Hospitality & Reconciliation

The Islamic month of Ramadan this year ran from June 6 to July 5. During that month a local Turkish Cultural Center hosted a series of community meals. They offered a variety of formats.

First, they invited community members to come to their facility and enjoy a meal with a large group of people. Second, they offered to prepare the meal but host it in our church’s fellowship space. Third, if people were interested they would schedule community members to come into their homes and share an iftar meal with them.

international-food-map-01As I talked with them they explained their simple reasoning. Sharing a meal together breaks down barriers. It encourages conversations as people share the experience of meeting a fundamental human need, eating. They longed for their neighbors to see past their religion, or different clothing to recognise and acknowledge our shared humanity. In discussing the experience we talk about the food and their favorite Turkish dishes. They share what they value about Ramadan and we exchange notes on the Muslim and Christian practices of fasting.

By sharing a meal we discuss topics we would never broach talking to each other across a desk or in a classroom.

Jesus knew the power of meals. In the Gospels we find him frequently eating with a variety of different people. Often, Jesus ate with those who were furthest from the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ dining habits were apparently a frequent source of conversation to the extent that Luke describes the criticism Jesus recieved,

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ (Luke 7:34)

A couple of weeks ago my church declared October our “Month of Hospitality”. My sermon that week was based on Ephesians 2:11-22. I suggested that if Jesus died to reconcile Jews and Gentiles to each other, and if “you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Eph 2:22) then we need to actually be doing something.

wp_20161014_12_20_22_richWe gave the church the simple task of using a meal to break down a wall by eating with someone on the other side of a divide. We provided a few guidelines:

  1. You should invite someone from our church that you don’t know well to share a meal or a coffee.
  2. The person should be on the other side of a divide: race, nationality, age, marital status, education, income, etc.
  3. Given the context of our church, this is a great opportunity to intentionally break racial barriers and specifically ask each other how you perceive the racial climate in this country at the moment.

The natural next step is to expand the hospitality to bridge divisions with those outside the church. Each of those steps takes more confidence and requires a greater investment, but the results make it worthwhile. Even in a multi-ethnic church people often need encouragement to break out of their comfort zones, spend some time building relationships and destroy some dividing walls.

We make this as simple as possible. Although we use the word “hospitality” we don’t pressure people to invite others into their home, or to cook a 3 course meal. The goal is to sit, eat, and drink together. If that happens at a Wendy’s or a Starbucks, or if the bill is split rather than one person treating another, it doesn’t matter as long as each person knows the other a little better at the end of their time together.

When we first did this in 2014 we posted the above board in our foyer and encouraged people to record their participation. It’s gone very well and I’d love for you to try it in your church setting and hear how you improve it.

 

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7 Pitfalls when Preaching on Race

7 Pitfalls when Preaching on RaceSadly, not everyone in our churches will jump for joy when we introduce a sermon addressing issues of race.

Some people have heard speeches on the topic for years and are simply worn out.

Other people get defensive and insist that there’s no problem to discuss. At least not with them.

I’ve attended churches where people fear confrontation. Since this topic smacks of controversy, they’d rather not talk about it.

There are always some people who enjoy the status quo and believe it’s okay and reasonable to discriminate against minorities. Alternatively, they see accommodations granted to minorities and believe the discrimination is against them!

Any of these people can get hurt or angry when discussions around the issues of racial equality arise.

Then there are always inherent risks for the preacher when presenting these ideas. Numerous ways exist to speak insensitively, use the wrong words, or misrepresent an issue. Fear of these mistakes has often prompted churches to avoid the topic. In today’s society churches cannot afford to skirt issues of race. So here are some mistakes preachers should work hard to avoid:

1. Do not stereotype! Not all Indians are good spellers. Not all Chinese are mathematical geniuses. Not all African-Americans grew up around gangs in urban environments. Even large churches have experienced trouble using stereotypes as the story of this Asian-based VBS curriculum reveals. Stereotypes place a large group of people in a single box, and that box is often demeaning.
When strangers quote Crocodile Dundee to me they imply that all Australians carry knives, live in the desert and wrestle crocodiles. In fact, Australia is one of the most ethnically diverse and urbanized countries in the world. Stereotypes most often make the person using them look ignorant.

2. Do not mimic or imitate cultural differences. By all means, please do talk about racial/cultural differences. Your congregation needs to have this open conversation. But how you conduct the conversation is crucial. RESPECT is vital. Talk about cultural differences. Describe awkward situations and misunderstandings. However, if we start adopting accents, or walking in different/funny ways to illustrate a cultural stereotype, we instantly move much closer to mockery, than respect. Focus upon speaking clearly, not theatrics.

3. Do not think that there won’t be any misunderstandings. No matter how gifted your speaking abilities, people will still hear what they want to hear. If you say nothing about affirmative action, some people will think your whole talk was about affirmative action. Some people will criticise you for bringing politics into the church even if you spend the whole time exegeting one verse. No single sermon can address all objections. Expect misunderstandings.

4. Do not feel pressure to tell people “I’m sorry”, unless you are. This is a complex topic, but here are a couple of simple thoughts:

  • Don’t apologise for things you haven’t done… unless you represent institutions that have committed wrongdoing. You can can express sympathy for suffering, outrage at injustice, regret for the actions of others, but you can’t apologise on behalf of those other people. The exception is demonstrated in 1999 by Dr Royce Money the Chancellor of Abilene Christian University when he apologised for policies and practices of the university in years previous.
  • When we simply say “I’m sorry” we place a burden on the other person to forgive. It’s as though “I’m sorry” says, “I’ve done what I need to do for reconciliation, now it’s up to you.” We make it easier for minorities to forgive when we demonstrate contrition by taking tangible steps toward reconciliation.

5. Do not merely mention racism as a footnote in a sermon on another topic.  This might not apply if you’ve already raised the issue in a serious way, but simply including racism in a list of vices does not count as “speaking on race”. When you decide that you need to address racial issues with your church, preach from the best biblical texts. Because of #3 above we should address these issues with clarity. Assuming that people will catch tangential references and understand our goals reflects a misplaced confidence.

6. Don’t pretend to have all the answers. No one person has all the answers. Reading a book, talking to a minority friend, or having a dramatic story to tell, doesn’t make anyone an expert. After working in multi-ethnic churches for almost 20 years and researching as much as I can on the topic, I still find I have more questions than answers. As a leader in the church you might have clear insight into the next step the church needs to take. You might have a clear view of the goal of racial reconciliation and unity in the church. Those things are not the same as “all the answers”. ALWAYS preach and speak with humility on this topic.

7. Don’t minimise challenges. Related to the previous point, we face the danger of communicating a message that says something like, “If we all just did what the Bible tells us and loved our neighbours, racial prejudice wouldn’t be a problem in this country.” Other observations like, “If they just did what the police told them they wouldn’t get shot” fall into the same category. These types of statements minimise centuries of mistrust and abuse. It can be akin to telling a minority person to “suck it up and get on with life“. But life is not simple. For example, many of the factors that contribute to disparate educational outcomes for students of different races involve complex sociological issues. Loving more, or allocating more money to a school, won’t alter rates of childhood poverty. Honestly acknowledge the size and scope of the challenges ahead, then break it down into smaller steps for your congregation. Remember that what seems like a small step for you, may be huge for other members.

For some positive suggestions when preaching on racial issues check out this previous article: 8 Tips for Preaching on Race.

Black Lives Matter TOO!

I’ve been reluctant to dip my toe into this pond. Many people with greater experience and education than I have written great articles on this topic. However, perhaps some people who haven’t read those articles will take a few minutes to read this post.

We’ve all heard, and maybe said, the response to #BlackLivesMatter: All Lives Matter. Most people I’ve seen commenting on social media don’t seem to realise that everyone places an additional word at the end of that phrase.

Many white people hear “Black Lives Matter” as “Black Lives Matter More” or “Black Lives Matter Most”. So they respond with a phrase (that also contains a silent word) to correct the imbalance they perceive: “All Lives Matter Equally”.

This retort is a true statement.

What these people seem to miss is that the vast majority of people using the phrase “Black Lives Matter” do so while using a silent “Too”: Black Lives Matter Too!

Black Lives Matter 01

Why do they need to make this statement? Are they seeking to be inflammatory or to make trouble?

Those using the phrase “Black Lives Matter” do so because they’re expressing their impression that many in society don’t think they matter. They feel neglected, so they remind each other and the world that they do matter. They do have value. Of course all lives matter, but there are many people made to feel as though they’re insignificant. Sometimes it’s individuals who feel as though no one notices them. Sometimes it’s whole communities.

Did you notice that little feeling of indignation you feel when you see #BlackLivesMatter and think that you’re being overlooked or devalued? That’s a sensation these people experience as a way of life.

Just telling them that “All Lives Matter” doesn’t remove the negative messages these people have heard for so long.

Why would a large portion of the African-Americans community feel a need to remind the world that Black Lives Matter?

  • Because they feel targeted by law enforcement and have seen a disproportionate number of African-Americans killed by police shootings.
  • Because in 2010 blacks accounted for only 13% of the US population they made up 40% of the incarcerated population.
  • Because drug laws are enforced more stringently against blacks than whites.
  • Because the best schools are in white neighbourhoods.
  • Because they have higher rates of unemployment.
  • Because they experience prejudice in their interactions with white Americans.
  • Because ‘white flight’ tells them they’re distasteful.
  • Because of history that, yes, goes all the way back to slavery, and more recently to Jim Crow.
  • Because they have limited opportunities as a result of Jim Crow policies that ensured limited inter-generational wealth transfer within much of the black community.
  • Because no one tells them they matter or are valuable.

These issues are complex. There is no single simple solution. But all these factors and more contribute to why so many in the black community feel a need to remind the world #BlackLivesMatter…Too.


If you’ve read this far, you might also appreciate this article by Michael Hanegan, 9 Reasons Why My Faith Compels Me To Say #BlackLivesMatter.

You may also be encouraged by this short video from Rick Atchley who preaches for The Hills Church in Fort Worth. This was filmed in the days after the shooting of 5 Dallas law enforcement officers.

And I’m sharing this video below because sometimes we just need to be slapped.

Signs of Hope

Beginning with the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 it seemed that almost monthly there was another tragic death or incident that revealed, or prompted, racial conflict in the United States. Most of my readers know the list, but here are some low-lights:

  • July 2014: Eric Garner (black) is choked by (white) police and dies on Staten Island for selling cigarettes on a street corner.
  • November 2014: In Cleveland, 12 year old (black) Tamir Rice is shot by (white) police for pointing a toy gun at people.
  • April 2015: Walter Scott (black) was shot in the back while running from a (white) police office after a traffic stop in North Charleston, SC.
  • April 2015: Unrest envelops Baltimore after Freddie Gray (black) died as a result of not being properly restrained while being transported in a police vehicle.
  • June 2015: 9 (black) people were shot and killed at an AME church in Charleston, SC by a young (white) male.

In the face of this barrage of shameful violence, I want to share some of my experiences and resources that I’ve encountered of the past few weeks that give me hope for the future.

hope sign 01In many ways it begins with the response of the families of those 9 people killed in the Charleston church shooting. Instead of responding with violence, the went to the courthouse and addressed the killer, Dylan Roof. In a dramatic and unexpected moment they expressed both their grief and forgiveness to Dylan.

From the outside this expression of grace seemed Christlike and exemplary to others engaged in racial conflict. But it’s not that simple. I also appreciate those family members that called upon him to repent. It’s very easy for white America to sit back and expect that past wrongs be forgiven by minority populations and then we can all just move on. There’s a Godly onus upon white government institutions, white corporations, white churches and white families to acknowledge past wrongdoings and repent of those sins. We cannot ask black America to forgive us for sins we refuse to admit.

So how do I find this hopeful?

I find hope because the conversation is starting. I find hope in the LA Times article that discusses the difficulties of forgiveness and atonement. I find hope in the airing of alternative perspectives such as those expressed in this article,We should be sick and tired of apologizing for who we are and what’s happened to us. If I hear that on the news again, I’m going to throw up.” That statement makes me uncomfortable, but it belongs in the conversation.

I find hope in this interview of civil rights leader John Perkins that was conducted at the North American Christian Convention a couple of weeks ago. In graphic detail he describes the moment he decided to pursue reconciliation rather than revenge. He also calls for repentance to accompany forgiveness.

I believe you will also find this interview with NACC keynote speaker, Sean Palmer, challenging as he reminds us that racial reconciliation is a Gospel issue, not just a nice idea.

I find hope because when I attended Lipscomb University’s Summer Celebration last week I found people wanting to talk about racial reconciliation and church integration.

  • Randy Lowry, the president of Lipscomb hosted a two-part Forum on Racial Relations in Our Country and Our Church.
  • Dr Lowry mentioned that about 18% of Lipscomb’s students are from minority populations.
  • Buddy Bell, the minister at Landmark Church in Montgomery, Alabama, used his keynote address to support the removal of the Confederate Flag from public institutions and to encourage white Christians to talk with African-Americans about what the flag means to them.
  • I had lunch with a friend who described a recent unity church service he’d attended where members of the African-American churches were given a venue to describe the discrimination they’d faced in that town. He told how (among other things) they recounted the reality of a hospital segregated by race and the story of a (black) woman forced to give birth on a mattress in the floor of a janitor’s closet while beds were available but off-limits in the white wing of the hospital. Not that the story is unique, but I find hope because this story was told within a church.
  • I find hope in the stories of different people I met who had participated, sometimes with their church groups, in a tour organized by Lipscomb of significant civil rights sites and the way that impacted their attitudes and worldview.
  • I’m encouraged that Summer Celebration had two sessions addressing the issues of racial reconciliation in churches.

These are small steps.

Much work and discussion lies ahead. Both NACC and Summer Celebration are overwhelmingly attended by white Christians. So these forums can have all the discussions they want, but changes also need to take place. Talk must lead to action. One racial unity service a year, or even two, isn’t enough. But it is a beginning.

I am convicted that the church can fulfill it’s mission as a force for reconciliation within our society, but there’s still a long road ahead.

I want to leave you with a powerful sermon that was delivered at Summer Celebration. Dr David Fleer is a homiletics professor at Lipscomb University. The sermon presented at Summer Celebration is available for purchase and download HERE. But Dr Fleer presented the same basic material at a racial unity service just a few days before. I encourage you to listen and pick it up in this video at the 30 minute mark.

Recommendations

Although I’m passionate about the important role that multi-ethnic churches need to play in the kingdom of God, my own well is pretty dry on this topic at times. This is a primary reason I launched this blog last year. Sure, I have thoughts, ideas, experiences and reflections of my own, but I need conversations with others to be the leader my church requires.

Along the way, I’ve often been reminded that LISTENING is one of the most important skills for ministering, or participating, in a multi-ethnic church. I can’t speak into the lives and stories of my congregation if I don’t know their stories. If I’ve never heard their pain, I can’t be part of their salve.

So this week’s blog is simple. I want to point you to two excellent resources.

The first is an interview with Don McLaughlin. You will find it HERE on the Newsworthy with Norsworthy Podcast. Or you can find the podcast on itunes. Luke Norsworthy has some very interesting guests and I recommend you subscribe to his podcast.

The interview with McLaughlin was posted on 20 August, less than 2 weeks after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. McLaughlin is the pulpit minister at the North Atlanta Church of Christ. This is perhaps the largest multiracial Church of Christ in the United States.

In the interview McLaughlin briefly discusses racial attitudes in the US. He provides a great perspective on the humanity of all parties involved in the Ferguson tragedy. In a series of narratives he describes how racism has touched his family, and how his church has taken steps to welcome all people, regardless of “what color they’re wrapped in”.

The second resource is a blog post published by a friend of mine: Sean Palmer. You can read it HERE. One point that struck me from Sean’s post was the observation that,

“The strongest indicator of race relations in America is the church. Well, it’s the church, plus backyard barbeques or girlfriends’ weekends and guys’ poker nights – the strongest indicator of racial relations is who we are with when we get to choose who to be with.”

God’s call to unity and oneness doesn’t apply merely to what takes place within the walls of the church building. For those of us in churches with racially diverse memberships, our task is not complete. We can only truly consider ourselves a reconciled church when the church gatherings outside the building reflects the diversity found inside the building. A multiracial church filled with mono-racial friendships and social events is not reconciled.

Sean also does a great job of highlighting the fact that God is greater than culture. I really hope that if you’ve taken the time to read this far, you’ll take the time to read his post too. You’ll be blessed.

The History of Race Relations in the Church of Christ

I just finished reading a short book by Daniel Blankeship that I encourage you to read. It’s lengthy title is Race Relations in the Church of Christ During the Civil Rights Movement.

Daniel does a good job of describing the racial tensions endemic within churches of Christ in the 1960’s. The book was first written as a course requirement at Harding School of Theology. As a consequence it is well footnoted and has a helpful bibliography for anyone wanting to study the topic further.

As I read the book I kept asking myself, “How does this historical information impact me now?” The answer I came up with revolves around reconciliation.

The first step in any process of reconciliation requires acknowledging problems. It’s my experience that many churches today want to act as though there is no problem. Many Christians seem quite content to have both black and white churches existing in the same towns all over the country. Blankenship points out the problems with this arrangement,

Many white Christians believed their duty to the black church was to provide them with finances for a building, yet few white Christians desired authentic relationships with their black brethren. Perhaps providing a building to the black Christians was a way of segregating the church in an non-threatening way. Whites could claim to abhor racial prejudice and offer [financial] support to black churches, preachers and schools, even while maintaining segregated colleges in the South and generally ignoring the discrimination against blacks in economics, education, politics and social customs. White churches made sure that their black brothers ans sisters had separate places to worship.

When Christians and whole churches deny that racial tension has ever been a significant issue among Churches of Christ they are incapable of taking the first step toward reconciliation.

Just as our eternal salvation requires repentance for sin so that we can reconcile with God, personal and racial reconciliation also begins with confession and repentance.

In 1999 Abilene Christian University demonstrated what this confession and repentance look like when they publicly apologised to the African-American churches of Christ for the many years in which they excluded black men and women from their student body. (You can read more of this apology HERE.) Lipscomb University in Nashville has also gone through the process of confession and repentance as it builds bridges to the African-American churches in the region. (This process is well described HERE.)

I highlight these universities because, as Blankenship demonstrates, for so long they stood as icons for the racial segregation and discrimination that existed among churches. Their steps to reconcile with the black churches provide an important model for congregations around the country.

I don’t know that each and every congregation must have a special event to apologise to their African-American community for actions taken in the 1960’s. However churches must have enough familiarity with their own history and the history of Churches of Christ in general to acknowledge injustice when appropriate. The “appropriate” time may be in personal conversations, or during decision making processes, or maybe just slipped into a sermon from time to time. Pretending the Churches of Christ have never had any problems between racial groups is simply not an option.

I encourage you to take an hour and read Daniel’s book. It’s a good introduction to the historical issues confronting the church. For $5 how can you go wrong? You can purchase it HERE.
If you’re looking for a more complete study of the topic then Wes Crawford’s book “Shattering the Illusion“, might help you out.

The Value of Community

Last week’s post on Donald Sterling was well received. Thank-you to those who took the time to read it and also to those who sent me a private message on the subject.

I wrote that post just a couple of days after the NBA gave Sterling a lifetime suspension from the NBA. I’m happy with my comments and questions. But I appreciate a couple of friends who have written on the topic this week and the perspectives that they present. No one person or article can cover all aspects of any topic and each writer has a style that connects best with different audiences. So I accept my limitations, but look at this for a diverse lineup:

  • I write as an Australian who has spent most of the last 15 years in the US. I now life in upstate New York.
  • Jonathan Storment has white skin, was raised in Arkansas and now preaches for a church in Abilene, Texas.
  • Sean Palmer is an African-American raised in the deep South. He now serves as the Lead Minister at The Vine church in Temple, Texas.

You get enough of my writing on this site, so I want to use this space to highlight some elements of recent articles by Jonathan and Sean.

Jonathan’s article is one of his regular guest posts on Scot McKnight’s blog.  He opens and closes by racist attitudes in his life. The point of his article is that the church has helped him identify this sin and repent of it. Without this outside intervention in his life these attitudes may still remain unacknowledged and festering. Praise God for those in his life who were not too timid to speak truth. Too often we gather around us people who affirm us more than challenge us. While we certainly need affirmation and encouragement a healthy church will also help us identify blind spots in our hearts and lives.

Jonathan used one term that really caught my attention: “Elegant Racism”. While it’s hardly self-explanatory it accurately describes many of our churches today. On the one hand we confess that God loves all people of all races, all ethnicities, all  cultures, and all languages equally. But we take no steps to build bridges to the racial, ethnic, cultural and language groups different from our own. We are “elegantly racist” because we’re so darn polite about not associating with the “others”!

The sad truth is that it’s often easier to love people who aren’t sitting in our living room. It’s easy to be moved about the plight of poor children on the other side of the world and give lots of money to send a missionary so that they can hear the wonderful news of Jesus. It’s much harder to run an after school program for children on the other side of town.

Jonathan’s article is a needed reminder for me. Too often I get to the end of a week and look back on who I ate with and realise they were mostly, or all, white guys aged within 15 years either side of me. If I’m not intentional, elegant racism becomes a tragic part of my life. Who are your friends? Who do you eat with? Who do you go to the movies with? What activities in your life take you outside your cultural comfort level?

Sean’s article points out three ways our Sunday segregation undermine central tenets of the Gospel. First, we make cultural preservation a ministry of the church. Although Romans 16:4 has a puzzling mention of “all the churches of the Gentiles” the first church consistently worked to overwhelm the Jew – Gentile divide. When churches make the preservation of a particular culture part of their mission, we begin diluting the Gospel message.

Second, when our racial traits form a stronger bond than does our submission to Jesus we undermine Jesus’ death. Sean makes this excellent point, “Because we have deluded the scriptures and encased the Bible as a personal, self-help book, we’ve lost its deliberately public calls for social change.” Yes, we can make our faith too personal.

Sean’s third point naturally flows from his second. Not only is our faith too personal, so is our worship. The church is infatuated with worship styles. I’m part of that. I’m a big believer that worship needs to be meaningful to me in order to be meaningful to God. Singing hymns from the 1600’s with words I don’t understand prompts a disinterested attitude that disrespects God. But when we worship as a church we also practice sacrifice. We worship God when we sacrifice some of our preferences so that a sister or brother can express their heart to God.

I’ve recently been challenged to consider my entire Christian walk as one of submission. It’s tough. Ephesians 5:22 is an infamous verse as it instructs wives to submit to their husbands. If I’m asked to read this passage at a wedding I always make sure I read v21 “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This certainly provides a great basis for marriage. What we often overlook is that this passage discusses marriage as a metaphor of Christ and the church (v32). Mutual submission is the basis of harmony within the church.

When I’m unable to worship God because of “style”, I’m also not submitting to my sisters for whom that style has great familiarity and meaning. But if other church members refuse to vary their worship style they’re also refusing to serve those in the church with values different to themselves. God’s model of worship requires submission and sacrifice by everyone, not just the minority.

Summary

I hope my reflections have encouraged you. Most of all, I hope my post encourages you to go and read what these guys have to say. I really appreciate their hearts and the authenticity they bring to the table from their distinct backgrounds. Leave a comment on their blogs and support them as they stick their necks out to challenge the church to represent God’s vision for his kingdom: that the church may be one.