in the highest regard and respect. Few have done the things that God has blessed him to accomplish. God has touched countless lives too numerous for any human to calculate or imagine. Only heaven can truly quantify the impact of his ministry and service. But, perhaps in this blog you were made aware of a few of the omissions in the program.