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The church must break its ‘Eerie Silence’

Jesus' ministry calls people of faith to pursue social justice and to practice racial reconciliation, says minister Ammar Saheli.

What bothers Ammar Saheli most is what Churches of Christ aren’t saying. 

That’s why the 48-year-old minister penned “Eerie Silence” (WestBow Press, 2018), a raw assessment of race relations in churches and other institutions 50 years after the turbulent events of the late 1960s. He described the book as an urgent plea for people of faith to speak out against injustice and to “truly embrace the radical love of Jesus that protects and cherishes all of humanity.”

Ammar and Tonya Saheli, married 19 years, are the parents of five children.

Ammar and Tonya Saheli, married 19 years, are the parents of five children.

Saheli grew up in the Uptown Church of Christ in San Francisco. He earned a bachelor’s in psychology and a master’s in marriage and family therapy from San Francisco State before completing a doctorate in international and multicultural education at the University of San Francisco. For the past 18 years, he has served as minister for the West Oakland Church of Christ.

He is director of student support services for the San Lorenzo Unified School District and teaches at San Francisco State. He is the founder and CEO of Saheli7 Educational Consulting.

Saheli wrote “Eerie Silence” because, “like the prophet Jeremiah, the traumatic reaction to silence ballooned within me,” he said, “like a fire shut up in my bones.” 

Some of us see Christian ministry and social justice as separate concepts — sometimes even opposed to each other. You link them. How did that come about?  

My parents were members of the church when I was born, so my whole orientation to theology and to Scripture is through the Church of Christ. Going through my formal education, I was immediately connected to social justice. Having a biblical world view, I was compelled to take social justice concepts and find out if they were based in Scripture. 

What I see in Scripture is that there is room for me to be an absolute Christian and a social justice advocate at the same time.

I looked at the ministry of Jesus, at how God dealt with Israel in terms of their enslavement, their bondage in Egypt. I studied how God dealt with his people, how God delivered them and told them to never forget their bondage, never forget their deliverance. 

Thinking about that from an African-American perspective, people in this nation have also been people enslaved, people in bondage. What does the Gospel have to say? 

You can’t tell me to forget all of the things my people and my ancestors went through. That has to be remembered, and through that process I can focus on God’s deliverance as well. 

How do you see the ministry of Jesus — and churches today —addressing social wrongs? 

As I continued to grow, I started to question more and more — really trying to see how the ministry of Jesus deals with oppression. How did Jesus react to social justice, to marginalization, to racism? 

Jesus was concerned about the marginalized. Jesus was concerned about the oppressed and the least of these. Yet today in the church we can be silent on these issues. We can respond to natural disasters, but when it comes to tragedies with a racial component, we can’t handle that. 

What I see in Scripture is that there is room for me to be an absolute Christian and a social justice advocate at the same time. I am moved by the Gospel of Jesus Christ because he was concerned about the children, concerned about the oppressed. 

God does not just want us spiritually saved, He wants us psychologically, ethnically, racially and spiritually saved.

Churches of Christ in the U.S. today seem more aware than in years past of the need for racial reconciliation. Why is that? 

The Church of Christ is in decline. When we go back to 1906, we start looking at our data moving forward, and around 2006 you see it starting to decline, and it’s declining every year thereafter. We are losing congregations every year. 

Because the church is declining, you can see things more clearly. In the past because the house was full and we still had all of these problems, nothing was done because we were satisfied with our level of attendance. What we see now has always been in play.

And you hope that your book will help people see these problems. How do you think your words will be received by fellow Christians?

“Eerie Silence” was birthed out of pain — a pain related to racial avoidance, denial and silence in churches, schools, universities, communities, families and the judicial system.

I think that many people — from a church perspective — will struggle with this book on many levels. I discuss how American Christians have learned to get along by operating in a type of cognitive dissonance — simultaneously holding contradictory beliefs. You see racial injustice and act like you don’t. 

With social justice, someone always has to step up and speak despite the pain, despite the ridicule.

You said this was a painful book to write. Please explain.

If you speak on racial injustice, you set yourself up for critics who claim you are not appreciative of the freedom you have in America. In the course of writing this book, I’ve had at least one friend on social media claim that I “hate America.”

As an African-American, it can be infuriating and humiliating — the pressure to conform to standards that do not affirm my humanity. I am being told implicitly I need to fit into a box. This happens even in church settings. 

I understand that a lot of white people don’t want to have this conversation because it’s painful. It’s also painful for black folks and all marginalized folks. It hurts across every sector.

If I clap my hands or say “Amen!” too loud, then there is something wrong with me. But as a human being, that’s how I respond — and you are telling me that my humanity does not matter.

We talk about being like the first-century Christians, but we espouse  an American version of that vision that says “be silent” on divisive issues, on issues of race. 

We don’t have an example of this kind of silence in the New or Old Testaments. When Jesus walked through the temple and turned over tables because the money changers and merchants were overcharging people, the reason he was upset was because he saw injustice.

This book also was painful to write because I had to go through all the horror stories of how black people have been treated over the years, over generations. I wish I didn’t have to write about it, but it hasn’t stopped. We still have to have this conversation.

I understand that a lot of white people don’t want to have this conversation because it’s painful. It’s also painful for black folks and all marginalized folks. It hurts across every sector. 

Has racism ever made you want to leave the church?

I stay in the church because I believe that Christianity is about the salvation that Jesus Christ gives to an individual. There is no way I would leave the Church of Christ because of human actions or attitudes.

Is the Church of Christ still relevant to people today?

I believe that some people view the church as not relevant because they have never really been introduced to the church. There are people who have been in congregations 30 to 40 years, but they have never been introduced to the church. They have been introduced to an American version of the church. 

We specialize in baptizing people. We try to rush people to the water, but we don’t spend any time teaching them to understand what it means to come to Jesus by faith and repentance. They come out of the water, but there was never a conversion. They haven’t met Jesus.

What can Churches of Christ do today to make things better tomorrow in terms of race?

The church is obligated to create space for repentance to occur. Repentance requires reflection and retrospection before forward progress commences. 

No one alive today created the concept and context of race and racism, but we are currently responsible for interrupting, disrupting and dismantling its soul-crushing effects. 

The place we go from here is bold and courageous dialogue on race — especially within settings that are predominantly white. Without regular dialogue, we will never get to healing and sustainable solutions.

WEBSITES: westoaklandcoc.org, eeriesilence1.com

Filed under: Dialogue Opinion racial reconciliation racism Top Stories unity

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