One thing is sure: None of us is born a racist.
We are, however, born with the ability to perceive differences—in sounds, colors, shapes, and sizes. Noticing those differences (I'm taller than you; you have white skin and I have brown) is an inherent capability, but forming attitudes about them (It's better to be tall; it's better to be white) is imparted. Our friends, family, and culture teach us these attitudes. And while progress has been made in changing the prejudices that all of us have, a rift still exists. The nation—and the church—still finds itself divided by race.
We live in the same towns, share the same schools, eat at the same restaurants, and shop at the same stores; but our homes and churches are in different neighborhoods. While our country has an ugly history of racial oppression, today the lack of harmony is more the result of isolation and ignorance.
Believers are given "the ministry of reconciliation," according to the apostle Paul (2 Cor. 5:18-21). But what does that mean for race relations in the 21st-century church? The journeys of three Christian leaders suggest at least three keys.
1. Think Beyond Your Comfort Zone
"There are many people, evangelical Christians among them, who think racial divides no longer exist in our country," says Michael Emerson, professor of sociology at Rice University in Texas and coauthor of the seminal Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America.
"Because we live so separated from each other, people become blind to it. If I turn to my neighbor on my left and my neighbor on my right, who are both like me, and ask, 'There's not a race problem, is there?' and they say, 'No, there's not,' then we just reinforce it with each other."
Emerson and coauthor Christian Smith conducted nationwide surveys of white evangelicals for their groundbreaking book. After attending a Promise Keepers event in 1994, Emerson was "led to a conviction that something about race in our country mattered and grieved God."
When he returned home, he had a chance to act on his convictions. His job necessitated moving his family (3-year-old son Anthony and pregnant wife Joni) from St. Cloud, Minnesota, to Minneapolis. "Typically, we would just find a nice house in a nice suburb, but for some reason I felt like God was saying not to do that," Emerson says. "So after a lot of pain and rejections from our family and friends, we moved to an inner-city section of Minneapolis. It opened up a whole new world to us—the church we were in, the school the kids went to—it was all so fundamentally different from anything we had ever known."
The changes were not easy. "People did not understand why we were doing it, and I think my wife was wondering if I'd lost it," Emerson says.
But they made the choice out of a sense of conviction.
2. Be Intentional
Paige Pitts, a former teacher and urban ministry director at Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee, a mostly white Nashville suburb, believes that racial reconciliation won't happen unless we're intentional. "I grew up in a predominantly white world and never perceived a racial problem because I had no relationships that allowed me to see through black skin. Most families are not just going to fall into a natural, integrated, multicultural situation; we're going to live pretty isolated within the subculture."
Now a stay-at-home mother of two, Pitts developed a heart for reaching out to those in need while teaching in Nashville's metro school system. Her church, Christ Community, asked her to come on staff and develop an outreach to the underserved neighborhoods in Franklin. It was during her tenure there that Pitts met many of her close African American friends.
"I literally began to walk the streets and develop relationships with these women and youth," Pitts explains. "And I realized God has already planted faithful men and women in those communities. Instead of us coming in and leading the programs, we need to assist the leaders who are already there."
Pitts helped to start adult literacy programs, tutoring programs, a ministry for unwed mothers, and even an independent non-profit elementary school called New Hope Academy (which serves families from both the lower-income and middle-class Franklin communities and boasts a diverse student and faculty population).
Although she loved her church, Pitts and her husband, Dan, wanted to be involved in an integrated body of believers. Strong Tower Bible Church in Franklin offered the perfect setting to strengthen their multicultural relationships in a congregation made up of people from different racial and social backgrounds. Now, families from all different walks of life share dinner and fellowship with the Pitts family each week.
"We want our children to begin at an early age to see the world as bigger than a subculture of Christian white suburbia," Pitts says. "From the books we read to the places we go with them to the schools we'll choose for them—it will be a part of all our decision making."
3. Sign up for the Long Haul
"The church has historically been too conservative on this subject, extremely silent in many instances, and not as aggressive as it could have been," says Alvin Bibbs, director of Extension Ministries for the 17,000-member Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. Bibbs and Willow Creek's senior pastor, Bill Hybels, credit Emerson's book with helping to accelerate the church's vision for crossing cultural boundaries.
Bibbs, a native of Chicago's infamous Cabrini-Green public housing projects, has found his niche in his "compassion ministry" role at Willow Creek, where he has served since 1996. "We believe it's the entire church's responsibility to be active beyond the church walls," Bibbs explains. "We encourage our members to visit our urban church partners, and we welcome their members and pastors here at Willow Creek. But beyond that, we plan small groups and serving projects that allow them to get to know each other. It really doesn't have to be as complex as some people make it out to be."
Bibbs adds that churches need to emphasize long-term commitment to racial reconciliation goals: "It can't just be, 'Why don't I have breakfast with a person of another color, and now I've done my reconciliation deal.' It's going to take time to have a whole, trusting, and authentic relationship with someone different from us."
Intentionally building relationships across color lines may require extreme choices and extreme commitment before we begin to see the fruits of reconciliation on a larger scale.
"It will be hard work," Emerson says. "We live in such separate worlds that we don't understand one another. You've got to find a way to reduce that separation. Somehow find a way where you are naturally going to come in contact with people of a different race."
So why go to all the trouble? Can it really make a difference? With so many other issues facing us as Christians, is it necessary to make such an effort to cross racial and cultural lines?
The answer is simply yes. If for no other reason, we are compelled to pursue biblical reconciliation because we are Christians. Loving our brother is nothing more than an expression of our love for God: "We love because He first loved us. If anyone says, 'I love God,' yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And we have this command from Him: the one who loves God must also love his brother" (1 John 4:19-21).
Debra Akins is a freelance writer in Titusville, Florida. Adapted, with permission, from HomeLife (Feb. 2005).
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian magazine.
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