“Stand Up, Step Up”

14th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr Celebration for the Henrietta and Rush Communities

January 14, 2021, 7:00 p.m.

The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, Pastor, Rush United Methodist Church

(Centering Silence)

Thank you to the leaders of the Interracial Clergy Council, the Town of Henrietta, and the Rush-Henrietta Central School District for the privilege to speak at this wonderful celebration. I am humbled. When asked two months ago, I felt terribly unqualified. This has led me into a season of reflection, discernment, and prayer about race, equality, and justice.

I invite you to ask of yourselves the same questions I have been asking myself recently:

  • Where have I come from and how has God shaped me in my cultural development?
  • What is my role today; to march? To preach? To teach, or, pray from the sidelines?
  • Where am I called to right the wrong of racial inequality for a better world tomorrow?

Over the years, I’ve learned and grown in cultural competency. Some growth has been painful. Other times I’ve been gob-smacked with an unforgettable insight. I’m a work in progress; so be patient with me and accept my forgiveness when I sin. I’ve tried to make every cultural growth experience an opportunity to make new friends.

Born white, living in a white environment, I remember the day Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated. I went outside, stood facing the garage and wept. As a first grader, I was perceptive enough to know that the man who had gifted the world with the beautiful “I Have a Dream” speech before the Lincoln Memorial, the one who insisted on non-violence always, everywhere, without exception, was the one silenced by the violence of a gunshot, the angry voice of bigotry.  

I began to realize that the world is not squared with what was being taught in Sunday School class.

A few years later, I found myself at Summer church camp in a cabin with intercity kids. Other than the college age counselor, we were the only Caucasians in the room. Not only was this my first exposure to people of color, I was the minority. I slept on the hat rack in the cabin because I was afraid to sleep on my bunk. I experienced five days of racial fear, simply due to my own ignorance and lack of exposure to cultural diversity. I cannot comprehend living a lifetime of fear simply because of the color of your skin, the way one talks, or a person’s family background.

“Comfort my people,” the Lord instructs the prophet Isaiah. “Do not be afraid!” an angel of the Lord tells Mary, the mother of Jesus. As a middle school student, I remember the difficulty reconciling in my mind the reality of cultural inequality with God’s desire for people to not live in fear. Treat people justly and people live without fear.

College was just as white to me as public school. Where were people of color? I saw them on the evening news fighting the war in Vietnam. White commanders got interviewed. Black soldiers took orders and got shot up. The question in my teenaged mind was as black and white as the daily newspaper: why? Regrettably, the obvious injustice was a dis-incentive for me to serve in the military.

Martin Luther King, Jr came back into my life. I found myself standing before his statue outside the doors of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, where he earned his doctorate. As I read his inspiring words from the pedestal, I came to an awareness that God was also calling me into ordained ministry. Thank you, Doctor King.

I moved to Dayton, Ohio, for seminary. It was a cultural wake up call. White people lived on the East side. Black people lived on the West. The seminary was on the West side of town. Crime and cops were everywhere. You could cut the racial tension with a knife. I was afraid every time I left my apartment or campus. Fear was chronic. Fear was pervasive. This was not the way God intended for people to live.

I interned at a large community mental health agency staffed by people of diversity. One of my supervisors was a woman of color with a doctoral degree in psychology. She patiently taught and shaped me for three years. What a saint! Co-workers were gay, straight, brown, white, tall, short, and everything in between … just like the people we served. Even the agency’s Board of Directors were diverse. They looked like the staff and the community. I learned that it takes a diversity of people to serve a diverse community.

I was exposed to cliental who, through no fault of their own, were born with the wrong DNA, in the wrong place, or in the wrong circumstance, leaving them fighting chronic mental illness and addiction problems every waking day.

Life isn’t fair. But injustice isn’t a license to be judgmental. People are more than a diagnosis, treatment history, or the number of suicide attempts, I was taught. Broad brush assumptions were nearly always wrong and led to poor outcomes.

Treat once another with respect. Respect becomes the open door into people’s lives. Every person has a name. Everyone has a story. “Listen and learn, Todd. Listen and learn.”

Dayton, Ohio, taught me something else. I observed that even in the poorest neighborhoods, there were community leaders who stood up, spoke out, and led efforts to create positive change. These shining stars were often women of color. Most were women of faith. These were the change agents who made for great collaborators and strong community leaders. All led with love, and in return, were dearly loved. Too bad we don’t ordain, promote, or elect more women of color.   

20 years of pastoring in lily white communities set me culturally backwards. I resented attending required competency training for clergy. I thought I knew it all. Unless challenged, I failed to thrive. I grew crusty and blind to injustice and oppression happening right in front of my eyes. I left racism unchallenged. I preached Gospel, but skirted common narratives of race, exclusion, or injustice.

You can’t preach about the Good Samaritan if you don’t address the issue of race.

The only way for me to grow in cultural competence is to force myself out of my safe, comfortable suburban neighborhood into a culturally diverse setting. I went on mission trips to Nicaragua and Guatemala, fearful at first, growing more comfortable with each return. Service to others became my classroom for deepening empathy and understanding. Serve and grow! It is better than the alternative!

God blessed me with another mentor and friend named Ralph; a decorated Vietnam veteran, retired Kodak executive, and head of the Deacon Board of a large, historically black Baptist church. I was passionate to collaborate. Nothing I could do would even get me an introduction with the pastor.

“We need what you have to offer,” my friend confessed to me one day over lunch. “You just can’t deliver it.”

“Why?” I asked dumbfounded.

“A black church will listen to a black deacon, but not a white preacher.”

That day, we teamed up to deliver cross-cultural education. He would recruit and teach in black churches. I would do the same in white congregations. I’d be his cheerleader in the back pew. And Ralph became mine. We even expanded our educational opportunities to members of Spanish and Russian speaking communities.

I learned that collaboration requires investment in skills and talents, and, investment in relationships. Ralph remains one of my closest friends.

Last year I was privileged to attend Shane Wiegand’s excellent seminar “History of Segregation and Racist Policy in Greater Rochester.” The Rush Henrietta School District is blessed to have Shane as a teacher. I was stunned to learn of local practices of red lining real estate; about racial, exclusionary covenants written into property deeds; and mortgage inequalities for veterans of World War Two that have resulted in wealth in some families and poverty in others.

Wow! I was stunned. I learned you are never too old to learn and grow in cultural competence. The time is always right to rethink racism.

One last time I’d like to touch base with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In seminary I had read and wrote a paper on his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Wow! It was a game changer. At the time I thought it was worthy of addition as a new book of the Bible. Time passed. Memory faded the fullness of its power, conviction and intent, condemnation and brutal honesty. All that I could remember decades later is, “it was good. I ought to revisit it someday.”

What a blessing to reread Doctor King’s letter. He paints a portrait of America stained by injustice in need of a thorough cleansing. He called white moderates and clergy colleagues accountable for inaction or outright resistance to overturning injustice.

“Wait” is only an excuse to do nothing. He calls for non-violent activism to overturn unjust laws. He cites scholars and authors through the ages with brilliance. Dr. King describes how the oppressor objectifies the oppressed, decades before the “Me Too” movement.  Dr. King speaks the poetic words of the prophet Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”

Are you a thermometer or a thermostat? he challenges. Is your faith community simply “a recorder of ideas and principles of popular opinion”? Or is it “a thermostat that transforms the mores of society”? Be the change that God is calling you to be.

The goal of America in April 1963 was freedom. The protests this past Summer reminds us that the goal remains the same nearly six decades later. Our nation and our quality of life declines and dies with complacent inactivity whenever and where ever injustice remains.

In July I led an online class titled “Imagine No Racism” for my parish. I’m no expert. But I’m daring enough to host the conversation. And I just might learn something new, too.

I’ve grown, and continue to grow. I’ve fallen short and even regressed. For this, I repent, sought forgiveness, and tried to make progress once again. Friends, I’m living proof that if I am able to take two steps forward with only one step back, you can, too.

Stand up. Step up. Speak up. The direction we need to be headed is UP! Raise every mountain. Fill every valley. Pave a road upward, that all may be free. For freedom is “the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God.”

Amen.

(All quotations are from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 16 April 1963)

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