Am I called to be comfortable or to be changed? (as a white Christian)

When I read an article in TIME Magazine Can Megachurches Bridge the Racial Divide? about the diversity journey of Willow Creek Church, I was left feeling surprised and unsettled.  Surprised by the influence that one person can have, a pastor in this case (Bill Hybels) who changed the face of that church – quite literally.  Willow Creek has gone from being  a lily white church to having diversity rates around 20% in about fifteen years.  It is a good story that’s worth reading.  (And quite unlike a lot of what you find in TIME; at least I find TIME Magazine is sanctimonious and moralizing about neoconservative ideas.)

Taking it a step further, Edward Gilbreath interviewed the Time religion writer David Van Biema who wrote the original piece about Willow Creek Church.  That interview was even more compelling, and as usual for me, unsettling. (If you have any interest in these topics this website, www.UrbanFaith.com, authored by Mr. Gilbreath, is thoughtful, challenging and informative.)  But the interview stirred up in me all the same feelings I have had for years, of dissatisfaction, doubt, and a strange wish for more diversity in my world.

I attend a 5,000+ church here in Madison, WI.  I have no idea of the diversity stats, though we have a lot of international students and college students.  I always see black faces in the crowd, but they stick out.  We seem to have tons of Asians.  Diversity is not talked about that I can tell as important in the Kingdom of God and the staff is Caucasian (the platform speakers are always male and always Caucasian, with very few exceptions.)

This was a strong theme of the Gilbreath interview  — the lack of people of color on staff and in crucial teaching roles, etc.

At times I become discouraged about all this, because after working on a convention like Urbana I have seen, experienced and participated in worship and leadership that is diverse.  Beautifully diverse, challenging, incredible, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, worship at Urbana is a transformational experience.  Heavenly.

My church is very white.

There is an ethnically diverse church here in town.  It is Pentecostal with a black pastor that I know and respect, Alex Gee.  I grew up Lutheran, United Methodist, Evangelical Free, and Presbyterian.  I am open.  Though I find the pentecostal experience is genuine and exciting, it also challenges this awkward extremely white person!  Let’s just say I want to like it.  I want a groove.  I want rhythm.  I want the holy spirit of the Pentecostal experience.  But it isn’t happening yet.

One thing I learned from my friends who are not white is that people with power (white like me) need to be willing to ‘risk and ‘get uncomfortable’ and be the minority presence sometimes. Willing to give up their power.  In my heart-of-hearts I feel compelled to do this.  And at other times the ‘worship with your own kind’ argument resonates with the part of me that just wants church to be comfortable.  Is that sin?  Should I reject those thoughts and desires for what is known and familiar?

Jesus seemed to constantly be in situations with people very different from him.  Is that what he calls us to?  The author of First John says that to love is to lay down your life.

“We know love because Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

What he did, the greatest act of love, seems like an impossible thing to do for another person.  But just perhaps in a regular persons’ day-to-day life, our acts should be ordinary acts of love.  To live our lives based on that simple truth means our lives are built on self-sacrifice.  Every time we respond in love to someone else, we are laying down our lives for them.

“This is my commandment,that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another.”

Strange how he did not say “these are my commandments.”  He said one commandment.  To believe and love is one idea.  Believing in Christ means that we love one another.  Looking at it that way, there is a lot that I can do as a person with my affluence & power &  a voice for the cause of reconciliation in my city.  Things that have nothing to do with where I worship on Sunday.

  • I could take a job in a community development organization, forgoing salary to do a job that made a difference.
  • I could send my daughter (and sons) to Wright Middle School, a school named after one of Madison’s civil rights pioneers, which offers a multi-cultural curriculum.
  • I could volunteer my talents to Madison Times the only minority-owned newspaper here in Madison.

And I am considering all of these things.

I’d like to hear what you think. Do white or black churches need to change? Do people, white people for the most part with the power and resources  need to be humbling themselves to be a minority somewhere in their lives?  What can we do to help change this story in our white churches?  What are the questions I am not thinking of?  What’s left unsaid?  Ultimately how do we love our community as Jesus would have?  Are we willing to change?

UPDATE: I wrote  this in response to Kathy Khang’s post on the subject on Sojourner’s God’s Politics blog.

It’s always disconcerting to read believers ranting at one another. So much emotion. So often so ugly. The danger of the medium I suppose.  I appreciate the intensity of Kathy’s post and the questions she is posing. Things were written that need to be said. Often. In a variety of places. I blogged about the TIME article as well, Kathy, not knowing you had written too. My perspective as a white woman of course being entirely different. I read the White/Asian thing and wondered about it, but it didn’t hurt to read it. That pain is why this is all so important.

The question “are liberals ever happy” though posed in jest, is to me (ironically) the important question here. And my answer is a resounding no, of course not. Not in the way you think.

  • No, as long as our children are growing up to fear one another, and hesitate, and wonder about each others culture. To consider certain cultures suspect, simply because they are different.
  • No, as long as a white child believes somehow they are more deserving than a Black or Korean or Japanese kid born next door.
  • No, as long as white people believe they are the givers and POC are the takers, the needy.
  • No, as long as there is poverty, and hunger, and homelessness in our country.
  • No, as long as kids are not being educated well because they weren’t born into the right neighborhood or family.
  • And no, we’re not going to be happy as long as women and people of color are kept out of opportunities to minister alongside white men.
  • NO, liberals are not going to be happy as long as there is institutionalized discrimination and racism and sexism.

I could go on. But will say a final no. Inborn in a “liberal” as you call us, is a broken heart.  A heart that actually feels pain when they hear someone else talk about their pain.

“Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”- Isaiah 1:17

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Kathy Khang says:

    Melody, you know that this is an issue to close to my heart, and one that I continue to wrestle with. I’m all over the place…

    I do believe it is an issue of power, but I don’t put it in terms of you (meaning Whites) giving up power to me (non-Whites). I do not believe there is a finite amount of power for which we must equally distribute. I do believe that influence = power and the co-stewardship of that power, if you will, is critical to our witness as believers and obedience as disciples of Christ.

    Jesus did not give up his power and influence, but he certainly turned the tables, invited the uninvited, asked those who felt entitled to a place at the table why they thought they owned the table, etc.

    But there is something about Sundays that is so tricky…I grew up in the immigrant church and I am so grateful for that. It was my family’s place of rest. During the other six days we were immersed in America, and there I was the kid who was mercilessly teased and bullied whose parents learned on the fly to do what they could to provide a home and opportunities for me. Now that my family attends a “White” church, if you will, there is a part of me that longs for that rest because every where else I am the “other”. Do I ask those immigrant churches to change and embrace the same application of multiethnicity I would ask of other churches? I’m not sure. I don’t think I would ask that of them…

    I do believe that we all need to change and be open to the ways in which we need to submit to different types of leadership somewhere somehow. There is an important lesson to be learned in displacement, but it cannot stop there otherwise it becomes a mountaintop experience that doesn’t transform our daily lives. I’m not always sure if that has to be on Sundays….or just Sundays…

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