This Sunday, one of the freshmen in the youth group asked, “Is our church racist?” I wasn’t sure how to respond–you don’t want to tell a 14-year-old everyone who has raised her is racist, unless you’re really, really convinced that it’s true. (Luckily, I didn’t have to say anything, because I work with excellent co-teachers who are quick on their feet.)
But. Her question provoked me. There are lots of white churches. What makes a white church racist? So I made this handy flowchart.
No one wants to be called racist. But racism is like sin (racism also is sin, literally, but let’s stick with the metaphor)–no one wants to own up to being a “sinner.” It’s really hard to navigate the world when you view yourself primarily as a person who does wrong things. But in order to find grace, in order to be reconciled, we have to name the need for reconciliation: we need grace from God because we sin. We need racial reconciliation because we are racist.
My co-teacher said this: “Our church is segregated. Our church began when segregation was overt and acceptable, and it’s stayed that way.” What he meant was, there’s institutional sin and there’s personal sin. It’s easy to look at the church and say “the church as an institution is racist, because it’s a fallen institution–but me, as an individual, I’m not racist.” Look: you, as a white person, saying “I’m sorry Ferguson happened, but I’m still not racist,”–that does nothing for conversation about race relations. It says, “I can see racism, but I’m still pretending to be colorblind.”
But please–please–call yourself a racist. It’s really hard to move forward if you think you’re already at the end. If an individual has no culpability, then he or she is absolved of finding a solution. The person can say, “Look, here’s some broken glass in the middle of the highway. I didn’t break it. Somebody should really else should clean that up.” When individuals don’t bear any responsibility, it leads to conversations like this:
White Person 1: Gee, we’re an awfully white congregation.
White Person 2: That’s true. I guess black people don’t want to come to our church.
White Person 1: That must be it. Well, I wish they would give us a chance. We’re really nice people.
The underlying assumption is that in order for us to change, black people (or other people of color) have to change. The question is: Why don’t THEY come HERE? Why don’t they want to change their worship style and safe space and community so that we can pat ourselves on the back? Unfortunately, this is how many conversations about race go in the white churches. It’s an attitude of “bring them to us,” not “what change do we need to do if we truly are going to ‘meet in the middle’?” (And meeting in the middle is only the beginning of what needs to happen.)
Here’s this broken thing; it’s called race in America. Somebody should really fix it. You’re a somebody. I’m a somebody. And institutions? They’re changed by individuals. Individuals who take responsibility and say, “I’m not going to be part of a racist church. Look, here’s one thing to do that will make it less racist. Let’s do that.”
The secret is: there are a lot of solutions, but none of them are easy. Demanding integrated church is an easy out because it’s unrealistic, and when it fails we can go back and say “well we tried to integrate but the black people wouldn’t come.” Especially when it comes to black church, integration is unrealistic, for now–at least on the week-to-week basis. Historically, even while slavery existed, church was the safest black space in day-to-day life. Church was the place where they could gather with limited policing by white expectations and standards; this is why black church is so different from white church. It’s unfair for the white church to say, “you need to leave your safe space so we can be less racist.”
I don’t have a real solution, not a solid, long-term one. But I have a first step. That’s why the flowchart ends with the statement, “Your church is racist. Go spend some time in a non-white worship space.” You’re racist! What a relief. Now you know you’re doing something wrong. So do something right: go visit a new worship space. Introduce yourself, say “I haven’t been to a black church since I was 13, I live just a couple miles away, I’m really happy to be here, thanks for letting me join you.” I guarantee you: people will respond. If you go seeking grace, you will find grace. And certainly, that’s a place to start.
(Disclaimer: Clearly, this post is written for white people; there’s a whole lot more complications that I chose not to address so that I could actually finish this post. And, I want to be clear: I’m still learning here, too. I’m not sure what’s required of me–in the time and place I’m in–in order to seek racial reconciliation. I don’t have all the answers. But I do like asking the questions with you.)