Racism Resolution Revisited
More than 30 years ago, the Assemblies of God approved a racism resolution crafted by a white pastor as well as an amendment proposed by an African American pastor that labeled racism as sin.
Earlier this month, the Fellowship reiterated that racism in any form is sinful. The Executive Presbytery action came in the wake of the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.
David W. Searles and Wanda R. Carter — the forces behind the 1989 resolution — say much remains to be done in society and the Church to improve race relations. At that biennial convention in Indianapolis, delegates debated a resolution introduced by Searles on the “issue” of racism. Carter convinced the General Council to adjust the language to call it sin.
Before she retired, Carter spent nearly 30 years as a U.S. Missions health care chaplain and 15 years as the founding pastor of Emmanuel Christian Center in Phillipsburg, New Jersey. She has dealt with bigotry all her life, both in society and the Church. She still grieves over Floyd’s death.
“Hopefully, we are at a tipping point,” says Carter, 78. “I’m praying for the people who are racist, hateful, or liars to either change or to be removed by God; they’re causing too much pain.”
Carter, who since 2015 has lived in Springfield, Missouri, where she attends Evangel Temple, says systemic racism must be addressed by the Church. In her younger days, she presumed racists would die off; she eventually realized younger bigots merely took their place. She has lost patience with white people who contend they as a race are superior.
“People are benefiting from a rigged system,” declares Carter, a graduate of the University of Valley Forge and Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. She is equally fed up with people who disavow the existence of white privilege and any need to be concerned about racial equality.
“I’m really bothered by people who claim to be Christians accepting these lies,” says Carter, who served in ministry for 43 years alongside a white Valley Forge classmate, the late Barbara Clark. “There is not going to be any systemic racism, hatred, or lies in heaven. I’m praying for God to let me live long enough to see change happen, especially in church circles.”
Carter says those who believe the Bible as God’s truth and Jesus as Lord and Savior must be open to discussing spiritual lies they have believed for years. Lately, Carter has been repeatedly reading Psalms 49 to 64, a section that focuses on the futility of boastful wickedness, deliverance from enemies, protection from the Lord from treachery and oppression, and the elimination of evildoers.
“I am confident there will come a day when the wicked will cease,” Carter says. “God ultimately will have things the way He intended them to be, and racism will not be a part of it.”
She is willing to dialogue with anyone who wants to discuss the topic.
“The Church is guilty of pushing this under the rug, of hiding it behind outward appearance,” Carter says. “God is going to expose the ones who condone it.”
TIME TO LISTEN
Searles wrote the 1989 resolution while a youth pastor in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Earlier, as a student at Central Bible College, Searles resonated with a sermon preached by black Chicago pioneer pastor Spencer Jones at a chapel service. A subsequent viewing of a PBS series on the civil rights movement left Searles wondering how many AG adherents sided with police efforts to use attack dogs in the 1960s to stop peaceful protest marches.
Prior to the resolution, Searles, 59, never recalled a public acknowledgment of racism in the Assemblies of God.Searles, who has been pastor of Central Assembly of God in Boston since 1993, is just as frustrated as Carter over the lack of progress in racial reconciliation. Despite the current cultural upheaval stemming from protests following the repeated killings of African Americans by police, Searles is guardedly optimistic that Christians are engaging on the subject.
“There is a greater interest in getting involved emerging among the leaders in our constituency in seeing the need to address this issue, unlike any other time before,” says Searles. “This could be a galvanizing moment.”
Searles believes a greater involvement stems from both a generational shift in leadership and as a reaction to the horrific videoed slaying of Floyd. He wants to make sure real change results beyond making public statements.
Searles recognizes that the Fellowship has become more diverse. A record 44.3 percent of AG adherents are ethnic minorities, including an all-time high of 11.1 percent of whom are black. But Searles believes more transformational change is needed.
As the AG sectional presbyter for Boston, Searles has seen tension in congregations between whites and minorities over the current social climate. Some whites insist on talking about “all lives matter” rather than acknowledge the value of black citizens, failing to understand the affirmation African Americans in crisis need. But he’s grateful conversations are taking place, no matter how uncomfortable.
“We haven’t had the framework to have these intense discussions,” says Searles, who has a doctorate degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in ministry in complex urban settings. “But this is a moment where some — some — are beginning to think of how we need to live as one body united in Christ.”
The church Searles pastors is majority black, dominated by African Americans, African immigrants, and Caribbean immigrants. He is a member of the AG’s National Black Fellowship.
According to Searles, whites can be insensitive to the prejudice and pain blacks have experienced by making statements such as, I love all people, I’m not racist, I don’t see color, or I never owned slaves.
Because many urban neighborhoods remain racially segregated, most white people never have engaged in serious dialogue with ethnic minorities about race, Searles believes. He advises whites to allow black individuals to tell their profound and powerful stories of feeling alienated, excluded, and “invisible”.
“The beginning place for white Christians is that we need to be quick to listen and slow to speak, without defensiveness or dismissiveness,” Searles says. “We need to grieve with our black brothers and sisters who grieve, and understand their trauma.”
Searles hopes racial justice becomes as important a policy issue in the Assemblies of God as religious freedom and opposing abortion have been for decades. While racism long has been a plague of the South, the Floyd killing in Minneapolis illustrates intolerance also troubles the North. In Boston, busing in the 1970s sparked riots. Several professional athletes have remarked that Boston is the city in which they’ve heard the most racially hateful slurs.
“Regardless of geography, racism is still a sin that affects us deeply in every area of human existence,” Searles says. “True transformation will take an equally deep work of the Spirit to change us as individuals and in our church structures.”