Grace Matters: A True Story of Race, Friendship, and Faith in the Heart of the South
By Chris P. Rice (Jossey-Bass, 303 pages, $22.95)
A good memoir is a voyage of self-discovery. And Chris Rice's Grace Matters chronicles his self-discovery on several levels.
One good way to learn about yourself is to have a cross-cultural experience. As Grace Matters begins, Chris Rice is a student from élite Middlebury College taking a short-term break for ministry at Voice of Calvary Ministries in Jackson, Mississippi—a privileged Northern white boy trying to do good in a poor black Southern community.
Many whites who have even tentatively begun to explore racial reconciliation will recognize the no-win double binds Chris experienced: Use your organizational know-how and be accused (like all whites) of always trying to run things; or worse, step back from using your gifts and feel accused (like all whites) of not really being committed. Frankly, that is a stage everyone who believes in racial reconciliation has to move through. Grace Matters is a testimony to the fact that there is ministry and fellowship on the other side of the double bind.
Much of Grace Matters is devoted to the question only a few have had to ask: What is a white man in a black man's world? With the rise of the black middle class, many more African Americans have had to ask the opposite question. Chris's experience never fully resolves the question, but reading Grace Matters can open a reader's eyes to the multidimensional interaction of culture, ethnicity, and identity.
A second way to learn about yourself is to live in intentional community. Grace Matters chronicles the full life cycle of a remarkable community. Now disbanded, Antioch was more successful than any other comparable community in creating a fully biracial fellowship. But race matters aside, Antioch was finally forced to confront the fact that its members could only function if they operated with a certain tacit agreement not to bring up each other's problem behaviors. Problem behaviors? Chris Rice doesn't shy away from using strong words—vice and crap—when I would be tempted to say weakness and foible.
Chris and others learned that to move toward maturity they had to seek counsel, mentoring, and spiritual guidance outside the community. Chris got help from the nuns at a retreat center, an organizational consultant, and the late John Alexander (known best for his work with The Other Side). Intentional community provoked the questions, but outside influences facilitated insight and growth.
A third laboratory for self-discovery is the work of shared visionary leadership. Solo leadership is easy: All you need is a compelling vision and all the right gifts. The people will follow. But visions rarely come just to individuals and gifts aren't passed out in equal measure. Every pathbreaking leader needs a co-leader. In the terms of Grace Matters, a "yokefellow." Sometimes co-leadership is formalized, but more often it is de facto and functional.
The heart of Grace Matters is the story of two people committed to being leaders together. Chris Rice and Spencer Perkins labor to welcome complementarity, to balance intimacy and independence, and most of all to be honest about issues of jealousy, glory, position, rank, and power. Chris and Spencer alternately enabled each other's problems and attacked each other viciously. Chris's memoir doesn't hide any of Spencer's blemishes, but he concentrates on his own flaws. Despite his honest struggle and search for self-awareness, Chris seems slow to change. Like an addict, he reaches for perfection but seems caught in a cycle of self-destruction. How on-target Spencer was when he told Chris, "It doesn't surprise me when I'm bad. But it seems like it really bothers you when you're bad." With incredible honesty Chris avoids writing about jealousy and pride in the abstract. Instead he recounts his most embarrassing moments—outbursts of unprovoked anger, periods of consuming jealousy, sobering comments from observers. (John Alexander told Chris: Your problems aren't even interesting.)
Leaders who read this book will have to confront their own misdirected quests for recognition, reputation, or the rewards of glory. Even the "idol of indispensability" (the organization can't do without me; my co-leader will fail without me) must be profaned. Especially those in co-leadership should carefully digest this book.
If there is a saint in this book, it is John Alexander. Every other character is shown with flaws or (in the case of the beloved patriarch John Perkins) at least unbalanced virtues. But Alexander is the book's fount of wisdom. After learning his own lessons in community, he "matured downward" and pastored a small congregation in San Francisco. Now he rides in from California, decked out in tie-dye tee shirt, and listens and observes with oracular insight.
Although much of Grace Matters is about race, leadership, and self-discovery, its crowning message is about grace. In his final message to the Antioch community, Alexander says, "The way you grow into God's love isn't by making demands of each other. You do it by giving each other grace … internalizing God's love so much that we can get into the bones of others that God loves them."
Near the end of the book, Spencer once more plays the race card in an argument with Chris. But through Alexander's words, the light dawns for Spencer. And in Spencer's final speech, just days before his tragic death at age 44, he develops the notion of "playing the grace card." Spencer died before he could work out the details. That part is up to the living. And Grace Matters gives us the inspiration to create Spencer's "culture of grace."
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Grace Matters: A True Story of Race, Friendship, and Faith in the Heart of the South, by Chris P. Rice is this month's selection for the Christianity Today Editor's Bookshelf. Elsewhere on our site, you can:
- Buy the book online
- Read our extended interview with author Chris Rice
- Read Spencer Perkins's final speech, "Playing the Grace Card"
More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel is also available online.
Chris Rice is also a regular writer for Sojourners magazine.
The website for Voice of Calvary Ministries provides additional information.
Previous Christianity Today articles by or about Spencer Perkins or Chris Rice include:
The Dick Staub Interview: Chris Rice | The author of Grace Matters talks about his friendship with racial reconciliation leader Spencer Perkins, his former coauthor and best friend. (Nov. 11, 2002)
Reconcilers Fellowship Folds | Following the death of founder Spencer Perkins, ministry closes as cofounder Chris Rice goes to seminary. (Oct. 5, 1998)
Playing the Grace Card | Christians hold the missing key to racial reconciliation—but it won't be popular. Spencer Perkin's final speech. (July 13, 1998)
Racial Reconciler Spencer Perkins | An obituary for an emerging leader. (March 2, 1998)
The Burden of Spencer Perkins (March 2, 1998)
Why Tiger Makes Us Feel Good | Is the best remedy for racism visible black achievement? (July 14, 1997)
More Than Partners | Black and white leaders discover the power of two. (May 19, 1997)