Bearing Witness

Last Sunday night, Claflin University Choir provided a mini concert for the Council of Bishops. Their opening number was the historic “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, written by James Weldon Johnson.


In 1899, Johnson was asked to speak to a crowd in Jacksonville, Florida.  The occasion was the coming anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Just two decades had passed since the Reconstruction era.  The segregated south was deeply divided racially. Lynchings were on the rise across the South.


As Johnson considered his opportunity, he decided to write a poem.  The opening line, “Lift every voice and sing,” gave rise to the powerful poem which is now a hymn, the music composed by Johnson’s brother, John Rosamond Johnson who was classically trained, putting the stanza’s to music. ( ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’: The story behind the ‘black national anthem’ that Beyoncé sang. Washington Post  Samantha Schmidt).


It is a powerful poem, both lyrically and musically. Essentially, it is a poetic recounting of the journey African Americans across the 17th and 18th Century.  I never sing the hymn or hear the hymn performed without being deeply moved.


It is a song a of memory and hope.

From the first stanza:


Sing a song full of

The faith that the

Dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of

The hope that the present has brought

Facing the rising sun of our new day


Let us march on till victory is


Last Sunday night, almost in unison, the entire room was quickly on their feet acknowledging the power and meaning of these words.  It was a moving experience for me in light of the continued racism that continues to be alive and well in our lives.


For my entire life, racism has been a challenge for our church and for our culture. Despite all the progress many folks thinK we have made, we cannot help but be reminded daily of the failures of the progress we are not making.


This was brought home to me recently when ten individuals, including four people of color attended a rally in Nashville.  One of the four is a candidate for ministry in the United Methodist Church.  The group arrived at the event after registering properly.   Those of color were asked to leave while the others were allowed to stay.

One student in particular is a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville.  As he seeks to live out his baptismal vows to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression” he participates in movements that support equality, access to healthcare, among others. This brave young man has shared with us that he was only seeking to hear the opinions of a candidate for office.  I have asked myself why he was removed and after reviewing the video footage, the only reasonable conclusion I could reach is that he was removed because the color of his skin.


When I consider my own baptismal vow, my own commitment to Jesus Christ and the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, I believe we cannot be silent before injustice.


At the Council of Bishops this week, I joined with my colleagues on the Council who are African American who call the Church to stand against the resurgence of racism in the United States.  Today I ask that you pray for unity, acceptance, movement in our own hearts and most of all peace to those who may be different from ourselves.  We are more alike than we are different, but we celebrate the uniqueness of God’s cultural and racial diversity in all of us.


I call on all United Methodists in the Tennessee and Memphis Conferences to reaffirm your baptismal vows to resist evil and injustice in whatever forms they present themselves. I give thanks to God for those who daily stand against racism and injustice for all people.


In the midst of the recent election cycle, perhaps Samuel Beckett’s words from his 1983 novella, Worstward Ho, offer a more appropriate (and humble) approach to the challenges we now face: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

(This appears in the September 17, 2018 issue of TIME.


May we United Methodists ever move forward in spite of our failings. And may we ever be steadfast in standing with those who, on our behalf, are brave enough to bear witness to God’s love for all people.