In its early stages, the multiracial church movement felt promising. Inspired by the 2004 book United by Faith, this movement held bold aspirations of a racially reconciled, Revelation-like worshiping community. While many questioned whether this elusive dream might become a reality, I wanted it to be true.
Yet, as Tom Gjelten reported for NPR last year, the multiracial church movement failed. While the movement succeeded in racially integrating congregants, many multiracial congregations remained steeped in a Christian faith governed by whiteness. Congregations grew in diversity, yet governance and meaningful decision-making power was safeguarded by cohorts of predominantly white male leadership.
For all its promises, the multiracial church movement was unequipped and under-resourced to deliver. Most importantly, this movement failed to address the distorted imagination of belonging.
To understand this, one must start with a core interpretive assumption held among mainstream evangelicals. The task of hermeneutics, as I was taught at an evangelical Bible college, is a process of ridding oneself of the baggage — the “bias” and “presuppositions” — we bring to the text: our experiences, our beliefs, our culture, our particularities. We were taught that these things hinder us from both understanding the text as it was intended to be read and unlocking its univocal and inerrant meaning communicated by God. In short, this way of reading the Bible diagnoses the diversity and difference found among the people of God as an obstacle to overcome, not a blessing to be embraced.
The result of this widespread evangelical hermeneutic is that diversity is seen as a hindrance to Christian unity. Within this interpretation, our call to oneness (John 17; Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 4) requires us to rid ourselves of our language, culture, and location — the very things that constitute our identity. These evangelicals appeal to a “colorblind” Christianity, or claim that in the community of God they “don’t see race.”
Recent evangelical responses to critical race theory provide a clear example of this line of thinking that prioritizes unity over diversity. In books like Voddie T. Baucham Jr.'s Fault Lines and Owen Strachan's Christianity and Wokeness, as well as statements from institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention, evangelicals have strongly opposed CRT, a legal theory that highlights how racial categories have been used to separate and oppress people of color.
This response isn’t surprising. When one’s understanding of Christian community and belonging requires the erasure of particularity, then a theoretical framework like CRT, which emphasizes the location and experience of marginalized and minoritized people, is a threat to the unity of the church.
But I believe scripture offers us a new way of thinking and, more importantly, belonging.
In Acts we find the beginnings of a community — broken and imperfect, yet beautiful and miraculous — called to unity in Christ through their particularities.
The epicenter of this new community is found in the story of Pentecost (Acts 2). Here, the Holy Spirit descends upon the people of God gathered from across many lands into the city of Jerusalem. After great anticipation, God comes in a “fire of untamed grace,” as theologian Willie James Jennings describes it, with an invitation into “radical intimacy.”
It is a simultaneously fantastic and intimate moment. As the presence of the Holy Spirit descends like fire upon God’s people, their tongues are loosened; everyone hears their own native language. In the chaos of the moment, a foreigner hears God in their own language, in the percussive tones and familiar timbre spoken by their mother and father, their auntie and abuela. This is a work of joining in “voice, memory, sound, body, land, and place,” Jennings continues. It is not what these spirit-longing people asked for or expected, but it is the gift God has for them. It is the disruptive, baffling, and holy work of forging a new community.
When the Holy Spirit comes, this ekklesia is not given one shared language. God comes to God’s people in the comfort and familiarity of many native tongues and invites them to share in this radical intimacy — both as speakers and hearers, as actors and receivers. As theologian Keri Day notes, in a world that did not desire intimacy across differences, this new community of Jesus’ followers would constitute a community marked by love and joining. Disrupting tribal and national boundaries, the Holy Spirit “united unlikely people through desires for intimacy and belonging.”
Yet, the enchantment of Pentecost and the miraculous ability to speak in tongues fades. In ordinary time, this early church must navigate and negotiate within a world divinely called to unity in difference: Philip must love and baptize an Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8); Peter must break bread with a Roman named Cornelius (Acts 10); Jews and Gentiles must learn to live together (Acts 15); Paul must find God in the altars of Athens (Acts 17); and believers like Timothy who live between Jewish and Gentile heritage must question if this ethnic straddling is an obstacle to gospel proclamation (Acts 16).
This work of joining unequivocally declares that the diversity of humankind is God’s doing; and because this is God’s work, it is a gift to be celebrated. Theologian Eric D. Barreto, expounding upon this theme, argues that race and ethnicity are an unavoidable, indispensable, gift from God that profoundly shapes our reading of scripture.
A lived theology of belonging calls us, like the church in Acts, to the empathic work of paying attention, celebrating, and embracing the presence of racial, cultural, and ethnic differences in the church as a beautiful mystery and an opportunity to formulate a greater understanding and imagination of God as revealed through the collection of God’s diverse, image-bearing creation.
But, like those who observed the divine moment of Pentecost, we might ask, “what does this mean?” (Acts 2:12).
The church today functions in a post-Pentecost world. We have seen a glimpse of what is to come when the Lord returns, yet we live in the confusion of cultural and linguistic barriers where difference remains the grounds for exclusion, oppression, and marginalization.
Therefore, we must live into the empathic and intimate call of Acts to speak the language of another, to listen and learn to the point of fluency. This work of learning, Jennings argues, cultivates love of people — of food, culture, place, song, and happiness.
Further, in our pursuit of justice, we must learn from projects like CRT which can illuminate the realities of multiracial communities in which the church ministers. To deny these realities or reject tools that help us perceive correctly, is to dishonor the call to neighbor-love and hospitality we have received.
When love is cultivated through this shared intimacy of language and story, we are driven by gut-wrenching compassion and determination to see liberation and freedom for our neighbors. By the power of the Holy Spirit, imaginations guided by power and domination are replaced by a desire for people and community.
Like those gathered at Pentecost, this sanctified imagination might not be what is asked for or expected; but it is the good and holy gift God has for us. And it is ours to take hold of today.