Telling Our Stories for a New Perspective

Telling Our Stories for a New Perspective

For the last couple of weeks, I have been sharing writings by my colleagues who have used our fall study trip to Birmingham as a springboard to talk about a difficult subject we often avoid in the church...racism. In their writings you will discover a common summons to the Church to be about the kingdom work of creating Godly justice, mercy, and equality in our churches, communities and in the world.

This last installment is an article by Edith Guffey, the current Conference Minister of the Kansas Oklahoma Conference. Edith is not only an incredible colleague, but someone I consider a mentor. Edith speaks of learning how the "...very act of taking the risk to tell our stories to each other matters." With great vulnerability and raw honesty, Edith tells her story.

So often in the church, we struggle with where and how to enter into difficult conversations, which are necessary to begin the work of confronting injustice and moving toward action and transformation. Yet, the truth is it is actually quite simple, although it does take incredible courage. We begin by telling our truth. We begin by sharing our own stories, what we have known, and what we have experience. By telling our truth, we can open the eyes, ears, hearts, and minds of others to think about something in a new way, through a new perspective.

I pray you will hear Edith's story and truth, and it will encourage you to not only have the courage to tell yours as well, but also to listen more deeply to the stories of others, which reveal how discrimination and injustice is a constant reality for so many of our siblings in Christ. When we hear these stories, we cannot unhear them or pretend this truth does not exist. May we remember in our hearing, the call from our Lord and Savior to be about the kingdom work of bringing forth light, justice, and the mercy of God into the dark places of the world.

Blessings, Rev. Shana Johnson, ISC Conference Minister


Changed by the National Memorial

by Edith Guffey, Conference Minister of Kansas Oklahoma Conference

In early September, I was in Montgomery, Alabama with the Pension Boards at the Annual Meeting of the Annuitant Visitors. Because Montgomery, Alabama is where the Memorial for Peace and Justice is located, the planners of the meeting, Rev. Krista Betz, (former Interim Conference Minister for KO) and her staff made the decision to alter the usual program to allow for participants to visit the Memorial and Museum.

If you don't know about the memorial, it is often referred to in shorthand as the National Lynching Memorial that was opened in April of 2018 to commemorate the victims of lynching. The Memorial for Peace and Justice was conceived with "the hope of creating a sober, meaningful site where people can gather and reflect on America's history of racial inequality".

As Krista began to plan the meeting, she extended the invitation to me and the Rev. Lori Walke to shape the conversations and set the tone for the meeting that might lead to deeper engagements about race as we all experienced the memorial and the museum. Rev. Walke is the Associate Pastor at Mayflower UCC in Oklahoma City.

I won't speak for Lori, but for me, it was quite an experience to have what might be considered a private conversation about race publicly with a pastor from our Conference that I deeply respect and whose history is so very different from my own.

We are of different generations, Lori grew up in the south, and in the Southern Baptist Church; she is white, and I am African American. We share very common values about racial justice, but we had never talked with each other about our stories and how our different histories around race have shaped us. I would never tell Lori's story as I know she would never tell mine; but learning and hearing parts of Lori's story and journey was a sacred experience that I will treasure. And I learned that the very act of taking the risk to tell our stories to each other matters. It mattered to those present, and it encouraged others in the room to do the same. I heard stories that weekend that broke my heart, and I heard stories that lifted my heart and gave me hope for the future.

On Saturday, we visited the Museum and the Memorial; two separate experiences. The museum is described like this on the website: "The 11,000-square-foot museum is built on the site of a former warehouse where enslaved black people were imprisoned, and is located midway between an historic slave market and the main river dock and train station where tens of thousands of enslaved people were trafficked during the height of the domestic slave trade."

I have visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, the Civil Rights Museum in Atlanta, the site where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, etc. so historical sites related to the African American experience are not new to me. But this one knocked me out.

I don't know if the sheer numbers finally hit me, or the incredible brutality of slavery finally got to me, or why it was this particular experience in Montgomery was the one that I have yet to recover from. It was here that the ugly pieces of the puzzle of white supremacy finally fell into place and are now more vivid in ways that I can't even fully describe. Nothing new in the world has changed, but it's as if I actually SEE white supremacy differently.

Maybe it happened when I touched that map in the museum that listed the names of where people had been lynched and I touched the state of Oklahoma and the name of John Marshall popped up on the screen. I almost couldn't breathe. John Marshall; my father's name was John Marshall and the lynching took place in the county next to Marshall, Oklahoma.

I knew my father's real last name wasn't really Marshall (something I learned when my oldest child was born). My father, like many African Americans born in 1919 or so he thought, never knew his real parents, or for that matter, his real name. He took the name Marshall; could it have come from the town Marshall, Oklahoma?? I calmed myself down, knowing it wasn't my father, because I grew up knowing my father.

But I wondered, could this John Marshall who was lynched have been his father or maybe a brother, a cousin or some other relative? I'll never know of course. But seeing the name, the same name as my father, as a victim of a lynching did something to me because while it wasn't certainly could have been.

We all have moments, experiences planned and unplanned that unexpectedly change us. This was one of those experiences for me and I am still "unpacking it" personally. But as the KO Conference Minister, it means something as well. Because I learned something else surprising. Did you know that Oklahoma is the state with the most lynchings in non-southern states; 76 recorded (19 in Kansas).

Couple this with what we know about the Tulsa Massacre, and I wonder if this tells us something about the context and history of the state where we are called to be in ministry. Does it tell us something as we think about the future of the Conference and what we are called to do and be? And what about in Kansas? While the numbers are different, the context somewhat different, don't be fooled that it's all that much better just a little farther north.

And about language and lynchings. I more than cringed when our President called the impeachment inquiry "a lynching," and I was glad I was in New York as it kept me from "ranting" on my computer. Yet, it is a teachable moment. Because I very much want to believe that our President speaks from a place of ignorance, not truly understanding what he's saying. If he and others took the time to experience the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Museum, maybe he would understand the outrage and pain. For I believe, it is out of unawareness that he or anyone else would compare any process of questions and investigations with the lynching of 4400 black people in the United States.

If you doubt that, take a trip to Montgomery and witness the brutality; scroll through the names; see the columns that hang in the memorial; and even more disgusting, see and read how Christians left church and attended lynchings as Sunday afternoon entertainment and picnics.

But even if you don't doubt it, but need to know more, here's where you can read and learn more. It's hard to see and read, but it's way past time to face this part of history.