n. A destructive process that leads to enlightenment
Recently, I had dinner with a diverse group of friends, and we had a conversation about the race and equity work I've been doing at a local church. One friend opened up about the challenges she was experiencing being in an interracial marriage to a white man. When it came to the topic of their future at their current church, leaving was not a pressing matter for him because this was the church he attended since birth. He saw the church as being very diverse, whereas, for her, this was the church she was "adopted" into through marriage. She was the only black face in the pews on any given Sunday, and she had several negative experiences that didn't help her feel safe. Despite having a white lead pastor married to a woman of color, she described the jarring experiences that came from the pulpit on any given Sunday. When asked why she hadn't spoken to her pastor, she responded by telling us, "I have, and his response has been, "well, the truth hurts sometimes, and the truth will set you free."
Another friend opened up about her and her husband's desire to connect with students of color at a bible college. He was the dean of the college. She feared tokenizing their newest employee whom they hired to help them with the difficulties they were facing connecting with several of their Black students. The new hire happened to be African American, and the only African American on staff. My friend had a sincere desire to connect with every student, but wasn't sure at what point treating every student fairly made a student with different experiences in a white environment feel marginalized. She told us the story of a student who continued breaking school policies and responded to disciplinary action by saying, "It's because I'm Black." Although things had progressed for the better, her and her husband still wrestled with bridging the gap and connecting to all students. She acknowledged bringing diversity to the team as a good first move but felt it seemed cliché, naïveté and problematic to hire one person of color and suddenly think that their work was finished.
Although the student's behavior improved after a person of color was hired and intervened, the students change in behavior might hint to something more profound than "rebellion." In our day and age of political correctness, leaders engaging in communities different from themselves carry a debilitating fear of messing up. Some of this comes from personal insecurities, and the latter comes from the pressures of a society that will praise you one day and crucify you the next. Due to this, a tremendous amount of leaders (myself included) feel hesitant to wade in the ocean of uncertainty and discord. However, if you are not willing to wade, better yet submerge yourself in the discomfort, there is no other way to create a cross-cultural bridge of unity. Sometimes rebellion or disunity is a sure sign that we have disengaged from wading in those waters, and we have to take notice.
These two situations although distinct are unfortunately real-life situations that complicate the experiences of minorities in churches as well as complicate the relationships they share with pastors, leaders, and the relationship pastors and leaders share with them. I wrote several years ago in my grad school thesis about the research of Tranby and Hartman (2008). Both believe that all privileged groups should acknowledge their racial prejudices and more specifically White evangelicals should claim their racial identity and culture as important (p. 349). They discovered that the race problem and the tension that exists is much deeper than what Emerson and Smith (2000) believed to be racialized and individualized. To them, "...white racial identity allows for a conflation of whiteness with existing (a) social norms, (b) values, (c) structures, and (d) institutions". In other words, where Whites stand socially and the advantages of that societal positions is not blatant and because of this Whites perceive their individual success to be based on effort equated with the American civic identity made possible by their dominant identity, the liberal ideals of individualism, equality, and opportunity (as cited in Makinde 2016). Unfortunately, these liberal ideas exclude racial minorities. "The societal belief that ethnic minorities refuse to conform to liberal ideals deemed socioeconomically White marks the racial minority as an outsider, which ultimately excludes them from American identity and ideals" (Tranby & Hartman, 2008), and the problem with that is, often times that exclusion goes unnoticed.
Now, if you sat down with the pastor in story one, he might denounce having any prejudices towards people of color, he might even mention that he is a white male married to a person of color. Similarly, my friend's husband may find it hard to believe that being married to a woman of color could mean he carries any internal biases or prejudices.
Similarly, if you sat down with my friend in story number two, you would know that they were doing the best that they knew how. However, it is hard to connect with and understand an individual you've never interacted with before or comes from a different narrative or disposition than you are familiar. And asking them to assimilate as a way to achieve unity, unfortunately, is an approach that does not hold everyone accountable. As stated above it can't be assumed that unwillingness is the main issue, although it can be, a leader should check to see if their asks or means of action are gospel-driven or personality driven. They have to recognize the societal implications that make complexities and disunity exist, and lean into that, asking the right question(s).
If I were to give my friend advice, regarding how she should respond to her student in the future, I would suggest this:
NOW, if the situation is heated I would tell my friend to revisit the exchange at another time and start that new conversation by asking the student:
This question is meant to invoke reflection, show that you care, and open up pathways of communication where you are no longer the expert/authority but someone who genuinely cares. What the student might say may surprise you, but it would at least help both parties begin building that cultural bridge of understanding, which I believe to be the cross.
The truth is, "The Gospel and salvation are for everyone, but we live as if we believe otherwise. Many of us may not recognize our blind spots and biases when it comes to race. We may mean well, but our actions say otherwise unbeknownst to us. The verse, "on Earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10) has always resonated with me. Not just because Jesus prayed for it, but because it says something about God's plan regarding how we should experience life on this Earth. What do I mean by that? Well, just simply stated, there is a need to understand that as a Christ follower, we can't forget that under the umbrella of God and his son Jesus, is the greatest commandment, LOVE.
Pastor Bill Johnson from Bethel church said it well in an interview several years ago, "That's (referring to Matthew 6:10) a right now word, and his dominion is the issue at stake. God has dominion over all the issues of life that torture humanity, and Jesus solved them when he died on the cross. However, we mustn't forget that it is our responsibility to grab hold of the answers that God has in His world and bring them into ours to establish the dominion in Heaven, on this Earth".
We've got to expect breakthroughs. You have to take public risks at times and look for situations God can invade, and step into them. That has to come from a place of love and not hate, and it starts with having a personal relationship with the Lord and an awareness of what is happening in the world. The bible even says we are to be, "In the world but not of it," which to me has always insinuated that I have to be engaged on some level to what is happening in our world. Civic engagement is a duty, but God's love has to lead it, drive it, not our egos, or our ethnocentric ideologies, and it doesn't have to be radically loud. Although there are times and places where it does require that, it can be one on one, personal, relatable, and relational. Just how Jesus did it.
I always refer back to the story of Jesus and the woman at the well (John 4) when I think of a relevant and straightforward way of understanding how church leaders and followers of Christ can engage with those different from themselves either because of race or differences in opinion. To understand the power of this story one has also to be aware of the tensions that existed at that time between the Samaritans and Jews. As written in the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible,
"Samaritans and Jews were hostile toward each other’s holy sites. Jews insisted that Jerusalem was the proper place for the temple; Samaritans insisted that it was Mount Gerizim (Josephus, Antiquities 13.74); the extant form of the Samaritan Pentateuch even includes the demand to worship at Gerizim in the Ten Commandments! John Hyrcanus had destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim in 128 BC; in the first century AD, a group of Samaritans entered the Jerusalem temple secretly and desecrated it with corpses, leading to Samaritans’ permanent exclusion from Jerusalem’s temple (Josephus, Antiquities 18.30). Galileans usually journeyed through Samaria for festivals in Jerusalem, but Samaritans sometimes heckled them, and sometimes this conflict led to violence (Josephus, Antiquities 20.118; Wars 2.232)."
Here you have Jesus and his 12 disciples preparing to head to Galilee. Jesus throws a massive wrench in their plans when he makes the executive decision to take the longest route and pass through Samaria. Now, what you don't realize from reading this passage of scripture is the cultural implications mentioned above. A pastor once preached that during this time the Jews hated the Samaritans similarly to the way the KKK "loves" Black people. So if you're like me, the mere fact that you don't like "those" people, they don't like you, and you most definitely do not want to add more days to a journey, naturally, would have you pissed off. However, Jesus was their leader, their homeboy, their ride or die (literally), so despite how they may have felt, they went. Jesus was in tune with His Father in heaven and He knew that there was purpose behind the detour. So there on a warm sunny day, was a woman, a Samaritan woman whose life and her community would drastically change.
Jesus didn't have to overthink these type of things like we often do. He wasn't oblivious to the cultural implications of his interactions with her nor was He fearful of them. He inconvenienced himself to meet her where she was at; he didn't jump down her throat with His ideologies although Jesus had every reason too. Jesus found a commonality of need (water) in the place of inconvenience and discomfort and went from there. Jesus asked questions, got to know her first, before offering any solutions, and if you think about it, never even offered her a solution as much as presented a choice, and let her decide. He led with love, and that changed her.
We see stories like this, throughout the bible. The parable of the Good Samaritan, the story of Moses a man of privilege seeing his brother abused, stepping in to stop it, even though he didn't understand the plight of slavery. In the story of Jacob, betrayed by his brothers, yet, stepping in and using his privilege to bridge the gap between the Hebrews and the Egyptians. He did this by doing something as simple as inviting his brothers to have dinner in the same room as the Egyptians before revealing his identity. We know that culturally the Egyptians saw the Canaanites and Hebrews as less than, and maybe Jacob's action of inviting them to dinner wasn't for that specific reason, but it had cultural implications, and yet we miss it.
The list goes on and on...
Now don't misinterpret me, this message goes for all sides, the oppressed, the oppressor, or whomever might be in your world, culture, or society, not exclusive to race. The culture of the time was not what led many of these individuals in these stories, love did. So when leaders lean in from a place of their cultural normality, Eurocentric or tribal ideologies, political parties, or indigenous beliefs, they can miss these Jesus moments and taint the gospel message with ideologies that do not create dominion here on this Earth. Yes, we do not all have the courage or the grace to engage in all situations, but as much as we encounter them, we have to be ready to respond, offer forgiveness, even empathy, or understanding especially if we subscribe to faith like Christianity. That is why it's so important to understand purpose and placement because that requires so many different things from us, which I'll write more about next week Monday.
In the meantime, stay WOKE.