For most of his life, the Rev. Eric Gash didn’t consider himself an activist. “I’m almost ashamed to say I’ve never spoken at a protest rally, I’ve never marched — nothing,” says Gash, who leads Speak Life Community Church in Hendersonville. “Being Black in America, we’ve learned to overlook things, look past things, give folks the benefit of the doubt.”
But that changed for Gash after the May 25 killing of George Floyd. “It opened the eyes to what’s happened, decade after decade,” he says.
Partnering with white and Black religious leaders in Henderson County, Gash has recently begun working to facilitate dialogue about racial issues. On July 12, he joined the Rev. Greg Mathis, who is white, of the evangelical Mud Creek Baptist Church for a special outdoor service addressing systemic racism. The event, which was livestreamed on Facebook, also featured Gash’s wife, Katy, Hendersonville resident Ben Smith and the Rev. William Hardin, associate pastor of Fruitland Baptist Church in Edneyville. (For the full service, see avl.mx/7qs)
Speaking from atop a flatbed trailer, the panelists discussed Bible verses, personal experiences with racism, examples of institutional oppression and a breakdown of phrases sometimes misconstrued by white people, including “white privilege” and “Black lives matter.”
Many religious leaders in Western North Carolina are likewise using the pulpit to call for racial justice. And like Gash, they’re doing so with Scripture. “Proverbs 4:7 says, ‘The beginning of wisdom is this: get wisdom,” Gash told the predominantly white audience at Mud Creek Baptist Church. “Though it cost all you have, get understanding.”
Part of this understanding, explains the Rev. Rob Blackburn of Central United Methodist Church in downtown Asheville, is recognizing the church’s own past failures. As Xpress’ own weekly history feature, “Asheville Archives,” has revealed, the professed word of God has frequently been used to impede justice and prevent progress. (See “Asheville Archives: Letters condemning and condoning segregation, 1955,” Aug. 6, 2019, Xpress)
In addition to employing religious texts to justify inequitable treatment of certain groups, religious leaders have also often remained silent on matters of race, notes Blackburn. But in his view, tacit approval of institutional racism is antithetical to the church’s theological underpinning.
“We cannot help but be in the middle of a response to systemic racism because one of the key tenets of our story as a people of faith is this notion of ‘shalom,’” he says, citing a Hebrew word often translated as “peace.” According to the website of the New International Version of the Bible, shalom can refer to harmonious relationships between people and groups of people, to safety, to reconciliation with God and to inner peace.
“It’s a notion that peace means complete wholeness and justice for everyone,” says Blackburn.
In the wake of Floyd’s killing, Blackburn teamed with neighboring churches First Presbyterian and Trinity Episcopal to organize Prayer in Action. The three congregations, which are predominantly white, invited local religious leaders of color, along with elected officials, to speak on Church Street about racial justice. (For more, see “Religious leaders, public officials come together on Church Street,” June 4, Xpress)
“That was the beginning of our response,” says Blackburn. “And I used the word ‘beginning,’ because I think we all know if we’re really going to bring change, it has to go farther than that. It’s got to find its way from the street to the courthouse to the schoolhouse to the church and so on. But that was a response that we felt was important. We’ve got to work together for a new day and a new way for all persons.”
Know your audience
Defensiveness is a major challenge facing faith leaders when they initiate conversations about race and racism among members of majority white congregations.
On June 8, the Rev. Bruce Frank, lead pastor of Biltmore Church, held a virtual forum to discuss these matters with the church’s 8,000 members. Frank, who is white, was joined on stage by a number of people of color, among them Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller and former Hendersonville Police Chief Donnie Parks, who retired in 2007.
Before beginning the conversation, Frank implored viewers, “particularly my white brothers and sisters,” to consider how the country’s history continues to impact African American families and communities. “Before you bring your facts and before you bring your list and get defensive, just understand there is the definite truth that things in the past bear fruit,” he said into the camera.
Offering examples, Frank noted that the Social Security Act of 1935 excluded coverage for agricultural and domestic jobs, positions largely held by African Americans. Similarly, the benefits guaranteed by the GI Bill, designed to help World War II veterans prosper upon their return home, were denied to millions of Black soldiers, he said.
And turning from history to more recent developments, Frank also discussed a hot topic for many of his white congregants. Several members, he announced in the video, had posed the same question: “Why can’t we say, ‘All lives matter?’”
“Please hear me; hear my heart,” Frank urged his home audience. “Don’t get defensive. Of course all lives matter. Of course they do. … But understand when that is said, it can come across very callous.”
To explain why the phrase “All lives matter” could be hurtful, the pastor asked his listeners to imagine a situation that might arise in his life: As his two boys are out playing, one gets hurt. Frank’s fatherly instinct would lead him to tend first to his injured son. “The other son should know he matters, and I love him,” Frank explained to his viewers. “But at this moment, I want to make sure that the son that is hurting understands I hear him; I’m here to help.”
(For the full conversation, see avl.mx/7qh)
Coming to grips
Back on the flatbed trailer, Gash offered similar talking points to the Mud Creek Baptist congregation. Weeks later, the same topics come in conversation with Xpress. In both instances, Gash emphasizes that, “by no means do [Black people] feel that all white people are racist or that all cops are bad.”
That reassurance may reflect Gash’s need to broach discussing systemic racism with caution. If he comes on too strong and too fast, resistance can kick in, ending the chance for thoughtful dialogue before it begins.
Too often, Gash says, “people get on the defensive” when they hear terms like “white privilege,” misunderstanding its central point. White people, Gash explains, “may have been poor and had to work just as hard for the wealth that they now have, but what ‘white privilege’ means is that your skin color or tone has not been a deterrent or determining factor.”
Like Frank, Gash points to the GI Bill and the disproportionate number of African Americans denied access to low-interest loans and mortgages, contributing to an expanding wealth gap between Black and white Americans. The issue, exaggerated by redlining and urban renewal, continues to impact communities of color today. (For more, see “Uprooted: Urban Renewal in Asheville,” March 8, Xpress)
Black soldiers, Gash emphasizes “spilled the same blood, fought for the same country, but when they came back from that very same war, guess what? We were denied the loans simply because of the color of our skin.”
The discomfort that discussing the societal causes of racial inequities seems to create, continues Gash, “is because white America is only now coming to grips with having to have these conversations” about the historic and social advantages their skin color represents.
Within the Black community, Gash points out, “we’ve lived with this knowledge.” From an early age, he reveals, “I had a firm understanding of what it means to be Black in America. My mom — she had those conversations with me when I was 6 or 7 years old.”
Get behind me, Disneyland
Though grappling with racial justice is new to some congregations, for others it is familiar territory. In 2016, the Rev. Marcia Mount Shoop joined the ministry at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in North Asheville, bringing to it her lifelong work as an activist. Raised in Danville, Ky., Mount Shoop’s father was a Presbyterian pastor, college professor and the lone white member of the town’s NAACP chapter. “I grew up in a house where justice was what we talked about at the dinner table,” she says.
Traditionally, Mount Shoop explains, the Presbyterian church has approached biblical teaching through a rational lens, ignoring the emotional vulnerabilities of its congregants. In doing so, she argues, Presbyterians have failed to incorporate central elements of Jesus’ own life and words into their theology.
“One of the things in Scripture that really is calling to us at Grace Covenant right now is just the kind of incarnational ministry that Jesus had,” Mount Shoop says. “He did not shy away from complicated situations. He went toward them with a lot of moral courage and compassion.”
Today, part of the transformative work that Mount Shoop brings to Grace Covenant’s predominantly white congregation is greater self-awareness about the unintentional harms members inflict upon themselves as well as the broader community when they don’t recognize their own emotional vulnerabilities. Acknowledging individual needs and understanding “that I’m a broken human being in a broken world who wants to be part of healing opportunities for myself and for others,” is an essential first step toward more inclusive faith-based activism, Mount Shoop believes.
But awareness alone isn’t enough. At Grace Covenant, members and ministry partners work together on homelessness, food insecurity, racial equity and building cross-cultural communities. Church members are also engaged in local government and national conversations.
Too often, Mount Shoop says, churches address an individual’s inner biases without confronting the laws and structures in place that promote white supremacy. “We need more than a change of heart,” she contends. “We need changes in our systems. And white people probably aren’t the ones to lead the way on what that should look like. And that is a really tough message for some people to hear. But from where I sit, faith was never about Disneyland or Easy Street. It’s always been about a really difficult transformation.”
Leave your life of sin
Whether this religious transformation will continue is unknown. “The discussion tonight is not meant to be in lieu of action,” Frank told his Biltmore Church audience during the June 8 online forum. “The discussion tonight is meant to actually propel us to different actions.”
When Xpress reached out to Biltmore Church to clarify what kinds of actions Frank hopes to see, the minister was unavailable for comment.
However, religious leaders who spoke with Xpress conveyed hope that their recent messages will prove just the beginning. To ignore racial justice would be to ignore the Bible’s core teachings, they say, pointing to a number of sources — from Galatians 6 to John 4, from the parables to the prophets.
“I don’t like to spend a lot of energy judging,” says Blackburn of Central United Methodist. “But I would certainly question a church that thinks it can be true to our calling and not have a willingness, if nothing else, to at least struggle with the issues.”
Back in Hendersonville, Gash reflects on the sin of racism, as well as the ongoing protests and calls for racial justice. Love, education and faith, he says, are key to moving forward.
“In John Chapter 8,” Gash notes, “Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery, ‘Where are they that condemn you? Well neither do I condemn you. Now go and leave your life of sin.’”
Gash considers the passage. “We’re all guilty,” he says after a long pause. “We’ve all fallen short. But are we continuing to sin? Or are we leaving it?
“For someone to say, ‘I never knew racism existed’ — well, okay, we’ll give you that. If you didn’t know there was racism, all right. But now you do know. So the question becomes: What are you going to do about it?”