This past December, a seminary student, working as a campus security night watchman at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, confronted a group of Black teens on campus. Because the teens recorded the incident and uploaded the video, we know how this encounter went: the student worker interrogated them, the teens said they were cutting through campus to meet up with others to observe an astronomical phenomenon, and the student worker continued to imply that the teens did not belong there.
"Is it because we're Black?" the teens asked.
The night watchman replied, "Of course it's not because you're Black. Dear God, that's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."
As I watched the video play out, I couldn't help but think that the teens' question was credible. It sure looked like racial profiling, and I can only imagine how it must have felt.
I love the campus of Concordia Seminary, my alma mater. I love its connection to the surrounding neighborhoods. But after watching that video, I was embarrassed to be connected to an institution that treated other people created in the image of God in this way.
I wanted to call out that worker.
I wanted him fired.
I wanted to post "how dare you" messages on the Seminary social media pages and write in protest.
But then I realized: "I am the night watchman."
I am a pastor living in a parsonage across the parking lot from our church.
As soon as I arrived 10 years ago, I realized that our church’s parking lot has some sort of magnet that draws in all kinds of unexpected guests: broken down cars waiting for a tow truck, people using it as outdoor public toilet, couples looking to have sex in their cars. And then there’s the thieves. . .
A number of years ago, there was a burglary spree hitting area churches, stealing electronics, cash, and more. We were victims of the spree.
That burglary, rightly or wrongly, increased my vigilance in keeping an eye on things across the parking lot. This was the mode I was in one particular evening when I saw two men just sitting in their car near the front door of the church.
As I tried to figure out how to handle the situation, one of the men got out of the car and started walking around the building. Maybe it was my nerves, but in that moment it seemed suspicious, like he was casing the joint, so I rushed to call the police.
Minutes later, two police cars rolled up on the men, shining spotlights. They made the men get out of the car and start answering questions. I looked on, feeling the confrontation escalating. But after a few minutes, the officers stood down and informed me that the men had a flat tire and were simply waiting for a tow truck.
I had made a lot of assumptions.
Embarrassed, I thanked the officers and tried to go back to bed. And then there was a knock at the door.
Figuring it was the police, I answered the door only to find one of the men from the car. “Are you the pastor?” he asked. “Are you the one who called the cops on us? Why’d you do that? We just were having car trouble. You’re terrible. Was it because we weren’t white?”
I am the night watchman.
I believe the seminary student worker when he claims that he wasn’t intentionally talking to these teens the way he did due to the color of their skin, because I felt the same exact way. I didn’t mean any harm. I wasn’t trying to turn this into an incident of racial profiling. But since then, I’ve learned that good intentions don’t exclude one from participating in racist behavior. I’ve learned that we all have implicit bias, a term psychologists use to describe the unconscious prejudice thoughts or stereotypes we associate with someone. We pick up these messages and attitudes from the culture and social circles in which we live and work.
I’m still sorting through the assumptions I made, what biases influenced my behavior that night. I suspect, though, if someone would have recorded the incident, I would look just like the student worker who recently received my ire. My good intentions wouldn’t mean anything to anyone, least of all to the two men I’d misjudged. The whole world would see that I could have offered help. I could have acted in love instead of fear.
I wish I could say that was the only incident I regret.
Another time, a young African American man from the congregation pulled into the parking lot. Feeling friendly, I stepped out on our deck. But instead of calling “hello,” I made what I thought would be a playful joke and shouted, “Hey, you can’t park there!”
Right away, I saw this man’s body tense up. It might have seemed funny to me, but for someone who knows he has a disproportionately higher chance of having an encounter with law enforcement, of being arrested, of being killed by the police -- it was no joke. My words and tone were all too familiar and threatening and real. It was like jokingly yelling “fire” at someone who had just escaped a real fire.
Make no mistake: I am disappointed in my Seminary and this student worker. And I humbly call on the leaders to do more to repair and strengthen ties with the surrounding neighborhoods—all of the neighbors.
But like David, after being confronted by Nathan, I also recognize my own sins. I am the man. I am the night watchman. I am one who needs the blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of my many sins.
Having been forgiven, I'm now trying to be a better watchman and pastor. I've been reading and learning and participating in discussion groups. I'm trying to get more involved in my neighborhood and build genuine relationships instead of guarding the church in fear.
Because this is not just about that one person’s mistake. And this is not just about Concordia Seminary, not just about St. Louis. This is about taking collective responsibility as the body of Christ.
Maybe in your nights as a watchman, you haven't succumbed to racial profiling as I have. But until we all look at our implicit biases and assumptions of the people we encounter in ministry, both inside and outside of the church, we lose the opportunity to make sure the Gospel is heard and experienced by all people.
In the spirit of repentance, I call on fellow night watchmen, LCMS pastors, congregations, and Synodical leaders to join me in some of these suggested action steps:
Pastor Benjamin Squires is an LCMS pastor serving at Bethel Lutheran Church in Gurnee, IL.