By JOHN FORTMEYER, CNNW publisher
PORTLAND — Already in a fight of unprecented proportions with a still-new foe — the novel coronavirus COVID-19 — the Northwest and nation in recent weeks have also suddenly grappled with an all-too-old and deep-seated problem — racism and resulting societal unrest.
Reacting to very troubling incidents elsewhere in America, violent riots, looting and arson erupted in major cities both regionally and nationally in early June, followed by dozens of consecutive nights of protest by tens of thousands.
In response, the evangelical Christian community locally has taken an introspective approach, with leaders and laypersons examining their own hearts, seeking to rightly respond during a crisis time in a way that reflects the love of Jesus.
While the level of unrest and protests in Seattle and Portland have captured much of the nation’s attention, the intense concern over what has happened nationally also has been shown with demonstrations in Eugene, Salem, Olympia, Bellevue, Vancouver and dozens of smaller cities and towns in Oregon and Washington.
What sparked it all was the death by suffocation of an African-American man, George Floyd — as shown vividly in a video — during an arrest May 25 in Minneapolis, Minn; a police officer there was immediately fired and has now been charged with murder. After Floyd’s death, protests against police violence toward Black people quickly spread across the United States and internationally.
Floyd’s death followed the February shooting death in Georgia of an unarmed African-American man, and preceded the June 12 killing of another Black man by a police officer, also in Georgia and also charged with murder. The successive incidents inflamed emotions, leading to countless and often massive protests not only across the U.S. but also in Europe and the Orient.
At press time for this newspaper, protests have been held in Portland for more than 30 consecutive days. The initial protests were accompanied by riots damaging scores of stores and buildings in the downtown core and additional damage occurred in late June.
Turnout at protests has been huge; on June 2, thousands of people lay down on the Burnside Bridge in a visually stark show of deep concern over police brutality and pervasive racism in America.
Seeking healing for the city, region and nation, concerned Christians held eight solemn and peaceful prayer rallies June 12-19, each at a different location in Portland. The locations were identified as “altars of pain” where something tragic or divisive had occurred in the past.
For example, the first rally was held near Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, in a neighborhood where decades ago forced relocation of about 10 percent of Portland’s African-American community occurred as part of an urban renewal project. Another rally took place at the North Skidmore overpass of Interstate 5, where in 2003 a young Black woman, Kendra James, died in a police shooting. Another of the eight gatherings was held at Laurelhurst Park in southeast Portland, near where Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian student attending college in Portland, was murdered in 1988 by three white supremacists.
Similar concern prompted a June 18 online webinar, titled “Race, Justice and the Kingdom of God: A Pastoral Conversation,” which featured eight Portland clergy or outreach leaders, six of whom are African-American and the others caucasian.
Rev. LeRoy Haynes Jr. of Allen Temple CME Church has been a pastor more than 40 and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“In the 1960s we experienced a kairos moment, an opening for God,” Haynes said, using the Greek word for an opportunity for decision or action. “Now, we have a new kairos moment, an opportunity to deal with ‘America’s original sin’ … we don’t want our children and grandchildren to have to deal with the issue of racism.”
A common theme during the 90-minute online discussion was that the white evangelical Christian community can no longer largely remain silent if it truly cares about the pain inflicted on minorities from racism.
“The white evangelical community needs to absorb some things and not just intellectualize it,” said Michelle Lang, campus pastor at Warner Pacific University. “If the white evangelical community is just putting itself in a posture to listen but does not do anything, I feel it is abusive.”
“There has to be some kind of way to absorb the pain,” agreed Mark Strong, pastor of Life Change Church. “Not just sympathy, but heartfelt empathy that says, ‘We cannot allow this to go on.’ It has to be part of the long-term narrative of the Church, and not just put off on the side.”
Michelle Jones, associate pastor of Imago Dei Church, said sincere, action-oriented concern is a reflection of Christ.
“Jesus would have said, ‘Black lives matter,’’ Jones said. “Not because it’s a slogan, not a hashtag. It’s just the truth.”
Imago Dei Lead Pastor Rick McKinley, one of the two caucasian speakers, said white evangelicals need to face some harsh realities about what their brothers and sisters of color have too long suffered.
“One of the great sins of the white Church is the sin of being ‘nice,’’McKinley said. “There’s such a culture of niceness that you really can’t talk about hard things … You can’t have the history of the Black community and the Native American community and add it to the ‘God and Country’ narrative and have a pretty outcome.”
“The Church wants to say that it shows up for the oppressed … but we also have to acknowledge that there are oppressive systems, whether in our country, community, city and church,” said Lang. “We have to name the oppressor. We don’t like that, because we don’t like to make each other feel bad. But we are at a place where we can’t keep skipping over the part that oppression comes from somewhere.”
Eric Knox, founder and executive director of HOLLA, a Portland mentoring outreach to minority youth, said the white Church could for example, show more openness on working with non-whites to ensure that funds or resources are better directed to needy communities.
“White folks do need to have a seat at the table; they don’t need to set the table,” he said.
Also participating in the online chat were John Mark Comer, pastor of Bridgetown Church, and Kali Ladd, executive director of Kairos PDX, a nonprofit promoting improved educational programs for historically underserved children and their families.
Although deeply troubling and controversial, the massive protests held across the U.S. did perhaps help hundreds of churches nationally in an unexpected way, according to a Salem lawyer. During a June 11 online video chat with hundreds of pastors, Ray Hacke, who is affiliated with the Christian legal rights agency Pacific Justice Institute, said the huge protests made it less likely that churches would face legal action for holding services during the current pandemic.
“I find it very difficult for law enforcement to, with a straight face, go after a church when they turn the other way with protests on a massive scale and much, much less concern for safety,” Hacke said.