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.

race-conversation-01

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.
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A Jew, a Muslim and a Christian Sat Down at a Table, Again

I wrote last week about my experience attending an inter-faith round table dialogue hosted by the Turkish Cultural Center and a Jewish synagogue. These are some further observations from that event.

I am a Christian male with white skin.

I recognise that this “accident” of birth gives me advantages that I don’t fully appreciate. For instance, my friend recently pointed out in a blog how eurocentric it is that European scholars get to name the study of God “theology” and every other group needs to hyphenate their perspective of this study: liberation-theology; feminist-theology; African-American-theology; etc. I live in a society that for hundreds of years has largely been developed for guys like me.

When I walk into a room filled with Jews and Muslims I suddenly find myself a minority. Although I’m a foreigner living in the United States, my adjustments still pale compared to those of Turkish immigrants. Unlike the Jews, I haven’t needed to navigate how employer will allow me to practice my observation of Sabbath or other religious holidays.

I’ve been a minority before. I’ve traveled. I’ve sat in Bible studies where I’ve been a minority. I even joined the Malaysian Student Association while at university. This experience instantly puts me in a situation where I don’t have the answers any more. I’m in a social situation where other people are the experts and I need to listen.

As I sat listening to the conversations between these two groups I became aware that many of the conversations revolve around the topic of how they interact with Christians. Christians ignore their religious customs. Christians rudely expect Jews and Muslims to participate in workplace Christmas festivities. Christians insensitively order pizza for a work lunch, but they all have sausage and pepperoni (pig meat) on them. Christians don’t attempt to understand their holidays but expect them to observe Christian holidays.

As the lone Christian in the room this was a fascinating insight. They regarded all Americans that weren’t adherents to another religion as “Christian”. They viewed Christmas and Easter as deeply religious. But not Thanksgiving.

Every negative interaction they had with a “Christian” in the workplace, or school, or government bureaucracy, influenced the way they viewed Christians. This was true even though many people celebrating Christmas would not describe themselves as Christians. This was true even though the person who offended them may have been an atheist.

While their experiences were very real, and regrettable, their interpretation of them wasn’t very accurate. They would use their experiences as a preliminary filter for their interactions with me, and my church, although my beliefs and behaviours might be very different from the other people with whom they’ve interacted.

The experience of sitting at a table with these people reminds me that not everyone sees the world as I do. As someone representing the dominant culture in my community it’s vital that I listen to minority communities and understand their needs and concerns. I cannot presume to know their circumstances simply by interpreting them through the filter of my personal experiences.

Conversations on Race and Racial Reconciliation

As my last post indicated I’ve been struggling a bit with my other workload and writer’s block on this blog. But in the wake of the grand jury’s verdict in Ferguson last night I feel like something positive and constructive needs to be said.

A friend pointed me to this video and so I’m sharing it with you.

It’s not a perfect video. It wasn’t filmed yesterday. Thirty minutes is hardly enough time to solve all the challenges confronting Ferguson and other communities around the United States that live under the shadow of racism. Some of the statements in the discussion made me really wish the pause button would let me jump in and seek clarification.

I share the video because in it I see hope. I see hope because church leaders are discussing serious issues around racism. I see hope because they’re willing to talk about difficult subjects. I see hope because I know the passion these guys display for racial harmony is not an act for the camera. I see hope because this video models the conversations that need to take place in churches around the country. It’s conversations like these that can open eyes and hearts leading to transformation and reconciliation. And I see hope because you’re taking time to watch it.

Walking the Racial Tightrope for Jesus

There are times when multi-ethnic churches seem glamourous. They’re trendy. They’re healing. They’re redemptive. They embody reconciliation. Above all, they’re Godly as they proclaim God’s love for ALL people.

As a minister in a small multi-ethnic church I can attest that they’re also FRIGHTENING!

Missteps are common. Disaster constantly appears to be just the next word away. “If we get this wrong… half the church could leave this week, and never come back.

Racial and cultural integration is unnatural. We naturally affiliate with those who are similar and familiar. So ministry in multi-ethnic churches often feels like swimming up stream. And as much as we dream that the whole church shares our vision we routinely find ourselves promoting diversity and cross-cultural appreciation to people who’ve begun a move back to their familiar social circles.

Ministry in multi-ethnic churches brings tension. Something as fundamental as asking how to refer to the racial minority segment of the church is fraught with controversy. If I want to express my respect for the minority culture, should I call it: black culture, African-American culture, the culture of people of colour, or just refer to it (and the people) as the minority culture?

Earth hands 01This quandary would provide enough challenges if the mission of a multi-ethnic church was just about bringing black and white Christians together. In reality, we have members from the Caribbean, some first and second generation Hispanic families, students from China and in my case a preacher from Australia! Must our church respect all these cultures and races, or should we give priority to the largest minorities?

Then perhaps the most challenging question for traditional churches is how will this diversity impact our worship service? If you’ve ever attempted changes to an established worship structure in a mono-cultural church, you understand this minefield. If the mingling of hymns and “camp songs” gives Sister Brown a hernia, what will happen when we break out in Calypso? Or have a prayer lead in Spanish?

But ministers are familiar with many of these challenges. We face similar issues as we attempt to meet the demands of older and younger members. We practice reconciliation as different dominant culture sub-groups seek to express worship in a way meaningful to themselves. We took Conflict Resolution 101 in seminary, and often that training is sufficient to successfully navigate these bumps in the road.

Multi-ethnic churches find their greatest challenges in the arena of social justice.

Because of my context, I felt a burden this past Sunday to intentionally talk about the shooting and protests in Ferguson, Missouri. (I’ve written about that here.) In an all-white church it would be prudent not to pry open the lid on Pandora’s box. I suspect that in an all black church it would be unthinkable not to speak of justice and oppression, probably with strong rhetoric.

In a multi-ethnic context the church finds itself filling the role of educator as well as prophet. Church leadership must guide the congregation through the process of listening to each other. At times the pulpit will be used to provide a voice to a minority that will not otherwise be heard. As an example, Matt Chandler ventured into this role as he took time in his sermon this week to explore the meaning of the term “white privilege”.

This additional role of educator brings additional hazards with it. In his book Working the Angles, Eugene Peterson makes this statement, “Most misunderstandings come not from missed definitions but from missed contexts.” (p125) How can a dominant culture speaker accurately reflect the context of the minority? It requires that we have awkward, frank conversations about impolite topics. I must ask “dumb” questions. I must listen to the stories of my minority members and reflect their experiences in my sermons.

Multi-ethnic churches, more than most churches, depend upon two Godly virtues for our existence: Humility and Forgiveness.

Although I live in the US and am married to an American, I will never understand American culture as well as my wife. Humility reminds me of this fact and prompts me to keep asking questions and learning. Cross cultural churches need to cultivate an environment that encourages the asking and answering of questions. This is the only process that will lead to cultural competence and understanding.

I also rely upon the forgiveness of my church as I minister to them. Because I’m continually learning, sometimes I’ll say too much, or too little. Sometimes I’ll say or do the wrong thing. I’ll offend and upset people. Some members will think I’ve getting political instead of Biblical. Other members will think I should discuss contemporary social events much more than I do. Because I’ll never get a balance that pleases everyone I depend upon their grace as we explore together what it means to live in Christian community as a collection of diverse cultures.

Finally, as I worship with people of minority populations, I accept them as my spiritual family. This means that we love one another. Because we love one another, when they hurt, I cry. When they succeed, I cheer. When they’re oppressed adn discriminated against, I stand with them. I can’t just pat their hand and say “there, there” on Sunday morning. This article provides some good suggestions to help white people and churches moving from rhetoric to reality in supporting their black neighbours.

blog tour 01I’ve decided to make this post part of the Compadres Summer Blog Tour. This is a group of Christian bloggers who are taking turns over the course of the summer to write about the Glory of Christ. You might wonder how this blog post fits that criteria. It doesn’t… until now.

The events of Ferguson and the ensuing barrage of related articles have served to remind me how ill equipped I am for this ministry context in which I find myself. Yes, I have relevant training and life experience, but the issues revealed in Ferguson run so deep. Any steps toward solutions or reconciliation that I might propose seem so inadequate. I’ve preached for this church for 6 years and yet at a moment of crisis like this I question my credibility to speak meaningfully into the lives of those most touched by the death of Michael Brown.

But before I drown in my doubt and self-deprecation, I find hope in 2 Corinthians 12:9. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

I constantly need the reminder that the presence of a multi-ethnic church in this community is not a personal accomplishment by me. The church was here before I arrived. Rather, multi-ethnic churches bring glory to God because it is only his grace and power that allows them to work. They exist as entities giving glory to God. Without God’s presence my efforts to build a multi-ethnic organization would fall miserably flat.

So we step on the tightrope. Aware of the dangers of falling. Trusting in our God to carry us.

We step.

Not recklessly. Knowing our capacity to hurt others even more than ourselves.

We step.

Not because we need to. Because those with weak hands and voices need ours. Because God calls us to love our neighbours.

We step.

Because Jesus stepped into our world, our culture. Now he calls us to follow him. Along a tightrope. And through places we might otherwise avoid. He calls us to the other side. And so we step.

Colossians 3:10-11 beautifully describes how the church has adopted a new identity in Christ and “is being renewed in the image of its Creator.” What does the Creators image look like? Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” While we all can and should work to eradicate racial prejudice from our society, ultimately we can only accomplish this when “Christ is all, and is in all.”

To God be the glory!

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