On prom night, while most mothers were capturing moments of sending their teenage children off to the typical high school formal affair, my mother was having “the talk” with my little brother.
College-bound and hopeful, labels were irrelevant. If he got pulled over and caught in his skin that evening he would need to know how to survive.
Follow the protocol and you might make it out alive: Keep your hands on the wheels. “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” are your only responses. Put on your phone’s recorder in case something goes wrong. There is no room for error. At 17 years old, my little brother came face to face with the reality that he is a black man in America, meaning that his life is disposable.
For most black Americans, this obligatory conversation in not unfamiliar. It existed before Jim Crow and remains today at the dinner table in black communities where matters of racial tension, injustice and rage are discussed and yet never find reprieve.
Disappointingly, the prevalence of police killings of black men across America (Michael Brown’s case is just one of many examples) has not elicited discourse in our pulpits. My “progressive” church, for instance, has found no room on their Instagram feed or Twitter timeline to acknowledge the injustices and victimization of black communities. In lieu of breaking down barriers, mapping diversity and providing support for congregants who are challenged with reconciling their faith and their race, my church, and many others, has fallen silent.
So where are we to mourn when our churches don’t make room for us on the altar? When will our “progressive” and “integrated” churches overcome the discomfort of discussing race in order to challenge the entire body of Christ to consider our humanity as well as our spirit?
We are living in a time where our churches—all of them, not just the black ones—must be held accountable for taking action and including the stories, challenges and concerns of their brown congregants. It is not enough to sparsely flood worship services with a gospel song and a sole brown worship leader. It is not enough to crack cultural jokes and not acknowledge the second-class citizen mentality placed on those who are very aware that to be black in America often means being subjected to discrimination, humiliation and degradation on an almost daily occurrence.
Though racism has long been the narrative peg on which our country has hung its hat, instead of being intimidated by the discomfort that conversations on race incite, there is opportunity for our churches to break the silence, veer away from ineffective religious platitudes, and do the work of creating communities that model the true image of Christian fellowship.
While there is no one-size-fits-all framework for accomplishing this goal, here are distinct ways that our houses of worship can provide an atmosphere for healing and reconciliation among a racially diverse congregation:
Don’t Dismiss or Debate, Reconcile
Silence in the face of injustice is an injustice itself. In his blog, What White People Can Do About the Killing of Black Men in America, Reverend Paul Brandeis Raushenbush candidly shares that the response to the current state of racial affairs in America must be addressed by white citizens who are willing to lend their voices, votes and resources in working together to solve these problems. Similarly, the church must follow suit. “Unless I am part of the reconciliation effort, then I am still perpetuating it,” Raushenbush proffers.
Churches must hold themselves accountable for speaking out against injustice and offering their ear and their altar to listen to the concerns of members who feel oppressed and challenged in their faith and in their ethnicity.
Not every concern will deserve a response or the taking of a position. However, the door must remain ajar for listening and gathering enough information to help facilitate healthy discussion and opportunities to educate congregants who may not be privy to their peers’ experiences.
Evaluate And Plan
Homogenous church leadership and congregations are reflections of poor planning and unacknowledged diversity across all spectrums. When church images and programming reflect branding and messages that won’t “scare away” certain demographics, what results is a small demographic that doesn’t feel welcomed to fully participate in the church community in the fullness of who they are.
Hosting critical conversations and evaluations on how your church might do better to integrate difficult conversations around race could provide tremendous fodder for effective planning, outreach and support. Implementing feedback systems to evaluate the health of racial unity in the church body will reveal the opportunities that exist for churches to do a better job of recognizing the needs of members of color.
Leave Bias and Assumptions at the Door
Each church community is unique on its own. It goes without saying that people of color are multi-dimensional and have a variety of needs when it comes to what they desire for their families, communities and spiritual lives. Check bias and assumptions by sticking to systems and feedback tools to measure the environment of your congregation. Generalizing members’ experiences, pain or frustration can spell dangerous territory. Tread lightly and don’t be afraid to respectfully ask for clarification and solutions.
There is no simple solution to America’s race problem, but one of the first steps is a willingness to acknowledge and talk about it. Imagine the impact it could have on our country if churches of all colors were willing to engage the issue and take meaningful steps toward reconciliation.