Rev. Dr. Martha Dixon Kearse is Senior Pastor of Peakland Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA. She was formerly the Minister to Children and Family Life (2001) and Associate Minister (2012) at St. John’s Baptist Church, Charlotte, NC.
Growing up in central Virginia, Martha graduated high school in Lynchburg. She then earned her BA in English and Education at the College of William and Mary. In 1985, she moved to Charlotte to teach high school English until 1997. Martha received her Master of Divinity in Pastoral Studies from the M. Christopher White School of Divinity at Gardner-Webb University in 2007 and was ordained by St. John’s Baptist Church that same year. She received her Doctorate in Ministry at Gardner-Webb University in 2017. Martha and her husband Monty have four children ranging from ages 21 to 25.
Dr. Kearse talks to Michael about her book, The Sun is Up: One Minister’s Awakening to Racial Reconciliation.
Michael Cheuk 0:07
This is Michael Cheuk, and this is another edition of Communication Matters. And today, gosh, I am so excited to have an opportunity to talk to Reverend Martha Dixon Kearse! She wrote a book last year … published last year. The Sun Is Up: One Minister’s Awakening to Racial Reconciliation. And Martha, it is so good… we’re actually doing this live, face-to-face!
Martha Kearse 0:33
Yeah, it’s great. It’s great. Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Michael Cheuk 0:36
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. So, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Martha Kearse 0:46
I’m a minister. It’s a second career. I was a high school English teacher, and grew up in Virginia, moved to Charlotte to teach high school. And then after I got married, and had these three children and was living the life, somehow that was the time that it was like, God was like, “Hey, now become a minister.” So that was 2001 was when I went into ministry. And that’s been kind of my life. I started out as a children’s minister, and then moved from there through kind of feeling the call to preach. And then last year got called to a church in Lynchburg.
Michael Cheuk 1:31
Martha Kearse 1:32
It’s pretty great.
Michael Cheuk 1:32
Yeah. Well, you know, me living in Charlottesville…welcome to the neighborhood!
Martha Kearse 1:36
Thank you. Thank you very much. It’s good to be in Virginia again.
Michael Cheuk 1:39
I’m so glad. Yeah. And you actually have family, you have some roots in Lynchburg, too.
That’s right. So I’ve lived in Lynchburg when I was in middle school and high school. And my parents don’t still live there. They moved to Virginia Beach. But yeah, so I know, I know, some people there and Lynchburg hasn’t changed all that much. It’s still pretty much the same. So that’s pretty nice.
Martha Kearse 2:03
Yes, I enjoy it.
Michael Cheuk 2:04
Yeah. Well, let’s talk about your book. The Sun Is Up. And first of all, I really appreciate it the way that you shared your life and your stories. And I love your notes. They’re so funny.
Martha Kearse 2:21
Oh, good! Good. Well, I kind of stole that technique from some other writers. But it’s a tough conversation. And I, I never want that to seem glib. But I also think if there is some lightness to be had in the moment, it can smooth over the conversation. So yeah, yeah.
Michael Cheuk 2:46
This is a serious topic. But I think the way that you have approached it, there’s so much humanity, but you’re able to see the humor.
Yes, sometimes. Yeah. Yeah.
In many times, it’s not at the expense of others. You’re just naming what’s going on in you.
I try not to. I don’t want to be mean, or to make fun of somebody else. But yeah, in the moment, like, you know, some of these things, you run up against things that don’t make sense or are just silly and wrong and backwards. And so yeah, finding the humor in that helps me to deal with the talking about something so hard.
Yes, yes. Well, what’s the book about?
Martha Kearse 3:32
Well, so two things kind of happened for one at once for me in my life, I was working on my doctorate. And at the same time, I ran into, got thrown into some social justice stuff. And kind of culminated in 2015. I had an opportunity to go with the Baptist Peace Fellowship, which is now Baptist Peace Fellowship of North Carolina (Bautista por La Paz). They sent a delegation to Ferguson, Mo. That year was the one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s shooting, and there was going to be a Moral Monday event. And so we went, I went with the delegation, and we were trained for like a week, and then we were part of this Moral Monday thing, part of which was to get arrested. And so that kind of put me on a different journey. And then, and then one year later, in Charlotte, September of 2016, was when Keith Lamont Scott got shot. And then there were protests in Charlotte. And so then for it to happen there in Charlotte, and for most of the white people in Charlotte, who a lot of whom are my friends, not to have had the experience, not have had the training, and not to understand a lot of the things that were behind it, was kind of rising to the surface. I had the advantage of having had some training, and, I had the advantage of having had that experience. And so I started to think, okay, I could be someone who helps white people hear what this is about.
So that’s kind of, and then so then it became part of my doctoral dissertation, or they call it a report, it’s not really a dissertation. What I decided to do was exploring this idea of the theology of biblical hospitality, as it relates to race. So if you think of us as being kind of the owners of land, well then when someone comes on to our land, how are we supposed to treat them? And biblical theology addresses that. It’s pervasive, it’s pervasive, right? So applying that to this, and seeing if that could help people to kind of wake up is the language I that I like, in the language of the Black Lives Matter movement of waking up to, “Oh, this is what I need to carry. This is what I’ve been doing. These are my actual sins.” So yeah.
Michael Cheuk 6:54
And I think you were talking about your own experience. Your experience goes before much farther back.
Martha Kearse 7:02
Well, right. Yeah. So I mean, you can’t live in the south and not have lived with the racial divides. That’s just that’s just been so as the teacher, you know, Charlotte was like this poster child for desegregation. And when I got there in 1985, it was like, it was like going well, … as well as could be expected. But it was it, you know, that part seemed to be succeeding. And then for that to take an just an absolute turn. And for the schools to become re-segregated, which is what they are right now. They’re they’re not completely segregated, but they are mostly, and then to watch how we didn’t really make any progress during my adult years. I’m 55. So the 30 years of my life that I’ve really been a conscious adult, we have not moved forward. We’ve not sought what we all thought. You know, Star Trek was like, every everybody gets along. We thought, Hey, this is we’re going to be going forward, and we’re not. And so that, that puzzling question of “Why not?” I think that’s something that most people think about every day. Like, why is this still a thing? Why are we still talking about it?
Michael Cheuk 8:36
I think when you talk about “Why can’t we get along?” right? I think one of your chapters like you know, “Love is NOT all you need.”
Martha Kearse 8:45
No, no, right. Right. So one of the things I think is very true of white culture, is that white culture says, “I own what I actually did.” That’s mature. “But I don’t own what I didn’t do.” So the problem with conversations about race has been went for black America, they’ve needed us to say, We’re sorry for slavery. They’ve needed us to say we’re sorry for Jim Crow. But they’ve hit the generation that didn’t own slaves and didn’t create Jim Crow. And so that generation is to do well, we, you know, sorry, that happened. But we didn’t do it. And so that ends the conversation with black people being extraordinarily frustrated with us, and angry, and rightfully so, because they’re not getting any apology. They’re not getting reparations, they’re not getting the things that …
Michael Cheuk 8:47
sometimes not even acknowledgement …
Martha Kearse 9:48
That’s right, that’s right, not even acknowledgement and certainly not justice. And, and, you know, white people being like, “Well, I didn’t do it, I don’t know to want for me, I can’t go back in time.” And one of the things that became clear to me over these last few years was, “What is our piece?” And that’s what I thought maybe I could help people understand that our piece was … we’ve been pretending that lynching was not pervasive. And that everybody didn’t know what was going on. We’ve been pretending that redlining didn’t destroy our cities and destroy whole neighborhoods. And take people’s property … Yes, this injustice, we’ve been pretending that, you know, a lot of the this privilege that we have, is merit based, and that we did that. And so talking about “Okay, how do you own that you didn’t earn? Everything you’ve got?” That’s, it’s tough. It’s really tough. But it is also true. And I think it’s … even though it’s difficult, it’s more likely that you can have a conversation about something when somebody hears you say it, and they go, “Well, that’s kinda, it’s kinda true. I did kind of do that.”
Michael Cheuk 11:19
Yeah. You also talk about abject failure. And we don’t, we don’t like failure. We never like to admit it, much less actually fail. Yeah, but it just sounds like as you share about your life, and in the congregations that you have served. I really appreciated the fact that you also named “These are the ways — in which maybe even out of good intentions — you failed …
Martha Kearse 11:50
Oh, yeah, I failed.
Michael Cheuk 11:51
Martha Kearse 11:53
I think. I don’t know if this is true or not. But I have ADHD. And one of the things about having a learning disability is you learn early in your life, you’re going to need help. And you also know you’re gonna, you’re going to totally screw something up, you are going to mess something up. And so I don’t have … I DO have some perfectionism. And that’s it’s not true. Wouldn’t be true to say, I don’t have any. But I think I have a little more ability to go “Oh, yeah, I totally screwed that up.” Because I’ve had to say it. And so that’s kind of been one of the gifts I give in the communities, like I say to them when I go in, so I’m going to screw up … you just wait. And you’ll know when you see it …
Michael Cheuk 12:38
You just prepare them …
Martha Kearse 12:39
… just be ready. I’m going to totally mess this up. And so be that’s you’re my backup. And I think that’s, that’s something maybe I can offer is like Okay, so this perfectionism that works on us. And it does. I mean, middle class culture is all about the appearance of perfection. And it works on this coming generation. My children, your children. It weighs heavily on them to be to start being tested for perfection in the third grade, to start having homework in kindergarten, I don’t want to blame the schools … because it’s everywhere.
Michael Cheuk 13:24
It’s everywhere. It’s social media, and that kind of, you know, putting up that appearance on Instagram.
Martha Kearse 13:30
One of the things I was talking about this past week was hair and women, and how now, a woman has to like be conscious of every single hair on her body. All the hairs need to be accounted for and in place and the right color, and the right texture, and doing the right thing all at the same time. And it’s like,
Michael Cheuk 13:52
that’s a heavy burden …
Martha Kearse 13:54
It’s exhausting! And sometimes you’re responsible for your best friends hair as well. Because if she goes out not looking good, she’s gonna get mad at you. So yeah, I think I think one of the gifts we need to be giving each other as people of faith is saying, “Oh, no, you’re going to screw something up. Yeah, and I’m not going to stop loving you when you do that. I’m going to be there because I’m gonna screw something up.” I’m very conscious that I’m going to that’s what the that’s the Message. You can’t read that Book and not see that every person in there is like the wrong person who does it the wrong way and and pathetically offers an excuse for their failure and fails again. And God offers them grace and grace and grace and second chances and third chances. And if that’s not like the perfect example of … that’s how to live. Be ready, because everybody around us gonna mess this thing up. But if you continue to love them, you will find that’s a good way to live. That’s, that’s a happy positive way to live. So I think I think that, that failure thing. I hear more about it. So I’m hoping that the culture is turning a little bit of a corner.
Michael Cheuk 15:20
What you just said, to me, is a much more expansive and beautiful picture of hospitality.
Martha Kearse 15:30
Yeah, yeah. And, and I really love the language of biblical hospitality. It’s something that when I read it, when I started to study it, and there are excellent books about it. This is not this is not meant to be an exhaustive, theological tome, on biblical hospitality, but rather using that
Michael Cheuk 15:53
Martha Kearse 15:54
But this idea, and in fact, my Rabbi friends, it’s so central to Jewish faith. This idea you were a stranger …
Michael Cheuk 16:08
you were an alien,
Martha Kearse 16:09
You were the alien, you know what that is, therefore, you offer justice; therefore, you offer welcome. And, and how we lost that as as Christians, and ignored it. I mean, I was doing my doctoral work before it rose to the surface. For me, so, you know, this is something we need to recapture — this idea of hospitality. And I, I really like thinking of hospitality, as the very first job is “Our people safe?” And one of the things when I’m been talking to people about this book, I say, if you go into, say, a concert, or you’re, you’re someplace for a conference, the first thing you want to know, where does the first thing you look for .. it’s the bathroom. You need to know that you’re safe, that if you’re there in this building all day, and then the second thing you’re going to do is going to look for somebody who’s non threatening. If you don’t know anybody, you’re going to look for a safe person to sit beside, are you going to sit in the back by yourself. Yeah. Because you need to feel safe. And we have not attended to each other’s safety. And not even among middle class, if you want to narrow it down to who we have been kind of protecting. We’re not even safe in our little enclaves, because we haven’t been attending to it.
Michael Cheuk 17:44
I have learned from pastors and also activists who tell me that in a space like this, if the most vulnerable and marginalized are safe, then chances are all the rest of us are also safe. Yeah, yeah.
Martha Kearse 18:01
That was really powerful for me in the training in Ferguson, Reverend Sekou would teach us that. The ethic there was, if if a black female transgender woman, if she was safe, then everybody beyond — because she would be the most vulnerable — if she safe, everybody beyond her would be safe. And that was like, Yes! Yes! If if somebody who is a refugee, an immigrant, and doesn’t have any family around, if that person is safe, well then most of the rest of us are going to be safe. If you think about who it is that that we’ve left to the side. And a lot of the one of the one of the ethicists that I really grew to admire was T. B. Maston. And because one of the things he invokes is, when he’s talking about race, in the issues of race, he says, “Look, I don’t find any way for there to be an excuse. Because no matter what somebody else is, once they’ve entered your realm, you’re responsible for making sure they’re safe.” I don’t care if you have more money, I don’t care if you’re smarter, I don’t care. What the Bible says is “They’re your responsibility, and you’re supposed to treat them better than yourself.”
Michael Cheuk 19:45
One final thing too that I respect about you, and really all pastors who are on the, on the front line, and yet with his or her own congregation, is “How does one do this hard work of providing hospitality to the congregation that you’ve been called … and then following the call to expand that hospitality, to the widows and the orphans, to the immigrants to those who are maybe gender non-conforming … everybody?”
Martha Kearse 20:27
So I appreciate you asking that. Because I think we don’t talk about it very much. And it is a very delicate balance, when you’ve been called to a congregation, they, in my mind, are your first priority. But the thing you’re called to do is to connect them to a life of faith. And, and Jesus was not a safe guy, in terms of, culturally, he’s out there pushing buttons, right, and left,
Michael Cheuk 21:00
he crossed a lot of barriers …
Martha Kearse 21:01
He did. So, you know, walking that line of helping to connect them — to me, the first job is the congregation to which I’ve been called. But using the language of hospitality and safety within that system. So so one of the things that I’ve decided to do is to try and say, well, you’re not safe with each other, because you haven’t attended to safety. So if you haven’t talked about gender non conforming in a definitive way, so that, you know, if somebody’s child identifies like that, the whole system is safe. You know, if you’re not, if you’re not ready for the child who shows up with the tattoo, the child who shows up … cause they’re going to do that, the child who shows up with the blue hair, the child who then the child who shows up having an addiction problem, the child who shows up with mental illness … if you’ve not attended to your group, and the safety of your group, you’re not safe for that child. So that’s, to me, that’s the starting place. If you’re going to do the work of being a people of faith, the first task is being safe for each other. And as that, I think that as that safety rises in the community, as they start to understand the language, they start to, they start to frankly, see their children show up with addiction, with mental health issues, with gender non-conforming issues. And all of the sudden the community is learning. So for example, in a community where a kid can come to his or her parents and say, “I’m gay,” and know that when they go to their community face, the whole community of faith is going to say, “We love you.” When they when they begin to experience that, then they’ll start looking outward. And they’ll be able, I think, to look outwards and start to see “Oh, but is he safe at school? Oh, but is he safe when he goes to Starbucks and uses the bathroom?” And so those social justice issues then become personal to them. It’s the only way I know how to do it. I do. One little dilemma, which you’re aware of I’m sure is that this book showed up within months of my starting at a new congregation. And I had something like a panic attack, the day that the book came out, because while I had been honest about like, “I’m doing this book,” and they knew, they knew I’d been arrested. They knew my whole story. They hadn’t read the book. And so, you know, one of the things I’ve been trying to say to them is, my priority is still you. This work is part of that priority. It’s part of that. But it’s not instead, and it’s not like, you know, it’s not a hobby like bike riding. It’s folded in.
Michael Cheuk 24:38
When they called you they called ALL of you.
Martha Kearse 24:43
So, you know, the the business of faith is, it’s harder than it looks. And I think it’s harder than we were made to believe when we were children. That it was just about being nice.
Michael Cheuk 24:56
Say the prayer, get your ticket.
Martha Kearse 25:00
And you do the things, you know, you show up at the things. And it actually amounts to, you know: I don’t care about the things. I don’t care how many Wednesday nights you come to … not keeping track of how many Sunday school classes do you do. What does seem to matter is, “Are you making this part of who you are? Are you letting God in to your day to day life?” And that does seem to matter. And it’s much harder. It’s not nearly as easy as punching your ticket.
Michael Cheuk 25:35
Yes, yes. I really appreciate this conversation. And I think this is what you wrote, is about your life. But I think just in our conversation the last 20 minutes or so, that this is about your calling to gather God’s people into a space where each person is seen fully who he or she or they are, there is the safety. And when that happens, there can be conciliation and reconciliation across all different lines … racially, yes, just the all the various ways that we in our society, divide and categorize people heirarchically. And, you know, I’m just hearing you, like, having this wide, expansive… you know, this is God’s house. And we’re going to be a community called to hold each other lovingly.
Martha Kearse 26:52
Well, I mean, that’s the goal. Right? And I think that, again, my experiences that when communities start to experience that, there’s this looseness that comes, and all of a sudden, they’re like, “I had no idea. It could be like this.” One of the profound experiences was … I can’t remember whether this actually got into the book, but I did this sermon about lynching.
Michael Cheuk 27:28
Yes, it’s chapter nine.
Martha Kearse 27:32
Yeah. And I was in this group that we had started with Friendship Missionary Baptist there in Charlotte. And so it was the week before I was going to do this sermon … it was on you know, “Don’t bear false witness.” And the thing that kept coming to me was “That’s our sin, we’ve been bearing false witness.” So I go to this group, and it’s about about half African American, half white. And I said, “This is what I’m going to talk about this Sunday. What do you guys think?” And to a person, these … the blessings of this group was, we’re all church people. We all … every single one of us was like, “Yeah, my mom made me go every single… So we shared that ethic in common. And going around the room, every single one of the African American people was just like, “You have to, you have to, it’s going … it’s going to be hard, but you have to.” And then two of them came. Oh, that’s I know. I know. I know. And so yeah, that that thing, that blessing of having them offer us the grace of saying, “Do your hard work. We’re with you. We don’t hate you. We’re not looking for revenge or anything really from you, except that you do your hard work.” And that was yeah, that was very … I will never forget looking out in the congregation and seeing those two people right there. It’s like, “Oh, my God. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.” So that’s the that’s the goal, I think. Yeah.
Michael Cheuk 29:19
Well, thank you so much, Martha, for having this conversation. And how can people get your book?
Michael Cheuk 29:37
Transcribed by https://otter.ai