It’s been quite a while since I regularly wrote here and there is a reason for that. For many months, I have been challenged in my real life to actually live out (!) some of the things I’ve written about in my blogging life, and as usual, I’ve come up short of my own talk.
Let me begin by saying that I love my church. I believe my family is meant to be a part of this particular local body of Christians. Like any church, we have our issues. One of those issues is that while we have a diverse congregation, our church is seated in an area that is predominantly composed of people of color (African-Americans and Latinos, to be specific). I was a part of the church launch and proud to be part of a community aiming to connect with people of all backgrounds. When we launched, our core leadership consisted of several Asian-Americans, a black music director fluent in Spanish, and several white people.
Over the last few years, for reason one or another, we lost several of that initial group. Almost every person of color was [albeit unintentionally] replaced by a white person. When we lost our music director last year, I worried we were losing ground and may be putting our multi-ethnic, fledgling congregation at risk of looking like other churches that had been planted by our home church: white from the top down. Just as I thought we’d hit real trouble, God brought along a young man who was black and Puerto Rican. He was fluent in Spanish and a gifted leader. Our congregation actually got even more diverse, as members of the community saw someone they could connect with at the helm every Sunday morning.
We had some rough business happen last fall where for financial reasons, that young man was asked to leave. He was replaced by a white woman; and, while I was pleased about that to some degree (yay! a woman again!), I struggled with that age-old dichotomy of whose rights/acceptance/ascension come first: [likely white] women or people of color. These two groups are historically pitted against one another and as they say, history often repeats itself. In the days that followed that church decision, I wrote to our pastoral staff, our church elders, and maybe even to Santa Claus, to express my concern that we were backing away from an important tenet of our faith and a vital characteristic of our church in surrendering to homogeneity.
While many in leadership, especially my local pastor, took my concerns to heart, it remained an insignificant factor in finalizing their decision. At an open forum on the topic of our music minister’s dismissal, I voiced my concerns to the highest authorities in person, citing Scripture and asking them to consider the ramifications of such a decision. Several black women shared about the importance of having a role model and leader who “looks like them,” but their gentle attempts at explaining racial identity to our white pastors consistently fell on deaf ears. An Asian woman spoke up in support of our music minister, reflecting on a similar theme, but putting it in entirely different terms and drawing attention to the fact that our church leadership had, by default, whitened over the last two years. Again, a “we understand and that IS important, but…” was handed to us.
I was like a dog with a bone in that meeting. At one point, I asserted to the pastor leading the thing, “I’m just going to have to be the thorn in your side here because I find your answers unsatisfying. This is important to me, as a white person. It should be important to you, too.” Many times I was worried that I was coming off like a nut job. Even the people that wanted our music minister to stay were looking at like I was a bossy lunatic. After I spoke, one of the white pastors told us, in his defense, that he was married to an Asian woman, so he got it. They get funny looks sometimes, so he knew what I was talking about. He said, “I’m not colorblind, I know how important this is, but I won’t be color-bound in my decision.” What he didn’t realize is that he was. He is. We all are.
As the meeting ended, other issues were raised and the pastors demonstrated a stauncher commitment to the decision to let our music minister go. Several of the women of color who spoke during the proceedings came up to me afterward and thanked me for being so aggressive. One woman openly praised God while talking to me about it, thanking Him that a person like me would even know this stuff. I suppose compared to what she had just seen of white people (and perhaps what she knows of us generally), I did come off a little better. I was intensely discouraged by that meeting and despite the warm words of a few women, I felt unheard and more than a little homeless. My husband and I had many conversations about whether to stay or go in light of those events.
Following those days, in the early winter, I had lunch with another white woman in a position of leadership. She asked me about my opinion of those events and I told her what transpired in the public forum. I was careful to guard myself against gossip because she wasn’t there herself, but since it was an open meeting, I relayed some of the back and forth as close to the facts as I could recall. She was comfortable with the pastors’ decision, but what I’d said sparked a conversation on race and soon, we were in it even deeper than I had gone in that meeting.
I tried to talk to her about some of the things I’ve learned and show her my own shortcomings in this area. I told her of incidents where my privilege had blinded me to what others were going through and how reconciliation required both repentance and humility. I got a lot of “well, I don’t see them reaching out to us. Their congregations aren’t integrated. It won’t be like that in Heaven, but maybe that’s just how it is here.” It was acceptance bordering on endorsement. As we talked, she kept eying a black couple to my left to see if they were listening. They were, at times, but that didn’t seem to inhibit her commentary. She went on to say that thankfully, racism seemed to be dying out and that our children probably wouldn’t have these problems. She told me that she often teases her daughter, who is so open-minded in her social circles, “Don’t you have any friends with normal names?”
Normal names. I couldn’t even speak. How do you even respond to that?! I had an answer for everything she had said, but this seemed to cross some invisible gall line that I couldn’t follow her over. Did anyone other than the people of color in my church, I mean any one white person, even care? Did any one of them even know they should care? At what point do you hang on and hope people will understand and at what point do you let go of the rope? I had reached that point. My hands were off. I could do no more. Me, a white person, needed some white allies if I was going to have the confidence to remain in this community.
Then I began thinking about why I felt I needed allies. Why was I looking to other white people for courage? Shouldn’t God be giving me that? Shouldn’t the rightness of my cause be giving me that? The three women of color at that meeting endured flagrant dismissal in their attempt to be a legitimate part of our church community. I thought about how many times they must have wondered, “Should we just go to an all-black church?” I considered that the homelessness and the alienation I felt as a white weirdo had to be just a drop in the bucket of what those women had borne. Sure, I was formidable at that meeting, but much of my indignation was fueled by the fact that I wasn’t getting my way. I wasn’t being heard. I was pissed that the system that always works for me wasn’t working for me. And in my pride and privilege, I was surprised by my ineffectiveness. Here I was doing that white person, “But, I’m a good white person! Where’s my cookie!?!” thing.
It was during this short season of contemplation that one of those women (the Praise lady) and I had a talk that empowered me to stay. She and I were talking about how my husband and I are preparing to become foster parents and the subject of race, etc. came up again. She told me that she and her husband came from an all-black church and intentionally left to pursue an integrated community. She said that they weren’t turning back, even in the face of the great disappointments our leadership was handing down. She reminded me that change is slow and it takes people of goodwill staying and insisting (or in my case, agitating and irritating) for things to get better.
I was, what we evangelical-types call “convicted.” I was told to be patient and endure by a woman who exuded patience and graciousness. I have such a low tolerance for personal injustice. Thanks, again white privilege. And who was I kidding, it wasn’t even fully personal for me. I wasn’t being dismissed and ignored. The people of color involved were being dismissed and ignored. Sure, I got a taste of it for standing in solidarity with them, and I’m proud of that. But that was little league stuff, and in light of the greater struggle against prejudice, racism, and privilege, any injury I sustained was even smaller. I was in a huff and ready to leave before the thing even really got started.
About a month ago, a white woman I’m just getting to know had a conversation with me about fostering. She’d been raised by white parents (her birth parents) and was part of a large family of fostered and adopted children. Her parents had moved into a low-income, predominantly black community when she was a child. Everyone at their church balked at the move (and initially, their ever-growing family), cautioning her parents that their children would be imperiled by that decision. They didn’t care. They trusted God. Over time, the church folks came around. The church became multicultural, with interracial couples and various blends of families from different backgrounds. Families of color joining and becoming leaders in the church. One family’s decision to be different and pursue God’s direction made a difference in their intimidated, ignorant, white church community. But the change was slow. She told me that “these things have a tendency to catch on.” I’m still skeptical that any of this can happen for my church, but still there’s a glint of hope.
Yet, even last week, I got another glimpse at the possibilities. We go to dinner with an assigned group of people once a month over a three-month stint. It’s an activity designed to acquaint every family in our particular church group. Saturday, we had dinner with a young white couple and an Ethiopian family. As it seems to do these days, the topic of race, missions, and ministry, came up. The white couple were educated at a Christian college in Ohio where they learned about white privilege and how Christians can be involved in racial justice. I was kind of shocked, to be honest, at what they had learned at their relatively conservative evangelical school. The couple is planning to lead a team of missionaries to Haiti where they will be establishing a relationship between our church and a local church there. They wanted counsel on how to do missions in light of all they understood about colonialism, imperialism, white savior-ism and the lot. The Ethiopian couple talked at length about what their perceptions were of missionaries back home: how it had been done badly, how it had been done well. They spoke of how trust is cultivated, how one can learn from the other, and how open, strong, healthy partnerships and peer relationships can develop.
The husband talked a bit about his experience with racial profiling, being light-skinned and mistaken for an Arabic person and searched at security stations in airports. He said he always made sure to go to the bathroom before the flight because he knew just standing up during the flight might frighten the passengers. I was appalled and said he shouldn’t do that, nor should he feel he has to do that. He agreed that it was a sacrifice, but said in those situations he still aims to make [white] people comfortable. I knew that many people in our church would not be bothered by such a situation. They may be uncomfortable knowing someone it had actually happened to, but in theory, they have no qualms with profiling, etc. Again, I was reminded that any loneliness I feel in my church because of my convictions is a small offering compared to what is happening right now to my Christian brothers and sisters of color.
When we left dinner, I had a renewed sense of passion for racial justice and reconciliation. The injustices against my new Ethiopian friends, the righteous indignation and humility of my new white friends. It was a lot to take in over one meal. I’m not sure where all of this is leading, but I know there is a great and difficult conversation emerging in our church about race. More than anything else, I am thankful that God is faithful to keep putting me in it. Even when I look crazy or devolve into a total whiner over it.