Thoughts From the Porch
Like many people, I probably fall into the “spiritual, not religious” polling category these days. I still claim membership to a large non-denominational church that used to wear the name “Church of Christ”, but I rarely attend anymore. Even though there are many things I love about my faith tradition, I find myself uncomfortable in a place where “white, suburban, middle-class” continues to be the dominant member demographic.
To be fair, my church tries to be inclusive and has always been welcoming of everyone. They serve both the local and global community. It’s just that for the most part, most of the congregants are white. That’s what happens when you’re located in a predominantly white suburb. It’s the whole “birds of a feather” thing. It’s not intentional, or is it?
The issue of race and racism in my church began to rise to the surface last year. Although it saddens me that it took so long to come up, the minister took a bold leap and preached a series on race. For most of those of the Caucasian persuasion this meant having to discuss racism and race, particularly in the church, for the first time. I applaud their efforts. Quite frankly, white people are extremely uncomfortable talking about such subjects. They deny the problem like an alcoholic denies their alcoholism. It requires a level of honest appraisal that most folks shy away from. Ripping off the intellectual bandages to reveal an ugly, festering wound is painful, but necessary to heal properly. That’s why I was excited to see them offer a seminar “Let’s Start Talking About Race”. At least they’re talking, right?
“In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. that is, we are all in a common relationship with Christ. Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s ‘descendant’, heirs according to the covenant promises”. Galatians 3.28-29 – The Message
My biggest fear is that my church will stop at ‘talking’ about the problem. My friend, Jim, always told me that “when all was said and done, more would be said than done”. Like the alcoholic who sees the reality of their alcoholism, the church is left with a choice: either continue the destructive behavior or take an active part in the healing process. Action is often simple, but far from easy. Honestly, most of us choose an easier way. That’s scary and a bit hopeless. The good news is we don’t have to do it alone.
I don’t pretend to have the answers. I know however, that relationships are the key, especially ones with people of color. Several years ago, I was working for a local ministry on a community garden on the heart of Como, a predominantly African American and neglected, low income community here in Fort Worth.
During the first days of tilling, building beds, and planting, a guy who rode his bike past the garden each day, stopped and asked why we were tearing up the vacant lot where old downtown Como used to be. I explained to him what we were doing – building a garden that would serve the community. His response was unexpected.
“You white folks come down here and tell us what’s good for our neighborhood as if you know better than us. Your white church comes down here for a few days to help us poor black folk so you can feel better about yourselves and tell everyone to look and see what you did. Then you go back to your nice comfy suburbs and leave us to clean up the mess”.
I thought for a moment, looked him in the eye, and said, “You’re right, but I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be here tomorrow and the day after that.” He grunted and rode off down the street.
What the gentleman passing by didn’t know was that I was working for a neighborhood ministry. Still, I learned something that day. Good intentions hide the fact that we’re still a part of the systemic racism that plagues our society. We don’t listen to communities of color because we think we know better. We think know better because of our implicit bias that says the dominant white culture is ‘normal’ so it must be right. What is that but white supremacy. Ouch…
Several days later, the same guy began to say hello as he rode past each morning. This continued for a few mornings until one day he stopped to ask what “that was coming up over there?” We began a conversation and he introduced himself as Stephen. I introduced myself and we talked about what else was coming up. A couple of days after that his stops became more frequent.
He spoke of the rich history of the land I’d planted, how the neighborhood movie house had been there and how the old downtown had been a vibrant gathering place for the community. He began to stop regularly and chat, asking how things were going. His initial combative attitude changed to one of neighborliness.
The lesson I learned from all of this is that we begin to see each other differently when we spend time with each other. People cease to be ‘them’ and divisions begin to break down. That’s hard to do in a place, especially a church, that lacks diversity – diversity of thought, color, and culture. Unfortunately, Dr. King was right – “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” That lesson has been reinforced many times over the years. I’ve had to take a long, hard, honest look at myself in the process.
I’ve had to identify the old tapes and the old ways of thinking I grew up with. I had to be honest enough to admit my shortcomings and ask God to remove them. I had to repent, or rethink, my old ideas and actions.
I love the word repent. Acknowledging the problem is the first step to a solution, whether it be in spiritual or worldly matters. Jim always told me that once I identify the problem I’m halfway to the solution. Repentance is full of hope and possibility – for all of us.
As I have said, I don’t know all the answers and I’m certainly no expert on racial issues However, I know everything has a beginning. Honest conversation (and listening is the key to conversation) is a great place to start. Just don’t stop there and start walking…