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black and white

I am unsure about writing this post. I usually don’t write posts where I try to put forth a view, argue a point, because I think for those kinds of things to be effective, you ought to be able to back up things with statistics and studies. I am good at neither.  But here’s what I know.

For the past 15 years Bryan and I have been a part of the same church. A white church, mostly. There were a couple of African-American families, and a few black kids in the youth group. We are inter-denominational, and pretty laid back about things, and none of us would have ever said that we didn’t want our church to be mixed racially. I mean, why wouldn’t we have?

If you had pushed us on it, I think that most of us would have said something along these lines: Well, sure – we welcome all races here. But, I mean, you can’t force that. How are you supposed to make something like that happen, anyway? I think most people are simply more comfortable worshiping in a culture that they are used to. Black people like to do church a different way than we do, right?

I remember places along the way – snapshots in my mind of a change taking place. Our white pastor, Craig, telling us of a friendship he had formed with an African-American pastor across town. How he had become convinced that there were still strong racial barriers within the church, and that it was simply wrong. How he was determined to stay in this relationship. How difficult that was at times.

I specifically remember him telling us about a time both men showed up for something. Craig was dressed rather casually, and his pastor friend was in a suit – and this apparently wasn’t the first time it had happened. Craig made a joke about it, and his friend turned to him and said: If I went to the mall dressed the way you were, none of the salespeople would give me the time of day. Or if they did pay attention to me, they would watch me to see if I was stealing something.

Really?

In the fall of 2006, our white church hired a black pastor. His name is Harold Nash, and the story of how he came to be with us, against all odds, is an amazing one on it’s own. He was deeply committed to a wonderful mentoring ministry and had no desire to leave – but then God conspired with a local prophet named Ray and there was no turning back.  If there is one thing that marks the life of Harold Nash, it’s that he listens to God when He speaks, and he acts on it, even when everything in him doesn’t want to.

And that’s how he ended up with us.

I really thought at that point that we had crossed a line. And we had, but it wasn’t the one I thought it was. I thought that we had basically done it – overcome the racial barriers right there in our very own church. We had a black pastor and a white pastor, on equal footing. Both teaching, both leading, both respected by all of us. You could see the unity right there in front of us.

I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

I didn’t know how hard it would be, at times, to see someone else’s side of things. To learn new songs, new ways of doing things. I didn’t know how easily I could be defensive about why I liked or didn’t like certain things. Or even about just being white.

I didn’t know that the thing I thought was the finish was really just the beginning.

In January of 2008, after a year of prayer and planning, the leadership of our church brought out our new vision statement:

to mobilize a racially-unified family of God,
called out as the presence of Jesus in our world,
to pursue His mission:  all people reconciled to God.

The main differences were the distinct mention of racial unity, and the greater emphasis on turning outward toward our community. But because we are normally not a church that spends a whole lot of time defining things, and because these changes were important to us, we decided to spend several weeks talking about this statement in church. Seeing where it came from in the Bible, and what it means for our particular place and time. A friend of mine suggested that during this time we might want to have some groups available where people could come and talk, ask questions, be heard. And out of that, grew a thing that we now call Talk It Out.

Talk It Out is simple idea: 4 weeks of a small group where people of different races can come and talk. Where we can look at the idea that “black churches” and “white churches” are not anything that Jesus ever intended. Where someone might have a chance to hear what life is like when you wear skin of another color. Great idea, right? I thought so – just not for me. I didn’t need to go through it – I had no problems with what we were trying to do at church. I had no problems with other races. I was not a racist. I didn’t need to try to fit one more thing into my week.

Our leaders must have anticipated this response, because they required the staff to go through it. And here’s what’s crazy; I needed it more than I could have imagined.

I needed to know that just by being born white in Arkansas, I have an advantage in nearly every single life situation I find myself.

I needed to hear someone say that my thought that things are equal now between races, that the injustices are all in the past, is like sitting down to play a game of Monopoly with a black friend. This particular Monopoly game has been played for generations now; our fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers played together too. Only some of those previous white players took all the hotels and controlled the bank and maybe punched their opponents in the face. And now I come to the game, with the wealth of accumulated resources behind me, and my opponent comes from a very different place – and even with the best of intentions, the game is not equal.

I needed to know, as someone who claims to follow Christ, that all these little fences we build in our lives and relationships and churches – well, they’re just wrong. And not wrong as in a social activist viewpoint-type way, but wrong in a Bible kind of way.

And I needed to know that I don’t have to feel bad about being white. That no one was trying to blame or manipulate me. I am sure there are things that the African-Americans in my group learned about white people – about thoughts, attitudes, misunderstandings that needed to change – but this is my story.

Most of all, I needed to see.

And I do now, more than I ever used to. I see the assumptions that we make and the systems that keep us in those places. I see the unwillingness to listen, the attitudes, the ignorance. The scars that we bear simply for living in Little Rock. All over the place, I see the mess we’ve made of it all and the great amount of grace it takes for me and you to come together.

I’m not sure why I’m bringing all this up today. Maybe because a statistic I saw on Twitter this weekend brought shock and sadness to those in my local community. Maybe it was so that I could go looking for this post I wrote about Central High last year and realize that it’s not on my blog, just the one I work with for church (I’m going to fix that, by the way). Maybe I just need to remind myself, every so often, that this thing we work toward is difficult, but good.

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13 Comments

  1. I grew up in white churches and the statement that you wrote about how “most of us” would have answered rings all too true. I’ve said those words myself in the past.

    I’m thrilled to hear about this talk it out idea and I’d love to see some of the scripture you all studied during you exploration of the mission statement.

    As my church has been more proactive about reaching into diverse communities it has definitely shown how ignorant we are about the world we live in.

    I too need to see.

    On a personal note, these posts are the toughest to write. It’s those times we face the screen and dare to bare our souls that we tap in to what makes us human. I know this wasn’t easy but I needed to read it and it is exactly why it needed to be written… by you.

    Probably the most thought provoking and profound thing I’ve read in months. Thank you. I needed to hear this. I need it to spur me on to more.

    I need to see.

  2. This is an awesome post! Thank you so much for writing it. 

    We went out to L.A. to visit my husband’s best friend a few years ago.  He took us to his church, a very vibrant Black Pentecostal church.  On that morning in worship, my husband and I were the only white people in the sanctuary.  We couldn’t have been more welcomed.  I loved the praise and worship time– women were pulling tambourines and maracas and ribbons out of their handbags.  People were clapping, kids were dancing in the aisles, flags and banners were waved. It felt like real, exuberant, worship.  As I participated in this joyful scene, I couldn’t help but notice the rest of the building.  The church meets in what used to be an Eastern Orthodox church, and the Orthodox iconography remains painted on the walls and ceiling.  It was such a contrast– these images of pale, white, skinny, dour-looking saints, this Jesus, who looked like he hadn’t had a meal in at least a year before being crucified, looking down painfully on  such a joyful scene.  And I couldn’t help but wonder, what if the Orthodox people had stuck around to see this scene? What if they had all worshipped together?  How crazy and awesome would that cultural collision have been? 

    I come from a tradition more akin to the Orthodox than the Pentecostal, as I grew up a member of the “frozen chosen” aka the Presbyterian Church.  People were appalled if someone clapped after a soloist performed in the church I grew up in.  Such an enthusiastic, uninhibited display of worship would have shocked most of the people I grew up in church with.  And you know what? I think they could use the shocking! When we segregate ourselves from different ways of worship and loving Jesus and serving others, we ALL miss out.

  3. I’m so glad you didn’t let the lack of studies stop you from writing this. Sometimes your own experience a truly powerful thing.
    The convo last Friday got me thinking as well. I hope to publish my own thoughts on this issue soon.
    Preview: “Most of all, I needed to see.” I think this is the key to all of it. To see with loving eyes.

  4. kat

    i have no words b/c i am still processing and want to read it over and over and over and over.  i really love this post.

  5. It is so important that people of different ranges hang out with each other and really talk.  There is so much that people don’t know about each other. 

  6. I love hearing your stories and thoughts, friends.  Keith, I would love to send you those references and point you toward other resources.  Even more, I’d love for you to come sometime when we have a group form, or get a few people that want to go through it with you, and we could do a group together…

    Thanks again, you guys, for having the conversation with me.

  7. This is an awesome, timely post.  I intend to share it with my friends and my pastor.  Thanks so much for your thoughts. 

  8. Ines

    Sarabeth-
    Thanks for sharing your heart! This IS one of the most difficult journeys I have ever embarked on myself. When I feel like giving up, I return to Revelations 5:9-10. It reminds me that it’s a “blood issue”. God created people of color for His glory, and He also redeems people of color for His glory. I prayed for this today when we met at FN…another woman there reminded me that God intercedes for us, to be reconciled w/ Him, and to be reconciled to each other. I was convicted. I was encouraged. I was challenged not to lose heart. It’s a joy for me to be in this journey w/ you!

    your brown friend, Ines 😉

    • Thank you sweet friend – for being in this with me and for helping me remember that there are even more sides to this story than I remember, most of the time.

  9. Thanks for posting this. I, too, saw the Twitter conversation and was saddened and appalled at the statistic. Having grown up as an African-American in a mostly-white neighborhood and attending an all-black Missionary Baptist Church, I often felt caught between two worlds. And as someone who dates interracially, the statistic really hurt, to be honest.

    I think this is a timely post and a conversation that needs to happen more often. I have learned that education/information is essential to move beyond… I haven’t visited Fellowship North, but plan to attend in the future.

    Again, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  10. What a wonderful post. So honest.

  11. I love the idea of the Talk It Out groups. I think every church and community would benefit.

    • I’m so glad my friend Suebob brought me here. This is honest and refreshing and I am in desperate need of knowing that more people out there are willing and ready to learn about themselves and, in turn, their fellow brothers and sisters. I wish my own church was ready for this and when they weren’t I had to leave. I could no longer take how much money we were spending on ourselves (recently, it was flatscreen tvs everywhere, a coffee shop, a waterfall in the main entrance) and then do one shot volunteerism to the poor, black community on the opposite side of town. And patting ourselves on the back for it. That just ruins me. I want to be a part of something better.

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