Can We Talk About Race at Church?

It’s the type of thing that church leaders lose sleep over: Someone sits down in a planning meeting and suggests the church needs to holds a class addressing one of the most polarising social and political issues of the day.

I was that person when I suggested to my fellow leaders that I teach a class on race relations from a Biblical perspective.

They were nervous.  I was nervous.

The class just finished… and it went well.

Let me give you some background.

  • Our church of 120 members is approximately 50/50 African-American and white.
  • The church has been racially diverse since the early 1990’s.
  • Since 2009 we’ve held an annual one Sunday celebration of ethnic and other diversity in the church that we call HARMONY Sunday.
  • Since 2013 I’ve blogged on the topic of multi-ethnic churches and researched it for years before that.
  • I was still nervous.

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What helped this class work?

  • We limited the class size to about 15. The class as I taught it would not have worked with 50. This size encouraged interaction and comments.
  • We acknowledge the possibility that some ideas or comments in the class could be offensive, but we asked members to commit to presuming good motives behind those comments.
  • Not all areas of interest can be discussed in class. Some comments will have to be followed up in conversations outside class.
  • A key aspect of the class was outside reading. Each week I would email links to a selection of articles, videos and audio resources. Some of these expanded on the class discussion and others prepared for the next week’s topic. This meant that people knew that all their questions didn’t need to be answered in the class.
  • Clear time limits. The class ran for 7 weeks and each class was only 45 minutes. This short class length meant that we all knew we couldn’t dig deeply into topics. The class was a survey, not an excavation.
  • We had a mix of ethnicities in the class. As a white, non-American, leader in a multi-ethnic church I depended on the contribution of the Africa-American class members to give the class material credibility. While the material I provided was a helpful guide, not surprisingly, some of the most helpful thoughts came from class members sharing their experiences and from the interaction between black and white class members.
  • A clear syllabus. This limited each class session to topics I had studied and prepared for. It also prevented the class from roaming to every hot button issue or personal sopabox. While those issues are important, this wasn’t the time or venue to discuss them.
  • Have a Goal. While most of the class time was spent dealing with broad social issues, the final week of the class discussed how our church could better embrace all minorities. We asked, what goals should our church have when it comes to race relations? While we didn’t settle on definitive answers, we raised awareness of issues and started a conversation that I know will continue.

Topics Covered

For those who are curious, here are the 7 class topics:

  1. Introduction – Why this class now? And the history of the Church of Christ regarding race relations.
  2. Defining terms and considering personal bias.
  3. Institutional and Systemic Racism – The Institutions
  4. Institutional and Systemic Racism – The Individual (Compound Deprivation)
  5. White Privilege
  6. The Cross & the Lynching Tree – How life experiences colour our faith
  7. What does this mean for our church?

Measuring Success

I expect that each church may have different goals pertinent to its situation. When I say that the class was a success, here’s what I have in mind:

  • There was no yelling, no one stormed out of the class, and no one left the church!
  • A diverse range of views and life experiences were expressed.
  • People shared life experiences.
  • At the end of the class members from disparate backgrounds said they had learned something.
  • We’ve demonstrated that complex, emotionally charged topics can be discussed in a Godly manner.
  • The class ended with members asking how they could continue to build on the topics we covered.

Down to the River

I am currently teaching a class at my church using material created by Eric Gentry, a minister with the Highland Church of Christ in Memphis. While the concept I present here isn’t original to me, I have expanded upon it considerably.

In 2013 James H. Cone published a book titled, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree“. One aspect of this work suggests that one’s life experiences impacts the way we read Scripture. In particular, Cone argues that the closer one’s proximity to the lynching tree the more that person identifies with the suffering of the cross. This extends to the extent that the cross is viewed as a lynching tree (Galatians 3:13) and the thousands of lynchings the African-Americans experienced throughout the U.S. are regarded as a “uniting with Christ in his death” (Rom. 6:5).

For white Christians comfortable with a well established historical understanding of the significance of the cross, the idea that a community’s shared history can lead a different perspective may create some discomfort.

Similarly, African-American culture has often viewed baptism through a different lens. White Christians commonly regard baptism as a moment that a divine transaction takes place; it’s a physical representation of a spiritual reality. Baptism is a moment of commitment, of forgiveness, of new life and orientation. It’s a mental and emotional undertaking to trust one’s future to God and to make changes to live in harmony with God.

Within black culture baptism has often held dual hopes: an immediate hope of physical rescue and the spiritual hope of forgiveness and eternal reward.

In my mind, these different perspectives (and yes, I know I’m painting in broad strokes) are well portrayed in three songs written around the familiar Gospel theme of “the river”.

This traditional tune has a catchy tune that disguises the gravity of the lyrics. There are at least three ways to understand this song:

  1. It speaks of baptism and putting on the long white robe down by the riverside. There’s also the immediate connection of “studying war no more” and “laying down my sword and shield”. There’s a physical connection between baptism and escaping or ending violence. Sadly that hope seldom came to reality.
  2. The river described in the song is the river one crosses moving from life to death. A darker perspective this song declares that the only escape from life’s burdens and violence is death.
  3. When I played this song in class an older black member quickly commented that the spiritual language was a metaphor for slaves crossing the Ohio River to reach the relative safety of the non-slaveholding states.

Each of these understandings stresses the immediate hope of peace and escape from oppression.

Eric’s class notes pointed me to a more recent (2015) song by Leon Bridges simply titled “River”.

Bridges describes his motivation for writing this song in this way,

I felt stuck working multiple jobs to support myself and my mother.  I had little hope and couldn’t see a road out of my reality.  The only thing I could cling to in the midst of all that was my faith in God and my only path towards baptism was by way of the river.

Bridges’ iteration of the river theme has a darker melodic feel and the video captures the daily struggle of life. While the lyrics turn hopeful the links between the river, baptism and hope for a new life in the present remain intact.

Finally this contemporary Christian song titled “The River” was also released in 2015by Jordan Feliz.

Writing for a predominantly white audience Feliz describes his journey to the river more in emotional and spiritual terms than the concrete realities of the previous songs. On his website Feliz reflects,

“Musically ‘The River’ is my own personal happy place. It’s a great driving groove that just feels good to sing. The song itself is an invitation to anyone who hears it—whether they’re stuck in pride and legalism or wallowing down in the mess they’ve made of their lives—it’s an invitation to take whatever we have and to run to Jesus. It’s an invitation to go down in amazing grace and to rise up being made new.”

This contrast of emphases regarding baptism does not make one view right and another wrong, but the songs demonstrate a diversity of perspective of a Christian sacrament at the core of our faith. They remind us that our way of viewing the world is not the only, or best, way. They remind us that we are all interpreters of Scripture seeking answers to our questions within its pages.

For multi-ethnic churches we’re reminded that we need to hear diverse voices in our teaching and within our congregations, because no one voice will speak into each hearer’s life. The way we express and apply our faith will have different points of emphases to different cultures. We can’t be so arrogant to think that any one person can cover all the cultural bases. Diversity is not just different skin colors or even languages in one room. Diversity involves different ways of thinking ans seeing the world

(If this post brings other “river” songs to mind, I’d love for you to share them in the comments section below along with any other reflections you may have.)