In Christ, Bob Marsh
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I do not profess to have racial reconciliation all figured out by any means! My prayer is that from my mistakes and my misguided perceptions there will be a redemptive quality to my weaknesses and inadequacies.
But first, let me share a story…..
About 5 years ago I had the honor of being part of opening a wrap around Christian Kindergarten school in the largest public housing project outside of Chicago. We formed a partnership with the local school that serves the under resourced elementary children in our district. The children we served were all “assessed” by the public school as being the lowest of the low academically. After these children were in our program 100% of them exceeded the standards of the district and state in reading skills. Yet when we went to the superintendent of our district to request title one funding money to help support the financial needs of our school we were told there wasn’t any money available. Just 1 year after our school tragically closed down for lack of funds the same district opened up a program similar to ours in the same building we were in with the same title one funds we had requested.
Why? Why is it difficult for us to have a real relationship with each other across racial lines? What prevents us from moving past mere discussion about racial reconciliation to true authentic Christ like love and equality among blacks and whites?
In Matthew 13:25 it says, “But while everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.” In the book titled, “Dismantling Racism, the Continuing Challenge to White America” by Joseph Barndt, he says, “Racism is an evil weed sown in the garden of humanity.” He goes on to define racism as prejudice plus power. Racism in my experience has been demonstrated in the social structures of institutions, organizations, bureaucracies, the way power is used outside our community seem to kick our community in the behind. Everywhere we turn we experience opposition.
Many different affluent, sincere and well meaning pastors came to tour our school and hear about the ways in which lives were being transformed in our community. I was told by different Pastors that they truly cared and were concerned. Yet often times I felt alone. Where were my other brothers and sisters within all the surrounding churches?
I repeatedly witnessed whites coming to our church or our outreach with a Savior mentality. They believed that the people in our community were inferior and needed fixing. This in reality meant teaching and changing their ways to assimilate into the white way of doing things! The associate pastor and many of the other whites in our church failed to see their own issues that perpetuated the racial divide. I quickly saw this in myself, too. I remember early on, coming to the Pastor and sharing that I was here to learn and listen in order to effectively participate in the discipline and transforming work in the lives of people within our church and community, including myself.
Many times white individuals and churches would offer their time and talents to partner with us but they would pick the starting time, which was normally very early (we laugh at this difference within our church because it is the polar opposite of what African Americans prefer. Only the whites would show up! Not because the blacks weren’t interested they just culturally start later! ). Many were task orientated; blacks put a higher emphasis on relationship. According to Reaching the World Next Door by …Thom and Marcia Hopler. “Biblical reconciliation can occur when we count the experiences of other groups as completely valid”.
I saw white church leaders who wanted to come together and have a foot washing or prayer time with our church and believed that would bring racial reconciliation. Our black brothers and sisters are not interested in appeasing the guilt we have about the injustice. They want equal partnership, equal power, and an authentic working together to create equity and justice. They are tired of our talking and discussing. Why is it so hard for us to come together?
We need to quit focusing on changing them and focus on changing ourselves.
I came in to this church with arrogance and a superiority mindset. I had been part of a large mega church that was thriving. I could show this church how we did small groups, had leadership meetings, and served the community. What could this church teach me? I lacked humility. Why is it so hard for us to come together?
When considering the reasons for the barriers to racial reconciliation I would ask, “Who is creating the vision for racial reconciliation? Are they primarily white?” I had to become aware that being white gave me privileges my brothers and sisters do not have simply because of their color. I could leave this church and the struggle any time. My brothers and sisters have to stay and live within it. That reality effects how far I will allow myself to get involved. If it gets too messy I can go. And many people did just that. I can control how deep into relationship I want to ascend. I can choose how much I am willing to risk or lose. I can decide how much power I want to give up in order to make room for the valuable contribution of an African American brother or sister. Will I move aside so they can succeed? Will I be one of the leaders and not the primary one? Will I listen more and talk less?
I needed to get out of my comfort zone and be stretched in my understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Personal piety and individualism kept me from seeing the gospel beyond a confession of faith in Jesus Christ. The gospel speaks to the spiritual AND social aspects of life. How can we share the message of the gospel and then leave people in a state of poverty and oppression.
I must confess, I thought I was doing a good thing when we served the poor once a month! I felt pretty good about myself! It wasn’t until I got out of my middle-class comforts and got exposed daily to sincere single women struggling to keep a job because they can’t afford childcare. Discipleship is about helping people to be restored in the image of God now not just the hope and promise of eternal life!
There are many sincere well meaning leaders that desire racial reconciliation but have not really considered the cost. When we came to Grace, it was initially exciting being part of a multicultural church. We had been part of a miracle in the neighborhood and knew we were called to this kingdom work.
We didn’t realize we would wrestle with different emotions of guilt, shame, humiliation and even confusion. I started remembering the things my father would say about blacks, I remember being with our Senior Pastor William Emmanuel at a Christian school and the principal not even standing up to shake his hand, my father-in-law refusing to let us invite William and Linda to stay at their place in Lake Geneva. I was embarrassed and humiliated by our race. EX: when I first started preaching- I had unknowingly offended when I said “you people”. I must admit my mistakes and accept it as part of the journey towards loving as Christ does.
We need to avoid being paralyzed by people’s mistrust or assumptions about our actions. I learned that trust takes time. There was a lifetime of oppressive things said and done to my brothers and sisters and they were not readily trusting of why we were there. Even when the school and snack shop was up and running and lives were changing…. I need to continually keep my eyes on Christ and not my circumstances and continue to do the work God has called me to do and invite Him to teach me how to be more loving even when I am misunderstood. I needed to be willing to work through the conflicts.
I didn’t realize that once I moved passed giving the occasional toy or turkey at Christmas or serving the homeless a meal on Saturday and really stepped in to a long term relationship where we walked along side the oppressed it was too much for many of our white friends to handle. I hadn’t considered the cost of losing friends.
I didn’t realize that I would get criticism from whites. Many were challenged by the level of investment my family had made. There was much talk behind my back and even attempts to humiliate me. Some whites went to the Pastor to reprimand me on some false accusation. The institutions we were working with (The school system, management of the complex, even the police station) worked against my efforts to provide holistic ministry within the community. No, I did not sign up for that.
I sometimes feel frustrated when whites intellectually understand the oppressive systems, white privilege, and color blindness yet fail to move beyond talking across racial lines or the occasional get together. True reconciliation will occur with relationship that moves to action together to change the oppression of people of color.
Becky Thompson, author of A Promise and a Way of Life, talked with 39 white racial activists about their individual experiences. Thompson writes about her conversation with activist Sarah Sterns and what she has learned about interacting with people of color. She told Thompson that “Unless I am willing, as the white person, to feel and hold the rage of the cultural and institutional racism, then basically I am exercising my privilege to bring the conversation back to “What does this have to do with me?
I remember when I started to experience the rage. Day in and day out I witnessed pain and suffering. The burden and the heaviness of the oppression brought me to my knees crying out to God! I had to be part of the change! My heart breaks and my soul yearns for the reproach to be lifted off. It has been prayer, the promises given by God and the glimmers of authentic racial reconciliation within our church that sustain me on this journey.
When we keep at arms length or only go to a certain level in relationship, we really do not experience the pain of the oppression of our brothers and sisters. Only when it hurts and affects me and my family will I be motivated to be part of the solution in a more active way.
Consider the cost. I had to check the assumptions, perceptions and stereotypes I had about people of color in order for me to follow the leadership of an African American. Many whites who left our fellowship were unable to respect and see the valuable contribution and visionary leadership in Pastor William. They would go to another white elderly man in the congregation to voice their concerns.
In summary, I remind you of three things. First, understand how white privilege solidifies the perpetuation of oppression in America. Second, consider the cost to true racial reconciliation. And lastly, be willing to put an African American at the helm of your efforts towards racial reconciliation. It is only as we follow and relinquish our power as whites will we begin to heal, restore and transform the racial divide and our communities and nation for Christ.
According to Flora Wilson Bridges who wrote, Resurrection Song, African-American Spirituality, the African American philosophy of life is based on the community- I am because we are.
In Matthew 16:24-25 it says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life must lose it, but whoever loses his life will find it”. Racial Reconciliation requires time and sweat and possibly our very lives like those who have gone before us.
I stay because I love my brothers and sisters and believe in holistic ministry and reconciliation. It is the heart of God. Unity in the body of Christ is God’s intention. Our life has been completely transformed since submitting to living out the gospel the way Christ intended. My prayer is that yours is, too.
I welcome any dialogue you might like to have with me. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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