Come early if you want a seat. Local church leaders are featured in the documentary.
Come early if you want a seat. Local church leaders are featured in the documentary.
Tomorrow, at noon EDT time, I and two of my colleagues, Rev Desiree Guyton (an LPC) and Rev Dan Williams (Director of Urban programs here at BTS) will be discussing the ongoing problems of police shootings, trauma, race matters and how the church can be a positive response to a difficult situation. Here is the abstract we posted elsewhere:
In the wake of the multiple police shootings, our nation is again awakened to ongoing racial tension. Biblical Seminary recognizes the debate around these events within the Christian community and desire to address them. Biblical Seminary’s Urban and Counseling Department directors are coming together in live video stream forum to create an open Christian dialogue about the impact of police shootings on race relations, systemic racism and trauma, and discuss practical ways to respond. This live video will be delivered on Wednesday, September 28 at 12:00pm through Periscope App and Facebook. Participants will be able to post comments and questions during the discussion.
If you would like to watch live, download the Periscope app (a Twitter product) and search for my name, @philipgmonroe. Should last one hour. If you can’t find us live, I will post links to the video that will be available soon after we complete the session.
In life we start with experience long before we can articulate reality. As we grow and mature we try to make sense of the world and our place in it. As we develop, we come to recognize that our experiences are always biased and in need of correction. Yet, no matter the need for correction, our experiences still shape us in powerful ways. Thus, if we are going to get a handle on the complex sociopolitical issues involved in the current distress of Black men being shot or mistreated by police officers, we need to start with their stories—not because these stories are all we have but because they are fundamentally shaping experiences for these men.
Full disclosure: I am lily white. While I am the father of two African American sons, I myself can never fully understand their experience. I have never felt that others are afraid of me solely based on the color of my skin. However, what follows may help majority readers prepare to listen to heart-breaking stories and to become a bit more aware of what it might be like to be a Black man in America.
Two personal stories first.
Since it is my blog, let me tell two of my own stories of interactions with authorities. First, many years ago I was driving my little VW late one Friday night through the rural pine barrens of New Jersey, on my way to a youth group retreat. I was by myself. At some point a car came up on my rear at a high rate of speed. I hoped he would pass me but he didn’t. After a few minutes, blue lights flashed. I was being pulled over. I checked my speed and was sure I had not done anything wrong. After stopping, I turned off my music, lowered my window and awaited the officer’s approach. With his bright flashlight in hand, he asked me if I knew why I was being stopped. I didn’t. He asked me to get out of the car. Now my heart started racing a bit. He told me I had been weaving (I’m sure I hadn’t) and whether I had been drinking (I know I hadn’t). He put me through my paces with touching my nose, walking in a straight line. Had I been doing drugs, he asked. Why were my eyes so bloodshot (hard contacts did that to me)? He asked me if I would allow him to search my car and to move to the back. He proceeded to take the next 15 minutes to rifle through my car: glove box, under seats, through my packed bag. The longer it took and the more silent he was, the more anxious I became. I found myself starting to panic. Why? I hadn’t done anything wrong. Intermittently, he would stop, shine the light on me and ask me quite gruffly, why I was anxious (which made me jump and become more anxious). At one point I put my hands on my head so as to get a bit more oxygen into my lungs–like you might do after running an 800 meter race. Finally, he stopped looking through my things and help up a small tube containing a tiny suction cup (used to removed a hard contact that had become stuck in the corner of my eye). What’s this? I tried to explain but stumbled over my words until I could show him out it worked. Abruptly, the officer told me he could give me a ticket for weaving and driving tired. He wouldn’t this time but he was going to follow me for the next two miles to a nearby convenience store where he expected me to stop and buy a caffeinated drink. Those two miles were the longest I’ve driven. I probably choked that steering wheel to death!
Thus ends my scariest interaction with American police. Not much of a scare really. It was, however, unnerving. I was not anywhere near home. I didn’t have any power. I hadn’t done anything wrong but was being suspected of many wrong things. You might argue that he was just doing his job but my experience was that I wasn’t believed when I gave my answers. Even though I passed the balance tests, I still wasn’t believed. I didn’t really have the right to refuse the search of my car even though the law said I did. He had all the power, I had none. I wasn’t really mistreated and went on my way no worse for wear. When I drove back by at the end of the retreat, I noticed being a bit on edge, looking around for police and being doubly sure I was driving in a straight line.
But stick with my story for just a minute more. Imagine further now that this happened on a semi-regular basis, maybe even only once a year. How would that shape my sense of self or my reaction to police anywhere? And what if the outcome were undeserved fines or handcuffs just to keep the officers safe? How would that influence my sense of place in the community, a place where evidently you are a cause of fear merely due to the color of your skin?
I did have another police interaction worth telling here. I attended a tiny bible college in Lenox, MA between 1984 and 1986. This school was situated on the edge of Tanglewood Music Center (summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra), a most beautiful and wealthy (and white) part of the state. Our study body, though small, was diverse with a number of students from the historic Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, MA. One day, several of us decided to go play basketball at a local school. We piled into one of the Daye brother’s mammoth car. Likely there were 6 of us going to shoot hoops. What I know is that I was the only white person in the car, sitting in the back seat between two much larger African American men. On the way, (which couldn’t be more than 2 miles at the most) we were pulled over. No tickets were given but we were questioned as to where we were headed. What I most remember from this event is the questions I was asked. On several occasions I was ask, “Are you okay?” Taken off guard and, frankly, naïve to what he might be asking, I must have stammered out a yes. Either I was unconvincing or he couldn’t imagine why I would be with this group of friends. So, he asked at least 2 more times. As far as I recall, we went on to play basketball and never (sadly) spoke of that event. It wasn’t until later that I realized what the officer was asking and what message that spoke to my brothers–that they were a threat to me, that I must be there against my will.
Why and How to Listen?
In previous blogs I have covered the why and the how of listening to those who seem different from ourselves. Consider reading “Loving Your Cultural Enemies” and “On having Substantive Conversations about Race Relations.” Each of these short essays suggest the way forward is through listening and validating personal experiences because being heard, seen and understood tend to move us more quickly beyond simplistic diagnoses and blame-shifting. Think about the most recent argument you had with a family member. Did you make more progress debating or by acknowledging key points?
Try These Steps
These are starter ideas to get ourselves immersed in the stories of others. Next we will consider what responsibilities we have when we learn of individual and systemic injustices.
Last February, BTS held a public dialogue on Temple’s campus entitled: From Protest to Process: Law Enforcement, Race, and Trauma, How Can the Church Become a Healing Community (the title tells you academics were involved in the process–but the topic was anything but just academic). During the Q and A time, there were several questions about what the church can do to help.
Any answer has to acknowledge that getting our heads and hearts wrapped around the problem and our wills engaged to be part of the solution is a monumental task–because it calls us to a place of discomfort. Take a minute and consider Dr. Shannon Mason’s initial two minute response: Can the church become an open wound community? Or will She prefer to close the wound and pretend that what is underneath is healed? While Dr. Mason’s illustration can be difficult to stomach, it is nevertheless apt!
Soon after the dialogue, I wrote the following just published piece for the BTS faculty blog. I list two small steps that suburban, predominantly white, congregations can take towards making a difference in our even more racially charged world. Surely we can do more that what I suggest, but if we don’t start with ownership of the problems, how will we ever engage?
Finally, you might think that race in America is a hopeless case. It sure seems so. But one-by-one, if we can have an impact on one person’s life, and that person has a positive impact on one other…then everything is possible. It may not be in our life-time and that is okay. We are not called to win the battle but to run the race set out before us.
Maybe it has always been this way, but it seems harder these days to have substantive conversations about race relations. I think the same struggle exists when you try to talk about sexual identity, gay marriage and anything else that is a hot button issue today. Does it seem that way to you?
In the realm of race relations, we have dueling images (Baltimore burning v. images of a black man being beaten by police), dueling sound bytes (Baltimore mayor portrayed as giving permission to rioters “space to destroy” property v. Franklin Graham’s “Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else, Listen up” comment) and dueling diagnoses (racist cops v. thug culture). These seem to generate much emotion and quick reaction but little in the way of deep conversation and understanding.
It is easy to lay blame at the feet of ideologically-focused cable “news” programs. Their incessant demand for sound bytes and finding “breaking” news requires that they pump up anything that might be controversial to keep the viewer on the channel. But the only reason these stations need to do this is because of the proliferation of choices from where we get our news. If the show doesn’t deliver, we’ll find our news elsewhere on the television or, more likely, online.
We could also blame twitter and other micro-blogs that allow us to make a point in less than 140 characters. These formats provide “data” but without context enable us to believe we have facts when we only have a single data point.
But in truth, we need to lay most of the blame at our American culture’s feet. We want sound bytes. Like fast food, we want ready-to-consume information pre-packaged and simple. And we are an increasingly angry culture, angry and feeling lost in a sea of divergent opinions. Maybe this is because the comfort we once had living in a homogenous society where everyone appeared to think and believe like us is no longer present.
First, let’s be honest, in some settings and with some people, we may not be able to have substantive conversations about race. The environment may not be right, the other person(s) may not be interested or able due to their pain. In these cases, let us follow the advice of Solomon and remember there is a time to keep silent (Eccl 3:7a). Of course, if you do remain silent, remember not to gossip about it later.
When we do decide to try dialogue, let us endeavor with God’s help to do the following:
Blogs, news outlets, Facebook, Twitter all offer responses to the recent deaths of un-armed African-American men. Some of these responses are gut-wrenching, others are just gut-reactions intended to provoke. But all start the “conversation” somewhere. Some start the conversation at personal experience (e.g., the pain of being stopped DWB, violent protest are destructive) while others try to start it with statistics (e.g., black-on-black crime, diversity or lack thereof in police forces, etc.). But no matter where you or I start such conversations, we always summarize or contextualize problems to make them fit into meaningful categories. The problem with this is that our categories usually fail to take into consideration another person’s meaningful categories.
Where You Start Changes the Outcomes
Consider the tale of two narratives (neither are intended to describe the Ferguson story).
Story 1: Black men are frequently stopped by police who inappropriately profile (fact) PLUS Black man is killed by police in ambiguous situation (fact and question) EQUALS another situation where Black men are being wronged in America.
Story 2: Most police are law-abiding and do their dangerous jobs well (fact) PLUS police kill Black man who may have been acting inappropriately (fact and question) EQUALS believe the police account unless there is absolute proof of wrong-doing.
Now, I have surely over-simplified these two narratives. But I believe each story illustrates how starting assumptions exert control over interpretation when confronted with ambiguous data. We go back to what we know but this fails to consider the other’s point of view. As a result, race conversations in the US fail much of the time because we fail to sit with each other’s starting point.
Problems with Listening?
Those who know me as a counselor educator probably think I am saying we have to start with listening. That is what I usually teach. You might think I believe that if we just listen to each other in equal measure, we will come to understand each other and believe each other. There is a problem with this idea however. You and I are biased. Listening, while good and necessary, usually leads to critique. I listen to your story and I assent to the parts I agree with and critique the parts you have wrong.
Imagine this happening. You tell me a story of being chased by thugs through a dark alley. You narrowly escape when a Yellow cab drives by, picks you up, and delivers you safely to another part of town. I nod a bit but then tell you it couldn’t be a Yellow cab since that company doesn’t do business in this city.
How are you going to feel? You are going to feel like your story was entirely invalidated.
Let’s turn to a real situation. Someone sees violent, destructive protests in Ferguson and immediately (and correctly) identifies the violence as wrong and foolish. Point it out to those who feel the police were wrong to shoot an un-armed Black man, and they will feel invalidated.
What is the problem with listening? We have trouble stepping into the shoes of others and we look for evidence that supports our own opinions.
A Better Solution?
No, this won’t solve the race problem in America. But, it will improve understanding and compassion, something that seems to be lacking these days. Let the Lord speak to you about how you can step into the shoes of the other, join to solve problems and be willing to let the Spirit work in correcting other’s faults.
So, where do YOU start the conversation when Ferguson, Garner, or related race topics are raised in your presence?
The news and social media seem to be all about race these days. Comments (not necessarily conversations!) range from criticism of police to criticism of the Black community. And surely there are plenty of reasons to criticize. And notice how it is so easy to identify and name the sins of those who are not us! And when others point out our sins, we tend either to get defensive or tell a story. Neither response gets us to where we need to go!
Pointing out the sins of others (individuals and groups) fails to promote healing and reconciliation. As Jesus calls us, we must start with our own log before removing the speck in the eye of the other (Matthew 7:3f). And our own log exists beyond our own specific misdeeds. We must also acknowledge the ways we have participated in and benefitted from the sins of our “own kind” (culture, ancestors, etc.)
By all accounts, Nehemiah was a godly man. I suspect he was born in captivity and so therefore not culpable for the sins that got Judah carried off to Babylon. He was suffering, a servant to a foreign king). And yet, he was moved to confess the sins of his “ancestors” (v. 1:6) as his own. Later, when Ezra reads the law, Nehemiah and the rest hear it then confess the sins of Israel starting with the failures to obey God in the wilderness (chapter 9). They do not call out the sins of their captors (which are evident) or even their detractors but choose to stay focused on their own failings. Not content just to confess, Nehemiah and the returnees sign a covenant and make promises for specific and objective changed behavior going forward (chapter 10).
How might this apply to our current situation? Can those who are white (no matter the economic class) confess benefits of privilege not available to many of our brothers and sisters of color? Can we do so without deflecting to the flaws and sins of those who respond sinfully to racializations?
Can we acknowledge the massive impact of hundreds of years of discrimination and why it makes sense that resulting poverty, destruction of families, and hopeless still show up today? Can we own our sins with the detail shown us in Nehemiah? Can we covenant to be different? Will we call our families and communities to be different?
Maybe then we might be free to point out the sins of those who are “other.” Until then, let us let the Holy Spirit be the one to teach “them” about following Jesus.
Two times in the last monthone of my children has been racialized. During an exchange amongst a group of friends where they were trading (not so) humerous barbs, the other child made a racial comment about my son’s skin color or hair. These comments were made by children having received from another some comment designed to make fun of their glasses, weight, height, and/or athletic ability.
What I find interesting is how unreactive my kids have been and how extremely reactive their friends were. None had any problems calling someone fat or stupid or short or slow or blind or whatever. But as soon as the race card was played, that changed everything. Alarms sounded, parents notified, etc. But my kids probably wouldn’t have told me that these events happened (even though they have no problems tattling on each other).
I know that racializations (generalizations, stereotypes, etc.) are extremely painful to the receiver. And whenever we hear them, we ought to confront them without delay. But lest our righteous indignation overwhelm us, let us not forget that other forms of objectification are equally painful. This is the message I am delivering to my kids: We do not tolerate making fun of other people, period. I think my kids get it but I’m not sure their larger community gets it. And the biggest problem we have is from other white kids looking to get others in trouble.
But here’s my dilemma. I notice that in much of the literature written by transracial adoptees concludes that their parents never talked about race, never understood the deep pain they felt from racializations and racism, and have no interest in living in their old neighborhoods. Now, I could conclude that those writers, now in their late 20s and 30s, grew up in an era where parents tried to be “color-blind.” But I do wonder if the message my kids hear from me as I confront them on their own use of put-downs is that I don’t really think racializations are that serious a problem.
Before considering a theological apologetic for multiethnic churches or some solutions, let’s first consider some background:
Changing Demographics. The racial profile of near suburban communities are changing (those communities just outside of cities). In my community there has been dramatic change. In the last ten years, nearly 2,000 African Americans have moved into my town while some 4,000 have moved into a neighboring town. Approximately 15,000 people of color live within 15 minutes of my church (not counting those that live just across the city line one mile away). While we have attracted a few interracial couples and African immigrant families, Black families have not shown up in significant numbers, and those that have may not stay long or become members.
Lest we become too excited about the presence of interracial couples in predominantly white churches, we should consider why they say they attend these churches. Apparently, these couples find white churches an uneasy, but tolerable, fit. It is hard for either spouse to be a minority but it is less hard for the African American spouse, as they are more used to living in a white world.
Economic Differences? Although census data provide excellent data regarding the change of racial profile of a region, the economic status of new arrivals to a community is a bit less clear. One African American church planter suggested that there are 3 general categories of African Americans in a diversifying suburban community: Upper Class, Blue Collar, Lower Class. The upper class, from his perspective are those who have been in the suburbs for some time and are primarily seeking status in work, house, and church relationships to prove their arrival. He suggested that these folks would be unlikely to attend a White middle-class church, as there would be little status gained in doing so. The middle or blue-collar class folk are those who may also have been in the area for some time and are working hard to maintain their home, and family relationships. The lower class consists of those recently out of poverty and out of the city environment. He suggested that these individuals would be most inclined to return to church in the city in order to give a sense of familiarity and “déjà vu”.
Worship Culture Differences. It is sobering to note that 97 percent of African Americans and 99 percent of Whites attend racially segregated churches. Some of the reasons for such a divide have to do with church culture differences. The Barna report, African Americans And Their Faith, sheds light on the multifaceted nature of Black worship and faith. People of color are much more likely to feel connected to their church when they perceive it to be a place of refuge, a place that understands and supports them in their struggle against subtle but very real forms of oppression. Would they find such a refuge in a predominantly white church? Would they hear words that communicate an understanding of what it is like to live in their world? Further, African Americans spend twice as much time at church than whites and are inclined to see the church as their extended family. On the whole, they seem less interested in small group bible studies at private homes and more likely involved in small groups that focus on specific ministries (e.g., music, child care, diaconal, etc.).
Racism, Stereotypes, Prejudice, Ignorance and the Church. Issues of racism remain at the forefront of minority life. While the more obvious and violent forms (e.g., baseball bats to bodies, burning crosses) are rare, the subtler forms of racism (e.g., institutional) and prejudice are alive and well. First, few whites understand the power of white privilege: the ability to move about in the community without being noticed or suspected of crimes, the ability to have one’s identity be based on more than skin color. Organizational prejudice (e.g., glass ceilings, suddenly filled jobs or apartments, etc.) continue.
It is fair to ask whether Caucasian churches participate in this kind of behavior? The evangelical church, while not supporting racism and even speaking out against it (though maybe rarely), participates in institutional racism when it remains ignorant or silent about the current painful experiences people of color face. It participates in institutional racism when it individually repents of prejudice but ignores the need for corporate social justice so sadly missing in our society.Dominant culture individuals tend to see reconciliation and justice through the lens of individual behaviors. But when the church ignores people of color in its own community while sending ministry teams to needy individuals in the inner city it may send a message that minorities aren’t in this community but only “over there.” The church participates when it treats minorities as strangers when they have attended the church for some time. The church participates when it sends foreign missionaries to training schools to learn how to contextualize the Gospel but seems unaware or unwilling to engage ethnic minorities living next door. Neglect of race issues, whether from ignorance or from seeing it as not pragmatic or important is a sin and minimizes the fact that the church should be a visible testimony to “God’s wisdom of making Jew and Gentile one creature in Christ.” Prejudice exists in many White churches today because of the inherent power of being in the dominant culture coupled with the sin if complacency and indifference. In short, we white folk just don’t have to be concerned about race and racism.
I plan to put forward an apologetic for multiethnic churches (where possible of course) over the course of several posts. Here’s my start that ends with several key questions I’ve heard asked over the years:
Imperative or Immaterial?
Church fellowship is not an optional part of the Christian life. It’s the God ordained structure whereby we corporately worship him, are refined in our faith, and serve others. It is to be a place that exemplifies the character of God: united (i.e., as the Trinity is united and as God is actively breaking down the walls between Himself and his children and between his children), pure (e.g., leaders and members that honor God in all of life), full of mercy (e.g., care for those within and outside the body), lovers of justice (e.g., Matt. 23:23f, Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.), and lovers of the Gospel of reconciliation. The body of Christ is a complex organism, needing every member, every gift, in order to function properly. The church, when it functions well, balances discipleship, evangelism, and worship as a means to root the Gospel into the whole of every member’s life. Although the church is its own community, it always exists within a larger community and is called to love its neighbors both near and far. To reach that end, the church must be a welcoming community to all in order to bring the Gospel to all. The welcoming church strives to exhibit more of the culture of the Gospel and less the dominant human culture. This does not mean that human culture is somehow irrelevant or that any people can remove themselves completely from their own culture. However, it does mean that we do not pay homage to our human culture in ways that hinder others. Instead, we willingly respond to the cross by sacrificing our own comforts for the sake of the spiritual growth of others. So, we always labor to shape the church’s culture by questioning how we best serve the lost around us.
But, when the church no longer represents her local community, how does she create a welcoming environment that emphasizes Gospel culture and welcomes cultural minorities? Is there more to this than greeting new people and inviting them to join our groups? More fundamentally, we must ask ourselves why we do not attract the culturally different? Do we have the option of remaining a monoculture, instead only financially supporting those ministries that minister to a particular ethnic group (because we believe that those churches will minister more effectively to that group)? While funding other ministries is a good idea, the church that desires to be a welcoming community must be willing to enter the world of minority cultures in order to know its issues, concerns, desires, beliefs, etc. Only then will we know how to welcome them and how to point them to Jesus. This will require us to be uncomfortable and to work against the tide of indifference. If you are like me, you have to admit that we more comfortable supporting ministries half way around the world than we are crossing the street to reach the culturally different in our own world.
When people from the dominant culture begin to wrestle with the prospect of multiethnic churches, a variety of questions arise:
a) Is multiculturalism part of the Gospel or a relativistic fad? Is it really practical?
b) If “they” are most comfortable in their churches and we are most comfortable here, is it really necessary to work so hard to make us both uncomfortable?
c) Won’t we lose our own culture and identity if we integrate with people from other ethnic and cultural surroundings?
d) Are we really doing anything that would discourage others from coming if they wanted to be here?
e) Is it really practical or possible in this racialized world?