In the Band without Leading It
Greetings from Brazil! Rosalee and I have been following this exchange closely even if from afar -- or à distância. A few of our friends in the U.S. -- including Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Ángel Gallardo (who has lived at both Simple Way and Rutba House), and Eliacin Rosario-Cruz -- are or have been part of New Monastic communities. In addition, our local church in the U.S. is Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, a historically African-American congregation. From our friends and mentors there, we began to learn about race and racial reconciliaton.
All this to say: Even though we write from afar, we write because we find ourselves a part of this conversation. Here are a couple of our observations:
1) Why this conversation needs to be happening. There is no "gracious and hopeful invitation to public dialogue" about Christian community and race in Brazil. On the one hand, there is no New Monastic movement here, but there are base Christian communities and other vibrant examples of comunidade. On the other, the race question is more slippery, in large part due to the fact that belief in the "myth of racial democracy" (as it is called here) is still popularly affirmed. But all our Afro-Brazilian friends are quick to point out that Brazil, too, suffers deeply from its own racial wounds. (If there is any doubt, consider that (1) of the roughly 10 million Africans who were enslaved during the colonial slave trade, around a half million were taken to the U.S., and around 4 million were brought to Brazil; and (2) recent estimates indicate that 31 million Brazilians live below the poverty line. Of those 31 million, 80 percent are of African descent.) Yet given that harsh reality, there is still no serious public conversation about race within the Brazilian church.
Recently, we participated in a forum at a church in Salvador that is part of the government-sponsored campaign called "Program Against Institutional Racism." We found out afterward that this was the first time such a forum had taken place in a church in Salvador -- where the population is between 80 to 90 percent black. Race is being talked about, but, unfortunately, almost all of the prophets are found outside of the Christian community.
So, first of all, we are encouraged by this conversation as it challenges us in Brazil to embody New Monasticism's Mark #4: "Lament for Racial Divisions Within the Church and Our Communities Combined with the Active Pursuit of a Just Reconciliation."
2) What submission might look like. These conversations reminded us of a scene from Ken Burns' documentary, Jazz. There's an interview with Ossie Davis in which he, an African-American, describes how Benny Goodman, who was white, crossed the colorline to learn jazz in Harlem:
"I think Benny Goodman was the man who stood "outside" and was attracted to something he heard "inside" and came inside himself, and saw what was going on and picked up the nearest thing and joined it. He experienced in his own person the "true welcome" that's at the root of jazz. For him to cross the threshold was easy, because jazz made it easy." (Jazz, disc 2,"Swing, Pure Pleasure," Title 3, Chapter 7)
Benny Goodman went to them and learned their cultural forms, yet he didn't submit to the African-American jazz community. Instead he took their riffs, and their songs, and became one of the biggest bandleaders of all time.
The point -- the connection between this scene and this conversation -- is this: It's one thing to relocate (Mark #1), to cross over, to receive the "true welcome," and to learn from our neighbors. But the real question is about submission (Mark #5). How do we build a "collective witness" that moves from Mark #4 to Mark #5: "Humble Submission to Christ's Body, the Church." If white privilege, dominance, and male leadership have been recognized as problems, what would submission look like here?
As we read it, Jason and Vonetta, Eliacin, and Gabriel don't question whether white guys can be in the band. But they raise another question: What would it look like to be in the band without leading it?
We look forward to hearing more from this "jam session." Who knows, maybe we'll even hear a little samba.
Sam (native Tarheel) and Rosalee (Brazilian-American) Ewell live in Brazil with their three kids, James, Isabella, and Katharine. Sam is a theological educator/networker with School for Conversion-Latin America and local pastor at Igreja Batista Catuaí (and a late convert to soccer). Rosalee also works as a theological educator and writer, primarily through her work with the Comité Bíblico Latinoamericano.