This Life with Gracie: Are white churches doing Christianity right?

5:00 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017 Living
Getty Images
The Rev. Robert Lee IV escorts Susan Bro, the mother of the late Heather Heyer, at the MTV Video Music Awards. Heyer was run over during the violence in Charlottesville, Va. GETTY IMAGES

As Hurricane Irma barreled toward us last week, I was hunkered down at home putting the finishing touches on a less threatening story and half-listening to the television.

Then at precisely the moment my husband switched the channel from the weather forecast to ABC’s “The View,” I was forced to lean in. Robert E. Lee IV was speaking, and the mixed-race audience was going wild with applause.

“Too many white churches aren’t doing Christianity right,” he says.

Lee, the fourth great-nephew of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, had come to talk about his resignation as pastor of Bethany United Church of Christ in Winston-Salem, N.C. He left the church earlier this month after some members of the congregation objected to his MTV appearance Aug. 27 and comments about the violence in Charlottesville, Va.

“We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism and hate,” he said at the awards show. “As a pastor, it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America’s original sin.”

Asked about the circumstances surrounding his departure from Bethany, Lee said he could only speak for himself.

“I can’t speak for the church. I can only speak for myself. What I do know is it’s hard to stand for something. … I had to stand up and say this is what I believe in and I’m gonna stand by it.” He went on to argue that “white Christianity is having trouble dealing with what’s going on in our nation today. We’re having trouble talking about these issues of race and reconciliation and reparation and redemption. We have trouble finding the vocabulary to speak about these issues.

“But I want it to be said of me that there was a Lee in history who stood up for something that was right, instead of a Gen. Lee who stood up for something that was wrong.”

When he was a boy, Lee said he was proud of his family ties to the Confederacy and had a Confederate flag on his bedroom wall. But after going through confirmation at his church, he said he began to understand that it’s important to demonstrate respect for people of all races. He took the flag down.

After the Charlottesville violence, Lee said he felt a familial and pastoral responsibility to say Confederate statues, including Lee’s, should be removed. Most of the statues were placed by white civic groups during times when blacks were gaining political or social strength in the United States.

There was more applause and host Whoopi Goldberg saying, “I almost could go back to church. This is what church is supposed to be.”

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been going to church. Indeed, I can’t imagine my life without it.

Most of my time at church, though, has been spent with black Baptist congregations, so I can’t offer much in the way of what’s happening and what isn’t in white churches. I can say that I’ve visited First Baptist Atlanta and Woodstock and I’m a frequent radio listener of both the Rev. Charles Stanley and Chuck Swindoll. Sometimes I even catch David Jeremiah on television so I know that at the very least the word of God, as I understand it, is being preached in those houses of worship. I get the same feeling when I hear those Bryant Wright commercials “speaking right from my heart.”

Are white churches doing Christianity right? I imagine as right as any black church is.

What I can say for sure is we can’t put all churches in one box any more than we can all white people or all black people. Churches are as different as the black, white, Asian and Latino people who populate them.

Still I think I understand Lee’s sentiment. Christians don’t always live out their beliefs. They don’t always stand up for what is right or speak truth to power. Sometimes that’s because of fear of the kind of backlash that Lee experienced. Other times, it’s due, I believe, to a lack of understanding. And others, just pure hypocrisy.

I was encouraged to hear Lee speak out against the hatred we saw in Charlottesville, but was he standing alone?

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The Rev. Bryant Wright, shown giving a sermon on June 28, 2015, said that while he can’t know what goes on in every white church, he knows hundreds of white pastors who have soundly condemned racism. Wright is pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta. CHRIS HUNT / SPECIAL

The Rev. Bryant Wright, pastor of the 7,000-plus-member Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, assured me that he wasn’t and isn’t.

Wright said he found the Charlottesville violence particularly sad to watch and addressed it in a recent sermon and tweet.

“You have this impression that white supremacists are older white guys,” he said. “It was so distressing to see younger white men like that.”

America, Wright said, has a long history of racial prejudice that will likely remain because at its root, “it’s a sin problem.”

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t keep working at addressing it, but prejudice is from man’s sin problem and that’s why we focus so much on the good news of Christ. His love for us, even though we are sinners, reminds us to love everyone.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Wright said that while he can’t know what goes on in every white church, he knows hundreds of white pastors who have soundly condemned racism.

“I urge people to look to Jesus, not the shortcomings of his followers,” Wright said. “I believe in focusing on the ultimate solution, which is Jesus because he alone can cause people to deal with the hatred they have for their fellow man. Only Christ can change a person’s heart.”

I can’t argue with that, but it’s our duty to plant the seed. That means standing up and speaking out.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

View full experience