Bishop Joseph Walker III is the pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. The African American mega-church is one of the largest in Tennessee, with a membership of over 30,000 people. He is also the Presiding Bishop of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International. The denomination has over 5,000 churches across America. Needless to say, Bishop Walker is a very busy man.
Bishop Walker is also a friend of mine.
Our friendship started over a cup of coffee. I called him because I wanted to talk to him about his social media presence. I’m always looking for individuals who are doing things I want to do but who are doing them a lot better than I am. Bishop Walker is doing social media better than I am. In fact, he’s doing it better than most people I know.
Have you seen Bishop Walker on social media? He’s a social media ninja! The man is amazing. He’s on something somewhere all of the time. So, we talked about platforms and philosophies. We talked about our families and the joys and challenges of being pastors in Nashville.
Somewhere in the conversation, we became friends. Soon after that, we became brothers. Because we’re brothers, we talk about everything. He likes the Cavaliers, and I like the Warriors. He’s a big fan of the NFL, and I love college football. We talk about being fathers and husbands. We talk about working out.
And we talk about race.
He’s African American. I’m white.
We have a lot to talk about.
Nashville has been spared a lot of the racial anguish found in other southern cities because of music. The rule in Nashville is “if you can play, you can stay.” The radio didn’t care what color you were. A lot of classic country hits were played by black musicians, and no one knew. If you can find an old-timer from the Nashville music scene, they’ll tell you stories about playing all night in the studio with black musicians, and then having to go to separate restaurants when they would break for dinner.
But Nashville still has its history. Because we’re brothers, I can ask Bishop questions you normally wouldn’t ask another person. One day I asked him, “What’s it like being black in Nashville?” and I couldn’t believe his answer. I was so devastated that I had Bishop Walker come talk to our church staff. We couldn’t believe the stories he told, but how could we? We’re all white.
He told us about being pulled over in certain sections of town for “driving while black.” As a bishop, he has a nice car, and in certain areas of town, a black man driving a nice car only means one thing to some people—trouble.
He told us that when he’s walking out of a mall and finds himself walking out with a white woman, he’ll drop back and stay a certain distance from her so he won’t frighten her or cause her concern.
He told us stories about conversations he has with the students in his church about how they should act—what to do and what not to do—if these young adults have any dealings with police officers. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying police are racist. I’m saying the black community is afraid. Scared people never make good decisions.We talk about “white privilege.” “OK,” I ask, “What is that?” Here’s Bishop’s definition: white privilege is the assumption a child in a black community has the same opportunities as a child in a white community. It’s the assumption that what is available to me as a white male is available to everyone. That assumption is false. The sad truth is there are children born in Middle Tennessee who don’t have a chance because of what side of the street they are on.
And that’s wrong. Not only is it wrong, it’s sin. Our churches cannot stand by and watch young men and women, created in the image of God, never fulfill their destinies. God will hold us accountable for such failures of stewardship.
Because we started talking, our churches started talking. Last year, we jointly sponsored a community outreach event near Bishop Walker’s church. We’re scheduled to do another similar event this year as well. We’re planning a joint worship service, and there’s an ongoing conversation about how our two churches can continue to be engaged in ways that will open doors, break down walls, and build communities that enhance the lives of everyone.
During the month of February, Black History Month, Bishop Walker and I are doing a live video every Monday to talk about race and how we can best respond to the needs of our communities. Honestly, it’s just the two of us talking like we do when we have coffee. These conversations seem to have caught an audience.
Our nation has become fixated on the issue of racial reconciliation. Politicians talk and experts write books about how we got here and about how slavery has been properly addressed in our nation, but after all of the speeches and books, what’s changed?
Bishop Walker and I are convinced the local churches across our nation must become leaders on the issue of race. Pastors have to start conversations with each other and local churches have to begin to work together in their own neighborhoods and communities. We have to get past who’s to blame and whose fault everything is and simply have the Christ-like attitude that asks, “How can I best love my neighbor? How can I, in the name of Jesus, help my brother? What can my brother and my sister teach me about Jesus that they’ve learned on their journeys?”
Racial reconciliation won’t happen when different laws are passed. It will happen when “they” become “us”—when the African American Bishop becomes Joseph, a man with a wife, two kids, a large church, and a killer social media platform and when Dr. Glenn becomes just “Mike.”
When Joseph and Mike start to have a conversation about what it means to follow Christ in their worlds and when this conversation is repeated a hundred times, a thousand times, a million times, then, maybe, at long last, love will win, and we’ll see some progress on the issue of race in America.
I’m not naïve. I don’t expect our conversations to change the world. I will say, however, that I know Mt. Zion has changed. I know Brentwood Baptist Church has changed. I know Bishop Walker has changed. I’ve changed. That may not be much, but it’s a start.