Over the next few months I plan to take a personal journey. I invite you to consider joining me along the way, particularly if you are a part of Redemption Hill Church. Please take the time to see the motivation and reading list.
My hope in walking through a variety of books on race this year is to lead our church into more careful consideration of the realities that have shaped our context, while working to listen and learn from voices of the past even as I continue to engage with people in my life who help to stretch my perspectives – pastors, members of our church, and friends in my life and neighborhood. As I read these books I will give personal responses to the books, not reviews of their content.
I started with the book Being White. It’s a book that tries to open the eyes of white people to realize that they come from a very particular cultural context, and to challenge them to willingly displace themselves in relationships with others. The reason that this was my starting point is simple: white folk have a problem with being able to see the cultural context from which we come. All of us have a tendency to normalize our own experiences while seeing others as the ones who “have a culture” to be experienced. Before I dug into books to help me understand others, I wanted to start by coming to a deeper understanding of my own background, with the hope that such an understanding would allow me to better grow, change, be stretched, and understand others. Here is my story.
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. Both sides of my family trace their roots to immigrants who came to north side of Chicago in the 1880s. One side is Norwegian, the other is German. So, the roots of my family in that city run very deep and carry a lot of pride. My great grandpa used to tell me stories of diving off of Navy Pier when it was just a holding yard for boxcars. I heard family stories of relatives that owned taverns, and drove streetcars. I was shown the mallet one of my great grandfathers used to chisel stone windowsills for the buildings on Michigan Avenue. When I took my son to a family-favorite pub in the Loop, he was the 6th generation boy to grab a root beer while his dad enjoyed a dark German lager.
I grew up in a pretty blue-collar family. The extended family is large and very close, and embracing of everyone. Any friend who showed up to any family event was embraced as our own. And I was raised to be “color blind”. My parents talked to us about race and made sure that their children knew that everyone bore God’s image and likeness. They would correct perspectives when grandparents or great grandparents made racist comments using what I now know to be slurs. Looking back I can see that it was the best of intentions, but just not sufficient. Far too often a "color blind" approach is dehumanizing in that it minimizes core aspects that shape a person's identity and experience. It took until I was in college to really have that perspective challenged.
My freshman year I stepped into a dorm suite that had seven guys. I was the only white guy. There were five African-Americans, one Puerto Rican, and me. I had a choice to either lean into my comfort zone or to get to know the guys that I lived in the closest proximity to. So, I leaned in to the suite. I got to know the guys. I went back to their homes with them. I went to visit churches with them – often into contexts in which I was the only white person in the building. That experience reshaped me for the rest of my life. It showed me that color-blindness is glaringly insufficient and inherently offensive, that I needed to see the beauty of what my friends had to offer, to see the fullness of their background and family roots. I started to get a better picture for the vision of Revelation 7, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” One of my best friends from college was an African-American man from Calumet City on Chicago’s south side. We stood in each other’s weddings. My relationship with David changed me. All of this shocked my system to realize that I did come from a very particular culture. White culture is not just some general baseline norm.
Now, I am a pastor. Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail is written to fellow clergymen. So, it hits home for me. Each year I re-read the letter to reflect again on Dr. King’s work, the response of Christians at the time, and my own calling and responsibility as a pastor in the service of Jesus Christ in His Church. One portion of Dr. King’s letter says:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Redemption Hill Church is a diverse family. But we also have a long way to go. One of my greatest frustrations in planting Redemption Hill Church is that a vision and desire for a multi-ethnic community paired with preaching a gospel that transcends culture has not, in and of itself, built a church that was more multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. Along the way I have not given enough weight to the other aspects of the church that carry implicit cultural values. I have also come to have a greater understanding and appreciation for the historic importance of churches in minority communities. One of my fears is that a desire for a church that is multi-ethnic would ever undercut that historic importance of minority churches as a veiled way to, in Dr. King’s words, paternalistically believe I can set the timetable for another person's church involvement. I have come to love the place and importance of historic black churches, Chinese churches, Latino churches, and varieties of others. I've also realized that a call from a white pastor to minorities to leave those churches and form something different may reflect a good gospel-formed desire, but has dangerous implications.
We meet in a historic African American church here in DC. It was the first school for African American children in the District. I love the history of Ebenezer UMC. I love that our church gets to be a part of God's story on that corner and in that place, and I want to see the gospel thrive in and through that church. I want our involvement with them to be a benefit and blessing to them.
As I have grown in my own understanding, it has only made me more grateful for those who have come to Redemption Hill and become part of our church family at great cost. We have members who have faced internal hesitation, family pressure about what it means to not participate on a week-to-week basis in a church more like the one they grew up in or with more people from their cultural backgrounds, and some who have had to lay down their own preferences to be a part of our community – whether in styles of music or preaching, or even subtle modes of interaction between people. At great cost they have chosen to sacrifice because of their love for Jesus. As people have laid themselves down in a desire to grow they have enabled others to grow as well.
So, to my Redemption Hill family –
To our white members: highlighting race and racial injustice in sermons, prayers, seminars, and conversation is not a partisan statement. We haven’t shied away from these topics as a church and we aren’t going to slow down on them. Dr. King is right, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” We must not and will not be lukewarm. We will continue to talk about race because the gospel we preach tears down the dividing walls and hostilities between us all, bringing peace, and we are called to join God in His work in bringing that unity.
To our non-white members: I see you. I love you. I am so grateful for you. Your voice is needed in our church. Your perspectives are needed. Please help us to grow and to see the blind spots that we have. Dr. King also said in his letter, “If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning.” We need your help to make sure that this does not happen. We need your help to see the beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ worked out in, among, and through our church.
Up Next: The Souls of the Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois
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