I have intentionally been on this journey to reconciliation for a little more than eight years. It began with a simple decision of convenience. I was serving on active duty in the military, my husband had a job that required a lot of driving, we had a new baby, and were without a church home. The last thing I wanted to do on Sunday mornings was drive any distance to attend worship service. We visited a Bible-teaching church five minutes from our home and stayed. The congregation was made up of middle aged to elderly white people and we were on a very short list of racial and ethnic minority church members.
This scenario may strike some people as a surprise but being in the minority was not much different than any other college or work experience I had in all of my adult life until that point. You show up, take care of business, and go back home. Nobody talked about race or injustice. We sat in that place of worship where the Bible was preached with no connection to the community concerns and no relevance for the pressing issues of the day. During that time, I actually had more sacred worship experiences at work.
At work, I served as a Diversity Outreach Counselor in the Office of Admissions at the United States Naval Academy. My responsibility was to educate all students residing on the East Coast about the wonderful educational, military, physical, and professional opportunities that become available when they attend the Naval Academy. I did this with a particular interest and focus on identifying and bringing the best qualified racial and ethnic students to the Admissions Board. I served with a racial and ethnic, gender, and generationally diverse team of officers and civilians. Many of my coworkers were unapologetically Christian and were not afraid to share their faith in the workplace. Some would confess that their faith was a motivator for the work we did together.
I transitioned from that job but we remained at the church until my husband received a job offer in another state and I was accepted to attend seminary. When we arrived in North Carolina, I told myself, “I will not become a member at another church where we are the only racial or ethnic minority in the congregation.” That’s a lonely experience. A lot of things go unnoticed. A lot goes unsaid.
My husband arrived in town a few months before I did, so he had the opportunity to visit a few churches. On the first Sunday when I settled in, he already had a church for us to visit. We rode around town for what seemed like an hour. Lost. So we ended up circling back near home to attend another church that was closer to our new rental property. He had also visited this church previously and informed me that the people were nice. (Most of the time, we are all on our best behavior upon a first visit.) I smiled and stepped into the church where I was greeted by one white person after another. All things reminded me of our previous church experience (which was not at all bad, just very different than what I was accustomed to). I decided before the first song was sung that we would not be taking up church membership at this location.
A few minutes into the service, the pastor stepped up to the podium and began preaching from the book of James. I even remember the scripture:
My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.
Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. In you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts (James 2:1-4 NIV)?
On that day, the white male preacher was not talking about helping the poor, class distinctions or socioeconomic injustice. He actually expounded upon the text to talk about race. As his follow-up story, he shared about the North Carolina A&T Four, a critical piece of North Carolina history that has indeed changed the trajectory of our entire country. (The North Carolina A&T Four, consists of four African American North Carolina A&T freshman college students by the names of Ezell Blair, Jr, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond who walked downtown in the city of Greensboro, NC in 1960 for the purpose of integrating the whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counter.) This incident was the launch pad for sit-ins and demonstrations all across the nation—a movement that eventually led to the passing of the Civil Rights Bill of 1960.
My heartbeat was aggressive as I heard this pastor speak to his congregation about partiality and asked about their willingness to welcome others into the congregation who are not like them. The pastor was speaking to his congregation, and he was also speaking to me because in so many ways, I was missing the Black Church. I missed the old spirituals, foot stumping, and hand clapping. I missed the “mothers of the church” and everyone treating you like family. I missed joining in as people sung or preached the Word with power and conviction. I missed the call and response. I missed cooked meals, fish fries, and bake sales. I missed the feeling of home. But I was convicted of my own partiality, and I thought, “Maybe they are interested in having a diverse congregation. Maybe this time will be different.” That’s how I ended up going to church again with white people.
I listened and learned a lot in that place. My eyes were opened when having conversations and hearing the conclusions of people who assumed I thought like them, voted like them, or had drawn the same conclusions about life as they did. I concluded that much of the American Christian’s practicing beliefs is not about the Bible at all. Oftentimes our beliefs (even as Christians) are shaped by our upbringing, our influencers, our class or tax bracket, and most certainly, our politics. That’s when the reality set in that the racial and ethnic differences upon people is not always seen as a value in the body of Christ.
There will be no unity if we do not humble ourselves, try to understand, or learn from each other. While the congregation and its leadership were welcoming to my family, there was no real value of diversity or interest in us bringing our full selves to the congregational fellowship. We were the tokens—the acceptable black people with college degrees, decent paying jobs, and who lived in the suburbs. I prayed and waited for God to provide clarity for his purpose of our being assigned to that place to minister. During the time of waiting, God convicted, transformed, and humbled me. I grew in patience and my calling was clarified. As it turned out, I don’t believe we were in that congregation to bring racial reconciliation for them at all, but rather to seal the conviction for this work in our own hearts.
I continued serving there as I attended seminary, and completed an independent study in racial reconciliation. I wanted to hear from different racial and ethnic voices in the church, and have them share their experiences in reconciliation. I wanted to read the writings of respectable people who had been on the journey and have been doing this work a lot longer than me. I wanted to visit churches that placed a value on racial reconciliation or multi-ethnic ministry. The more I learned, the better I understood that the leaders who were bold enough to name this mission were sacrificial. They were doing the hard work of practicing the teachings of Jesus about forgiveness, love of thy neighbor, showing mercy, considering others above self, turning the other cheek, etc. I wanted to model the life of the Savior in this way, and I longed for this conviction within my local church context.
For the years where we were members and servants in predominantly white churches, I often felt like a visitor—the person who was allowed to stay around as long as I didn’t cause too much trouble or overextend my welcome. So we moved to a church that has a mission to make disciples across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines. There is much work to be done but in this community, I see glimpses of God and his kingdom at work. For this hope, I press on and rejoice!
What has your journey to racial reconciliation been like?
© Natasha Sistrunk Robinson 2015