One of the surprises from this time of isolation due to COVID has been how frequently my friends and neighbors have asked me about my church’s response. In the beginning, people I didn’t realize even knew I attended church started asking, What’s your church doing? Are they still meeting for worship? Are they moving online? And then, as Massachusetts dipped its toes into reopening plans, What’s your church going to do? Are they reopening?
I have to admit that I was a little upset with my church’s decision to close their doors even prior to the State mandate to do so. In closing, they were disrupting my small group’s meeting time. They were depriving me of that weekly spiritual renewal time when we gathered for worship. I mean, there’s a reason we call our worship space a sanctuary!
But then, especially as the pandemic worsened, and as ambiguity faded into the background, the other congregants and I felt new purpose in our mission to stay home in order to keep others safe. Our church was also conveniently technically advanced, and we didn’t even miss a Sunday service as the staff swiftly switched the entire program to YouTube. That first week with the kids home from school, our Sunday School leaders initiated a kids’ program for connection, worship, and study that met three times a week for several weeks before they morphed the program into Wednesday afternoons and Sunday mornings.
My kids wondered, “Why are we doing extra church now?”
And I was all too grateful that in the sudden void of our daily routines, our spiritual leaders were providing guidance and community during unprecedented and uncertain times.
My church also initiated a pun-filled and entertaining YouTube series called “Hope and Soap” where pastors interviewed church members and attendees about the work God was doing through them during this time, work that served to bring hope to us all. I wrote about this briefly from another angle in my post Rethinking Fight Strategy.
And yet, about a month ago my church discontinued its installments of “Hope and Soap.” Not because they had lost hope. Rather, they felt God shifting their focus, and all of a sudden I started hoping people would ask me this:
What is the church doing about racial inequality and police brutality?
And yet, while I had opportunities to share with friends and neighbors, no one sought me out to begin this discussion. Today, I want to remind church-goers and non-church-goers alike that we want to be held accountable to anti-racist work.
Within my church, as within many churches across the country, all of a sudden, our services were filled with space to lament and grieve the deaths of Black people. And we revisited our shame that these disparities aren’t yet resolved...even within the walls of our own church. How had we let things continue in this way?
When I first started attending my church there was an African American woman pastor. She left the congregation about five years ago in order to fill a position on staff of our denomination, and since she left, we have had no Black Americans on staff.
Martin Luther King, Jr. famously stated that “it is appalling that the most segregated hour in Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.”
I have always considered my church highly diverse (and I learned the above quote during a Sunday sermon!). Yet, while I can find people of all colors, we are predominantly half white and half Asian, with a smattering of Latinx and Black people. And among the leadership staff, there are clearly some folks missing from the table.
During the last month or so, my church has started to listen to folks outside of its bubble, including engaging Black voices in conversation during our services to provide perspective and teaching. As the protests continued, I listened up as my church interviewed college students about how they saw God calling them to be a part of an anti-racist movement. I joined the tail-end of a Zoom meeting when one of the pastors hosted a presentation on the intersection of protesting and violence by Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson, Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College and author of Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence. And when several members of the Cambridge branch of our church organized a “Teach-In,” I was an attentive witness as six presenters shared history and personal story of the intersection of racism and a variety of topics, including education, transportation, Asian-American identity, technology, the relationship between protesting and violence and yes, racism and the church.
That last one, of course, was particularly hard to hear. None of the information was good. In fact, as we defined our emotions entering and leaving the Teach-In, the word I brought with me into the space morphed from “curious” to “heartbroken”. How could I look at images of white women in front of their church holding signs saying “We do not welcome the colored” and not be? How against the message of Jesus is that?
But wait, there are Black people at my church. We must be beyond that, right?
What I am learning is that if a Black person says he does not feel seen, we need to stop telling him we see him. If he’s saying “I’m hurt,” we need to stop saying, “It’s not my fault.” Instead, we need to ask him what we can do to help. In the case of my own church, one starting point would be to hire Black leadership.
For several Sundays, we have been reviewing the verses in Revelation that couch Jesus’s salvation not as just a personal salvation and entry to Heaven, but a salvation for all tribes and nations to heal and come together. And yet, just as we strive to work out our personal salvation on earth prior to death (rather than not care and just go on sinning without confession), we feel the Biblical call to work out our corporate salvation as well, to do the work on earth to reunite the different peoples of the world. As Revelation 7:9-10 says,
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”
As we study these verses, we come to understand that God doesn’t want us to be colorblind. He wants us to celebrate the diversity among us, to lift up every race, ethnicity and language, so that we can all sing praises to God together.
What is the church doing about this? Probably more than I’ve listed here.
What could the church be doing about this?
More than I’ve listed here.
And if we don’t know where we should begin, let’s continue to listen, to learn the history previously unwritten in our textbooks, to amplify the voices that have been silent for too long.
That’s what my church is doing about this.
The following is a list of books and organizations that are engaged in anti-racist work. The presenters on the Teach-In encouraged viewers to read and donate as they are able. While I have read and can encourage the reading of Beyond Colorblind by Sarah Shin, I have not read the other books, nor have I learned about the other organizations in depth at this point.
Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code by Ruha Benjamin
The Coded Gaze, documentary, Joy Buolamwini (2018) and TED talk
Beyond Colorblind: Redeeming Our Ethnic Journey by Sarah Shin
TED talk by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire
How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism and You: A Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.