As a person of color living, serving, and leading inside and outside the body of Christ, I am deeply wounded by the responses I’ve received—particularly from fellow gospel workers—to my grief over the gross injustices perpetrated against ethnic minorities in America and around the world. I’ve heard that “we’re already doing so much” or, even more offensive, that “this isn’t central to the gospel.” Lastly, and probably the most insidious and hurtful, "we just don't have enough information". We don't need more information to mourn with those who mourn. God deeply loves and values all people, but this truth is not being communicated, and it’s this disconnect that grieves my soul.
Black people are in pain. Communities of color are fearful and sad. We are weary from the constant threat of ostracism and unwarranted violence in communities of color. This is not unlike the fear and pain of our Latinx brothers and sisters living under threat of deportation. But because mass media perpetuates polarization and fosters fear, and because our pastors and leaders follow comfort, power, and money instead of the crucified and risen King, conversations about our pain, sadness, and weariness turn instead to logistics, priorities, and the allocation of resources.
It is excruciating to have my pain turned into an undone task on a to-do list, slide off an agenda, and be left out of a strategic plan. Somehow, modeling reconciliation for students, faculty, congregants, and non-believers is seen as superfluous compared to the "more essential" parts of following Jesus like prayer, studying the Bible, and evangelism. But reconciliation and biblical justice must be central to our Christian witness because the Christ whom we are called to bear witness is the only cure for racism and injustice. What is prayer without intercession for those who are suffering and marginalized? What is evangelism if the faith we share doesn't include freedom from oppression? What is Bible study if we are not going to look at the context of the people writing and those who the text is written for? This is not Christianity and we are not following the Jesus of scripture. This is White American Folk Religion* - a race-based, nationalistic, widely held set of beliefs that masquerades as true Christian faith but nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth.
When systemic racial issues arise, how quickly I am turned from an individual into an issue and my pain and needs put to a vote as part of a proposal which meets the three criteria for effective evangelism. I am not a ministry goal and my people are not a project. I desire to be seen and heard, and my pain felt. Instead, my pain and I have been explained away to maintain comfort, order, and the status quo for those in power.
But if you want to hinder the spread of the gospel by minimizing the significance of my ethnic identity, here’s how it works:
- Your response is to ask for more information or get the whole story, not to sympathize, empathize, show compassion or ask how you can help in this moment when unarmed Black man or woman are killed by police or their murderers not held accountable (or a Black church is burned, or an ignorant statement is made by a peer or leader, or…).
- Instead you respond with apathy, mistrust or animosity, which in turn I will feel invisible, misunderstood and distant. My pain and the pain of my community is minimized and my perspective dismissed.
- Next, I will then feel unsafe sharing my whole self with you. I’ll begin to change my posture toward you. I’ll stop sharing honestly and openly. Instead I will share with my own community and those I know will stand with me. Unconsciously or consciously, you will no longer be a part of that group.
- It’s important to know that if you keep acting this way and allow the insensitivity to continue unchecked, I will close off more and more; but I won't be able to share that with you fearing rejection and further hurt. Your lament, confession, repentance and invitation to share more will reverse this trend but I won't ask for it. I will wait in hope/hopelessness that you will take the first step.
- If nothing changes, to protect myself and others from the same pain and frustration, I will share my experience with my community and let them know they won’t be heard by you. Slowly people of color around you will distance themselves and share less because the rejection and dismissal is too painful to enter into again and again. This looks like me leaving your small group or church because i'm "too busy" or "things always come up" or "unfriending on Facebook".
- As this narrative runs its course, the love to which we are made to bear witness will be drowned out by silent and accepted division that can't be bridged. The Christian community that we are supposed to be a part of breaks into segregated cliques of Christians that are "together" but not touching like dishes at a buffet.
Fortunately, when Eric Garner was killed in New York City, the above narrative did not have the opportunity to run its course. Three senior leaders in InterVarsity modeled what it looks like to be sensitive to the four Black male staff in my area. Space was made for us to share and be heard—not fixed, redirected, or given tissues as we cried. We were listened to by our multiethnic staff team. One of the leaders checked in with me daily. I had the sacred space to feel pain and then propose changes that were integrated into our ministry in the winter and spring. For the first time in my life, I was seen for all of the gifts I have and the burdens I carry. I was seen and heard by those who worked alongside me.
I believe it is the chief work of ministers of the gospel of Christ to do evangelism daily, reflect shalom, and in word and deed invite others to confess sin and follow Jesus by modeling a surrendered life daily. I am on staff with InterVarsity and long to see students of every ethnicity, race, and culture grow in love for God, God’s Word, and all people. I am deeply committed to the ministry of reconciliation entrusted to us by Jesus, and I am deeply grateful that I serve on a team that wants the same thing.