Reflections on the Conversation on Race and the Church

On September 21, Drew Hart and Ben Walter presented a conversation on race and the church at Germantown Historic Meetinghouse in Philadelphia, sponsored by the Franconia and Eastern District Conferences’ Peace & Justice Committee.  (Listen to the podcast.)  The following are reflections on this conversation from two men in very different walks of life: Mikah, a biracial young adult who is working with students in north Philadelphia, and Firman, a white pastor of over twenty-five years, ministering in a prosperous, rural setting.

“Take daring and bold steps”

mikahby Mikah Ochieng, Philadelphia Praise Center

Few people can present on the topic of race with such knowledgeable comprehension and articulation that it greatly impacts others, possibly for the first time in their lives, to open their eyes and hearts to new and positive perspectives of understanding the people with whom they come in contact everyday. PhD student at Lutheran Seminary, Drew Hart, achieved this very feat at September 21’s conversation on race at Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust.

I, for one, particularly appreciated the intentional usage of official vocabulary and language that tied thoughts, ideas, and experiences to meaningful terms that are often used in the public arena when facilitating dialogue on the topic of race. I took Hart’s usage of terminology to be a great gesture of introduction into historical and trending issues that evolved out of the topic of race. And maybe because talking about race, ethnicity, or cultural background is typically taboo in the public arena, we might need a good refresher to help us not only be conscious people of a racialized society, but active engagers of racial reconciliation.

Hart shared a glimpse into his story of growing up in a racialized society and being the target of micro aggressions, a term used to describe the subtle, non-verbalized, non-conscious marginalizing actions of others towards people of different races and cultures. Hart calls this a sort of ‘silent-killer’ in the arsenal of 21st century racism.  Like the harpoons of institutional racism, which is typically a covert form of marginalization working in the forms of our society’s institutions, micro aggressions work in such subtle ways as to not be considered existing issues in our society, but can over time, if gone unnoticed, cause great pain to its victim.

Hart tells a really great encapsulating story of when he was attending college at a well-to-do suburban Christian school and he would walk down the main path that went through the heart of the campus. Occasionally, as he would notice, when groups of white students would pass him they would walk near the opposite edge of the path, cast their eyes down or to the side and stop talking. As soon as they had crossed paths the students would go back to their conversations, laughing and joking just as casually as before.

It’s a small act that would seemingly deserve a small amount of attention, but as Hart describes, “It’s like getting a paper cut: it’s annoying at first, but when you keep receiving that type of treatment, a thousand paper cuts really adds up.”

As a biracial young person, that I was able to relate my own experience to Hart’s. I took some time to reflect and I’ve come to the undoubted conclusion that certain micro aggressions have made up the narrative of my life at a similar suburban liberal arts Christian university as well, not least of all the experience of walking along the paths of the campus and the interactions (or non-interactions) that develop between myself and white students.

Paired with micro aggressions are micro affirmations. That is, the reverse of a micro aggression, a subtle acknowledging action of another’s personal value to the other. One might make space for the other through an affirming smile or nod during a conversation that gives the other a sense of value and self-worth.

I take away from this discussion that there is hope for the Church, particularly our Anabaptist tradition, of becoming not only more racially aware, but active in reaffirmation and racial reconciliation. It is my hope, and I know from discussion with others after the event that it is the hope of many others, that the Church would take daring and bold steps to make racial reconciliation a reality in concrete steps.

Just as Hart and his conversation partner Ben Walter emphasized, reconciliation looks like being active listeners and partnering collaborators with those who share different viewpoints and experiences from our own in situations where power is concerned. A particularly pertinent issue might surround the authority of the Church and how it delegates its finances. Here, then, would be required the shared stewardship of resources across racial boundaries so that all represented peoples in the Church have a slice of dignity. It’s a hard bit to accomplish, but we at least have to try.

Firman“The radical nature of hope”

by Firman Gingerich, Blooming Glen

I am glad I attended the “Conversation on Race and the Church” held last week at the historic Germantown Meetinghouse.

Drew Hart’s comments have had me thinking a lot about my Anabaptist theological underpinnings and how they intersect with theological perspectives of people of color.

Drew reminded us that much of Black Theology comes from the perspective of people on the margins.  He correctly reminded us that much of Jesus ministry was birthed and expressed among folks who were oppressed and on the margins.  The Kingdom of God Jesus was calling people to participate in was a kingdom much at odds with the kingdom of the occupying and brutal Roman government.

Drew suggested that if we want to recover vital Anabaptist faith values, it will need to come through stories of people on the margins.  I think he is on to something that we should pay attention to.  Our Anabaptist parents were often marginalized by persecution or rejection.  Life on the margins taught us much about trusting God and the community to uphold us.  Anabaptism from the margins measured faithfulness by how we followed Jesus’ teachings.  Anabaptists were often bold in offering a prophetic witness to the culture that did not know Christ.

For many years I have felt growing tension over this in preaching.  Settled-in people don’t want faithfulness measured by how well we live the Sermon on the Mount.  We white folks often project that our faithfulness is connected to how we fulfill the American dream.  I’m reminded of what Scott Hutchinson, a pastor friend, told our staff several years ago as he was unpacking a Jesus parable to us: “There is no church in North America that would have Jesus of Nazareth as their pastor today.”    Jesus offered hope, new life, and courage to those on the margins of society and saved much of his criticism for those settled in, the religious and political leaders.

With a fresher perspective I’m wondering again how people on the margins can teach me, a white pastor, about the radical nature of hope that Jesus preached to the masses of the Galilean villages.

Several themes from Drew and Ben Walter’s conversation were helpful for again naming perspectives.  I found it valuable to ponder my white guilt, knowing that I believe deeply in the biblical themes that all of us are created in God’s image.  It was also helpful to be reminded that many people of color do not have the same privileges as I do.  I wondered about ways to model the kind of reflecting conversation between Drew and Ben in our churches.

One thing I have little to wonder about is our future.  The Germantown historic meetinghouse was filled, and mostly with folks much younger than me.  The willingness of younger leaders to have this conversation will only help us move more boldly toward the biblical themes that “we are all one In Christ Jesus.”  May we all help grow John’s dream in Revelation 7 where there is a gathered multitude worshipping at the heavenly throne made up of people from all tribes, peoples, and languages.

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