Our country is growing increasingly frustrated with the state of racial relations in America. The latest controversy over the national anthem protests in the NFL illustrate how civil discourse in this political climate is next to impossible. Neither side wants to listen to the other, only yell from entrenched positions of disdain and distrust for one another.
While it’s clear that political bickering is not the answer, the church seems unable to provide answers either. We remain divided on racial lines, even when our theology has little disagreement. White evangelicals are often blind to injustice, believing that racism is a thing of the past. Each group has a different history as well as different interpretations of shared history. Memories from past hurts linger in a community’s memory, and stereotypes, biases, assumptions, and fears color how we see our neighbors. Paternalistic attitudes in charity and outreach further reinforce the gap, and political tribalism makes us question the religion of someone who votes differently from us.
All of this division can be overcome by the power of the cross, but it will take intentional action on the part of many congregations of all racial makeups in communities large and small for gospel reconciliation to take place. With that truth in mind, here are five simple goals that can begin the process of racial reconciliation in your community:
1 – Build empathy and understanding
The answer to each of these formidable barriers begins with fostering understanding. Evangelical minister and civil rights activist John M. Perkins says, “There is no reconciliation until you recognize the dignity of the other, until you see their view. You have to enter into the pain of the people. You’ve got to feel their need.”
Most people are not ready to sit across a table from a person they don’t know and bare their pain, so we might need to start with personal stories told through books, movies, or other media. Perkins’ autobiography Let Justice Roll Down is powerful and challenges many white evangelical assumptions about race. Movies are emotionally powerful, but are often too simplistic.
What are some ways you can expose your people to stories that broaden their world and challenges their perspective?
2 – Build community
Unity is often built through a commitment to a common cause. Racial division often fades away in a platoon or on a sports team as everyone relies on the other for their mutual success.
What are some ways that you can join with congregations in your community to do ministry that has black and white believers working together as equals, depending on one another?
3 – Create shared experiences
This goal can be tied to the previous suggestion of shared mission, but here it can be as simple as sitting together, enjoying a common experience side-by-side. Experiences from a common point of view creates a positive shared history.
In my community, many people look back at tent revivals where churches of all types joined together to worship and to be challenged. In the next few months, we are planning to work with a black church in town to have some combined Christmas services and meals.
What shared experiences do Christians in your town have across racial lines? How can you facilitate new ones?
4 – Understand mutual need for one another
1 Corinthians 12:21 says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!'” Yet our churches operate like they can get along just fine without people that have a different background or ethnicity. If your church is just middle-class white people, you are missing vital organs. We need the poor and the rich as well as people of different colors and cultures.
Shared missions where people see the value in different kinds of people are key here, but work in this area must also be done from the pulpit and in leadership strategies.
How can we as pastors actively pursue diversity in our congregations and in leadership roles in the church?
5 – Share assets as the Body of Christ
This goal is the previous idea put to action. Often white churches located in or near poor minority neighborhoods think of these neighbors as “needy” and their white church as the “benefactors.” (This is often true even when the economics of the members are not that different.) And the truth is that families in these neighborhoods easily slip into these roles, where the white people in the church give and they receive. It often never occurs to either side that these “needy” people have anything of value to offer the individuals in the church. This attitude demolishes any chance of true fellowship.
We have to learn to release control, give away leadership and influence, and humbly walk alongside others as equals, mutually dependent on the assets and gifts God has entrusted to all of his children.
What are some ways you can purposefully use your influence to provide opportunities for others to use their God-given gifts?
I hope we can discuss in the comments some of the answers to these questions. I am just beginning our journey here in Stephens and am full of more questions than answers. May God lead us to demonstrate the power of the gospel by bringing unity and love where the world expects hate and division.