Happy 2021 friends!
The other day my friend Karli posted this on Twitter:
She lamented how Black people have conversations about racism every single day, but it takes a tragedy for a white person to get involved. It’s exhausting for our black friends. I was chatting with a few of the women who sit on my leadership team for Women in Youth Ministry, and they lamented how the questions they’re asked about race typically start at the very beginning, usually with something “google-able.” That’s how far behind we are, white friends.
So much good work was made last year in the work of anti-racism; but I’m curious — are you still growing? It’s been a while since a tragedy has caught national attention — are you still paying attention? Are you still reading the books, listening to the podcasts, watching the documentaries, learning from black people? Or is it going to take another tragedy to move further on your anti-racism journey?
When I was in middle school, my Senior Pastor shocked our church in his New Year’s Sermon. Most pastors take this opportunity to set the trajectory that the church will go in that year, and this year in 2003 my pastor chose the route of anti-racism.
Settled in Ferguson, MO one mile from where Michael Brown would be brutally murdered by a police officer 10 years later, my pastor made a big statement to the church: We are a primarily white church in a primarily black community. As good evangelicals, it is important for us to evangelize to our neighbors. And if we want to share the gospel of Jesus Christ, we have to prepare for our church to look different; namely, for black people to sit in our pews. And if we are going to effectively reach our black community for Christ, that means that our leadership at the church will need to look more like the community. Namely, we would want to have black people on our pastoral staff and lay leadership teams.
You are probably reading this and applauding, yes? Expecting that the church gave a standing ovation, and everyone lined up to sign themselves up for our new efforts to reach the community?
I was in 7th grade when this happened, and I was so excited to finally be in youth group. I had been a “bus kid,” one of the kids who rode the church bus to church each Sunday without my parents. I was an at-risk kid who the church brought in and loved. I remember hearing this message and going, “Whoa, I never thought of this stuff… but it makes sense. Sign me up.” I actually lived in Ferguson and was not intimidated by this message. But most of the congregation had already white-flighted out of there in the 90s, including our youth families. Every single youth family left the church, including our youth leader.
My pastor made good on his promise to make our church more diverse, and hired a black youth pastor. On my youth pastor’s first night, it was just him, his wife, their niece, and me. My youth pastor groomed me for ministry, and we grew the student ministry. And over time, the church would re-grow and look the way our pastor dreamed.
It didn’t come without sacrifice. My church wanted to be “all things to all people,” which meant sometimes out of accommodating people excellence was sacrificed. But it was beautiful that way. We added praise-dancing and group-led worship and gospel choirs and allowed our young people to lead in any capacity they wished. In addition to our sacrifice of excellence, we also sacrificed some of our patriarchal theology. Women were now allowed to pass the offering plate. Women were allowed to prophesy from stage through music and prayer. We also sacrificed traditions. Our potlucks changed, the fundraisers we did changed, and even the night we did youth changed. We did all of this to reach our community. And of course, we sacrificed people. Many people would continue to leave when they realized we were serious about our work.
Last year my current church, St. Luke’s, made a commitment to be anti-racist. We are a primarily white church, and serve a very diverse community of people, being situated right on the line of Indianapolis and Carmel. Next door we have $300,000 condos, a mile south have multi-million dollar homes, and a mile on either side of our road we have low-income apartment communities. We are 20 minutes away from most people in the Indianapolis area, and we serve people in all areas.
The term anti-racism originated with Angela Davis:
“In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”Angela Y. Davis
At St. Luke’s, we talk about how anti-racism is a combination of understanding our biases (especially as white people) but also dismantling racism where we see it. When we see racism in action, we do what we can and what it takes to call it out and work to break it down. This is such a basic overview. Here are some books where you can read and learn more. If you’re a church leader, I also recommend this book.
As we launched our anti-racism work, we started having conversations with our students, starting with baby steps especially for our middles. What is privilege? Who might be marginalized? What can we do?
It was met with some frustration from families. They’re too young to talk about racism.
It brought me back to 7th grade, to the sermon given by my pastor. It was the first time I thought about racism in terms of my role in dismantling it, even though I had grown up in a primarily-black community. It set my life down a different trajectory, including ministry. It was a shock for sure as a 13-year old, but it was needed. My pastor made a commitment for our church to be anti-racist, and it changed my life.
So, it’s a new year, 18 years after the sermon I heard in 7th grade. And it’s the same New Year’s message:
- How are you going to commit to anti-racism this year?
- Where do you need the influence of BIPOC (black, indigenous, & other people of color) bloggers, teachers, podcasters, preachers, leaders, authors? In your work, home, church, hobbies, friendships, and otherwise?
- Are you ready to make sacrifices? Are you ready to be uncomfortable? Admit that things might be awkward until you arrive to the future that God has asked of you?
- Are you ready to have difficult conversations with coworkers, friends, family, and even strangers when racism happens?
- Are you willing to talk about racism and promote anti-racist efforts with the young people in your life?
- Are you willing to have a different future than the one you planned, a future that is full of diversity?
If you don’t know where to start, here are some things that have helped me:
- Asking Google first.
- Ask a black friend about their experiences. Last year I sat down with one of my best friends who is mixed race, and asked her for the first time in our 6-year friendship about her experiences.
- Start absorbing content made by black people. One small change that has made a big impact for me was following every black entertainer (musician, artist, actor, etc.) I loved on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I also asked my Twitter friends for BIPOC & LGBTQ+ theologians they loved and followed them. It changed my entire feed.
- I started watching some of my black friends’ church services online.
- I made a commitment to myself in 2020 that I wouldn’t read any books by white men, which was my default author-type.
- When deciding what show I should binge next, I looked at the cast list.
- Join Be the Bridge Facebook Group — read the rules first.
We have a long way to go — will you commit to be on this journey with me?