For Charlotte and Tulsa, the only two cities I’ve ever loved:
I have only really loved and lived in these two cities—Charlotte for 37 years, Tulsa for the last 15 months.
In some ways, they seem galaxies apart from each other—the ornate beauty of Charlotte’s endless trees, versus the sparser beauty of Tulsa’s flat landscape and her big sky; the eastern edge of the country versus the dead center of it; the home of America’s banks versus the home of Woody Guthrie. Yet in so many ways, they are alike. Jim Bakker on one side of the chasm, Oral Roberts and Kenneth Hagin on the other. Both cities are crowded with steeples, chock full of Baptists and charismatics, wall-to-wall with holy rollers—from robed Episcopal choirs to strobe lights and the grinding guitars of God. We are not only more religious than other Americans; we are more religious than Moses and Paul. We live in “the Christ-haunted landscape,” the well from which your favorite televangelist drew his holy water.
The thing is, the last time I heard of a televangelist who sold holy water, he got in trouble after his late-night flock started getting sick off of it. They hoped there was a panacea at the bottom of the vial, but there turned out to be trace amount of feces there instead. And this, it seems, is the other thing Charlotte and Tulsa have in common: both towns have shit in their holy water.
Just because our cities have a lot of churches, does not mean they don’t have racial divisions and systemic sins. Under our stack of dusty old Bibles, all sorts of things have been growing in the darkness. And somehow now, it seems, the hard bright light of cable news is shining into it. Whatever faith we thought kept us from speeding tickets and got us better parking spaces, was not big enough to abolish the walls that separate us from ones we would call brother and sister. Both towns have their own historic demons of racism and injustice, demons we’ve evidently been exercising, rather than exorcising—they seem bigger and stronger now, than ever.
But surely it is not just the light of video cameras that shines into our darkness; but something of God’s light in it—the light that exposes, all that God wants to heal. Surely there is Love that brings hope to the darkest of our shadows, even the long shadows of our steeples. Surely. I have nothing novel or clever to say about any of this. I don’t know what to say, to my black brothers and sisters. I don’t really know what to say to the white ones, for that matter. My mouth is dry, my eyes are red; my hands are shaky. And yet somehow, I do believe God wants to heal the open wounds of hate and of history—the open wounds that we pretended were long-healed scars. If we will name them. If we will own them. If our churches lead the way not in external acts of piety and religious kitsch, but in humility and repentance.
This starts now. This starts with me. I admit I am complicit, in the racial divisions that tear at the fabric of both my two beloved cities. I confess my own part, in the crucifixion of God. The things I fear in my neighbor, are only a projection of the things I fear in me. I have been so very afraid. I have not attended to the cries of my brother, or the sounds of my sister. I’ve been lost in my head, and in my own life, dear Tulsa.
I am so, so very sorry.