Learning From a Racial Unity Fail, Pt. 1
The Black South African singer possessed a rich, nuanced voice. Mature in her faith and gracious in manner, she repeatedly yielded the mic to the white South African woman with a thin, average-quality voice who kept asserting a front-and-center role during worship.
I watched this dynamic unfold at a small, interracial Christian healing service in Johannesburg, South Africa, several years ago, growing increasingly frustrated. The Black singer was a recording artist with a powerful presence, and she could have blown the white woman off the stage. But she honored the sacredness of the moment by refusing to engage in a power struggle.
I spoke with the Black singer afterward — she was a friend of a friend — and made note of what I saw during worship. She said little in response, but I caught the weary look in her eyes.
Diverse Congregation, White Wineskin
This small incident came to mind as I pondered an excellent story in The Kansas City Star about an Assemblies of God megachurch that “splintered” along racial lines during the presidential election season. (The Star has a paywall; you can also view the story here by signing up for the free news app Flipboard.) The final blow came when one of the church’s white pastors posted selfies on social media while he participated in a pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C., on the day of the Capitol riot. When people of color expressed their hurt, disappointment, and anger, another pastor posted one of those non-apology apologies that tend to make things worse. It was a classic case of a racial unity fail, illustrating the missteps often made by well-intended white leadership as they attempt to shepherd diverse congregations.
I realized this fail could have happened at just about any diverse, white-led Pentecostal-charismatic church in the United States. In Parts 2 and 3 of this post, I will go into depth about what I believe went wrong and how the Church can take concrete steps to foster meaningful racial unity. It is not an easy path, but unity is essential. It is a continuing disgrace to the name of Jesus Christ that Black and white believers remain divided on Sundays. We’re on the verge of forfeiting our witness to the world.
I hope all is not lost. White evangelicals’ embrace of Trumpism caused severe damage to whatever racial unity did exist in the Church.
But let me go back to my South African experience to explain something I’ve witnessed repeatedly in white-dominated contexts, including American evangelicalism. It is the power dynamic among white and Black displayed in subtle and occasionally overt ways, with white people acting from assumptions of racial and cultural superiority.
How do I know these things? Well, I am white, and I grew up in an atmosphere of presumed racial and cultural superiority, as did virtually every white American of my generation (I was born in 1963). Then, during more than 20 years in a Black Pentecostal church, I benefited from church leaders who showed me love but also held up a mirror to my racial assumptions, which were invisible to me.
Up until that point I was sure I was one of the good guys — after all, there were few other white people venturing deep into the ‘hood to attend this church — but the pastor’s wife recognized something else, which I would describe as “niceness cloaked in condescension.” I thank God she corrected me.
Now two of the signature values of white culture, I would argue, are power and control. We view power as our right, based on what we presume to be superior qualifications for leadership (in education, theology, organizational capability, speech, and so on), and our religious leaders exert control from the top down, seldom seeking the “view from the bottom” that church racial reconciliation pioneer Dr. Kenneth C. Ulmer considers essential.
It is because of these assumptions that white Christians rarely choose to serve under Black senior pastoral leadership — we demand white wineskins. It is also, I contend, why the white and Black singers in South Africa defaulted into familiar, well-charted roles.
“You Pity Black People”
I speak as one whose own racial assumptions were painfully exposed, years before I’d ever heard about concepts such as “white privilege” and “white supremacy.” After about a year of attending this inner-city church, where I attempted to be nice to everyone and performed good deeds such as delivering food to the old folks in the neighborhood, my pastor’s wife pulled me aside privately to tell me something I can still recall 30 years later:
“You pity Black people, but you don’t love them.”
Some time afterward, she added this observation:
“When you came here, you thought Black people could do some things, but you didn’t think they could do much.”
Ouch! Double ouch! I don’t recall what precipitated her comments, but I definitely remember feeling hurt, offended, and, most of all, terribly misunderstood. My response would be categorized as “white fragility” today, but sociologist Robin DiAngelo hadn’t coined the term yet, which refers to the emotional defenses white people throw up when they’re confronted about racism — defenses that often serve to shut down uncomfortable conversations.
I must point out that these truth shots were served up over time in an atmosphere of love, acceptance, and mutual commitment. My pastor’s wife demonstrated love to me, and I committed myself to this particular church family. I wanted to minister in the love of Jesus Christ, so I opened myself to correction, sometimes humbly, sometimes grudgingly. At the very least, I stuck with it — and gradually learned and grew over many years.
I write today as one who was forced by God to confront my own internalized racism. I realize that walking this path of racial reconciliation requires the continual exercise of humility, sensitivity, and self-examination. I also take time to educate myself about our nation’s racial history — studying little-known but important events such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the “Black Wall Street” massacre.
It’s Deep, Y’all
I grew up in all-white neighborhoods in the Midwest and heard racist statements from people I respected and loved. One assertion I heard several times was that Black people didn’t possess the same level of intelligence as white people, though the person who said this allowed that there might be a few exceptions. This was the single crumb of concession tossed to the generations of African-Americans with far less access to education and opportunity who toiled and endured in a system designed to keep them at the bottom rung of American society.
When you are steeped in these racist assumptions and pseudo-scientific lies from an early age — as all white Americans of my generation were, to one degree or another — the damage goes deep. No wonder racism is so difficult to address, even in the house of faith.
Like all sin, the covetousness, hatred, and pride that lie beneath racism can only be expunged at the foot of the cross — with leaders and followers bowed together in no-ifs-ands-or-buts repentance. Most white evangelical efforts toward racial unity that I’ve encountered skip this non-negotiable step. We prefer to stop at the level of superficial unity, because it costs us nothing. We therefore miss out on the incredible joy found in the journey when a church family breaks down the walls of division together through Christ’s blood and the power of the Holy Spirit.
As I seek racial unity in the Church today, I occasionally see residue of the racial attitudes and assumptions I absorbed as a child. I realize that I will never be able to “check the box” on racial awareness and move on. Anti-racism is a life commitment.
Because I have never been Black a day in my life, I must be diligent in seeking the perspectives of people who are different from me so I can walk faithfully as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all people. Help, Lord.
Julie Lyons is a Dallas-based writer who blogs at julielyons.com.