An Integrated Faith in Charlotte's Most Segregated Hour
As peaceful protests turned into riots, a small church in Charlotte looks to the Gospel for a common ground.
Sam Bethea, pictured in the blue t-shirt, shouted "Jesus saves" throughout the demonstrations in uptown.
It’s Wednesday night, and frustrated demonstrators clash with police in the heart of Charlotte. From home, I follow the unrest through social media. Some of my black friends are angry—outraged by what they see as another unjustified killing. Some are drowning under a flood of injustice that makes it impossible to believe that things will ever get better. Others—especially mothers—are gripped by fear for their sons, who they believe are marked for death simply because they are black and male.
Most of my white friends sympathize. But to some, the damage done to the Omni matters more than the damage done to a wife who saw her husband shot to death in the street. Many want peace, but very few call for justice. And before I can stop myself, I wonder:
If Keith Lamont Scott was white, would he be dead?
I can’t afford questions like that. They bring anger, the most expensive emotion I know—one that has the potential to blow up the comfortable life I have built, one with a beautiful wife, wonderful daughter, and a home we own in Plaza Midwood. I learned that to get the things I wanted, I had to let it go. I sacrificed my anger on the altar of my ambition, since scared bosses don’t promote us and scared police might kill us.
On TV, black folks with more courage than I have move through the streets. My pastor, Howard Brown, is on local news station WCCB, adding spiritual insight to the unfolding drama. I listen for a while, then move to Twitter, where I see scenes from the night: A black guy giving free hugs to the police. An older black man talking to a reporter, telling him, “we just need to pray.” Tweets about a guy chanting “Jesus saves.”
Twenty years ago, I would have looked at that guy and asked, “If Jesus saves, why didn’t he protect Kevin Lamont Scott? Or Trayvon Martin? Or Mike Brown?” Twenty-something-year-old black kids today are probably asking the same thing.
Forty-something Mike knows better. No single thing caused these tragedies. Human agency, policy, politics, race, religion, and a million other factors all crashed onto a particular place in time and space. So that night, on Twitter, scrolling through the flurry of posts, I don’t ask myself if Jesus could save another black man.
I ask, “Can Jesus really save Charlotte?”
But right after that, I hear another question:
“Does Charlotte even want to be saved?”
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. - Revelation 7:9
One day, as a twenty-something, I made a decision:
I am done with the black church! I thought. Especially the down-home, foot-stompin’, hand-clappin’ black church that reared me.
I graduated cum laude from Howard University! I am embarrassed by the backward theology, rampant sexism, ignorant homophobia, and over-the-top showmanship. We just want a show and that’s why we don’t grow as a people!
High-minded words for a hypocrite.
Here’s the reality: At twenty-something, I didn’t know a thing about sexism, I could barely spell theology and I never had one real conversation with my gay friends. But you couldn’t tell me I wasn’t righteous: I was in Washington, D.C., living a sophisticated, urbane lifestyle: I had my Public Enemy and my Tribe Called Quest, I didn’t call women “bitches” (out loud) and I supported progressive causes when it suited me. This was not brave morality—it was a custom-order religion that just so happened to make me feel like a good person.
Knocked around by life and a lot more humble, forty-something Mike learned to appreciate that “old-time religion.” The songs and shouts, the ragged prayers filled with broken, country English? I saw how we used these rough tools to carve a sacred space out of our hard American experience. Every Sunday, my elders enter this place, bringing laments filled with fear, anger, doubt, and humiliation. And, somehow, God replaces them with hope, love, faith, and dignity.
When I came to Charlotte in 2007, I knew I needed a new place to worship. If there was anywhere I could look, I thought, the City of Churches and the home of Billy Graham would be a place to start. We read about two local ministers, Howard Brown and Giorgio Hiatt, in a local newsletter. I liked them both from the beginning. Giorgio and I were both from Columbus, Georgia, and we had fun sharing stories about our hometown. Howard’s story sounded a lot like mine—both of us nerdy black boys, raised in the Southern black church, but shaped by the constant need to walk back and forth between the black world and white to survive. We both had the same quirky sense of humor, but Howard had the quickest wit and it only took about five seconds for me to realize he was one of the smartest people I’d ever met.
So we settled at Howard’s church, Christ Central Church, and still attend there today. An eclectic community, we call ourselves. The kind of place where an old black man passes out lollipops next to single white kids from Davidson who might later mingle with a stay-at-home mom of four at a small group hosted by a black banking executive.
We are diverse, we are creative, and racial reconciliation is central to our church ideology, and I love it. But throwing so many different people together will always bring challenges. Pastor Brown explained it in an interview once. At Christ Central, he said, nobody gets everything they want.
We black folks get our gospel-flavored worship and exuberant, down-home preaching. But for folks like me, Presbyterian is a new flavor, and the dense, complicated theology wasn’t easy to swallow. Take Calvinism. If predestination is true, and God controls everything, how do we still have free will? And if we don’t, then how can we sin?
Whatever. Bigmama didn’t need all that. Neither do I.
Meanwhile, white Presbyterians are stuck with these loud, disruptive people who love to sway and clap through worship, or moan and shout through the sermon. Instead of complicated theology, we make you sing complicated songs. You have to get up and greet your neighbor. The service is 45 minutes too long, and any given Sunday, our pastor might quote a line from Craig in Friday.
For us, that’s how community works. When we uncover difficult questions around race or class, we bring those questions to our gatherings and talk about them. Questions like:
If God has a special concern for the lowly and marginalized, what does that say for us who are living high and mighty?
If God is the final judge, what is the role for us “social justice warriors” who want to bring justice ourselves?
If the final vision of heaven has people from all nations, tribes, and languages, why are all the churches in Charlotte so segregated?
At Christ Central, we carve our own sacred spaces to wrestle with these questions. But like everything else at my church, things get complicated. Diverse groups bring diverse sorrows, and sooner or later, one may frustrate the other. The latest police killings provide a good example. Black men bring fear, anger, frustration, and a profound distrust for police to our space. But what about the white members who may have family on the police force? They lament the good cops who get no credit for the brave work they do. But, wait a minute—now add a few black men who are police themselves. They feel the same fear we do, but also lament the harsh judgement they feel from other black people. Do they understand my lament? Or do they sympathize more with the others? Or both? And how in the world can something so complicated ever be resolved?
Pastor Brown believes that there is no dispute the Gospel cannot handle. For the sake of our church and our city, I hope that’s true.
Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart. - Ecclesiastes 7:7
A church built on racial reconciliation in the South usually fails. But 12 years after it was founded off of Central Avenue, Christ Central is still here. And from time to time, people have breakthroughs that make it all worth it:
A black friend looks at the unrest in our city and remembers growing up in Los Angeles, afraid of cops and gangs. The Gospel gives him peace, because Christ hears his lament when no one else understands.
A white church elder has heard black members’ concerns for years, and now sees America with new eyes. For the first time in his life, he struggles to celebrate the Fourth of July. This country has always looked different for us. Now that we share this sacred space, it’s changing for him, too.
The day after Keith Lamont Scott is killed, we reopen the sacred space. Pastor Brown leads another discussion, but this time, we have visitors: a predominantly white church from Matthews called Mercy Church. They follow us on social media and feel compelled to attend.
Black mothers share emotional testimonies. One woman explains her fear. Since her son is “tall and dark-skinned,” she worries that police will target him more. Kellie Brown, Pastor Brown’s wife, goes further, citing studies that show police think black boys are older and more likely to be criminal. My son is 14, she says. But to the police, he might as well be 18 or 19. For black mothers, the gap between reality and perception is always filled with lethal violence inflicted on their sons.
When the meeting is over, members from Mercy Church thank us. They never considered that other Christians might look at all these killings and have a completely different perspective. Now they, too, see with new eyes.
This conversation sparks more conversation, and that’s how Pastor Brown ends up at WCCB, giving an interview one day after his live commentary. "How does the city move forward?" the host wants to know.
“We need a radical move in our community,” Pastor Brown says. “The question we as pastors and churches in Charlotte need to ask: Is there space in their gospel for those folks in the street hurting?”
It’s an important question. I am proud of the work we do at Christ Central, but I am not naive. Sunday at 11 a.m. is still the most segregated time in Charlotte, and we are just one church on a small corner off Central Avenue. If Jesus is going to save Charlotte from this racial mess, we need more churches to create real sacred spaces for real, human lament.
That is the only way we can minister to the widow, the foreigner, and the orphan in our midst.
Mike Sales works at NASCAR Digital Media as Director of Design. He also publishes a comic book called Fist of the Southstar, about single mom who is also a super hero.