Being light and love during Ash Wednesday and Black History Month
By Lindsay Peyton
While the date changes every year for Ash Wednesday, the occasion almost always coincides with Black History Month in February. That timing is noteworthy as leaders in the Texas Annual Conference explore ways to increase reconciliation. Ash Wednesday heralds the world into the Lenten season through acts of prayer, penance and repentance. Lenten season and Black History Month offer opportune times to lament racial injustice, listen for the Gospel’s call to repent, pray, and act in solidarity with those affected by systemic and personal racial discrimination.
“As our congregations walk through the Lenten season, what's our hopes?” Rev. Dr. Jacqui King, a UMC elder of the Texas Annual Conference, asks. “Focusing on repentance and prayer invites us to reflect on how we experienced those things in the past year. What caused us to pause and feel the pains that we have all walked through this past year?”
What changes need to be made in this environment to become closer with God? She adds, What would it look like to invite people to know more about one another, particularly about Black history and incorporate justice into repentance during this season?
King considers Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season as opportunities to dive into resources to build relationships for working collectively on dismantling racism together.
“Let’s take the day of repentance as an invitation to listen and learning about one another,” she said. “Intentionality starts with awareness.”
Spending time learning about different ethnicities and cultures is an important step in the right direction, King explained. There are a number of resources available to aid in that journey. She added that sharing resources throughout the year can be an integral way to build awareness and share knowledge.
“It’s a way to begin the conversation. Developing community bible studies together can create space to continue discovering and building relationships,” she said.
In an online environment, King added, these conversations can be fostered and continued. Prayer groups, virtual study groups and Internet resources are available to further growth and discussion.
“The country and the world right now are seeking healing,” she said. “If these resources could invite people to start healing conversations and deep listening, for me, it’s a movement with God.”
Prayer, King explained, is just the beginning. “It’s a conversation, but it’s also so much more,” she said.
For the past five years, she has been involved in an active practice of prayer. She starts by asking someone to describe their needs and then tell her how she can pray for them. She does not enter with a preconceived notion of what to pray for; truly listening is key.
Similarly, with social justice, King said that hearing each other is essential – and praying becomes a verb. “We are invited by God to become bolder and different with our prayer for one another,” she added. “We can ask how are we praying and be very intentional, inviting the Holy Spirit to move.”
It’s a shift, King explained. “We’re asking God now, and God is listening,” she said. “We’re asking, God, what do you need me to do? How can I direct my path? How do I live into that?”
In a time when divisiveness is a main focus in the headlines, she is confident that God calls His people to be light and love, to seek His grace.
“I invite people to stretch and grow during Black History Month,” King said. “It’s not simply marking Ash Wednesday with a cross. It’s about what will we do differently when we leave the altar? How will we pray differently for one another? How do we utilize the tools available to us?”
At the end of the six-week journey, how can we be different? How can we move toward a brighter future?
“Sometimes we don’t know what to do or why,” she said. “When we walk together and pray together, we can break through together. Are we willing to try? Let’s be the church that God needs us to be in this Lenten season.”
King suggests that Micah 6:8 is an instruction: “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
“Hope is now. Hope is ever-present,” she said.
The Rev. Stephanie Wilkins, a Provisional Deacon and Coordinator of Social Justice at Blueridge UMC, explains that Lent is a time to turn from ourselves and our ways and to instead face God. It’s a time to ask for God’s forgiveness, to pray and fast.
The past year made clear oppression, discrimination and racism that had been ignored, Wilkins added. “It was like having ‘20/20’ vision, and God is calling us to stop, look and listen and see the things that we did not want to see or admit,” she explained.
Fighting racial inequity and injustice must become a priority, Wilkins said. “What has been saddening to me is the silence of some,” she said. “With the revelations of last year and beginning of this year, silence is not an option.”
She quotes Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” “Praying is a great first step, but beyond prayer, what are you doing?” she questions.
Wilkins asks to remember that Black history is not confined to a month, just as asking for forgiveness and making positive change for the future is not confined to Lent.
“We’re coming up on the 40 days leading to Easter, which is the most sacred time,” she said. “Let us remember, Jesus came and broke through human history. He was hated, ridiculed, mocked, abused and murdered. That’s what has happened, and is happening to my brothers and sisters who are Black in America. We were and are mocked, murdered, lynched and we had a knee on our neck.”
There is a more excellent way... Wilkins said that she hopes during this Lenten season that people reflect personally on the blood, tears and pain caused by racism. “Until all of us are free, none of us are,” she said. “The most important thing any advocate or ally can do is to stand up, show up and speak up.”
She quoted Matthew 25:40, “whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do unto me.” John 4:20 also comes to her mind, “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”
“When you turn away, you’re turning away from God,” Wilkins said. “We can’t look away. We have to work until we see everybody as equal.”
The Book of Discipline condemns racism as a sin and affirms the worth of all people, she explained. She asks that we return to the Social Creed, which states, “Today is the day
God embraces all hues of humanity, delights in diversity and difference, favors solidarity transforming strangers into friends. And so shall we.”
“In this Lenten season, I ask that we look at the cost,” Wilkins said. “What did it cost Christ? It cost everything. Look at His sacrifice. Don’t look away.”
Consider the cost of discrimination – how it has left so much damage in our society, she added. “Then, be the change you want to see. Lent is about letting go of what keeps us from God,” she said.
“Jesus was on the side of the oppressed and the marginalized,” Wilkins said. “Jesus was a first responder; He went where the trouble was. Courage is not the absence of fear. It’s moving forward in spite of it – and that’s what we’re called to do.”
Change is possible through love, Wilkins added. She points to one of her favorite verses of scripture, “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”
“Let the healing begin,” she said.