Sermon on Father’s Day: Charleston, My White Privilege, & Racism in America


Today, every U.S. black church is talking about Charleston. Every white church must do the same.

Delivered at Christ Church Washington (Episcopal) Parish on Capitol Hill; Washington, DC; 06–21–15.

Happy Father’s Day! Dads, I hope you’ve got a wonderful day planned with the kids, or better yet, that you’ll be rewarded with a rare day alone in your recliner with some of our Brew Crew beer. It’s also a special day for those of us who are adult children. There can be something very meaningful in sharing old memories with Dad that he didn’t know we had — and it’s great to actually be able pick up the check for once. I like Father’s Day.

But just like Mother’s Day, it can also be hard for some: for those who don’t know their dads, or who might have complicated relationships with them. For those who are having their first Father’s Day without their father or grandfather. Or worst of all, for fathers who have lost their children.

That kind of pain is actually the place where this day has its roots. The very first Father’s Day was in 1908, four hours from here in Fairmont, West Virginia. A terrible coal-mine explosion killed 360 miners and left more than 1,000 children without fathers, so the local Methodist church held a service in honor of fatherhood.

If there is anyone here who feels a twinge of sadness today, you are not alone; this holiday is for you as much as it is for anyone. We all honor your loss and its meaning. I am very sorry.

Unfortunately, there are quite a few people experiencing a Father’s Day like that for the first time today in Charleston, SC.

Eliana and Malana Pinckney have lost their father, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney.

Tywanza Sanders’ joyous reunion with his father and mother following his college graduation was cut tragically short, and they now mourn their baby.

And all over this country, black fathers and mothers have to explain to their children today why they don’t feel safe at church the way I feel safe here now, the way they already don’t feel safe on the playground like Tamir Rice, or walking home from the convenience store like Trayvon Martin.

I’m lucky. That is not the Father’s Day phone call John Empsall and I will have this afternoon. That is my privilege — everyone has troubles, grief, and challenges, but it cannot be denied that white families like mine and black families like the Pinckneys and Sanders face very different challenges, fears, and even realities in today’s America.

And we as Episcopalians who take Baptismal vows to strive for justice and peace and to persevere in resisting evil, we as Christians whose savior was a person of color executed by the state, must respond.

As a country — and as a church — we need to talk about the need for new gun laws and mental health options. But as we discuss those topics, we cannot let them distract us from this one horrible fact: Systemic racism is and has always been alive and well in the United States, and to this day, it has devastating consequences for millions of our brothers and sisters.

The Charleston shooting was a racist hate crime and an act of terror. It brings to mind nothing so much as the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, and comes in a nation where both the media and the state treat white criminals, and white victims, very differently than black criminals and black victims.

I think most of us here already know the data — statistics like, black families are twice as likely to be denied a mortgage, and young white men like me are 21 times less likely to be shot by police than our black counterparts. So I won’t patronize anyone by laying out that case, but I would like to read an extended passage Joshua DuBois wrote this week. DuBois is a black man, a Pentecostal minister, and a former adviser to President Obama. He writes,

“One of [the next] steps [in combating the sickness of unacknowledged bias and white supremacy] has to be White Americans having an honest conversation about White culture. Yes, White culture.

“If that sounds shocking, think about this: how many times have we explicitly asked Black folks to address the ‘problems’ of Black culture, from fatherlessness to violent music to shootings in Chicago? African Americans engage in these conversations regularly. Now it’s time for my White brothers and sisters [to] lead their own conversations as well.

“We need dinner table conversations about how some White children grow up without a racist bone in their body, but others are predisposed to sing songs about [n-words] on a fraternity bus. How does that happen? What is the cause, and what is the solution? White Americans need to drive this dialogue.”

This is not the sermon I was expecting to give even just yesterday morning. But DuBois is right — today, every predominately black church in the country is talking about Charleston and racism, every single one, and so every predominantly white church must do the same.

That is especially true for us as Episcopalians. Our denomination, though I love it dearly and it is my identity, has a very flawed racial history — for example, we never actually opposed slavery, and didn’t apologize for that until the 1990s. That makes it all the more imperative that we step up every single time this happens. We cannot claim to be filling our vow to strive for justice if we do not speak of injustice.

Today’s Gospel is an appropriate one for the occasion. All of us have storms in our individual lives — divorce, breakups, the death of a loved one, bad jobs, lay-offs, uncertainty. Collectively, we are also all going through the storm of racism. There is work for us to do — as a church, as individuals — but it begins by acknowledging God’s presence with us in the boat.

To that end, one of my favorite quotes is from a Mississippi theologian and preacher, Tex Sample:

“Trouble is the infallible sign of God’s presence. Not because God loves trouble, but because God loves us. So where there is trouble, God comes to be present.”

So the question facing us is, how do we help others find God’s presence during their troubles? How can we be active Christian allies in the ongoing struggles against racism and violence?

I hate to bring up questions and not answers, so I will at least throw out three little ideas.

First, and most simply, go online to, and if you can, hit the Donate button. $5, $200, whatever.

Second, make that solidarity visible. Find out when DC Ferguson or other organizations are protesting — and if you’re able, go. (In fact, there’s a silent march tonight at 6pm at the African American Civil War Memorial, by the U Street Metro.) And, whether it’s tonight’s march or a future event, if you’re a parent, happy Father’s Day, consider taking your child. I’ve been to a lot of these protests, and I can say that these are safe events — everything is out in public, justice is on everybody’s minds, and at least in downtown DC, the police are used to it. So I’m always happy to see small children there, holding mommy or daddy’s hand and learning. Please, come.

Finally, the most important thing we as mostly white Christians can do is to heed DuBois’ call — to have this conversation, and to have it in public. At coffee hour, at our grill and chills, at work, on Facebook. I know that a recent poll showed 57% of white Americans think we already talk too much about race — but only 18% of black Americans said that, and as the ones who bear the brunt of racism and prejudice, they’re the experts here. If most black Americans under fire say we don’t talk enough about race, I don’t GET to disagree.

That conversation begins by listening to those Black voices who have the lived experience. We must pay attention to faith leaders like Moral Mondays founder Rev. William Barber and Ferguson Pastor Traci Blackmon, and to activists like the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. And without tokenizing them or putting them on the spot, we should definitely listen to the people in our own lives whose days are different than ours when they choose to speak out.

Then, though it’s painful and it’s uncomfortable, we need to ask ourselves how we — I need to ask myself how I — might be advancing a culture of racism without even realizing it. I need to ask, what is white culture, and is the culture at work a mostly white culture? Am I, are we, open to those who are different, and what questions do I ask of which colleagues? What about the culture at church? This is a denomination that is 80% white in a country that certainly isn’t.

I don’t have answers to these questions, but asking them in and of itself is a powerful step we can all take.

More personally — and this is something I failed at just last night — we need to call out friends and loved ones if and when we hear them dehumanize the poor with language like “they’re lazy” or reflexively respond to news stories by calling unarmed victims of police violence “thugs.” Even if we can’t change our friends’ minds, it matters that observers see those words rebutted by Christians like us, especially white Christians who don’t have to speak out.

Pushing back against those sentiments isn’t being political — it is asserting an active, Godly love for the victims of racism by fighting just some of the prejudice they receive from people who look like me — and like most of us.

Like in the Gospel, there is a storm in our lives. We need to follow Christ and proclaim His presence, but that doesn’t mean we can throw up our hands and say He’ll do the hard work for us. It’s up to us to exercise our privilege, join Black Americans in their storm, and show the haters that Jesus is sitting in the storm too.

I probably haven’t said anything new or that you don’t already know, but we each need to be able to tell people that this is the conversation we had in our church had today. It starts with love and respect for those who tell us they are suffering, it continues with dialogue and with listening, and it must culminate with our Godly action.

My bishop in Spokane, my sponsoring bishop for seminary, asked all of us in that diocese to pray the words of St. Francis today, so I’ll conclude by saying, let us pray:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we [and the nine in Charleston] are born to eternal life.




Rev. Nathan Empsall
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Dad. Priest. @FaithfulAmerica campaigns director. Episcopal Climate News editor. @BarackObama @SierraClub digital alum. Texan. Americana fan. You are loved.