MONMOUTH — A group of pastors found a way to connect with and support each other during the restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus — a podcast called “Pastors in Quarantine.”
“Even if nobody listens, these would be helpful conversations for us personally,” said Matt Smucker, pastor at Praise Assembly in Monmouth. “But if someone else can benefit from it, even better.”
Five pastors record the weekly podcast on a range of topics. Last month they had a two-part series called “Uncomfortable Conversations” in which discussed issues related to race in the United States.
“Today we've invited some guests to join us and share their stories, share their life because – I’ve got to tell you, there is a lot about the George Floyd story and life of what it means to be a person of color in this nation that I simply don't know and will never understand,” Sean Bitzer said in the June 4 podcast.
Bitzer is the lead pastor at Monmouth Christian Church.
Floyd died on Monday, May 25 after being detained by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who had Floyd on the ground and pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. The killing sparked global protests against police brutality and systemic racism.
“On Monday, I think the video went public and we record on Wednesdays,” Bitzer said. “It was after that Wednesday conversation we were like, ‘We’ve got to have some kind of conversation about this.’”
Bitzer said his church has been having a conversation about race for years. Statistically, the Monmouth/Independence community’s like 35 percent Hispanic and we’re 100 yards from the university which has quite a few international students and minorities.”
Bitzer said years ago, the issue became a weight for his church’s leadership to wrestle with.
“I think Martin Luther King was the first to say, ‘11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America,’” Bitzer said. “Why is that? And it really shouldn’t be that way. We believe that our calling is to be a church that reflects our community.”
Bitzer said what the pastors were trying to do with their June 4 “Uncomfortable Conversations” podcast was leverage their platform for the voice of others.
“When we, the five of us, were having this conversation about how do we approach a response or have conversations about what has come to the fore, not that it’s all of a sudden begun, but that it’s come to the fore of the conversation in America,” Bitzer said. “We thought really what we need to do is we need to leverage our platform to give voice to people who maybe normally wouldn’t have that opportunity or at least in our context.”
The first episode was to listen to people’s stories, he said.
Three of the guests were Black and one was Mexican.
They talked about some everyday accommodations they make – from making sure they’re dressed nicely, to not complaining if they an order is wrong, to not wearing a backpack into a store.
“Basically, week two of the podcast was us debriefing,” Bitzer said. “What’s our role now? How are we going to practically change things in our churches and leadership?”
The word empathy kept coming up.
“That was really our objective,” he said. “I really think that change has to happen because of empathy and conviction. Empathy and conviction connect your heart and mind together.”
Smucker said the examples of what daily life looks like for people of color stuck with him.
“I’m not forced to think about those things, like dressing up when you go to the airport so you can get treated better, not taking a backpack into (a store) for fear that somebody might stop you for shoplifting,” Smucker said. “Those were just really powerful for me to think through.”
Bitzer, who grew up in Seattle, said he didn’t know what it meant to be a person of color in American until he moved to south when he was in his 20s.
“In the circles and communities I grew up in in Seattle, explicit prejudice and racism was not acceptable,” he said. “I went to the south and explicit prejudice and racism was part of the nomenclature and part of the normal social fabric.”
The first time he heard someone use the n-word in regular conversation to describe someone was when he moved to Arkansas.
“The thing that was most shocking to me is they didn’t even realize how offensive the statement was,” he said. “It was just like they were (saying) that the sky’s blue.”
Smucker thinks education is important in understanding what’s happening in this conversation about Black Lives Matter and police brutality.
“It doesn’t look like this everywhere,” Smucker said. “You hear some of the history that has built our country. Oregon was basically set up as a white utopia and actually kept Black people out for so long … so we don’t have a lot of exposure to people who are different form us. That doesn’t mean we are void of prejudice; it just means we haven’t had opportunities to act it out as much.”
Smucker said he and his family have been intentional about trying to educate themselves more.
“Veggie Tales” creator Phil Vischer did a video on systemic racism in which he goes through the history of the united states.
“He talks about redlining and how a lot of wealth in the United States is developed because of home ownership,” Smucker said. “The ability to get loans and the ability to purchase a property and to pass that down to the next generation, and how Blacks predominantly have been shut out of that system and really until recent years.”
It’s been eye-opening to Smucker that some of these systems were put in place during his lifetime.
“Then, a lot of the reactions that I think I’ve seen, this even applies to defunding the police and all of that, they’re very quick reactions and I would suggest maybe overreactions to situations that have been going on for a long time,” Smucker said. “We’re just seeing these symptoms of it pop up in bigger view right now. I think if we’re honest with ourselves, probably the stay at home quarantine thing has added to it because people have a lot more time on their hands.”
That time can also be used for meaningful conversations.
“Beyond education and having those conversations, helping people through their fear and processing that — Where does that fear come from? Why am I afraid of somebody who’s different from me? Why am I afraid of having that conversation and hearing someone out? — I can’t see anything bad that can happen when we simply hear someone’s story and the experiences that they’ve had,” Smucker said. “What we can do is we can respond to it in a meaningful and loving way. As a pastor, I think of what Jesus said, ‘perfect love casts out all fear.’”
Showing love to someone is actually helping them through their fear, he said.
“I think that’s the opportunity that we have, not just as Christians, but as Americans right now is to love people and care about their experiences,” Smucker said. “Even when we’re not in a conversation with someone who has been hurt by racism or prejudice in their daily lives, having those conversations – for me, with other white people, helping them process it. Because they have fears too. What if the riots come to my community? This threatens my way of life, my lifestyle. I think the more that we can talk about it and have open communication and really care about each other and hear each other’s stories, the better off we’ll be.”
Bitzer said in a social media world, it’s tempting to reduce the world into a dichotomy, but most issues in life are more nuanced.
He said the pastors wanted to have a nuanced conversation with their guests for the podcast, with the understanding that they were just their experiences and they weren’t speaking for every single person of color.
“We have a lot of police officers in our church,” Bitzer said. “I personally have a lot of great respect for them.”
He said he knows some of them got into law enforcement so there would be fewer bad apples.
They wanted “to be part of a solution and really serve the community,” he said. “That’s part of the nuance in the conversation. It’s easy for it to be a dichotomy of either you care about Black people or you care about police officers.”
Smucker said from a Christian worldview, prejudice is essentially seeing people differently from how God sees them.
“If I think about that definition, there are dozens of interactions I have every day, even in quarantine, where I don’t see people the way that God sees them,” he said. “And in that way, I’m acting with prejudice multiple times a day. We struggle with racism and prejudice because we’re human.”
The Pastors in Quarantine podcast is available on multiple platforms including Spotify and iTunes.