10 Things Churches Need to Do Racial Reconciliation

16 07 2015

  10 Things Racial Reconciliation

I’m laying everything that I (think I) know out there because deep down in my soul, I think there’s something to this racial reconciliation thing in churches. I believe in it as one expression of the work Christ has already done for us (there’s also gender, sexual, economic, etc. forms that fit under the notion of “reconciliation” as a whole as well). I really, deep down believe it.

What the church should be asking concerning racial reconciliation is not “How can we reconcile to one another?” but “Do we even know that we are reconciled?” In other words, when we pause to think about it, we are working backwards. Reconciliation has already happened; we are merely trying to catch up to it in real time. We are trying to catch up to the reality that Christ has already set before us. Our reconciliation attempts are outdated moments where we hope to stumble upon a way of being that propels us into the truth of Christ’s redeeming work.

So we mess it up, because none of us have the answers. The best we have is the difficult opportunity to learn what it is literally as we go. We learn about its complications church bombings and shootings, we learn about it staunch history in denominational splits. We allow death, pain, suffering and loss to be the lamentable good of our reconciliatory consciousnesses. They are lamentable teachers.

So, no, I do not have a template for you. But I have thoughts, ideas, inklings, the best that I can do that I hope will do the work of drawing us away from death. And maybe that is how we should think about what it is we are engaging in in the risky calling of racial reconciliation. It is the dangerous work that we do together on and with each other drawing us all away from death, thus it will require the most intense focus on those closest to or living in death. It is hard for white people and minorities at different levels, for different reasons, requiring different amounts of commitment and sacrifice. It is work that feels like death in order to draw each other away from death – death that can look like racial injustice or white privilege, economic disadvantage or false perceptions of boot strap mentalities, death that can look like “I am worthless because society has told me so” or “I am worthwhile because the society those like me built still tells me so.”

So without further ado, here is a painful and honest list that churches need to do racial reconciliation:

1. A serious desire to do it

This means that white churches cannot set the example for what reconciliation looks like, because they’ve never done it before. But neither can minorities. What is crucial to hold near is that minorities should take the lead – not because we know anything more, but because we know what being reconciled to someone does not look like, and it does not look like white power in ecclesial form. Those who have the most experience on the underside is…well, experienced about the underside. If racial reconciliation aims to level out what life means and can offer to all, it must be a student of the underside.

2. A majority minority congregation (or at least half minority congregation)

Minorities remaining minorities does not make any sense. If it did, then I’m not sure it’s racial reconciliation. Here it is wise to take a page out of the book of the Civil Rights Movement – white people joined a black majority and bold people of color and their allies in the faith were a force so strong that they made major moves in changing the political landscape of the country. Pay attention to where, why, how and through whom change has happened. And again, become a student.

3. Righteous anger as a staple (and even requirement) in the reconciliation agenda

Anger is a part of reconciliation. Let me say it again: Anger is a part of reconciliation. If you plan on doing reconciliation by running away from, concealing it or snuffing it out – I would call your practice reconciliatory supremacy, not racial reconciliation. Anger can be attached to pain, hurt and suffering, thus when it is ignored as a barrier to reconciliation instead of an aspect of it, pain, hurt and suffering is ignored. And what is reconciliation for if it is not mending work? To deny someone the full range and scope of their feelings in light of their experiences is to deny them their being. Let me say that again: to deny someone the full range and scope of their feelings in light of their experiences is to deny them their being. Don’t do that – unless you’re okay with supremacy.

4. A minority-created or minority-led reconciliation ideation    

Basically minorities need to be the primary visionaries behind what reconciliation could look like for that body. That’s it. Will it super-structured and neatly mapped out? Maybe. Maybe not. The point is that people who experience the “racial” part of racial reconciliation most intensely get to name their own solutions, get to take charge in efforts to work through things that might have been plaguing them for most of their lives.

5. Leaders willing to hold minority pain without becoming fractured, impatient, insecure, or feeling (egotistically) threatened

Hopefully taking seriously the suffering of others should fortify resolve. Yes, despair is kin to resolve and needs adequate space to live and breathe, but resolve should have the final say. Being pained towards action should be the driving force of leadership in churches called to racial reconciliation. If the truth is painful, this can mean one of two things: 1) Your heartstrings are pulled where you feel a mixture of hurt, shame, but ultimately painful clarity. Something is clicking within you about what spaces of power you occupy and need to surrender; 2) Your heart is hardening and you’ve hit your discomfort limit and may or may not use language of not feeling safe (and yes, the majority using safe language in a space difficult to exist in as a minority is power language), feeling that what is occurring is reverse racism (also a poor showing of power), or that race is brought up too much (avoidance = power, seeing a trend?). Either way, painful truth is an important discerning tool for the minority; it shows quite clearly whether someone is in or out of the reconciliation efforts.

6. Minority leadership

Half of the leadership should be minorities, because (cough, cough) they have experience being a minority and might have an idea about what is important to minorities – not to “bring or draw more in” but to be considered equally as the church. Minority leadership is not a gimmick or advertisement, but a practice of a church who has minorities who also should be seen as part of the church. This notion is not novel; it is civil and just to allow minority voices to have presence in their very own church.

7. Minority context

Because, let’s face it, minorities will not come to white churches to be their reconciliation “project.” Churches need to be in spaces where it can know a variety of people. If a church is in a diverse space and still attracts white people, that is a warning sign that some type of barrier is in the way whether it’s denominational, racial, economic, cultural, etc. Something needs to be named and teased out, honestly named and adjusted.

8. Built in time and space for minorities to retreat 

Reconciliation exceeds being a job. It is lifestyle, and thus for people who think about and/or have experienced powerless a great deal of time, it can be a life drain. Minorities do not want to be around people in power operating in their power all of the time. We need breaks. We need retreat. We need time and space to be around those like us where we do not have to teach others how to see us and others. Space to simply be away is important. It may look like attending another church, it may look like a minority caucus within the church or with other churches. Either way, it is necessary for sanity and the presence of minorities to continue in reconciliation work.

9. Willingness to have desires dissected

Everything will be questioned on a large scale: Why are we doing this? What does this mean for us? And on a small scale: Why do I feel like I want to leave? Why is this so hard for me? Have I always lived in supremacy? How do I unlearn it? Reconciliation requires everyone, minorities included, to be unmade from harmful and inaccurate depictions of the self and others. If you are raising a family, this will be heightened as you are literally passing along your life lessons to your family. This is scary ground to be on, but necessary.

10. The courage to risk denominational exile  

If churches aren’t asking why minorities cannot thrive there, but can thrive amongst their own, they miss the opportunity to see where privilege might be built into the structures of their denominationalism. But this is a silly point to list as most are not willing to risk “that much.” Reconciliation is not an agenda, but a way of being church. If churches are not willing to take the ultimate risk and be church away from or outside of denominations with tainted histories and present practices that favor some over others that it is not willing to address, then that church is not ready for all reconciliation as a way of life requires of them.

Risk of angering and stepping away from their denomination if they do not advocate for just reconciliatory practice – this is the most dangerous practice. The security of a denomination is basically a god. Funding, support, progress, placement, even community are all perks of denominational affiliation. To have the heart to risk angering or leaving a denomination is a risk most are not willing to take. But when reconciliation does not fit inside denominational confines, the rubber must hit the road. If one’s denomination is built on majority ethnocentricity, which, if we’re frank, many mainlines are, hence black and immigrant churches, it should be a candidate of things that need to be reformed in your church’s life.

When it gets down to it, all ten things can be summarized in risk. Risk hurts, costs a lot a lot of the time, and has a slim chance of reward. It is not good business practice especially with such low return rates. But it is the stuff of our faith. To avoid risk is to claim identity as a church that simply isn’t true.

This entire list can be summed up as “risk as faith.” Racial reconciliation work takes both. Faith in this form will take on the uncomfortable form that it was intended to be. Faith was never meant to be easy, pleasant or fun, but true. And what is truer to the Christian faith than battling the ways of the world – the church world, where comfort and power dressed in the holy linguistic garb of “love” reigns. “The world” is not out there, but in here – the world is in our churches, churches that can learn a lot about what some in the world get right about loving our neighbor as ourselves and thus fighting and putting comfort and safety on the line for their just treatment. The world is internal; it is in us. Until churches pursuing racial reconciliation acknowledge this fact and get treatment for it (minority spaces being one form), it is running in self-righteous circles. The world is not a place or people who need us as the church to save it, it is the moment in ourselves where we fail to see another equally, and choose to attribute this feeling to sin. It is missed opportunities to try to do better in some strange hope that the Spirit will make us better and move us towards wholeness. Racial reconciliation is a terrifying proposition for terrifying and terrified people. I have no idea why, but it seems like God wouldn’t have it any other way.

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