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Friday, September 27, 2013

The Church - Black and White

Diedre Riggs posted the following excellent piece on her blog -

Below is what I wrote in the comment section.  Please, read her piece before reading my response.  

In some of my experiences I have found that conversations related to race have been effective when race was not the presenting issue, but comes up in the context of a conversation already in process. Coming out of seminary, I knew my work was too white. So I determined I would only pastor a church that was ethnically and racially diverse. Fortunately most churches in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington DC, fit that bill. I was a called to a very small church with a congregation that was roughly %40 non-white and also had a Spanish speaking congregation. Obviously that means the congregations was 60% white, maybe even 70%. I have not pastored in a context in which I was an ethnic minority. But I have been in diverse contexts.
In those settings, the conversations were initially about Bible, forgiveness, grace, mission, ministry, resurrection, Jesus - all the topics that a church would discuss in sermons or Bible studies. Those are (or should be) consistent topics across the board in Christian churches. Because that church was diverse, I was having those conversations with people of Chinese backgrounds, or African American, or Sudanese, or Mexican or Bolivian or Salvadorian. The starting point was not race or diversity, but Bible or Jesus. Then, entering through one of those doors, race & ethnicity would arise as a secondary topic. We had already established shared faith in Jesus, so we trusted each other.
To this idea of a topic (other than race) as the doorway to a conversation on race, I add a crucial piece: listening. It is essential that we listen to each other, and ultimately essential that the members of the majority culture (us whites) listen with great respect and without defensiveness. I have noted in the comment thread to this post how much listening I must do, over and over. In that little church where I pastored, I could not convince the Hispanic kids that they were as American as I am. When they said, 'American,' they meant white. They bought into the idea that European-American culture is normative. That mindset must be confronted by minorities, but also by us whites. As long as we think America is us, there is a whole lot of America we are just missing and we are spiritually impoverished for it. Even worse! As we stay huddled in suburban white enclaves, there is a whole lot of Jesus we are missing. That is not just sad. It is sinful on the part of the system and on the part of anyone who accepts what the system serves.
(1) Enter the race conversation through a doorway other than race.
(2) Listen. Whites, listen twice as much.
A third principle that has become significant in my life more and more is relational safety. We have made it a core value at the church I pastor now. Let the church be a safe place. This means someone might utter a racially insensitive remark. When that happens, the individual may be confronted, but the injured party makes a commitment up front to confront in love and to offer grace. Church is a safe place to mess up. Church is a safe place to confront. Church is a place where friendships are strengthened by instances of real forgiveness. This idea of safety is so hard to achieve. In that diverse church I mentioned, I had far more real conversations about race in my 7th, 8th, and 9th years than in my first. When you're preaching someone's funeral, it is not a black man's funeral. It is a dead man's funeral. When you baptize, it is not a black man you're immersing. He is a born again child of God and in that moment, when he is in your arms and under the water, trusting God with his life, walls come crashing down.
Obviously, some disclaimers are needed her. D.D. is talking about creating diversity. What I have mentioned came about where diversity was already in play. In New York City, in DC, LA, and places like that, this is far more doable than in homogeneous communities. In those places, the conversation about race can also happen, and should. But that would require another post or maybe an essay or a book.

One thing I do think. Even there, even in small towns where all racial groups might "stick to their own kind" (whatever that means), I think the starting point should not be race. I think if we (the worldwide community of Christ-followers) can make the Jesus-way and the Jesus-life the starting point, we'll find more satisfying results. We begin in Jesus, and in Him, the much needed race conversation arises. Then we achieve diversity, but not diversity for diversity's sake. The diversity we have is blessed because in him there is no Jew nor Greek, no black nor white, no Korean nor Mexican. All are one in Christ

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