One hundred years ago, to have any family of General Robert E. Lee visit Memorial Church in Bolton Hill would have been a momentous occasion. Hundreds likely would have gathered to be close to the defender of the South, and to celebrate all those who “fought for a cause that was right.”
So it was with not a little irony that I had the pleasure to welcome the Rev. Robert Wright Lee IV, descendant of the Confederate general, to Memorial Church to discuss undoing white supremacy, taking down monuments to the Confederacy and changing the narrative around race in our city.
On Sunday evening of November 26, the Rev. Lee spoke, in a discussion moderated by Pastor Montrell Haygood of the Garden Church, about his personal journey to disavowing the Confederacy and white supremacy, and about “What is Next?” for him and for us.
The watershed moment, for him, was the rally in Charlottesville and in particular the death of Heather Heyer. He felt he could no longer stay silent and needed to speak out. He appeared at the MTV Music Awards in August, at the side of Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother, and spoke in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and in favor of taking down statues of Robert E. Lee and other prominent figures of the Confederacy.
Afterward, a significant number of his parishioners expressed their opposition to his statements and requested he step down.
Rev. Lee did not expect to be forced to resign from his Church for supporting Black Lives Matter, and it is still painful to him to see so many people that he loves and cares for not understand what is meant by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Rev. Lee offered some helpful reflections on the issue of monuments and racism — relating a story from the Book of Acts, where Paul is thrown in jail because he wants to bring a new way of viewing the world that would involve tearing down old statues. The caution, of course, is that those statues never came down; Paul’s “new way” was never really embraced in Ephesus. Our challenge is that while the monuments have come down we haven’t really changed the narrative around race here in Baltimore.
Pastor Haygood offered his own perspective as a black pastor at a purpose-built multi-racial church, reminding us that this work isn’t easy. They have issues not only regarding race, but also class and political beliefs, that make it hard to keep the congregation together. What has been most life-giving for him is the recognition that we don’t have to agree 100% to be in a community, we just have to agree that we need to be in community.
Rob reminded us that not everyone has to go on The View or MTV to make a difference, and that by developing authentic relationships with our neighbors, especially those of a different race, creed, identity or political persuasion, we can do a lot to craft a different way of dealing with race.
Neighbors from Bolton Hill and around the city shared their own stories of pain and hope around the issue of racism in Baltimore. To conclude the event, I asked The Rev. Lee the change he would like to see in Baltimore if he were to return in five years.
He said, “I would like to see the same investment that is put into the Inner Harbor and white communities be invested in black communities. I’d like to see re-development without gentrification. And I’d like to see people more openly and honestly having conversations about systemic racism here in the city.”
A tall order, but I believe Baltimore is up to meeting these challenges, and that our small corner of inner West Baltimore can lead the way.
Watch a recording of most of the evening’s conversation on YouTube here.