Article Nov 25, 2014

Good Grief: The gospel, race, and our experiences

I haven’t spoken on race much since I’ve been a pastor. But like the great songwriter said, “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” (Ecc. 3:7 ESV) Now is a time to speak.

My background

I grew up in an environment in the post-civil rights era when every message from the pulpit was racially charged.  I grew up around black nationalists who saw a conspiracy everywhere,  and went to one of the oldest historically black colleges in the country, during a time when hip-hop artists had an activist edge to their craft. 

In the home where I grew up, I was raised by a mom and dad 50 years older than me. They grew up in the Jim Crow South (South Carolina) and experienced lynching and racism at its height. Growing up in DC in the crack era, we were trained to interact with police in a way to keep ourselves safe.  I have been racially profiled on more than one occasion.

Fast forward—I get called to ministry and head off to one of the premier seminaries in the country.  This was my first experience in a majority white evangelical culture and the broader majority white world, for that matter.  As I walked in this world for the first time, my eyes were opened to what upbringing was preparing me for. 

What I was not prepared for, however, was the naivety and lack of empathy among my white evangelical brothers.  Because some of the progress that had been made up to that point (in terms of opportunities for African Americans), many evangelicals seemed to view racism as a thing of the past. As I entered conversations on race in this sector, it was clear to me that there was a common misconception that any talk of racism was seen as whining, or an attempt to utilize the past as justification for laziness in the present. 

During my sojourn in seminary, I went into radio silence on the issue.  As I began to complete 8yrs of post undergraduate education (Masters and Doctoral), I feared that sharing my experiences regarding racism with my white brethren, largely due to the cynical responses that I have received from those I encountered.  However, there were priceless relationships that I built with my white brothers, and I continue to build strong relationships to this day. 

Now that I am pastoring an inner city (Philadelphia, PA) church that happens to be multiethnic, I still feel the effects of racism.  Even in planting Epiphany Fellowship Church, with all of the earned theological education I have received and over two decades, I have to borrow the credibility of white pastors to help get resources to plant the church. 

I cannot tell you some of the ways that I was treated in that process by some pastors and churches.  I can’t tell you how broken hearted I am when someone tells me that I am a credit to my race.  Incidentally, I am angry that I still have to work through these challenges, and the fact the racism still exists.

Good Grief

It grieves me that in the multiethnic church that I pastor, that when I engage SOME of our white congregants, I have to have one of my white elders present to make sure they (whom I will give an account to God for) feel comfortable when they meet with me. So much so, in fact, I fear I’ve under-pastored the whites in our church, because of my sensitivity to being in a cultural environment where one is a minority. 

It grieves me that when I speak at events with thousands of attendees—my face pictured on the brochures and screens—only to be mistaken for “the help.”  Because of how I have been socialized, and because of my experiences, I am working to take race off the table in many instances—like the current trial of Mike Brown’s killer. 

It is impossible for me to shake off my experiences though.

From Rodney King to Trayvon Martin, these trials seem doomed from the start.  They act, for many African-Americans in the post civil rights era, as a barometer for where the race issue stands in this country.  Even now, with Mike Brown, it seems to be in the same place the issue has been in the past.  I don’t pretend to speak for all African Americans, yet it is obvious to most that race really does still matter. And there needs to be healthy and honest dialogue about the subject. 

How does the gospel speak to the current issue?

I took to Twitter last night to come out of my radio silence.  I don’t know if that was the right platform, but what is done, is done. 

I tried to make equitable statements that spoke to both African Americans and whites in the Christian world.  What I found was profoundly grievous from some of my white brothers.  The lack of empathy and ignorance and the depth of naivety was heart breaking.  Comments went through my Twitter line from white brethren stating stuff like, “Did you view the facts?,” and, “Did you want an eye for eye?” and “Obama race baiting,” “Due process,” “Color has nothing to do with it,” “What about the looters?” and “The grand jury did their job.”  In short, I was blown away by some lacking the spirit of sacrifice stated in Romans 12:1,2 and then applied verses 9-21. 

In light of these verses this is what I’ll say, “Mourn with those who mourn”.

After instructing Christians to respond to outsiders with love and forgiveness, Paul now turns back to the Christian community, enjoining a sincere identification with others whatever their state might be. Note how Paul’s commands here echo what he says about relations within the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:26: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” But the need for such mutual identification is found in Jewish sources as well (Arnold). [1] 

Many times in the ancient world people entered into mourning with other—even if they didn’t know all the details. The main issue is this: someone is hurting.

Where do we go from here?

Regardless of the outcome, this situation carries so many elements of past high-profile cases involving blacks in our country as well as the over all weight of the issue of race. This only reinforces some of the pain of the experience with race that too many African Americans I know feel, including myself.  Additionally, the faulty response of non-empathetic brethren exacerbates the pain. 

Just as some of the very high profile civil rights cases made way for greater progress for civil rights, so also the Mike Brown case was for how civil the rights of ethnic minorities has come.  Cases and verdicts act as reference points for similar cases in the judicial system.  They help perpetuate the outcome in light of similar issues being taken into account. 

Even with the outcome of the current case being what it is, you’d expect, “how can I pray?” “Help me understand the emotions you are dealing with”?  “Help me to understand how you are processing this?”  “I want to empathize, but I’m struggling!”  Understand this, all of us interpret facts in light of our social experiences.  Even Van Til believed that the Christian and the non-Christian have different ultimate standards, presuppositions that color the interpretation of every fact in every area of life.  Because of the experience of many minorities with racism, when there is a scenario that mirrors and reeks of injustice, there is going to be a sensitivity to how “facts” are handled.

So what should we all do?  Do this: "Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God" (Jas 1:19-20 ESV).

In other words:

• Whites: mourn with hurting blacks and listen…
• Blacks: mourn, be angry and do not sin…
• All people: seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.

The cross is a meeting place of conflict.  Let’s go to the cross together and deal with issues.  Jesus died on the cross to face our sin and brokenness, not to ignore it.  Let’s head there together.


[1] Arnold, C. E. (2002). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Romans to Philemon. (Vol. 3, p. 76). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.