The Only Black Person in the Sanctuary

The only African-American member of our small church died this year. My entire family grieves his loss. When I told my ten-year-old son that Loy had passed away, my son cried out with a pang of sorrow, “But he was my best friend!” That was the kind of man Loy was: he made all of us, from the oldest to the youngest, feel like he was our best friend.  

I grieve, too, the fact that now we are a church with no African-American members at all. The story of our church’s segregation is as multi-faceted as any other story of segregation in this country. It’s geographic: only 1.2% of our county’s population is Black. It’s historic: our church is located in Oregon, the only state admitted to the Union with an anti-Black exclusion law on its books. It’s cultural, even personal: we as White church members often don’t know how to begin to recognize the ways we fail to extend hospitality, listen humbly, share leadership, or take responsibility for our own racism. We certainly don’t know where to go from here.

I once asked Loy if it was difficult for him to be, for so many years, the only Black person in the sanctuary. “Oh, some of those old biddies give me the side-eye,” he replied with a characteristic chuckle, “but I just give it right back to them.” 

“What made you stay?” I asked. 

Loy turned serious. “I come to this church because I want these kids to have a positive association with a Black man.” 

As a parent of four children growing up in this vastly White county, I so deeply appreciated Loy’s goal. My children have no Black teachers in their schools, and just one or two Black friends in their neighborhood. The magnitude of the gift of Loy’s intentional presence in their lives was enormous.

“Rare is the ministry,” writes Austin Channing Brown in I’m Still Here, “praying that they would be worthy of the giftedness of Black minds and hearts.” In our hereditary White supremacy, White people sometimes get caught up in thinking that all the solutions and all the gifts belong to us. We imagine that we are the only missionaries, the Black and Brown world the only mission field. We forget that our own needs are gaping. We forget that in a segregated world, losses accumulate on all sides. 

I don’t mean to imply that White people, or White churches, can simply sit around waiting for people of color to come to us. I understand why people of color have at times needed to walk away from predominantly White, or even multiracial churches. It’s not anyone’s job to come and fix our little mostly-White church. 

And yet. Just as Christ came into this world while we were yet sinners, Loy came to our church even when we didn’t deserve him. For that, I am deeply grateful. 

The morning of Loy’s funeral, one of my older children was headed off to a sports event. “Where are you guys going, again?” he asked his younger siblings. 

My ten-year-old had a ready answer. “I’m going to the funeral of the most genius man who ever lived!” he replied, his voice charged with emotion. 

And that’s how I know that during his time at our church, my friend Loy accomplished his mission. May we be worthy of the gifts he brought us. 

By Sarah Sanderson

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