Dear Church, Lest We Forget Our Need for Repentance

Dear Church,

Where does reconciliation start in America and are we even ready? Where does the church fit in? I think it’s important to try to understand the rich and complicated history of the church in America before we can answer either of those questions. Our country is deeply forgetful; one could say we have selective amnesia. So many citizens are blindly committed to the jingoistic mindset that America is the greatest country in the world with nothing to be ashamed of and everything to be proud of. We live in a country so obsessed with itself, so entrenched in our own propaganda, that we’ve learned a history that is only partly true. We conveniently forget the tragedy and the heartache, the murder and the rape, the pain and the subjugation, the evil that we’ve put so many of our own citizens through, because it’s easier to forget our problems than to deal with them. We have to remember that the church, while not necessarily the arbiter of the struggle, was complacent in its delivery. Only then can we start the process of healing.

I’m a 31-year old black man born and raised in the heart of the Nation’s capital, Washington, DC. I grew up in a strict, religious household and attended a predominantly black church. My siblings and I were thoroughly involved in church activities, from bible studies, to youth ministry, to church plays. Our church was the foundation of my theology and my social structure until I started attending middle and high school at a predominantly white Episcopalian prep school for boys. This school introduced me to a wide array of theological viewpoints as I began my spiritual maturity. At home we sang Negro spirituals, but at school we sang standard hymns. I heard stories of Martin, Malcolm, and the civil rights movement from the pulpit at church. In chapel at school I heard stories about how the North Star connected us to the birth of Christ. In school we read the Bible, the Koran, and the Ramayana. In church, nothing existed outside of King James’ words. School transported me outside the narrow theological mindset present at home and in church, but exposed me to a great deal of pain from which I was being shielded.

In her book, We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, Bell Hooks talks about the idea that our idea of masculinity is derived from “imperialist white supremacist male patriarchy.” The standard for being a good, well respected man was set by those who are in power, white men, and they used that power to emasculate and dehumanize those who did not fall in line and reflect their image. Attending an all boys school of predominantly wealthy white guys, I was introduced to white male patriarchy  and white privilege in a way I’ve never experienced anywhere else. We were taught to be “men” in an environment that seemed to excuse pervasive drug and alcohol abuse, general patronization towards women, and a masculinity that favored strength over sensitivity. Guys would get pulled over for drunk driving, have parties broken up for underage drinking, talk about women like they were toys to be played with, and still get celebrated for their academic and athletic achievement like none of that other stuff even happened. As long as they were well-spoken, God-fearing gentlemen, nothing else they did seemed to matter. I say “they” because the same rules didn’t apply to myself or my classmates of color, who would be threatened with suspension or expulsion for far lesser offenses. I watched parents pause at the idea of boys like me dating their white daughters. I saw the kind of access that their money and connections got them, but it didn’t always extend to us. It didn’t matter how smart I was, I had to learn to be someone different to fit in at school and I had to figure it out without losing sight of who I was raised to be.

The freedom to explore my spirituality coupled with the otherness I felt by being a lower-middle class black kid in a school full of wealthy white kids was a stark contrast to the narrow theological mindset, but safe and familiar community I felt at home and at church. The juxtaposition of these two environments introduced me to the many faces of the church and played a significant role in my development as a black man in America. There were a lot of differences between home and school, but the biggest difference between these two communities was that my family and my church community made sure I did not forget where I came from. I needed to understand the rich and dark history of the black man in America. I needed to understand that nothing was ever going to be given to me without a cost. And I needed to understand that the way I was perceived by the world of the white man was critical to my success in this country. Like Ta-Nehisi Coates explains in Between the World and Me, my freedom, my life, and my body are not my own and can be taken away in an instant.

My predominantly black church was not afraid to talk about the atrocities of slavery, segregation, and systematic racism in America but everywhere else it felt like a whisper, something to be swept under the rug or locked away in a closet and forgotten.  At home, in a predominantly black church, talking about our African-American history was not taboo; it was necessary to survive. If we forgot where we came from, we’d be doomed to repeat the same mistakes. It hurt to hear how my ancestors were raped, beaten, and tortured, but there was also a sense of pride in knowing despite all that we survived. Like many other black churches in America, we rallied around that pride and did not shy away from those truths. However, slavery and segregation are very uncomfortable subjects for a lot of people. Many feel accused of being racist if they sound at all defensive or aren’t in complete agreement with certain viewpoints. Frankly, my school didn’t know how to have open conversations about race and our differences without alienating someone. And you better believe the family paying tens of thousands of dollars for their son to attend one of the most prestigious schools in the nation doesn’t want to hear about their son feeling alienated or ashamed of where they came from. So we just didn’t have those conversations in class or in chapel, because we wanted to be a school of inclusion.

However, in many ways, the church has a history of exclusion and played a critical role in contributing to the systematic oppression that we’re so ardently trying to dismantle. A lot of the structures and systems that were put into place during the the years of slavery and segregation still exist in our modern world.   Then there were the few that encouraged their slaves to come together under the church, but only on their terms, and often as a way to further indoctrinate or subjugate the masses. In the 1800s slave masters transformed the Bible into a book called Parts of the Holy Bible, Selected for the Use of the Negro Slaves. It was a version that removed sections of the Bible that spoke ill of slavery and was freely shared with slaves who sought Christianity. It was just another way of subjugation. The way slaves worshipped was also different. Aspects of the way negroes worshipped borrowed from culture that was stripped away from them. The call and response spirituals, the fervent and wailing nature of how they worshipped was vastly different from that of their white counterparts. Once slavery was over and the country entered the 90 some years of segregation, the church was another way of othering this population. The black church also adopted the practice of othering, denominations and practices differing by geographic location, socioeconomic status, and sometimes complexion. Those systems and practices did not necessarily dissolve themselves in the post-civil rights America.

If we truly want to start racial reconciliation, there has to be an open and honest recognition of the hurt that’s been caused before any healing can be done; there has to be repentance. The  number of organizations and groups that are working to dismantle systematic racism and oppression is greater than ever before, and the church is right smack in the middle of it all. And that’s great. We need all the help we can get. The marginalized are not going to be able to solve this problem on their own, because it is not our problem to solve. However, those groups and organizations cannot come to the table without recognizing what has happened, admitting to their part in it, and listening to those they’ve hurt.   And, while we’re asking you to take up the mantle and help champion these issues, you can’t give back to the community, pour yourselves into those whose effects of slavery and segregation have manifested itself, without recognition of what your presence actually means. Reconciliation does not mean circumventing the social structures that already in place in our communities and tearing them down by implementing church “good will” on them or pouring money into the community to assuage our own guilt. I see reconciliation as facing the hatred and evil that have seeped so deeply into the grain of our country, that so deeply stained the fabric of America in the blood of those manifestations of slavery and segregation head on. Coming to terms with what we’ve done and how we’ve contributed to the way things are then asking how we can help and act in true repentance. If we don’t start there then…I’m not sure reconciliation is in America’s future.

We can’t be afraid to do better.

Yours respectfully,


Jonathan Tolbert is a design professional in the Washington, D.C. area who works at the American Institute of Architects.  Jonathan volunteers and helps underserved communities and organizations understand the value of architecture through pro-bono design projects.  He is currently involved in a mission trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo to help the Congo for Christ Center develop a 5-year plan to become self-sufficient through efficient financial management and sustainable infrastructural growth. Above all, he is a reconciler. 

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