Dear well-intentioned white Christian…

“I apologize that it has taken this level of abuse for white people in the church to be this outspoken on racism! We should have stood up a long, long time ago. As a white woman Christian, I am so, so sorry 💔.”

Dear well-intentioned white Christian,

Are you finally ready to have a fruitful conversation about race and do the necessary work for positive change? The text above is a message I received this past week from a young woman who attended the same church as my family during our time in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It goes without saying, too often have predominantly white churches (PWCs) been complicit in matters of systemic racism and oppression in the United States of America. I can’t think of a chapter in the United States story, including the current chapter, that doesn’t illustrate the church’s complicity. Of course, this is not to say the church hasn’t done good; they’ve done plenty. For instance, it is true that many Christians played an integral part in the fight against slavery and centuries of oppression, thereafter. However, let’s also be candid. These people and groups were like the exception to the rule. American Christianity’s past and present record on issues of race has played a significant role in supporting unjust systems. This has come in many forms over the centuries, including but not limited to:

  • willful participation in the slave trade;
  • enslaving fellow Christians (which went against the traditional practices in Europe at the time);
  • supporting practices and policies that uphold systems of oppression;
  • silence on issues of race and racism;
  • non-inclusive worship experiences

Interestingly, decades ago, Martin Luther King Jr. commented that the American church was frequently the taillight rather than the headlight in society with regard to issues of justice. Many decades later, not much has really changed, unfortunately. I’ve always found this remarkable because in scripture, there are many accounts of Jesus defending the marginalized and those viewed and treated as “lesser than” by society. So, I find it hard to believe that He would advocate the silent stance the majority of present-day PWCs take on issues of race.

The question is, if Jesus was infuriated about these things, why aren’t today’s PWCs?

That question is rhetorical for myself and many others who have attended such churches in the past and even today. We know the answer. When black men are shot, or in the case of George Floyd, suffocated by a knee to the neck by law enforcement, they don’t view this loss of life as an injustice or moral issue. Instead, leaders and their members within many of these churches refer to such as “worldly” issues, thereby failing to discern how such fatalities speak to the systemic problems we have in our nation. You’ll often hear pastors will say, “Let’s focus on the gospel.” They preach “unity.” Yet, this ignores the gospel at its core. It ignores mishpat, the Hebrew word referring to the equitable treatment of people.

It really begs the question concerning what about race and the experience of its black members are these churches afraid to confront? I’ll give you two examples of my struggles with church leadership and its members during my time as one of many leaders of a college-aged/young adult ministry.

In the spring of 2016, I had a group of young black men come to me about their experience at the church’s monthly gatherings for college-aged/young adults. They felt the worship music could’ve been better reflected all their members. Essentially, not just Contemporary Christian Music, otherwise known as CCM. Having thought the same thing, I brought this to the attention to the leadership. I argued that we needed to be more inclusive, particularly considering the racial makeup of Baton Rouge, where this church is located, is predominantly black. When I suggested worship music that reflected the experience and likes of many of our black “in your 20s” members, I was rebuffed. I was told, “Well, ______ (young black woman) likes our music.” People need to feel like they belong. They need to feel like their experience is represented. Having talked to the group of black students I discipled and mentored at the time, they did not feel like this experience was being met. Unfortunately, this same story occurs at a number of PWCs in the United States.

Fast-forward a few months later in the summer. It’s July 2016. Alton Sterling was shot and killed at close range by two Baton Rouge Police Department officers. The next day, Philando Castile was shot in Falcon Heights, a suburb of Saint Paul, Minnesota, by a St. Anthony Police Department officer. Many of you will remember that summer had a string of fatal incidents. Infuriated by the loss of life at the hands of those sworn to serve and protect, I posted about it on social media. I encouraged my white Christians friends and colleagues to speak up about it. I was met with anything but that. Many of the white students who I had formed a relationship with unfollowed me on Twitter. All but one or two of these same students suddenly stopped attending our bi-weekly life groups.

Don’t get me wrong. The church was good to us. They were like a family away from home (we were seven hours away from our closest relatives). They supplied us with two weeks of meals when we had our first child back in 2013. We grew a great deal while attending there. Yet, these experiences and those of other members I knew and discipled speak to larger issues within these churches of addressing issues of race. Their actions, whether intentional or not, support notions of “white normalcy” and suppress any notion of “blackness” such as culture, vernacular, and dress, among others. To illustrate, one white leader in this church even went as far as giving one black college student a book titled, “Scam: How the Black Leadership Exploits Black America.” I was shook to the core when he shared this with me. It is this type of leadership and teaching that has many falsely equating Christianity to a “white person’s religion” when, in fact, Christianity was in Africa before Europe.

It’s all in the Bible. Just do your research. White man’s religion? That’s just fake news. The Cross hit Africa before Europe even knew. –Hip Hop artist, Reflect, “I Am King”

So, what is it about race that the church is so afraid to tackle?

In the wake of George Floyd, I’ve been encouraged by the number of white people marching, protesting, and speaking up. Lord knows, black people have been marching and calling for justice for a long time. It’s now up to our white brothers and sisters to do the necessary work; and I reckon PWCs have a vital role in this. In the coming days and weeks, it’ll be interesting to witness if this time is different. What, if anything, will these churches have to say concerning what’s happening in our nation. These tough conversations amongst leaders and the membership need to be had. Tough questions need to be asked. For instance, the history of the church, in general, when it comes to slavery. I’m willing to bet not many are aware that in 1455, Pope Nicolas V issued a series decrees that granted Portugal the “right” to enslave sub-Saharan Africans. The impacts of such decisions are still being felt today. Moreover, conversations of white privilege and how it is a distraction from doing mishpat are also necessary. Also necessary are discussions about white privilege and members’ failure to use it for good in the church and beyond. It’s a time of re-evaluation for many, a chance to examine hearts.

Such discussions and tough questions, among other benefits, will open leaders’ and members’ eyes to their blind spots, inclusivity, and the church experience for black and brown people. It will help them forgo the “I don’t see color” mantra and realize that God didn’t do our diversity on accident and celebrate the uniqueness of its black and brown churchgoers. After all, church “oneness” and being on one accord does not equate to sameness. This will, in turn, help them develop and design experience that suit all, not just white people, and start the process of healing and reconciliation, but better yet, change.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

Further reading: ‘Color of Compromise’ calls on American Christianity to face its racist past by Jemar Tisby