Evangelicals wrestle with racism and their own silence: 'We repent'

Nina Shapiro, The Seattle Times on

Published in Religious News

SEATTLE -- Joseph Castleberry, president of Northwest University, an evangelical school in Kirkland, Wash., was sitting at his desk in early May when he started seeing Facebook posts about a Black man killed while jogging through a coastal Georgia town.

As Castleberry read about 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, fatally shot by white men shown on video chasing him down, he said: "It just broke my heart."

"It was so obviously a case of unjust vigilantism, and it sure looked like racism to me," said the university president, who is white, and acknowledges intimate knowledge of racism from a childhood in small-town Alabama.

"Something had to be said," Castleberry concluded. "I had to say something."

He had occasionally spoken out before about violence against Black people. But this was different, for a reason Castleberry can only explain as "the Holy Spirit at work calling us to conscience."

Around the same time, Harvey Drake, an African American pastor presiding over Emerald City Bible Fellowship, in Seattle's Rainier Valley, was also issuing a call -- on Facebook, naming Castleberry and other white evangelical leaders he considers influential. "I'm tired of apologies and I'm tired of sympathy," Drake said, explaining the gist. "There's got to be something else you can do." He suggested a news conference or an open letter.


Castleberry already was drafting a condemnation of the Arbery killing and statement of solidarity with African Americans he wanted the university's board members to approve, which they did. Spurred on by Drake, he invited evangelical leaders nationwide to sign it. Eight hundred have done so.

Castleberry also sent it to Scott Dudley, senior pastor of a 4,000-member evangelical congregation at Bellevue Presbyterian Church. Dudley broadened it into a letter of lament and repentance, and nearly 200 pastors from around the region signed that.

"We recognize the special suffering of African Americans, as such atrocities represent an unconscionable continuation of a long litany of injustice that stretches back to the origins of slavery in America and seems to have no end in sight," read the letter, which appeared as an ad in The Seattle Times and The Seattle Medium, paid for by Bellevue Presbyterian. "Further, we repent of the silence of the Evangelical leaders on this issue."

It was an awakening that soon took on even more urgency with the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and soul-searching that has cut across every segment of society, including churches, mosques and synagogues.


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