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Race and the church: A conversation with Tanya Smith Brice

Tanya Smith Brice believes that God led her to social work. “Social workers have the privilege of living out the charge given to care for the oppressed, as set forth in James 1:27,” she said.
Today she is living out her dreams as a professor of social work at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She and her husband, Boston Brice III, are active members of the Crestview Church of Christ in Waco. They have two children.
A native of Greenville, S.C., Tanya Smith Brice has a rich heritage in Churches of Christ. Her grandfather, Albert Lemon Smith, was a leader in African-American congregations throughout the Southeast and planted congregations in Georgia and South Carolina.
She earned a doctorate in social work from the University of North Carolina. Prior to joining the Baylor faculty, she served on the faculty of the University of South Carolina and was director of the Master of Social Work program at Abilene Christian University in Texas.
In recent years, she has devoted much of her time to studying the history of race relations in Churches of Christ, applying her expertise in social movements, administrative and policy issues and community organizing to the task.
“I believe that God is using these skill sets to enable me to see the larger issues in the Church of Christ,” she said.
African-American and white churches often seem to be almost unaware of each other. How can we develop more connections?
It is important that we become intentional about getting to know each other. Currently, we operate from a place of fear and suspicion instead of from a place of love. We don’t really know about each other, which is evident in our segregated assemblies, lectureships, gospel meetings and literature. 
The first step is to become aware of our historical connections to each other, particularly within the context of American history. We, African-American and white members of the Church of Christ, must become familiar with the way that African-American congregations were planted and why these congregations were largely planted by white congregations or by African-American preachers financed by the leaders of white congregations. 
Only after accepting these truths will we be able to see the effects of this type of domestic missions work on our contemporary congregations. Through this lens, we will be able to heal and draw closer to each other through our quest to draw nearer to Jesus.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could have “truth and reconciliation” panels, in a similar fashion as was experienced by South Africans directly after the abolition of their apartheid? We could experience this truth together and be reconciled with each other and therefore reconciled to Christ. 
Is it true that African-American churches often fear a loss of their culture by connecting too much with white churches?
I have heard this opinion from African-Americans and whites — and once subscribed to it. While there may be cultural differences in the way African-American and white churches worship, those differences really have nothing to do with reconciliation.
I have read transcripts of sermons preached at various lectureships, particularly during the Jim Crow era of American apartheid, justifying segregation among the races. The major justification was, for these white ministers, that white culture would be adulterated. In other words, this fear of a loss of culture is not one-sided. 
With that being said, I don’t believe that racial reconciliation means that African-Americans should “connect” more with white churches. Reconciliation is a mutual effort. One aspect that I truly admire about the Church of Christ membership is its desire to maintain fidelity to the Scriptures.
In 2 Corinthians 5, we are called to “regard no one from a worldly point of view,” and if we are truly in Christ, we are to be new creatures. This does not deny our cultural differences but allows our differences to enhance the entire body.
So the answer, I believe, is not to abandon our culture or to assimilate the other but to view ourselves as a new culture reconciled to Christ, as is commanded in 2 Corinthians 5:20. This notion is also supported in Galatians 3:26-29. In Colossians 3, we are called to treat each other in a way that transcends the traditions of this world. We are to walk differently. We need to forgive and edify one another.
There may be those who justify segregation from a place of fear. However, that justification is contrary to what and how we are called to be. 

What are your experiences with race relations in Churches of Christ?
I was raised in the African-American church. I attended gospel meetings, lectureships, youth conferences and women’s ministry events with African- Americans. I had no idea that white Churches of Christ had parallel structures. I did not really know a white member of the Church of Christ, except maybe the one or two who would attend African-American congregations.
As I reflect on this, it is interesting that every other aspect of my life was relatively integrated, but I accepted the notion of segregated worship without question.
My family and I moved to Abilene in 2006 when I joined the faculty of ACU. After a couple of years in Abilene, we felt pulled to attend a congregation that happened to be white, where we eventually placed membership. This was a very different experience for us. Our children flourished in the youth group, and we developed great, meaningful friendships with many of the members. And, after learning the songs, I found the worship service to be quite amazing.
How did you become interested in the topic of race relations within the Churches of Christ?
Last spring, I participated in a three-week seminar at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., titled, “The Power of Race in American Religion” led by Michael Emerson of Rice University. There I began exploring the history of race relations in the Churches of Christ.
Fortunately, there’s a plethora of sermons, essays, magazines and journals by and for the members of the Churches of Christ. Unfortunately, many of these document our ever-present struggle with race relations.
What do you hope will come from your research on this topic?
I am preparing to collect oral histories of African-American and white leaders in the Church of Christ as a first step to tell our collective stories. I believe that only after exposing our truths can we be reconciled. 
In addition, I want to share church members’ responses to various events throughout American history as context for our story. I am planning to publish these stories, and I hope they can move us further on this journey of reconciliation.

  • Feedback
    Tanya is such a blessing to everyone at Crestview Church of Christ.
    Mary Erskine
    Crestview Church of Christ
    Woodway, TX
    United States
    March, 11 2011

    I found the article to be thoughtful, serious, hopeful and true to my own experience in churches through out the country. I am so eager to hear more about how sister Brice thinks we can unite and still maintain the level of cultural identity we see now. Thank you and keep up the work.
    Gary Selby
    Raleigh Church of Christ
    Raleigh, North Carolina
    United States of America
    February, 11 2011

    I am encouraged by Tonya’s commitment to bring light of just how everyone that is in Christ, based on scriptures are suppose to relate to one another. In Christ we are suppose to be different and not like the world. Color and race should be just that,color and race. Our hearts should be as one.
    Pervis Gibson
    Park Street Church of Christ
    Columbia, South Carolina
    February, 8 2011

    Great article! I think there are areas that are good for any Congregation to follow. To be intentional to get to know each other and we are to treat each other in a way that transcends the traditions of this world. Good advice! God Bless your work with every spiritual blessing.
    Linda Druyvestein
    Black Hills Church of Christ, Rapid City, SD
    Pringle, SD
    February, 7 2011

    Awesome article! I knew if anyone can do this subject area justice it would be Tanya Brice. I believe that you will find that many efforts to develop a connection between the African-American and white congregations of the Church of Christ are often one-side as you elude to in the article. We have tried for many years at the congregation where I worship to bridge this gap. It has been a one-sided struggle that we have not given up. I can’t wait to see the results of your further study.
    Joyce Conyers
    Park Street, Columbia, SC
    Lexington, SC
    February, 2 2011

Filed under: Dialogue

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