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The Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell answers questions during a 2008 panel discussion hosted by Soulforce, a national interfaith gay rights network. The event was held across the street from the Fort Worth (Texas) Convention Center, site of the 2008 United Methodist General Conference. File photo by Maile Bradfield, UMNS

File photo by Maile Bradfield, UMNS

The Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell answers questions during a 2008 panel discussion held across the street from the Fort Worth (Texas) Convention Center, site of the 2008 United Methodist General Conference.

Turning racial nightmares into dreams

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell

Jan. 15, 2015 | ASBURY PARK, N.J.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us that we can transform evil into good. God enables us to do that.

King had good biblical basis for this belief. Joseph in Genesis 50:19 says to the brothers who sold him into slavery, “You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it.”

As with Joseph’s brothers, we first have to acknowledge the evil before we, through God, can transform it.

We in the United States tend to avoid recognizing the nightmare realities of our racism. We too often will talk as though the legacy of nearly 250 years of North American race-based slavery is long past and not relevant to this country today. But it’s not as distant from today as some might think.

My grandfather, J. Edward Caldwell, was born into bondage on April 15, 1863, on the Caldwell Plantation in North Carolina. Caldwell was not the name of his slave father, but in keeping with the custom, he was named with the last name of the plantation owner.

I share this because I have realized the history of slavery and racial segregation does not have the meaning for most people that it has for me. My son, Dale, believes that one of the reasons we in the United States have so much of the tension and debate on matters of race is that we do not seek to “walk in the shoes” of those whose history and experience is different from our own.

Personal experience

Here is part of my own experience with racism.

Years ago, I became pastor of two white-membership churches in Massachusetts. I became their first African-American pastor. Before my wife, Grace, and I arrived, one family let their friends in the church know that they were leaving the congregation because they did not want a black clergyman as their pastor.

My one visit to them was one of my most difficult visits as a clergyman. But I wanted to explore with them what was it in their history/experience that caused them to leave the church before I arrived? They had never, particularly with someone who was black, explored the influences that made them do what they did. Although they never returned to the congregation while I was there, I heard through the grapevine that my visit and our conversation caused them to engage in introspection they had not done before.

When I read of “Islamic terrorism,” I think of the “Christian terrorism” of the Ku Klux Klan. They paraded with their burning crosses, sung their hymns and invited people to view the lynchings of blacks. I have in my possession pictures of adults and children gathered to watch the proceedings. 

I think of those four little black girls who in September 1963, following the March on Washington that August, were killed in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. I wish that there had been a national outpouring of people of all colors and creeds, carrying signs that said, “I am those four little black girls.”

It is not to minimize the recent terrorism in France or Nigeria by remembering other acts of terrorism, much closer to home. Rather, daring to acknowledge the similarities of human injustice, whenever and wherever it takes place, is to move us to King's dream of worldwide community.

Valuing all lives

In the current worldwide community, black and white individuals have encountered very different experiences in church, with law enforcement and across much of American life.

Since the death of Michael Brown, you’ve seen protesters carry signs that say “Black Lives Matters.” The assassination of two New York police officers in December prompted signs that say “Police Lives Matter.”

I contend and believe you do as well that, “Black Lives Matter; Police Lives Matter; All Lives Matter.” 

Part of valuing all lives is recognizing the experiences that shape them.

My hope in 2015 is that each of us in The United Methodist Church will dare to speak and share our truth, knowing that truth-telling by some people is viewed by others as being divisive, because they do not take the time to understand what experiences and influences shaped the truths of people different from themselves.

I will be speaking this Sunday at Second Baptist Church in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and on the holiday that honors King at United Methodist-related Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia. In both places, my theme will be: “Martin Luther King transformed racial nightmares into racial dreams, and so must we.”

“A true revolution of value will cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies,” is what Martin Luther King writes in his last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”

One reality of living for as long as I have is to possess within my being memories of our nation’s racial past: the nightmares as well as the dreams that supplanted those nightmares.

Maya Angelou has written words that I have found empowering and comforting:

You may shoot me with your words, you may cut me with your eyes, you may kill me with

your hatefulness, But still like air I'll rise ...

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dreams and the hopes of the slave.

I rise, I rise, I rise.

Caldwell is a retired elder and member of the Rocky Mountain Conference. A member of the board of the African-American Methodist Heritage Center, he lives in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

News media contact: Heather Hahn at newsdesk@umcom.org or (615) 742-5470