After your recent relocation to a new city, you are invited to a local congregation by one of its members. After that first visit, you don’t find anything compelling you to come back to worship the following Sunday.
Now fast forward five years. For some unknown reason, you find yourself visiting that same congregation. But this time, it is obvious that something dramatic has happened; a new senior pastor has been called, and, in less than a year, the transformation of the church has been dramatic. The trend of slowly losing members has now stopped. To the delight of longtime members, almost every Sunday new people are accepting Christ or renewing their commitment to Christ. Vibrant children, youth, and family ministries are now in place. Ten percent of the budget is dedicated to local and global mission. People are growing deeper in their faith. The congregation of a little less than 400 begins to grow in such a way that during the following five years it reaches 1,600 members. This time around, you and your family decide to join this congregation. Your faith is reenergized and you feel like you are finally in the right place.
The story could end here and we could say, “This family happily and faithfully journeyed with this congregation for many years.”
There was only one problem in this successful congregation. You and your family are people of color and this congregation is probably around 97 percent white. You wish the congregation would better reflect a multicultural society. The scenario gets complicated when, after sharing your concern more than once with the pastor and several of the key leaders, they don’t seem to understand the problem.
This is a real story that is the reality of implicit or aversive racism — and I believe it illustrates one of the main problems in American Christianity. According to Samuel L. Gaertner and John F. Dovidio, aversive racism includes, among other realities, a persistent avoidance of interaction with other racial and ethnic groups.
The racial composition of a particular congregation's membership is a reflection of their social and cultural identity, but it also reflects their theological convictions.
Most Christian social advocates have directed their criticism of implicit racism to white Christianity. The reasons for this are often well founded. After all, whites have historically been the power holders in our country. For too long, many white people, including white Christians, have used their power to oppress and disenfranchise people of color.
When we look at this issue from that perspective, it does make sense to take our white brothers and sisters to task. White Christians in America need to ask themselves the hard and painful questions about race and prejudice.
But, I will dare to ask, would it be fair also to ask why most Latino, Black, and Asian congregations continue to be predominantly composed of the same race?
Recently, I engaged an evangelical denominational leader in a conversation about racism. He called my attention to a very interesting fact. Historic Protestant churches are very vocal about the sin of racism and its socio-economical harms. At the same time, these very churches often reflect the least the multicultural composition of society. They are predominantly white. On the other hand, evangelical and Pentecostal denominations, which are much less vocal about race issues, often are much more racially inclusive and multicultural.
The church is called to do both – to be a prophetic voice against racism (explicit or implicit) but also to strive to be transformed. Words are important; actions speak louder.
Racism is a very complex issue. The harmful and sinful effects of racism affect millions of people’s lives. The spiritual and religious harms of implicit racism are only part of even more critical, social, emotional, and existential conditions.
Followers of Jesus must be willing to unmask, not just others,’ but their own racial biases and prejudices. For too long, the church has been playing blame games when it comes to racism. The ugliness of racism (individual and systemic) and the harm done to so many black people in this country are inexcusable. We must allow the Spirit of God to bring forth anything that is polluting our soul. Together, we must do the hard work of soul cleansing: “It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own.” (Matthew 7:3; The Message).
Thurgood Marshall once said, “I wish I could say that racism and prejudice were only distant memories. We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust … we must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.”
Denial will take us nowhere. Let us lay down our pride and in all humility open our hearts to each other. Let us confess each other sins; confession will pave the way to freedom.
Carlos L. Malavé is a follower of Jesus and executive director of Christian Churches Together in the USA.
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