An Interview About Ethnic/Race Issues in Our Churches

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I can assure you that ethnic/race issues will not be the only, perhaps even primary, area about which I write. (Take a deep breath). I am passionate about many other things (e.g., the gospel, my family, the church I pastor, working on my upcoming PhD dissertation). Nevertheless, I believe this is an area that requires discussion. I am aware that feelings will be hurt, additional questions raised, and positive progress in this area made, but I hope in all this God will be glorified.

I am convinced we need each other. God did not save us to be spiritual nomads. Besides saving us for his glory, for love and good deeds, he also saved us to be together. Addressing ethnic/race issues is my small way to highlight the pink elephant in the room, which very few people discuss, but needs to be addressed in order to draw us all closer together. Our intimacy will not result simply by pointing out the issues, however, but by emphasizing the one thing that changes hearts and brings us together - the gospel. I can assure you, contrary to a recent comment, I am not "a bitter black man with a victim mentality demonizing white people for their supposed racism." I am simply seeking to see us all grow together in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, which affects our relationship vertically (with God) and horizontally (with each other).

Recently I had the privilege to interview Jason, a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

Tell us a little about yourself.

I am a 34 year old white male. I was born in Charlotte, NC and have lived in the south most of my life. I grew up in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. I was on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ at Clemson University for 5 years after college. I joined a PCA church while on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ. Realizing my own need for further training and instruction and having regained a biblical understanding of the priority of the local church, I went to Covenant Seminary in order to move towards ordination and ministry in the context of the local church. I moved to Virginia after seminary for an internship that resulted in a call to be an Associate Pastor of that PCA church.

What is the ethnic and socio-economic make-up of your congregation? What is the ethnic and socio-economic make-up of the community in which your church is located? 

The ethnic and socio-economic make-up of our congregation is 95+ white and 99% middle-upper middle class. We have one inter-racial (white-asian) family that accounts for our racial diversity. This Asian man is also one of our elders, so our session is 75% white. Our community is 77% white and mostly middle class. The median household income is $82,000 with 5.6% of community living below poverty.

With the ethnic homogeneity of your congregation and your background, what caused you to begin looking into ethnic/racial issues in Reformed and Presbyterian circles?

During and following my college years the Lord began to convict me of my racism. I began to reflect more on my experience in church growing up and of racism and race issues in the church. I was writing a paper for ordination on the Image of God and was required to use some Presbyterian and Southern Presbyterian theologians. I was shocked to see some of the things that Dabney and others had written with respect to their views on slavery and the status of blacks compared to whites in the church. This seemed very inconsistent with their teaching on the Image of God in other places. I also was reading Anthony Bradley's blog which from time to time talked about his experience as a black man in the PCA and began to read more about Dabney, Thornwell, and others. I knew he wasn't making up his experiences because I knew quite personally that racism existed in Reformed Presbyterian circles. It was through this initially that I began to look more into ethnic/racial issues. 

How are you pursuing learning more in this area? Why would you encourage others to do the same?

I am pursuing learning in this area by listening to non-white brothers in Presbyterian and Reformed circles. Anthony Bradley was one of my professors in seminary. Any time he recommends a book on race and Presbyterian and reformed experiences I buy it. By now I have a lot of reading to do. I've done a lot of "virtual listening" by following lots of Facebook conversations that Anthony and others have had, and have just listened to their struggles and pain and sharing of their story. Through one of those conversations I read an article by Leon Brown (you) about his experience as a black man in Presbyterian and reformed circles. I hadn't met Leon, due to infrequent Presbytery attendance on my part, but sent him a quick note of encouragement. That later resulted in a meeting for brunch where we were able to talk. I really wanted Leon to help me listen, help me hear. I want to know more about what you have experienced, and how I and we and the church as a whole can grow. I had learned enough from reading his article and other writings to know that there are some things that white people have a hard time understanding and getting about the black (and non-white) experience. In the article Leon invited readers to walk in his shoes. My friendship with Leon began by me seeking his help to walk in his shoes. I don't know what it is like to be a minority in really any sense. I remember thinking one presbytery meeting as I looked around, especially after reading some of the articles and facebook posts..."Wow, Leon is the only black guy here. That has to be incredibly difficult. Why is it like this?" The church can't grow and change without conversations of understanding, listening by the majority white culture, and growing racially diverse friendships and communities and churches. Change needs to happen. Non-whites need to be heard and white people need to listen. 

Comparatively, do you have many non-white friends? If not, how does this affect your interaction and understanding of non-white ethnic groups?

Comparatively I don't have many non-white friends. Obviously this affects my interaction and understanding negatively. How can one grow in understanding those with whom you don't interact? 

This is kind of interesting. As I think about it I had more non-white friends growing up. My closest friends in elementary and middle school where non-white. I guess I was the minority in my neighborhood, I was the only white kid. I was friends with a lot of black kids in my neighborhood and in school, but we had no non-whites in my church. As I went into high school and some in middle school I said lot of racist things when with the majority culture (church, white friends) but I didn't have any racists attitudes towards my black friends. Sometimes I was ridiculed by my extended family for having black friends. I think maybe I used racial slurs to gain acceptance in the majority culture. But I did see my attitude and heart change in my racist thoughts towards those non-whites that I didn't know. The more I moved from being in the minority (my neighborhood) to being in the majority high school college etc... the less black friends I had. There seemed to be a lot more (voluntary?) segregation (cafeteria, clubs, parties) happening. Our high school was over 50% black. But my college was at least 75% white. I hung out with who was around me and those were mostly white people. In my experience, past childhood, inter racial relationships take effort, they just don't happen. In high school and in college most of the black students hung out together (black Christian groups, black frats and sororities, black engineering clubs etc...). I never bothered to ask why. I just accepted that was just the way it was. Now I'm understanding why more. The majority/minority culture experience is shedding some light on that.  I'm processing some as I'm writing....all that to say as one in the majority culture it will take effort on my part to move out of that experience and to engage and interact with non-whites. 

Have you had any uncomfortable situations in your church, or any other, where racism was overt against a non-white? If so, tell us about that situation.

Not in my present church, but growing up I was taught in Sunday school (not regularly but I remember it being taught) that slavery was a result of the curse that God placed on Ham. The decedents of Japheth were white people, Europeans. The descendants of Shem were Semites, Jews etc... and those who came from Ham were black. That is why they were in slavery. Also we were told that interracial marriages were a sin. The church I grew up in was adjacent to my neighborhood, (I could walk there). 

The church was over a hundred years old. The area changed from rural to neighborhoods. First it was an all white neighborhood, then slowly that began to change. The church never did. It was always awkward when a black family visited. Everyone's head turned to watch them walk down the aisle to their seat. This never would have happened if it was a white family. That had to be really uncomfortable for those families....they never came back. 

We used a lot of racial slurs in our youth group and told racist jokes sometimes....we were never corrected or rebuked. It makes me sick to my stomach to think I participated in that.

How does the gospel help us regarding ethnic/cultural/socio-economic issues in Reformed and Presbyterian churches?

It reminds me that I am a white-Gentile. I was an alien, a stranger, an outsider. Historically and as far as my heritage goes I was not part of the people of God. But Jesus has come and he tore down that wall and I have access as a full member, not second class, not provisional, not JV, but full status as an adopted son. What was once distinct Christ has made one in himself tearing down the dividing wall of hostility. The extent to which fellowship happens across ethnic/cultural/socio-economic lines communicates and demonstrates a glorious gospel truth. When this doesn't happen truths and implications of the gospel can be hidden or compromised. Christ is restoring the Image of God in man. All races and cultures reflect different and beautiful aspects of the image of God. Without each other we are missing out on experiencing and communicating to the world the beauties of our creator and redeemer. The gospel should remind me that I have no place whatsoever to view myself as superior to anyone else. It should also provide the context in which we can confess and repent of failures in the past to live out the gospel in light of racism and elitism. Jesus wasn't white, God isn't white. If the new heavens and earth only had white people or middle class people it would be imperfect. The gospel is bigger than white people. We are the minority as far as Christianity goes currently I believe, as far as the majority Christian world is in the southern and eastern hemisphere. The gospel is world wide and ethnic wide and cultural wide and socio-economic wide in its scope. That should help us see that these issues need to be addressed in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches. 

Do you have any other thoughts you would like to share?

I have a lot of growing to do. Thanks for walking with me in this.
Posted January 14, 2014 @ 6:00 AM by Leon Brown
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