On the banks of the Tallahatchie…

This reflection was written during my fellowship year in Mississippi–2007

I stood on the banks of the Tallahatchie River today and I wept.  I wept for hearing the story of a fourteen-year-old boy Emmett Till—an African American boy who was killed in 1955.  He was brutally murdered and thrown in the river with an industrial fan tied around his neck.  To think that hate could kill a boy—a black boy—for whistling at a woman—a white woman.   I stood on the banks of the river and experienced the blood of this boy crying out from the land.  It was as if his blood was thumping like a drum and joined with his blood was the blood of a people—my people-the Native Americans of this land.  Those that I was gathered with joined together in prayer and I recognized I was experiencing a connection to my own people through lamenting the death of a fourteen year old African American boy.

My life has not been an easy life, but it would not be because I was oppressed for the color of my skin or the heritage of my people.  I was raised with the privilege afforded white people—people that looked like me and in fact, that would be the place where I feel my feet standing most firmly—in privilege.  My people though are many—they are Native American, they are Scottish, they are English, and they are like my last name “Shrader” German.  What does it mean that in my veins I have the blood of a people that have been oppressed and a people who oppressed?  What does this mean?  This question beat like a drum in my head as I stood on the banks of the Tallahatchie River lamenting the death of a fourteen-year-old boy and it beats in my head like a drum still today.

My mother’s people are mostly of the Lumbee tribe of Indians in North Carolina.  As a child, I learned the story of the Lumbee watching outdoor dramas, going to Pow Wow’s, and listening to stories told by my family and people in the community.  Now that I am an adult, I realized that this heritage is a place I visited, but not a place I lived.  To be connected to oppression on a visit is not the same as living in it and so I have felt a disconnect for not having the right color skin, the right costume, or the zip code that places me in the land with the people, so then who am I?  Who am I, when I know that in my veins runs the blood of these people?  For a long time I thought this question was just for me, but now I believe it is a question for every one who claims themselves to be Christian…”Who are we?”

I wonder looking back on that day as I stood on the bank of the Tallahatchie River whether it was my blood pounding like a drum in my ears or the Holy Spirit rattling me into my true identity.  I cannot live at home in the land of plenty, knowing that there are those in my family tree who live a life so different than me.  I can not get used to a life that others could never dream of.  So, the answer to what it means to have running in my veins the blood of people who have been oppressed and those who oppress is that anyone who calls themselves Christian must stand with me.  Jesus calls us to acknowledge every part of our family tree and for those who live on my land, it means that we have to hear the blood beating in our head like a drum calling forth from us a life lived into our true identity.  We must live and work for the day when “ALL” are free from the division that lives inside and outside of me.

The Case of the Missing Pew….

Recently, I moved from the state of Mississippi to Charlotte, North Carolina.  The transition was unexpected–just as unexpected as the transition to Mississippi was after I graduated from seminary years ago.  As the movers were bringing in my things, I noticed the shape of a piece of furniture.  As my mind began to reel working to figure out what it might be, my pulse began to rise.  When the blankets fell away and the furniture was revealed, I realized I had just solved the case of the missing pew!

In the middle of the pew, still intact, was the note I had written to the movers, “Do not move–this stays here!”  Yet, somehow  this pew that belonged to my former church had followed me all the way to Charlotte.  It is not something to be proud of–stealing a church pew!  Yet, as I have wondered how to get it back to Mississippi, I have been thankful for its arrival, for it has forced me to reflect on the journey I have been on for the last several years.

I graduated from Duke with many offers at my feet.  I could have worked with an Archbishop in Israel/Palestine, with several congregations around the world and nation, but in the end each of the twelve positions I was offered I turned down because I wanted to spend some time in deep reflection about how to be a pastor that stands in divides and points to a different way.  I wanted to engage for a time with a community that was a shining star in terms of working to break down barriers in attempt to fill their pews with all God’s Children.  So, I decided to engage in a one year fellowship looking specifically at intentional reconciliation relating to religion & race.

About three weeks away from graduation, I received a phone call from a man named Keith Tonkel in Jackson, Mississippi.  He was calling to tell me he’d be happy to take me to lunch and share stories once I got settled in the church he thought I would be working at near him.  I shared with him that “sadly, I turned that position down because—it didn’t feel right.”  Keith asked me to share my entire story with him and so I did.  Afterwards, he said, “this might sound crazy, but would you let me fly you to Mississippi and help you find a position.”  It was crazy, but I flew there in complete trust that somehow this connection was important.

When I met Keith at the church, I walked in and was overcome with a sense of excitement that indeed this felt like the right place.  He called an emergency meeting with his leadership afterwards, they heard my story, and voted unanimously for me to engage in my fellowship year as part of their community in Jackson, Mississippi.  I had never heard of Keith Tonkel before, but he is a pastor who has grown an incredibly beautiful community.  He was part of a group of pastors who signed a statement called the “Born of Conviction” statement during the Civil Rights years that stated that they would work to break down the divides in the communities particularly around the issue of segregation during that time.  His years in ministry have been challenging, but the fruit of his faithfulness is evident in the congregation that he serves.  Wells Memorial UMC in Jackson is known as the most integrated church in the state of Mississippi.  My one year never ended and I decided to stay on in Mississippi to continue serving at Wells and to step into leadership with the Commission of Religion & Race.

People have asked me over the years, “What did you learn while serving under Keith?”  I learned a lot under Keith, but mostly I learned who I want to be.  I want to be someone who is constantly asking God to help me see through the present into God’s future.  I want to see possibility in people, in the stories in my community, and on out  into the world as well.  I want to be someone who recognizes the gifts of others and the potential in us all to live into the story God is writing all around us.  I want to be someone like Keith who lives in FAITH, with great HOPE, and with a boundary crossing LOVE.

I want to know that my life has been a gift in relation to the case of the missing pews in our churches–how can we have pews that represent the radically creative nature of our truly amazing God.  If our pews all look the same, then I believe we are missing out on a wonderful gift that God desires for us–the rich witness of God’s creatively knit community.  I wondered how my transition to Charlotte would be.  What I have found so far is that there is a wonderful journey unfolding before me.  There are fantastic people traveling on the road right beside me and many asking wonderful questions that I believe will keep us moving in the direction of continuing to wrestle with this case of the missing pew…

%d bloggers like this: