A Pastoral Letter from the Reverend Agnes W. Norfleet

Dear BMPC Friends and Family,

We are a people on edge watching fires fueled by a history of systemic racism erupt around the United States of America. The horrifying death of George Floyd under the knee of one Minneapolis police officer, while three other police officers stood by participating, has raised our righteous anger. The fact that this act of injustice followed the recent incidents of Ahmaud Arbery being hunted down and killed while jogging in Brunswick, Georgia, and EMT Breonna Taylor being shot to death in a botched police raid in her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment has enraged anyone with a conscience. The ensuing peaceful protests have been appropriate demonstrations of civil unrest and a cry for justice. The violent eruptions that have accompanied them have not.

This weekend I was deeply moved by the passionate appeal of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to Atlanta’s protesters, a plea from her heart as a mother of four black children in America and as the mayor of a city with a strong history of leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. She acknowledged the pain of watching the life of George Floyd pressed out of him, and then called for the needless violence and destruction in Atlanta to end. “This is not a protest. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr.” She said, “A protest has purpose.”

We are being called by God just now to find our purpose in reigniting the movement toward civil rights for all persons, especially for persons of color who have been systematically marginalized through our country’s history and insidious forms of racial inequality.

When I was a young pastor serving a downtown church in Atlanta, at important community events I often crossed paths with some of the giants of the Civil Rights Movement – Andy Young, Ralph David Abernathy, John Lewis, Joe Beasley, members of the King family, Lawrence Bottoms. I adored and admired the Reverend Lawrence Bottoms, a leader in civil rights and the Presbyterian Church. Atlanta’s Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is married to the grandson of my old Presbyterian pastor friend and mentor, Lawrence Bottoms.

I recently came across a story in the New York Times when the Reverend Lawrence Wendell Bottoms was elected the first black Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. On June 18, 1974, when he received the ceremonial Celtic cross on a chain from his predecessor, he quipped, “It always makes me nervous when a white person puts anything around my neck.” The reporter said the remark was “classic Lawrence,” in an emotional moment “to break the tension, cause laughter and at the same time get a barb in.”

After George Floyd’s death last week, it seems no laughing matter today to look back and realize that, upon his election, the first black moderator of the Presbyterian denomination received his ceremonial cross mindful of the hands of a white man around his neck. We would like to think that was then and now is different, but it is not. Coming out of the height of the Civil Rights Movement, I imagine that in 1974 my old friend Lawrence Bottoms would not have imagined that his great grandchildren’s mother, the mayor of Atlanta, would be afraid for their lives because they are black in America even while she is trying to restore her city to peace.

In his book The Soul of America, Jon Meacham notes, “After King, after Rosa Parks, after John Lewis, after the watershed legislative work of passing the civil rights bills… many Americans are less than eager to acknowledge that our national greatness was built on explicit and implicit apartheid.” We are heirs to our country’s original sin of slavery and we are heirs to a church that has been complicit in upholding the institutions of racism. We are members of a Mainline church that is mainly white. As Christians, what are we to do?

I believe we are being called into a new era of working for civil rights, to recognize our privilege and our complicity, and to use our economic and political power to change systems of institutional racism. As my friend and President of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Virginia, Brian Blount, has called upon his white Christian colleagues saying we need to witness, “Not just spiritually. Tangibly. Not just with well-intentioned prayer. With concrete action. Not just from the pulpit and in the sanctuary. Out in the world, on the streets of our cities, in the corridors of power. No, this evil of enduring American racism is not just a Christian problem. But for a people who claim to follow a Jesus who died on a cross for all people, and whom we claim reigns in heaven interceding with God for all people, it is an evil we must especially engage. We cannot claim to witness to this risen Christ and simultaneously allow our country’s descent into this racial abyss. We Christian people can make a difference. We must help defeat this draconian, systemic evil. By our witness. Before it is too late.”

Admittedly we are challenged during this pandemic when we cannot be together to witness for justice. Each of us must find our own way to work for a more just society and a more perfect union, individually as well as collectively. The church is here to help further the peace of Jesus Christ, and following this letter are ways that you can be engaged through the ministries of our congregation. But you must also be engaged in your own life, and in your own circles of influence, to understand the racism within us, to learn more about how it is institutionalized in our culture, and how we are called to witness to a new way of being through Christ. In today’s tide of civil unrest, may our protest have purpose, the purpose of Jesus Christ who was reconciling the world to God.