In Another’s Shoes: Lay Leader Explores Black Lives Matter and the Church

 In All Church of God, CHOG, Great Lakes

By Carl Stagner

Good and bad, right and wrong. Sometimes answers are clear: Jesus is Lord. The Bible is our rule of faith. God calls us to holiness and unity. But sometimes the application of foundational truths is a bit muddy. When disagreement arises within the body of Christ, we’re suddenly faced with the challenge of maintaining our unity—and our witness—while seeking to understand how another believer could possibly think or do that (whatever that may be). Every day, but especially in the midst of such a politically charged year, it is vital that brothers and sisters in Christ adopt the discipline of listening. Eric Marquardt, longtime Church of God lay leader on many fronts, recently explored the division in God’s church over the phrase, “Black lives matter.” In so doing, he’s rediscovered through the rough edges and twisty turns that considering another’s perspective, especially in light of disagreement, goes along way toward real reconciliation.

Eric has been a part of the Metropolitan Church of God family in Detroit, Michigan, for thirteen years. Since 1988, he’s attended predominantly Black congregations and has served in many leadership capacities in the local church, at the state level, and at the national level. Even now he’s the vice president of the Empowerment Generation Development Corporation, a 501c3 working alongside the National Association of the Church of God to further develop the campgrounds at West Middlesex, Pennsylvania. As you might imagine, he’s no stranger to issues of racism and justice; certainly, he knew that wading into the murky waters of social media to engage tough topics wasn’t without risk.

“But this is where so much of the conversation was happening,” Eric remarks. “What I was seeing was people talking at each other, not to each other…making statements and positions, and not really engaging to understand where each other was coming from. A lot of misunderstandings were being made on all sides, and the conversations were not productive… So, I embarked on this quest and I have learned a lot—about myself, about empathy, and about how to keep asking why, in order to understand another’s point of view. To be able to disagree agreeably. Through all of that, this Black Lives Matter clarification came into being.”

It’s no wonder Eric is an avid advocate of justice, reconciliation, and unity amid diversity—his experience since he was a child helped shape his unique perspective. Eric’s parents relocated to Detroit, Michigan, on purpose, in order to ensure their children would experience diversity from their earliest days. In elementary and high school, he was part of the minority ethnicity among peers who were Black, white, Asian, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant; ultimately working with Latinos, Hispanics, and persons of Middle Eastern descent. It’s probably helpful at this point to point out that Eric Marquardt is white. And, his wife Amy, who is Black, was the reason he became a Christian and joined the Church of God!

Eric and Amy Marquardt

In explaining the hot-button issue of using the [hashtag] #BlackLivesMatter, Eric acknowledges the challenge. While he does not personally support everything the organization itself stands for—much of which he describes as antithetical to his Christian beliefs—he stresses the essential truth behind the hashtag/movement that must not be ignored or misunderstood.

“The phrase first came into being after the Trayvon Martin killing (and before the Black Lives Matter organization formed…),” Eric explains. “This hashtag/movement speaks against social and structural biases that turn a blind eye to the deaths of Black citizens….” While not every police officer is corrupt, the sentiment of the phrase communicates the need for accountability for those who are corrupt. With the relatively recent prevalence of social media and camera phones, Eric observes that chronic issues of injustice that have existed for decades are simply now coming into the light.

Responding to common objections, Eric is adamant that the church neither jumps to conclusions, nor changes the subject. Yes, black-on-black crime is heartbreaking. Sure, black police officers also lose their lives. There is also accountability in those instances. Indeed, black babies die by abortion. But, “No one group should be responsible for tackling every social issue,” he explains. Offering one example, he continues, “There are a multitude of organizations tackling the complex issue of abortion already.”

In other words, saying “Black lives matter” should not imply that white lives don’t matter, nor should it be interpreted as a comprehensive political statement that overrides and overrules every other issue in society today. The phrase was born to draw attention to the erroneous and despicable notion, whether stated or expressed structurally, that Black lives don’t matter. The issue is accountability.

So, what are a few practical steps anyone can take, especially non-Black, to better understand, and develop more empathy for, the perspective of Black people in America today? Eric says you have to be willing to learn from those who are different than you. “It’s okay to not know,” he explains, “but just don’t stay there. Don’t rely on the news or political pundits to get your information. And this applies to any ‘other’ or differing point of view or life experience, not just Black and white. Find opportunities to be in environments where you are the minority, like visiting a Black congregation. Expand your reading to include Black voices in history, as well as the arts and music. Reach out to Black and Brown friends, neighbors, coworkers, or church members and engage in conversation, asking for their perspective on events and issues. Two books I would recommend are The Third Option by Myles McPherson and Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell.”

Eric urges his extended church family throughout the Church of God to “take the time to understand the ‘why’ behind” the perspective of someone who disagrees with you. This doesn’t mean you have to change your mind, but it is critical—it’s “listening to learn, versus listening to develop your point.” Eric also reminds everyone that no group is monolithic, thus comments like, “See how they are…” only make the problem worse. “Not all white people act or think the same, not all Black people act or think the same…not all Church of God folk act or think the same—you get my point!”

In conclusion, Eric admonishes the Church of God to return to the basics, citing 1 Corinthians 13. “As the church, let’s spend more effort loving, learning, asking, empathizing, and trying to understand rather than criticizing, shaming, and character attacks,” he says. “Start with love, lead with love, speak with love, correct with love, be corrected with love and, yes, disagree with love. We will never always agree on everything. That is okay. The twelve disciples couldn’t do that either, and yet they changed the world through Christ.”

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*Feature (top) photo: Inside Metropolitan Church of God, Detroit, Michigan (pre-pandemic).

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