(RNS) This has been a year of heartbreak for me.
The incessant non-indictments of police officers that kill unarmed people of color no matter who or where they are anguishes my heart.
The growing suicides and killings of trans women of color and bisexual and queer youths, which barely receive news coverage, make my heart weep.
Anger and the lack of answers to troubling global trends of conservative nativism, social injustice, and widening economic disparity are more than enough to make me want to holler and throw up both my hands.
The tears shed that stained my face this year have become incarnate reminders that living up to the great commandment of Jesus to love our neighbors as we love ourselves is no easy feat.
This is especially true when the actions of some of our neighbors not only make the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter relevant, but also causes that simple declaration of fact to loom as an aching open question.
So when I came to Charleston, S.C., last week for the Conference of National Black Churches gathering, I knew I was in the right place at the right time.
The Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, chairman of the CNBC and the man who licensed me to preach six years ago, invited me.
This was the second year leaders and members from the eight largest historically African-American denominations, along with several heads of historically white denominations such as the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a Reform rabbi from Charleston, the stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the general secretary of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), convened to tackle systemic racism through the lens of the church.
They gathered to worship at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the place where Dylann Roof murdered nine African-Americans gathered for Wednesday night Bible study last year, as his trial was taking place across town. How do we heal that sacred space of our nation, which is our hearts?
I came to this year’s CNBC convening because I wanted to hear what African-American church leaders and the wider Christian left was planning to do about spaces like the basement of Mother Emanuel — places where innocent blood was shed through senseless and evil violence.
I gained the prophetic insight I was looking for from the frank discussions and powerful sermons but my ongoing critique and challenge to my beloved historic black church continues, especially when it comes to recognizing the role of women in church leadership.
For example, Jacqueline Burton is president of the CNBC, but all eight of the various African-American denominations that comprise the CNBC are and have almost always been led by men. That needs to change along with including the lives and testimonies of those of us who are African-American and also same gender loving, bisexual, trans and queer within the African-American church experience.
Tamika D. Mallory, a noted community organizer who is co-leading the Women’s March on Washington in January, drove this point home during her panel discussion, “Why the Anger: The Next Generation’s Response.” She stated, that the black church’s reluctance to accept LGBT Americans was “problematic to many younger black people who are tired of waiting for justice from the establishment,” which includes the black church. As the young people I work with often say, her words “gave me life.”
Seeing leaders I am gratefully connected to embrace and speak truthfully about the challenges of structural racism, white privilege and the opportunities for uniting across racial backgrounds and denominations under the unifying and inclusive gospel of Jesus gave me hope that I need for a time like this.
When those who seek to act like Jesus — and not only appropriate his name — stand up and speak out against injustice, our society is the better for it because no one gets left out. That is how we move out of this heartbreaking year of anger into a new season of answers and hope. We follow the model of Jesus.
(Minister F. Romall Smalls is associate minister for social justice at Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and spiritual care counselor at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis center in New York City. Reach him on Twitter or Instagram @romall06)