In the wake of the high-profile killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others, many white evangelical churches have shown renewed interest in matters of racial reconciliation. Some have joined protest marches, hosted conversations with local black pastors, or participated in citywide prayer vigils. But others, unsure how to respond, have taken the path of least resistance. In Weep with Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation, Mark Vroegop, lead pastor of College Park Church in Indianapolis, argues that recovering the biblical practice of lament can help the church speak where it is tempted toward silence. Kathryn Freeman, a writer and master of divinity student at Baylor University, spoke with Vroegop about his book.
How did it occur to you to bring together the topics of lament and racial justice?
Weep with Me was born out of my first book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy. The more I explored lament as a biblical category and as a way for people to navigate their grief, the more I saw parallels and possible applications in the area of racial reconciliation. In my own experience pastoring a church, trying to help hurting people, and with grief in general, I’ve found that the language of lament is really helpful, since it has the capacity to move people toward one another rather than pushing them away. And this has important implications for how we discuss racism and racial injustice within the church.
Why do you think lament is such an important part of the journey toward racial reconciliation?
When the subject of racial reconciliation comes up, people often lack a common language for discussing it. We don’t always understand what other people mean when they use certain words. Lament helps reset the conversation. We can say to each other, “Look, we are fellow Christians. You’re in pain, and I’m in pain. Let’s talk to God together about what’s wrong in the world.” And the conversation can proceed from there. In the book, I list five key steps: We love, listen, lament, learn, and then leverage all that into positive momentum toward justice and reconciliation.
In my own church, we’ve seen this process bear fruit on something we call a Civil Rights Vision Trip. Two years in a row, 50 leaders at a time, we’ve taken a pilgrimage to places like Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, and Memphis to absorb the history that happened there. In the hotels, we spent time lamenting together, studying lament in the Bible, and talking to God about what we’ve experienced. This didn’t solve every problem or heal every division, but suddenly people were able to speak the same language.
This experience gave our black brothers and sisters permission to vocalize their grief. When they see words of lament echoed in the Bible, it validates their struggle. It gave our white brothers and sisters a language of empathy. And it allowed us to talk to God together, which starts us down a path toward unity in the context of a subject that seems to automatically create division.
In your own experience, do you think the language of lament is somewhat less familiar to Christians in the majority culture?
Yes, no doubt. In fact, one reason I wrote this book stems from an interview I did about my first book. I was asked, “Why do you think the church doesn’t understand lament?” And I realized I needed to reframe that question: “Why doesn’t the white church understand lament?” Because if you look at American church history, you’ll find this tradition very much alive within the black church, with African American spirituals being one of the classic examples. This doesn’t mean that every last white Christian neglects lament. But at least from my vantage point, when you look at the songs we’re singing and the topics we’re addressing in majority-white churches, then it’s clear that lament isn’t playing a major role.
Lament is something we don’t really understand until the bottom falls out. It’s interesting that, in the middle of the pandemic, even before racial justice issues started coming to the fore, there was growing interest in lament. All of the sudden, we had to wrestle with the idea of a hardship that everyone’s facing. I don’t think white evangelicals, as a group, are quite as familiar with this sense of communal, collective suffering as our black brothers and sisters, or Christians around the globe.
What would you say to someone who thinks of lament as an excuse for inaction on matters of racial justice?
Lament, by definition, is not meant to lead to inaction, even for those who are grieving. I define lament as prayer and pain that leads to trust. Lament is action oriented. It goes somewhere. It moves us from where we are to where we need to be.
Bringing this back to racial reconciliation: If all we do is lament, that’s not sufficient. And in fact, I would argue that without action, we haven’t engaged in genuine lament, because lament is designed to move us toward a renewal of trust. Imagine you have a friend who’s grieving. You’ll pray and lament, but afterward, you’re probably going to reach over and offer a hug, right? At the very least, you’ll do something that expresses solidarity or offer tangible ways to help. The same principle applies to racial reconciliation. As a pastor friend of mine, Isaac Adams, likes to say, We have to do more than pray, but we can’t do less than pray.
In my model, we’re committed to one another because we’re brothers and sisters in Christ. And so we need to practice James 1, being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry [v. 19]. We need to enter into one another’s pain, weeping with those who weep. More than that, we need to understand that pain, to understand how we got here. And that’s part of the challenge for white evangelicals: Too often, our lamenting runs behind our learning. This is one of those subjects you need to grieve over before you can really study it.
What do you most hope the church will take away from your book?
Mainly, the importance of entering into the space of someone else’s pain, just the way I might, for instance, when my wife is hurting or struggling with something. Maybe I think I have a good solution. And that can be part of our conversation. But it should only come up after I’ve sat with her, wept with her, and understood her pain. My hope, then, is that this book could be a conversation changer for our white brothers and sisters. Our first step is to say: “I love you as a brother and sister in Christ. I want to listen and lament with you, so that I can learn, and together we can leverage that for meaningful change.”
For black brothers and sisters, I hope the book provides some level of validation and provides a biblical language for both their pain and their protest. Overall, I want to see the church reclaim its witness to the gospel by taking the lead in pursuing racial reconciliation rather than chasing after it from behind. In the book, I make it clear that gospel unity creates racial harmony, which means that racial harmony is part of God’s plan. When racial harmony isn’t present, that says something bad about the church. We should work to change that, because our witness is undermined when the church isn’t reconciled.
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224 pp., 11.24
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