Reaching In, Reaching Up, Reaching Out: The Spiritual Work of Overcoming Racism

May 29, 2020 by Stephen D. Bryant

“And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? ... It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Other America” speech at Stanford University, 1967

From the outset, The Upper Room stood against racism, and it still does. Our very name was an inspired response to the reading of Acts 2:1-11 at a revival 85 years ago. The story of Pentecost is what birthed The Upper Room—the vision of a new kind of community, shaped by faith in Christ, that was international, interracial, and interdenominational.

And The Upper Room claimed “international, interracial, and interdenominational” as identifiers and values of the organization. In the latter days of the 20th century, the organization dropped that tagline, assuming it was redundant because all ministry is international, all prayer movements are interdenominational, and all Christians embrace interracial community in the kin-dom of God we are working to bring on earth as in heaven.

Today, I repent of my naivete, my faulty view that humanity, our society, my people, white guys like me, are healed and healing of racism. And I am committed to lifting once again those founding values, maybe with new and more modern language. The Upper Room is committed to a ministry that is increasingly global, antiracist, and ecumenical. In these days we are called to give special and focused attention to being antiracist. This is the work of discipleship and spiritual formation.

We are plagued by a pandemic and an epidemic, a worldwide pandemic of COVID-19 and a nationwide epidemic of systemic racism and unrelenting white supremacy. For the pandemic, we have a plan, and we know the practices that will overcome the spread of the virus. For the epidemic, what is our plan? What are the practices by which we can claim the power and freedom God’s given us “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves”?

Just a few weeks ago after the release of the video of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, two Black colleagues on separate days shared with me in confidence their fear of going for a daily walk in their neighborhoods.

On Monday, a white police officer killed George Floyd with a knee to the neck for nearly nine minutes as he screamed, “I can’t breathe!” until his breath was gone.

Yesterday, in an Upper Room eCourse, a 70-year-old grandmother shared her fear for her grandchildren and even for herself to go outside because of the color of their skin.

These stories are evidence of the trauma that racism produces. This is not what God intended for the creation God called good.

The call of Christ leads us to share in his life, his suffering, and his ministry, to do each day what he would do in our place. So, where do we begin? What would Christ do in our place today?

Let me suggest three practices.

  1. We reach into our hearts, facing the evil as it lives in us. We confess. We follow Jesus’ example. He listened to the voice of the devil, and he said, “No.” How are we reaching within and looking at the face of evil within ourselves? How are we complicit with the systems that keep evil in place?
  2. We reach up to God. Jesus depended entirely on God’s Spirit for the power to “preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners, and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18, CEB) How are we reaching up to God and seeking the courage and power to die to the old creation and become a part of the new creation?
  3. We reach out to our community. Jesus started where he was, with his local community. He started with himself, then with those around him, those afflicted by the demons and sicknesses of the society in which he and they lived. Jesus engaged in dialogue. Jesus communed with friends and enemies. Jesus prayed for both the victim and the perpetrator. How are we reaching out in dialogue with our community, with our churches, with our friends, with our enemies? What do compassion and kindness look like in an age of violence and hate?

The Upper Room is committed to journeying with you as we commit together to the formational work of overcoming racism in our world. We can help each other and our faith communities by reaching in, reaching up, and reaching out, by demonstrating the beloved community Christ created on the day of Pentecost. May it ever be so.

Rev. Stephen D. Bryant is publisher of The Upper Room.

For a growing list of resources for the spiritual work of overcoming racism, click here.

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