In case you skim past the photo that accompanies this column, I’m white – a white woman. I can’t help it. I was born this way. In the summertime, I have to work hard at not getting burned, or worse, getting a dreadful, freckle mustache.
My Irish roots are no joke.
In case you haven’t read the bio linked to each BNG column, I’m a pastor – a Baptist pastor. I can’t help it. I was born this way. Being a white pastor seemed a lot easier years ago when the only thing white Baptist clergy had to worry about was being burned by sex scandals, money misconduct and dreadful business meetings.
We Baptists are no joke (except when we are).
Today, white pastors of white churches are navigating a vast universe of congregational challenges. Racism is one of the biggest. As a white pastor, the topic of racism in my white church feels like a horrible black hole. In today’s cultural climate, the gravitational pull towards the conversation of racism seems inevitable. However, entering the depth and degree of such an important issue seems deadly to many white churches in the United States.
“Like black holes, hard conversations get a bad reputation in the galaxies of congregational life.”
Most, if not all, progressive or conservative congregations that actually engage in this work of addressing racism and racial injustice experience what astrophysicists call spaghettification. Spaghettification, also known as the noodle effect, is what occurs when an object enters a black hole. The gravitational pull is so powerful that it warps the particles of the object into an alien version of an Italian entree.
Our country and our communities of faith are being pulled and stretched into stringy, spaghetti noodles. Racism, America’s original sin, divided our country long ago and, if we are really honest, the country has never healed from this self-inflicted wound.
Since the beginning of slavery in 1619 when the first slave, a woman named Angela, was brought to the shores of what would one day be called the United Sates of America, a terrifying black hole formed in the universe. This new world, this bright beacon of new possibilities built upon the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness for all, suddenly became a supernova explosion. Our society turned into a star that collapsed into itself – a dark void where light could no longer exist.
Black holes are invisible to the human eye. In the vast, ever expanding universe of darkness, black holes can only be seen by how they impact their surroundings. Nearby stars in other galaxies are consumed by the great gravitational pull of the black hole. Light itself is sucked into darkness by what astrophysicists call negative feedback.
Negative feedback is why most white people and most white churches would prefer to avoid any constellational conversation on racism. They fear once the dialogue enters into the gravitational impact zone the conversation is sucked into dark chaos and conflict that produce only negative results.
Like black holes, hard conversations get a bad reputation in the galaxies of congregational life. The practice of most pastors is to steer clear of any dialogue that might create controversy or a decline in membership.
But what if we discovered that black holes could produce something holy, something surprising, something positive?
In November 2019, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory discovered that one black hole was producing positive feedback, nurturing rather than destroying a baby star a million light years away.
“This is the first time we’ve seen a single black hole boost star birth in more than one galaxy at a time,” said Roberto Gilli of the National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF) in Bologna, Italy, and lead author of the study describing the discovery. “It’s amazing to think one galaxy’s black hole can have a say in what happens in other galaxies millions of trillions of miles away.”
In white congregations, the cosmic work of racial justice is like a universe full of galaxies beyond our wildest imaginations, producing life outside our limited expectations. How incredible is the Creator of the heavens and the humans, the Maker of all that is good, the Higher Power who creates hope even in the darkest of space.
This cosmic design encourages me as a white pastor to lead my church into the terrifying, life-altering work of racial justice and reconciliation. We must trust that the God who created the cosmos designed humans to hold the capacity to impact life light years away. The hard discussions and conflictual conversation on racism is not only for the benefit of today’s church but for the birth of new light and new life for the church years and years away.
“But what if … black holes could produce something holy, something surprising, something positive?”
Yes, the gravity of racism in our world means that the risks are higher for those of us who have had the privilege of avoiding this dark void. But if we observe our country’s history through the telescopes of truth, we too can discover the positive feedback produced by the hard work of brave individuals and communities who entered the black holes of racism to do the cosmic work of racial justice and reconciliation.
Other white pastors have asked me, “Where does my congregation even start the conversation on race and racism?” I tell them to start from the beginning, the very beginning – the genesis of all life in the universe. God spoke. Life began. The cosmos has much to teach us.
I recently purchased a new book by Barbara A. Holmes titled Race and the Cosmos. Richard Rohr writes that “a theology worthy of God presumes a universe worthy of God – Holmes offers us both!” The author explores the possibility of theoretical physics and cosmology having the power to help us humans break through the difficult discussions on race. There is also an excellent introductory video, a meditation on Race and the Cosmos.
Perhaps, white pastors like me could take a cue from the cosmos. The immeasurable universe of tiny particles that make up the vast heavens are in fact the very same particles that make up the tiny human heart. Remember, from dust we came and to dust we all shall return.
I wonder, what if the dust of our difficult discussions, like dying stars, created light trails across the galaxy, a cosmic work of the church today that leaves a positive legacy for new life to be birthed in the future?