“We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this.”
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. uttered these now familiar words on December 18, 1963. King saw the state of the church to be tragic. If the church was to be the “moral guardian” of society, then she was guilty of ecclesiological malfeasance with regard to racial reconciliation.
While much has changed since then, King’s observation still rings true in 2016. As an African American man who is a pastor and who has served in our nation’s military, I’ve lived all over the United States (including both Alaska and Hawaii) as well as Iraq, and all of the so-called evangelical churches I’ve attended still embody his description today. Further, having served in predominantly white churches, the way that so-called evangelical churches respond to injustices along racial and ethnic lines seem to be categorized more by vituperation rather than cooperation.
Why is this the case? It has been correctly stated that “faith influences vocation which influences culture”. It appears that acknowledging, grieving and repairing broken systems that disproportionately affect people of color is a task that is painfully cumbersome for the majority. Sadly, this has always been the case. At best, most white churches handle racism by “just preaching Jesus” and expecting the osmotic work of the “Gospel” to do its job. This is what my friend, Tim Dearborn, in his book Beyond Duty calls “a church of ghosts”. These are the churches that focus on the souls of minorities without any regard for their bodies – or their corporeal and very real needs that exist in a world where justice is elusive or non-existent.
When Jesus is preached as a redeemer of broken people, but not of broken systems, a truncated gospel is being peddled. When this is the basis of our faith, then our vocations will reflect that. This is why good, church-going people could advocate for keeping blacks separate from whites in the south. It’s why people who call Jesus their savior, can selectively ignore the disproportionate imprisonment of African American men. It happens because those in the majority have the luxury to not listen to their Black and Brown brothers and sisters.
I recently read an article from a young African American woman describing what she learned since walking away from “the church”. Many of of her points of contention are points with which I wholeheartedly agree. Sadly, many of them are observations that are not about historic Christianity but the caricature that has become church experiences for many people. Many of these points are reasons why I desired to plant a church. This observation stuck out to me:
“I have decided to remove myself entirely from a system that claims to value my soul, but fails to show up for my Black body.”
This is why racial reconciliation is problematic for majority culture churches – because the call to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly looks different to those who read scripture through a hermeneutic of privilege. The church is not taken seriously in a post-Christian society. Her claims seem laughable, and her goodness is performed with what seems to be a winking inauthenticity.
The church is supposed to be a sort of a movie trailer for the upcoming attraction. The church is supposed to be a foreshadowing of the kingdom that’s coming. The church is supposed to look like a community where division and estrangement has been overcome. This is a church like the one on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:1-13 where the curse of Babel (Gen 11:1) is reversed. Instead of scattering and dividing nations with language, God unites people “from every nation under heaven” with myriad languages for a common mission. And later we learn that they began to meet their needs.
Here, we see a multicultural, multilingual church who is empowered by the spirit to transcend their differences and serve each other. In order to serve each other, we have to see and hear each other. Why is this so hard for us? I think it’s because we have accepted a false narrative for the church.
There seem to be 3 types of majority culture churches and I categorize them as: Soup, Salad and Stew churches.
These are churches that are monocultural. Imagine a thoroughly pureed tomato bisque soup. Every bite is the same. The consistency is the same. This is the church where everyone looks the same. Dresses the same. Votes the same. These are churches that follow what some call “the homogeneous unit principal”. Same pleated khakis, same parted hairlines, and same bumper stickers.
Imagine a salad with different elements – lettuce, tomatoes, mushrooms, onions. At first glance this looks like a good mixture of different flavors and textures. These are churches that have some ethnic diversity but still aren’t multi-cultural. Instead, they are just multi-colored, and they are excited by it. There are different shades that show up on Sunday and those shades are noted and celebrated. But what happens when there are things that come up from those people’s unique life experiences that causes heightened cognitive and emotional dissonance? The same thing that happens when we aren’t huge fans of tomatoes – we douse the salad with ranch dressing (assimilation) in order to mask the undesirable flavors. As an African American at predominantly White churches, I’ve always been patently aware of which things were “safe” to discuss and which things would require assimilation as a survival strategy.
Churches that seek to be “colorblind” don’t realize that this is coded language for people like me. It communicates, albeit unintentionally for some, that my life experiences that are unique to me because of my race, are intentionally overlooked at these churches. To not see all of me, is to not see my struggle. It is excarnational. It is dehumanizing.
The church of Pentecost was not a soup or salad church. You had different ethnicities in one setting, learning and meeting the needs of each other. Imagine a scenario similar to the salad. You have individual elements with their individual properties – steak, carrots, celery, potatoes, tomatoes. Only this time you are not afforded the option to mask the taste of one element. This is because the celery bleeds on the potatoes, and the potatoes bleed onto the steak. You can’t take a bite of one element and not taste some of the others. This is the church that says, “I can’t truly know you until you share all of your story with me.” This is the church that says, “There is something about who you are as an image-bearer that I need etched indelibly onto me in order to look like Jesus”.
In our church, we’ve begun to experience this. For those that like to espouse gradualism (this kind of thing takes a long time so let’s just wait for Jesus to come), pentecost shows us an example not of a crockpot stew, but a pressure-cooked stew. This is something that should happen rapidly and with great force. If we think it’s not possible right now, then we have to say that the Holy Spirit has somehow been neutered.
For the past two years, we’ve endeavored earnestly to be a church that looks like pentecost. This means that I am engaging the sometimes difficult task of living in community with people who look and live very differently from me. But enough of the African-Americans in our church have “bled” onto the Whites to the extent that when horrific deaths of people like Terrance Crutcher, Anthony Crawford, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, or Sandra Bland happen, I get a text or a phone call from my White brothers and sisters. These are people that don’t want to feel sorrow for me, they feel sorrow WITH me. This is what genuine reconciliation looks like. Restitution (I’m sorry I never listened before, and I will exhaustively work to make that right) precedes reconciliation (Loving you means listening and learning you repeatedly).
Pentecost is a picture of the kingdom of God’s people displayed in Revelation 7:9-12. Our faith in this vision should guide our vocations as well as reshape our culture into something so beautiful that it actually draws people in. This is the only way that real reconciliation can begin.
Darryl Ford is the Pastor of Icon Community Church outside of Atlanta, GA.