I used to take a certain amount of pride in being the first African American on staff at Christianity Today. But I was routinely humbled when I realized that being first isn't all it's cracked up to be. When you're the only one, there's always a sense that you're in an extremely unstable position, as if one healthy gust of wind could topple youand with you, the hopes of other people with your skin color.
Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity
by Edward Gilbreath
207 pp.; $20
Sometimes, I had to remind myself to "be black," to make sure the rest of the editors weren't overlooking some important point or advancing something that might be insensitive to nonwhites. This became exhausting. On the one hand, I wanted to be a good race man and represent "my people" well. But on the other, I hated all that responsibility. I just wanted to be an excellent journalist.
Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon echoed the opinion of many African Americans when, in a column about golfer Tiger Woods, he wrote, "There's a social responsibility that comes with being black in America, regardless of the profession, and that obligation increases exponentially with stature. There are rules adopted out of necessity, even desperation, by the subculture we as black folks inhabit. One of the rules is you speak up, even if it means taking some lumps."
I did my best to speak up when it seemed necessary, and at times I caught grief for it. Other times, I decided it would be best to act like Jesus before Herod and simply say nothing. It gets old, you knowthis taking-your-lumps business.
"People sometimes ignore you," says Bruce Fields, a professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. "Or, if there is attention directed toward you, it is subtly communicated that you are not to be taken as seriously as a white person of similar status, experience, and credentials."
Fields was the first full-time African American professor on Trinity's staff, and in July 2005, he became the first to be tenured. Yet being one of the few blacks at the institution, he continues to harbor doubts about his presence there. "I think about being a minority here all the time," he confesses. "There is rarely a time when I am not thinking about it. I am thankful for who God has made me, and I am grateful for his call on my lifebut not all the time. I find myself being distant, untrusting, and often angry that I have internalized a certain sense that I am not good enough. I know this is wrong, and I've been working with a support network to overcome it. But it's difficult."
From a young age, many of us have been told that it isn't good enough just to be good. As a black person (and I've heard members of other ethnic groups make similar statements), you had to be better than whites in order to make it. I think this notion was probably even more true in past years, but there will always be some whites (and even blacks) whose opinion of African Americans is so low that they're just waiting for them to slip up. Oftentimes, whites don't even realize they think this way.
Over the years, I've noticed a pattern of African Americans joining evangelical organizations, often as the first black, only to leave two, three, or four years laterusually in frustration. In dozens of interviews with black evangelical leaders, I heard story after story of alienation, anger, and defeat.
When so many otherwise successful African American Christians still express disappointment over the state of race relations in the church, as my research indicates, something is not right. We need to listen and learn. As members of the body of Christ, we should be determined to hear and understand the concerns of our brothers and sisters. If one part of the body is hurting, we should respond. But first we need to understand the reasons. Why do so many successful black evangelicals feel marginalized in evangelical institutions? Worse, why are some giving up on the idea of racial unity in the church altogether?
As the first black manager at a major parachurch organization based in the western United States, Clarence Shuler didn't feel like a "golden boy" the way he had in other ministries where he had been the "first black." This time, he repeatedly ran into brick walls as he sought to usher in a culture of real diversity. He left afer three years.
"It honestly was a battle all the way," he says, "but my interactions did help some of those very conservative people adopt a more biblical view of God's perspective on diversity, and that was worth some of the pain."
In 2003, five years after leaving the ministry, Shuler met with the group's president to discuss his ordeal at the organization. That emotional meeting concluded with the president apologizing to Shuler for the unchristian attitudes he had encountered while employed by the company. And Shuler, in turn, apologized for not always responding to the adversity in a Christlike manner. But not all endings are as tidy.
"Listen. You could not pay me to be the head, or even on the board, of another evangelical organization." That's Darrell Davis (not his real name; some identifying details have also been changed). Before moving to the East Coast to become senior pastor of a large African American church, he was a youth pastor and ministry leader in California and then, most notably, the director of a large parachurch ministry in the DallasFort Worth area, a position he took in the early '90s. Davis stayed at that organization four years before bolting.
Davis, a firm yet soft-spoken preacher, told me he hadn't been looking for a job when that large ministry called. "They had interviewed over a hundred people, but more than one person told them about me. I fit all their descriptions." After Davis interviewed for the position, "the Lord spoke to my heart and said, 'This is going to be your job.' And as my wife was praying, she got the same message."
For a while, things at the new position were fine. "I was the flavor of the month," he says. But over time, Davis began to sense tension between himself and his colleagues as he tried to implement new ideas. "I wasn't trying to make trouble," he says. "I was just there to do my job. But people will read into what you do out of their own fears and insecurities."
One strange encounter typified the underlying racial tension Davis faced.
It was my third year with the ministry. I got a call from a prominent white Christian leader, asking me to go to lunch with him. As we're sitting down to eat, all of a sudden this guy starts crying. He explained that God had blessed him, his children were healthy, he was known throughout the country. But, he said, "I've had a hard time sleeping throughout the night." And I was thinking to myself, Why is he telling me this? I'm not a therapist.
"I just came back from an annual conference on the other side of the country," the man told me. "A bunch of us got together to discuss reconciliation and cross-cultural ministry. Usually, when black leaders come into the meeting, we make them feel right at home and let them be part of the decision-making process. But to be honest with you, Darrell, the decisions are made before your leaders ever get there. I'm used to hearing the jokes and the use of the N-word. But this time, when the jokes were going on and people were saying things, it didn't sound right to me."
"How can I get over this?" the leader asked me, sobbing. "How can we be friends?"
I was silent for a moment, then asked him, "Do you like football?" He seemed a little puzzled, but said yes. "I do, too," I told him. "I used to coach high school and college ball, and I have a lot of friends who play pro. I love a good game, and I love to cook out. So here's what we do: I need to get to know you, and you need to get to know me. Why don't you come over to my house?" I was the only black in my suburban neighborhood at the time. I said, "Bring your wife and meet my wife, and we'll just sit and talk and get to know each other. I'll barbecue some steaks, and let's start there."
He was taken aback. He said, "You want me to come to your house?"
"Yes," I said. "If you want me to sit here and clear your conscience for all the crap you did, I can't do that. Friendship is not cheap. It takes time and commitment." I gave him my home phone number and told him to give me a call.
I never heard from him again.
In the middle of his tenure as director, Davis was in search of a speaker for a major fundraising event, and he got the idea to invite civil-rights matriarch Rosa Parks. She agreed to speak, and at first, everyone seemed thrilled. Then, without warning, Davis received a call from his organization's top leadership. They were pulling the plug.
"They were concerned that Mrs. Parks might be viewed as too liberal for some of their supporters," he recalls. "They were worried that she didn't seem to come from an evangelical background."
That fiasco, says Davis, was the beginning of the end. These days, Davis stays busy with his church responsibilities and national speaking engagements, as well as faith-based community development projects near his church's inner-city neighborhood. Though he insists that he harbors no resentment toward white evangelicals, he does say, "There are some of us who have worked with our white brothers on the other side who probably will never do it again. And it's not that we don't love them; it's that we don't have the time. We don't have the heartbeats available. After that frustration kicks in, time after time, you get tired."
I know many of my white friends and colleagues, both past and present, have grown irritated by the black community's incessant blabbering about race and racism and racial reconciliation. They don't understand what's left for them to do. "We have African Americans and other people of color on our staff. We listen to Tony Evans's broadcast every day. We even send our youth group into the city to do urban ministry. Can't we get on with it already? Haven't we done enough?"
I can empathize. I know that black people are tired of the blabbering as well. I would love to move on. Somehow, though, on our way to racial resolution, we've gotten stuck in the rut of familiar patterns. These patterns lead us to believe we've accomplished something simply by, for example, hiring a person of color or speaking to a person of another race at church or hugging someone we don't know at a conference 300 miles away from home. These types of gestures are good and necessary. But we should not let symbolism displace the purpose of the acts themselves.
So let me pose a few questions.
White Christian, you have people of color on your staff, but are you seeking their ideas and perspectives? Does your corporate culture reflect sensitivity to the feelings and concerns of nonwhite individuals? You've spoken to the black people who attend your church, but have you had them over to watch the game after service? Have you invited them to join your small group?
Black Christian, have you been keeping at an arm's distance those white acquaintances who have attempted to get to know you better? Have you written off some whites as racists because of silly comments they didn't realize were offensive? Have you taken the time to educate them about your culture, answering all of their probing questions about your hair care or your opinion of some black celebrity?
White Christian, you hugged and apologized to that nameless black person at an out-of-town conference, but have you made any new friends across racial lines since you've returned home? Are you now more attuned to the subtle ways society treats whites differently from blacks?
Black Christian, are you hanging on to unresolved bitterness against whites? Are you harboring bigotry of your own? Have you been ignoring God's command to extend grace? Are you resisting his call to become a bridge between the races, because you realize that bridges, by definition, must be stepped on?
As Christians, it's possible for us to do wonderfully holy things cross-culturally without ever experiencing a fundamental change in our thinking. To break out of the monochromatic status quo of today's evangelical movement, we must confront hard truths about ourselves and about the things that truly drive our institutions. If we don't, we'll never find ourselves in that place of total freedom and faith and unity that allows us to be used by God in radical ways.
As evangelical leaders, are we trusting in God to use us to build his kingdomin all its glorious diversityor are we busy trying, in his name, to preserve our own? If we expect to see God move us toward a place of true and lasting unity, we cannot do business as usual.
Nor can we simply wait. The cost of maintaining the status quo is too high.
Edward Gilbreath is editor of Today's Christian and author of Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity (InterVarsity, 2006), from which this article was adapted.
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Edward Gilbreath's book, Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity, is available at Amazon.com and other retailers.
Other Christianity Today articles on race and reconciliation include:
Behold, the Global Church| It's time we figured out how to talkand listento one another. (November 17, 2006)
Catching Up with a Dream| Evangelicals and Race 30 Years After the Death of Martin Luther King, Jr. By Edward Gilbreath (March 2, 1998)
CT Classic: Catching Up with a Dream (Part 2)| Church as Conscience (January 1, 2000)
CT Classic: Catching Up with a Dream (Part 3)| Just Not Getting It (January 1, 2000)
We Can Overcome| A CT forum examines the subtle nature of the church's racial divisionand offers hope. (October 2, 2000)
Divided by Faith?| A recent study argues that American evangelicals cannot foster genuine racial reconciliation. Is our theology to blame? (October 2, 2000)
Matters of Opinion: Racial Reconciliation: After the Hugs, What?| The next step for racial reconciliation will be harder. February 3, 1997)
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