Robert W. Lee, 26, is a minister ordained by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the author of the just published book A Sin by Any Other Name: Reckoning with Racism and the Heritage of the South. Lee, who has been a pastor in North Carolina, the great-great-great-great-nephew of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
How and when did you first become aware that you’re related to Robert E. Lee?
Because I bear the name Robert Lee, people made that connection pretty quickly. As a kid, I was rather proud of it. I didn’t understand the full weight of it. I was just proud to have a famous distant uncle. I had a connection to history that other people didn’t have.
As a teenager, you had a Confederate flag hanging on your bedroom wall. What made you decide to take it down?
I came to understand what the history meant, especially as I started to discern a call to ministry. I had a mentor in confirmation who called me out on this. She said, “If you are called to ministry, this flag is incompatible with that calling.” It took a strong woman of color to tell me to take the flag down. I was taken aback by her courage, by the strength that it took. Hers was the prophetic voice I needed to hear.
I try to be careful when I tell that story, because I do not want it to be incumbent on people of color to tell white people to get their stuff together. But it was a powerful moment in my life, when someone took the time to tell me: this is not who you are, this is not who your parents raised you to be, and this is not who God called you to be.
Tell me about the churches you grew up in.
The Methodist church I grew up in was a white church. I write in the book about my dad as a teenager playing pool in the basement of the church with the sexton, who was black. That was my dad’s first challenge to the segregation in the church. I did not fully understand why we had—we still have—two First Baptist Churches in Statesville, North Carolina, which is where I grew up and now live. There is a white First Baptist Church and a black First Baptist Church.
What conversations on race are needed?
Southerners are often regarded as hicks who just don’t get racial issues. I think that is terribly unfair. I think we get them very deeply. Do we get them right? No. But it is not out of naïveté.
We have an unwillingness to confront the racism that is written into our history because of the social consequences of doing so.
We have to develop a language to bring people into the conversation. That doesn’t mean condoning everyone’s views. But we have to take seriously the possibility that people really do want to understand each other.
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Source: Christian Century