This is part 2 of a series of blogs from reflections of my experiences as a white pastor in Oklahoma and serving in two communities that are overwhelmingly white.
There is no justification for racism in any form or in any variance or degree. As already stated in part one of this series of blogs, racism is evil. It comes in many forms but at the core, it is sin.
When my wife and I came to Claremore, from Lawton, Oklahoma, in 1980, we came naively expecting to build an inter-racial congregation. After all, that is what we had seen and loved so much about the military community in western Oklahoma. The racial and national diversity was so encouraging. It was seen everywhere and our church where we labored on staff reflected it. Coming to northeast Oklahoma we expected something similar. When we arrived we discovered there was only 1.87% African-Americans in the entire Rogers County. At the time we could not fine one Spanish speaking person in the community of Claremore, as well.
I walked the streets of Claremore in the 1980’s, knocking doors questioning why the population of African-Americans was so low in the county. I started in a neighborhood among African-Americans asking if they could tell me the history of our city. One older gentleman opened his door and said, “Come on in sonny.” With that, Mr. Walker, told me of the history that he knew of and how in the earlier part of the twentieth century there was open and public mistreatment toward the blacks of the community. It was part of the times and condition that remained among primarily white communities for decades. He even spoke of a coerced neighborhood relocation that occurred in the 1920’s
At the time I met Mr. Walker, Mt Zion Baptist was the thriving church of the community for large part of the African-Americans. They met at the old church facility on Hwy 66 close to downtown. Today the building is a business. I began to meet regularly with the pastors and build friendships. We often attended services and participated and preached in their church.
On one occasion something historically took place for our community. We met at Mt Zion for a Sunday afternoon service and it led into a time of repentance. Approximately 100 from our church, now called DestinyLife, attended along with approximately the same number from Mt Zion. We spoke of reconciliation and called for repentance. All of us Caucasians lined up on one side of the church building and all the African-Americans on the opposite side. We stood facing each other as I led in a repentance and asking forgiveness for the sins of our fathers and the transgressions of our community toward the African-Americans of Claremore. They offered forgiveness, we met together in the middle of the church building, embraced, and prayed as one. We felt it. It was right.
Years went by with good relations but not much taking place except for an occasionally shared Sunday night service. Some of us did go and help frame the new building that Mt Zion was constructing. We attended a few funding raising chicken dinners to help pay for the building, but that was about it.
In spite of the demographics we eventually saw inter-racial couples attend where we were pastoring and even get married in our church. It was talked about. That was a new boundary line drawn for some Christians among us. I heard comments like, “I’m not prejudice but I don’t think there should be intermingling of races for the children’s sake.” I remember becoming more determined to not give in. In truth, it never seemed to me that the conflict was really about the children. It seemed more about the parents being embarrassed their adult children wanted to marry someone of another race. We resisted such ideas of separation and prayed for better relations. It changed for the good, slowly.
In the mid-nineties I became friends with a young African-American pastor of a small congregation in our community and we began to meet every Tuesday evening for prayer. One day in prayer before he arrived at my office, I heard in my spirit, “Repent for the Tulsa Race Riot.” I knew nothing of the Tulsa Race Riot. I began research and soon discovered the worse race atrocity in America’s history that took place in 1921.
The more I read about the Tulsa race riot the more intrigued and the more grieved I became. I wondered if there had been any public acknowledgment of the atrocity. Had the white leaders of the Church stepped up in latter years to take a lead in asking forgiveness. I went to Tulsa and begin to ask if any form of repentance on behalf of the white Christians in the Tulsa had occurred in our history. No one could think of anything like that, and frankly, some wondered if my suggestion was the right thing to do. One respected Caucasian pastor who lead a large congregation in Tulsa came to a morning breakfast with me to discuss the matter. When I presented my vision for Tulsa leaders to repent, he questioned my interest in dealing with past issues. He gave me a scripture verse to support his thoughts, “Like one who takes a dog by the ears Is he who passes by and meddles with strife not belonging to him” (Prov. 26:17). I was taken back but not deterred. After further discussion, he joined in approval and asked if I would lead and coordinate the repentance service.
I continued to meet with media leaders, pastors, and race riot survivors. The bigger picture began to come together. As I met with leading Caucasian pastors and African-American pastors of Tulsa I discovered a keen interest. Plans were made for June 1998, the 77th Anniversary of the riots from June 1, 1921, for what was called the Tulsa Race Riot Repentance. We gathered on the actual grounds in the Greenwood area of North Tulsa, where more than 300 lives African-Americans were lost and innocent blood shed. Approximately, 2,000 people came from across the city and the state for the event. Caucasian pastors led the way in repenting for the sins of their fathers and for continued prejudice. The African-American pastors offered forgiveness and repented for bitterness and unforgiveness on the part of African-Americans. The evening highlight was white on black prayer and holy communion. It was powerful. We all were blessed to be part of this historical event.
Much has taken place in the Greenwood area since that time. New construction and inter-racial congregations have sprung up and somehow we feel there is a connection to the spiritual reality of the repentance.