I attended the 53rd Commonwealth Prayer Breakfast last month, on the first day of the 2019 General Assembly’s session. The prayer breakfast is a good-faith attempt to foster a foundation of good will, cooperation and collaboration built on faith in God. This year’s theme focused on a crisis in civility that is pulling our nation’s leaders and the country itself a part. Two former Faith-Based Initiatives Directors for former presidents, one a Republican and the other a Democrat, spoke passionately on behalf of civility in the public sphere. Eloquent prayers were lifted on behalf of our state by our governor, lieutenant governor, state attorney general, Richmond Mayor, a senator, a house delegate, and a state supreme court justice. I hope they meant what they said. We left with the feeling and hope that our elected officials, having broke bread and lifted prayer together, could see the best in one another.
That same month, Huguenot Road Baptist Church, the church I serve, hosted our annual winter lecture series. There, guest presenters challenged us to see God’s presence in the person across the table from us and to seek reconciliation with those from whom we differ because God, through Christ, reconciled us to him when we were far away. Such reconciliation and a genuine desire to know and love our fellow humans, is how we bring a foretaste of God’s reign to our communities.
Just a couple of weeks ago, one of our presenters, David Bailey, was present with our current Governor, Ralph Northam, and former Governor, Bob McDonnell, as they announced that this year, Virginia would focus on reconciliation in recognition of the 400 year anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves in Virginia. This, certainly, is a needed step in dealing, head on, with the state’s dark past and the way the government has treated many of its citizens. Certainly, 2019 was getting off to a good start.
Then, one week ago, we learned about a photo in the medical year book of Governor Ralph Northam, in which he is alleged to have worn black face at a party thirty-five years ago. This, for sure, was startling and painful news. To say the least, it was insensitive and made light of many citizens of the commonwealth. If true, it was a disgraceful mistake that will stain his legacy moving forward. Making fun of any race by making one’s self look like an African American, Asian American, or Native American is unwise and demands self reflection, especially given the history of how white Americans have treated minorities throughout our history.
But, is Governor Northam’s mistake unforgivable? Can he continue to lead based on a poor choice he made 35 years ago? How does one respond as a Christian to the tumultuous week that saw not just Governor Northam questioned, but also Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax accused of sexual assault from some years back and State Attorney General Mark Herring admit he, too, wore black face to a party in 1980?
The overwhelming response this week from politicians, the media, and the public has been to accuse and distance themselves from the sitting governor. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard much nuance discussed in light of this revelation. As Christians, do we believe people can change? I hope so! It’s what my faith is predicated on. As the Holy Spirit does its work in my life, it brings to light the mis-guided values, ideas, and prejudices that I hold and then demands that I make a choice. Do I continue to live life my way and be closed to living more like Jesus? Or, remembering that God, through Jesus, has provided a way for me to start fresh and to live more like Christ, do I embrace the change that God wants?
The good news about Christianity, is that we expect people to change when they encounter Christ! This is the good news of the Apostle Paul’s life, who went from persecuting and even overseeing the killing of Christians to being the faith’s most prolific evangelist. Such a change was startling and it took time for early followers to trust Paul. But such amazing changes are evidence to the God of second chances that Christians follow.
I know I have changed and continue to change as I submit my life to following Jesus each day. And this change isn’t limited to small areas of life. It’s in all areas – they way I think about my neighbors, my enemies, and the people who make my life difficult. I change with God’s help and I believe anyone can change, when confronted with God’s love.
Which begs the question, has Governor Northam changed in the 35 years since his alleged black face incident? I can’t say with certainty and its not up to me. But change yields fruit and it seems that based on his work as Lieutenant Governor and as Governor, he has sought to serve the best interests of all the citizens of Virginia.
My thoughts aren’t written at all to diminish the mistake that Northam made if and when he put on black face. It is a part of the troubling past that Virginia and all of the United States has to continue to face up to and correct. But if we as a diverse commonwealth want to earnestly seek reconciliation and common ground so that we together can work for the common good, we have to expect that people are not perfect but that people can change. I for one am glad people change. It is evidence that God is at work among God’s people.
I genuinely hope the news of the last week hasn’t completely destroyed the foundation laid at the prayer breakfast back in January or the announcement that our leaders want to seek reconciliation for the evil of slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow that defined Virginia for so long. The news of the last week certainly has disrupted the good spirit. But it is really up to us, the citizens, to decide if the game of power politics will determine whether we can really be civil toward one another and expect that change can happen among our neighbors. Will we continue in our cynicism and distrust? I pray that we can live up to the high standard set by Christ and not only forgive but expect a real change of heart in those who acknowledge they fall short.