The Dawning of a New Era? (May-Jun 1998)

By Matt Dabbs

by Trina Williams & Leslie Jones
May – June, 1998

32There is no evidence that the way we conceive of race has biological significance. It is a socially contrived construct based on skin color. Society defines and redefines what belonging to a racial group means, both technically and practically.

Does having one great-grandmother of a particular race (1/8 of a bloodline) determine classification, or is race a matter of self-identification? How much does being identified with a particular racial group impact where one lives, works, socializes, and worships?

Paul writes that in the Kingdom of God “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28-29). Today we might expand the thought to include there is neither Black nor White nor Hispanic.

Although there are many directions a discussion on race relations could take, this article is simply two young people reflecting on black-white interaction within Churches of Christ. Given some three hundred years of tumultuous history since the first Africans set foot on American soil, it is not surprising that there is still racial tension and animosity in the United States. What is surprising, however, is that Christians still struggle with racial tension when we are called to be one in Christ. Do we so conform to societal norms that the church will continue to exhibit the same conflicts, tensions, discrimination, and misunderstandings that take place in the country at large? Or has the church learned from its past mistakes such that it is approaching a new era where Christians become a light that models unity and love with respect to race?

Before we, the authors, address this question, it is necessary to introduce ourselves and be up front about who we are as individuals and what perspective we represent. We are both African-American women, aged 27. We grew up attending Churches of Christ in the Midwest and were baptized at an early age. Our fathers currently hold leadership roles in their respective congregations, one an elder and the other a deacon. Although we grew up attending predominantly black congregations, we have had the opportunity to live in a myriad of cities and locations. We have both worshipped in all-white settings, mixed-race settings, and even international settings. We have lived away from home and witnessed how racial dynamics unfold in both school and work situations. In addition, we have known one another for over eight years and spent half of that time worshipping together at a few particular congregations.

Our first recognition of racial issues within the church was noting how separate our fellowships were. No one seemed to notice a contradiction in announcing a “national youth conference,” a “national lectureship,” or a “national crusade” where only black congregations were expected to attend. Even for local events, a “city-wide” song meeting typically included only the other black congregations in the area. We learned about “other” youth conferences, single conferences, lectureships, etc. when in predominantly white settings.

Even when congregations came together for an interracial program, the fellowship felt superficial and contrived because very few members knew one another. For a youth group activity, adults warned that we should be on our “best behavior.” The events were presented as something out of the ordinary rather than brothers and sisters gathering for a common purpose.

When we questioned this as youths, the responses were typically indifferent or non-committal. “It has always been this way.” “This is simply how things are.” “A while back we were not allowed to worship together, so now we remain separate.” The distinctions were painfully apparent but rarely discussed.

The Dawning of a New Era?Going beyond our recognition of how the races worshipped and organized separately, as we went more places on our own, we also felt and were treated differently. In a predominantly black setting, we recognized the songs, understood the context in which statements were made, were familiar with preaching arid singing styles, and knew tacitly there would be acceptance. When visiting a new congregation, we were approached by members who came up to chat and when they asked where we were from, there was inevitably some person or congregation we knew in common. In a predominantly white setting, sometimes the songs were unfamiliar, we were not as sure of the context in which statements were made, singing and preaching styles were unfamiliar, and there was not always obvious acceptance. People would stare or act noticeably uncomfortable in our presence. When visiting a new congregation, members often were friendly, but we rarely knew anyone in common and had not frequented the same congregations, even if we visited the same cities. On such occasions, we rarely had bad experiences, but usually did not feel as welcome.

Internationally (at least in England, France, Peru, and Ecuador), congregations were typically smaller and of mixed race. It was often unclear who was in charge and sometimes difficult to tell whether the congregations were

predominantly of any one race. There might have been songs that were unfamiliar or even in a different language, but the fellowship was warm and seemingly not very contingent on race. Returning to the United States after such fellowship made the racial separation that exists here again more apparent.

If there is one place a person can walk in and not be seen through the lens of race, it ought to be the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. But even as we question the lingering vestiges of racism and separatism, we know the issues are complex.

When vital statistics are decomposed by race, there are differences. Differences in family structure, differences in income, differences in employment status,

differences in level of education, differences in level of incarceration, differences in prevalence of poverty, and differences in political opinion are measured and reported annually. Add to this the segregated schools and neighborhoods that exist in most urban cities and the differences loom even larger because we know they are likely to be perpetuated. This is the backdrop from which black and white Christians face each other.

Even if we believe emphatically that all of us are created in the image of God and that we are mandated to love and esteem one another, we still each have the interpersonal, institutional, and historical baggage that comes from living in a society that magnifies and is divided by issues of race. Good intentions won’t take us into a new era. The black Christian who has been overlooked for a promotion at work for years, yet has to train younger less experienced white colleagues to do their job will have to deal with the anger and frustration of that situation. The white Christian who is afraid to go through a black neighborhood will have to confront that feat. Anyone who has never had a meaningful relationship with a person of another race will have to work through his or her own prejudices and assumptions to be genuine in such a situation.

But thankfully, one thing that distinguishes our generation from those before us is that there have been more opportunities for such interaction between blacks and whites. Our understanding of violent and overt racism is based on historical memory rather than personal experience. We attended a private white university that 40 years ago did not accept many black females. We were not subjected to the arbitrary assignment to separate water fountains and the back of buses and public institutions like our parents and grandparents. We have worked alongside, traveled with, and established friendships with people from other races. We still have our own baggage and there is always potential for misunderstanding, but we know that racial differences can be overcome from experience and have even developed strategies for addressing them.

With increased opportunity for interaction, there emerges a cadre of persons who are comfortable in a variety of different racial settings. For want of a better term, we can call them cultural brokers. These are “bi-lingual” people who are comfortable within their own race and cultural reference group, but can also speak, dress, and communicate in ways that are acceptable and understood within other reference groups. As the numbers of such cultural brokers increase within congregations, better fellowship and genuine respect between races becomes more likely.

How might a new age with respect to race begin to look and feel in comparison to the recent past? Some would posit that a remedy to problems of race within the church is to fully integrate each congregation and have members who are “color-blind,” not even noticing racial differences. A characteristic statement might be “Let’s put the past behind us and just all get along!”

A quick rejoinder, regardless of the race of the speaker, might be that “I am more comfortable worshipping with people who are like me. I would not be as happy worshipping God in a mixed race setting, especially if it means giving up aspects of worship and fellowship that I enjoy simply to accommodate a new racial reconciliation.”

This is an honest and perfectly acceptable reaction. There is something natural about wanting to be with what is familiar. Racial healing doesn’t need contrived arrangements or forced interaction. We will, however, have to go beyond interacting with only the cultural brokers of “acceptable blacks” and “accommodating whites.”

When there is interaction, there ought to be real communication and not a need to be on our “best behavior.”

When ministers and leaders as well as members from different congregations begin to interact regularly with Christians of another race, they may discover opinions or cultural patterns that they genuinely dislike. In that case, don’t pretend. There may be individuals that you dislike. Love and respect are required; agreement and assimilation are not. But be careful not to attribute every character flaw or idiosyncrasy to race. There is as much variety among blacks as there is among whites and in society at large.

With increased opportunity for interaction, changing attitudes from a new generation, and honest communication, there is hope. With the power of the Holy Spirit we can learn to respect racial differences and glorify God together. But it will take conscious effort. It may mean confronting the inequities and stereotypes we find in society at large. We definitely can’t continue to deny they exist. The love of Christ can supersede race, but we must prepare ourselves to act out that love. We look to the future with hope and are willing to actively participate in working with others to bring about the dawn of a new era. But this hope is undergirded by the understanding that we still have a long way to go.Wineskins Magazine

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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