Why has Charlotte suffered days of riots, fire, and looting, while Tulsa residents gather in church? The essential difference in the two cities lies in deep roots and religion, which go back nearly 100 years.
Tulsa acted quickly to charge officer Betty Shelby with felony manslaughter for the fatal shooting of Terence Crutcher, while Charlotte officials still have not released video evidence as of Friday afternoon. Victim Keith Lamont Scott’s wife provided video to NBC News, but that video does not include the shooting itself.
In the footage obtained by NBC News, Rakeyia Scott can be heard saying, “Don’t shoot him, don’t shoot him” as police appear to converge on a white pick-up truck in the parking lot of a condominium complex. “He has no weapon — don’t shoot him!”
What explanation can we offer to explain, as CNN posed “why Charlotte exploded and Tulsa prayed?”
It’s not that the people of Tulsa aren’t angry — far from it. It’s how they are channeling that emotion.
Rev. Ray Owens of Metropolitan Baptist Church, which held the vigil, opened the service by saying he was offering the church as “a space for safe, yet constructive expression of our righteous rage” in light of the shooting.
What do Tulsa’s churches have that Charlotte’s don’t? That rather simplistic question explains how one city can erupt in violence and another erupt in faith, but we have to look deep into each city’s past–and present–for the answer.
Serious about religion
Rev. Mark Merrill*, a Georgia Assemblies of God pastor, led congregations in both cities. He noted that Tulsa has half the population of Charlotte, and nearly twice the number of churches. I checked, and in fact Tulsa has one of the highest church attendance figures in the nation–with Oklahoma churchgoers as high as 39 percent.
My figures have Tulsa listing 563 churches in with a population of 400,000 for the city itself. It’s not a stretch that the metro area, with a population of 962,000, would have somewhere close to the numbers Merrill used. Charlotte shows 534 churches with a city population of 800,000. The metro population of 2.3 million boasts some of the nation’s largest megachurches such as Elevation.
Tulsa residents take their religion more seriously than Charlotte. But the two cities also have a different Christian heritage. “The charismatic movement really had a lot of its roots in Tulsa,” Merrill said. “Through Oral Roberts, Kenneth Hagin, had their headquarters there,” among other well known pentecostals.
Church demographics play a role in race relations, to some degree, at least in a historical perspective. “In the charismatic movement…early on, it was black and white together,” Merrill continued. “[The Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles] was led by a black man, William Seymour.”
“In Charlotte, the pentecostal/charismatic community, which typically has been more racially inclusive, is probably less than 5 percent or 10 percent of the city, where in Tulsa, it’s between 35 and 38 percent.” A quick check by denomination shows that Charlotte has a relatively small number of pentecostal churches–only 3 in the Assemblies of God–while Tulsa has 5 AG churches and a multitude of non-denominational, full gospel, and pentecostal congregations.
A stain on the white community’s conscience
But in regards to race relations, one event in Tulsa’s history, over 95 years ago, has had an enormous impact.
Over Memorial Day weekend in 1921, a black man named Dick Rowland rode the elevator in the Drexel Building. A white woman named Sarah Page, the elevator operator, claimed she was raped. Tulsa police arrested Rowland the next day. The Tulsa Tribune, on May 31, published an inflammatory version of the story, leading to a mob scene at the court house. Some accounts have the newspaper editorializing “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”
Tulsa boasted, in 1921, one of the most prosperous and well-heeled African-American communities in America, called Greenwood. It was even know as “Black Wall Street.”
Tulsa, like many cities and towns throughout the US, was hostilely segregated, with African Americans settling into the northern region of the city. As we often saw before integration, Blacks in the area created entrepreneurial opportunities for themselves, which housed an impressive business center that included banks, hotels, cafes, clothiers, movie theaters, and contemporary homes. Greenwood residents enjoyed many luxuries that their White neighbors did not, including indoor plumbing and a remarkable school system that superiorly educated Black children.
Tulsa is still segregated by race and neighborhood even today, with the African-American community in the north and whites in the south. What happened in Greenwood will forever be etched into Tulsa’s conscience.
In the early morning hours of June 1, 1921, Black Tulsa was looted and burned by white rioters. Governor Robertson declared martial law, and National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa. Guardsmen assisted firemen in putting out fires, took imprisoned blacks out of the hands of vigilantes and imprisoned all black Tulsans not already interned. Over 6,000 people were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days.
Twenty-four hours after the violence erupted, it ceased. In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, over 800 people were treated for injuries and contemporary reports of deaths began at 36. In 2001, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission released a report indicating that historians now believe close to 300 people died in the riot.
Tulsa’s residents have a strong connection to this dreadful history. It’s reminiscent of Germany’s relationship with Israel. “Where Israel is a stain on the conscience of Germany, the Greenwood race riot in Tulsa represents a stain on the white community’s conscience as it relates to the treatment of black people,” Merrill said.
The authority of Christ and the church
Charlotte, as a city, has experienced enormous growth over the past decades. It is currently one of the fastest growing cities in America, with 5 year growth rate of 12.4 percent.
Together, Charlotte and Raleigh contain just under 1.3 million residents, or 12.7% of the state’s total population. They have added nearly 140,000 new residents since 2010, representing 27.3% of North Carolina’s total population growth of 507,000. Charlotte’s growth alone accounted for 18% of the state’s growth; Raleigh’s accounted for 9.3%.
Most of Charlotte’s growth came from outside the South. While the African-American community makes up 35 percent of the city, whites have declined to 50 percent, with the Hispanic population growing to 31.1 percent. New Charlotte residents do not share the church traditions, religious heritage, or devotion to God that permeates much of North Carolina. This disconnect can be seen at the voting booth, where Mecklenburg County tends to vote Democrat while the rest of the state outside of Raleigh-Durham votes Republican.
Oklahoma, and Tulsa, by contrast, remain some of the most conservative populations in the country.
Every civilized person would agree that tackling racial injustice and moral outrage is better handled in the calmer confines of a church than on the streets armed with guns, knives and Molotov cocktails. Charlotte, though it’s home to Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the FIRE School of Ministry, and numerous large churches, has a problem with Biblical authority.
Progressives have taken over the government, and see themselves at war with Christians. For church leaders to stand up and invoke the authority of Christ in a situation involving social justice–they simply don’t have the ears and moral standing to effect change. There just isn’t enough common ground between Christians and political leaders to walk together.
One example of this is Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts’ reaction to HB2, which was passed to overturn the city’s ordinance requiring transgender bathroom and locker room access.
I have to confess: I did not see this coming. What Charlotte voted on, and talked about for over a year during the campaign and in the community, was really making sure the LGBT community felt equal, felt included, and felt they would be treated equally in all aspects of our community.
I don’t think that anyone could have foreseen the swiftness, the overreach, and the deep extent of the backlash the state would bring down on us. We heard that they might not like the facilities part of what we were talking about, but we had no idea that they would come down as harshly as they did and lead to the economic backlash that it did. There are some things you can’t predict in politics.
In a universal sense, the Church in Charlotte is weak and frequently ignored. For Mayor Roberts to say what she said, there’s almost no chance you would find her sitting in a pew asking residents to pray for racial healing.
“I think in Tulsa, there’s much more of an ease, a familiarity.” Merrill said. “They’re more comfortable in allowing the church to be the place of civil discourse.”
As a nation, America has seen the power of God in tragic and unimaginably terrible circumstances. In Charleston, one of the most churched communities in America, they prayed together instead of giving Dylann Roof the race riot he sought. In 2007, Matthew Murray shot and killed two young missionaries in Arvada, Colorado. Even so, Youth With A Mission’s director and staff publicly–in front of reporters–forgave the killer and prayed for his family.
They said to Matthew’s family, “We don’t need to forgive you because you did not do anything wrong. But even if Matthew were alive, we would still forgive him.” It was a powerful time. It was really a testimony of how to respond even in the greatest injustice.
As 26-year-old Tiffany Johnson was dying, she looked at her friend Holly, and her boyfriend Dan, who was also shot and said, “We do this for Jesus, right guys? We do this for Jesus.”
The authority of Christ and the power of the Church are directly related to how much “we do this for Jesus.” In Charlotte, that spirit is less in evidence than it is in Tulsa.
The role of Christians
Christians are not called to rule, politically. Christians cannot, alone, end racism or the ugly acts of racists. Christians cannot fix mistakes made by police, or enact Biblical policies that are assured to result in peaceful relations by all people. These kinds of panaceas are the fodder of utopians and classroom communists.
There are two roles for Christians, one for those in Tulsa, which has avoided a larger conflict, and another in Charlotte, which is in the midst of dealing with conflict absent the grace of Christ’s authority. In Tulsa, the role is that of mediator, wielding the moral authority of the Word of God.
The moral response of Tulsa officials stands as a model for all cities in America. Face the problem and deal with it. Race relations are more tense in Tulsa than they’ve ever been, but political leaders and church leaders walk in lockstep. Wounds are healed and violence is turned to prayer.
In Charlotte, the role of Christians is to act as healers. As Charlotte resident, prominent Christian author and radio host Dr. Michael Brown wrote:
In these days of social upheaval and violence in our cities, followers of Jesus need to rise to the occasion, tackling the controversies and confronting the challenges, but doing so in a way that produces light not heat, conviction not rage, and hope not despair.
We do have answers in the gospel — constructive, holistic, life-changing answers — but we must practice what we preach if the world is to listen to us.
Let us, then, lead the way in bringing healing to our nation.
Let us be peacemakers rather than troublemakers, ambassadors rather than agitators.
In Tulsa, they know what happens when the world doesn’t listen to Christ. In Charlotte, they have yet to learn that awful lesson.
*Disclosure: Rev. Mark Merrill is my pastor. I’ve attended The Assembly for nearly 12 years, where Merrill has pastored since 2008. Though we attend church together and have worked closely on various projects, Pastor Merrill has a unique insight having led churches both in Tulsa and in Charlotte. When I was researching this story, he was the first person I thought to interview.