Will believers bridge the racial divide?
Wright’s words made headlines because of his relationship with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, a member at the Chicago church.
Obama responded to the outcry with a speech denouncing racially incendiary comments by Wright but attributing them to bitterness in the black community over the nation’s history of slavery and discrimination.
The Illinois senator called for better understanding and dialogue on the underlying causes of racial tensions in America.
Some media have identified Obama as a member of the Churches of Christ. He actually belongs to the United Church of Christ, formed in 1957 when the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reform Church merged.
Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton, a United Methodist, later told reporters she would have left the congregation if her pastor behaved like Obama’s.
As part of its Campaign 2008 coverage, The Christian Chronicle addresses the racial question from a Christian perspective. We asked six Christians of different ethnic and geographical backgrounds to participate in this special two-page Dialogue.
Jose Castillo Jr. | Miami
Castillo, 43, is the Spanish-speaking minister for the Sunset church in Miami. His congregation offers services in English and Spanish and is composed of 19 nationalities.
Lauren Collins | Roxbury, Mass.
Collins, 26, is an early childhood mental health consultant. She has done extensive research on racial issues in child welfare and self-concept among African-American girls.
Jay Guin | Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Guin, 53, is an attorney and elder at the University church in Tuscaloosa.
He has helped to racially diversify the congregation and maintains a blog at OneInJesus.info.
Harold Redd | Memphis, Tenn.
Redd, 55, is minister for the predominantly black Midtown church. He co-leads an annual scholarship banquet that honors black and white ministers.
Elena Sanchez Rhodes | Las Cruces, N.M.
Rhodes, 39, leads a women’s ministry at the University church in Las Cruces. She is a co-planner of an annual Christian women’s conference.
Billie Silvey | Los Angeles
Silvey, 65, attends the Culver Palms church in Los Angeles. She is a grant writer for student health and humans services at a predominantly African-American high school.
Please describe the state of race relations in the United States today and identify the key issues that you see.
JOSE CASTILLO: Based on my own observation, we have come a long way from the racial tensions and discrimination I read about in the 1940s.
As a Hispanic immigrant, I have observed a significant improvement in my own community in the past 28 years. I feel that some communities have to work on the issues of equality in jobs, access to quality public education and equal treatment from the police.
LAUREN COLLINS: It is imperative that we begin to get a clear understanding of how we landed in the current mire of stereotypes, persistent segregation and still-pervasive attitudes of superiority and inferiority.
I know Americans do not like to discuss slavery — “It happened so long ago, why should I carry a burden of guilt?” Others point to the growing number of successful African-Americans as a way to exit the challenging conversation.
Though these reasons can be validated, they do not negate the reality that everything in this country is inextricably linked to economics. The starting place must be candid examination of how centuries of free labor for one group and ultimate disenfranchisement of the other set the former at an extreme advantage.
JAY GUIN: The racial divide is better than it once was, but we have a long way to go. Our churches are divided by race. Many of us show little interest in helping those less fortunate.
Also, some of us fail to bring our Christian values into our political discourse, imagining that our government — God’s agent to punish wrongdoers — should solely serve our self-interests.
On the other hand, many churches are increasingly active in inner-city works, and there’s some real progress toward missionality — turning our focus outward, toward the lost and needy. The Spirit is working, but there’s much left to do.
HAROLD REDD: Race gradually is becoming less significant, particularly among younger people, but is still very prevalent in the U.S.
The founding fathers’ attitudes toward other races and their tendency to ignore other cultures continue to permeate generations and incite conflict. Relationship issues vary with race. For example, issues between blacks and whites may differ from those between Hispanics, Indians and other races because of slavery and segregation.
Key issues that negatively impact race relations include ungodliness, ignorance and fear. These come out in separateness and suspiciousness in social and political contexts, residential neighborhoods or reservations, education and religion.
ELENA SANCHEZ RHODES: Unfortunately, some would still have us believe that, as minorities, we are constantly being oppressed.
The message, sometimes even delivered from the pulpit, is that for every failure, disappointment, even natural disaster, someone in power is responsible.
Too few of our minority leaders encourage the philosophy of personal responsibility, hard work, good citizenship, love of country and humanity.
Life is challenging, no matter what color you are. All of us have struggles. Sometimes it’s because of discrimination, which may never truly disappear, or because of bad choices. Sometimes it’s just because that’s life. Whatever the reason, our response as individuals is crucial.
BILLIE SILVEY: People of different races may see each other at the church building, but they seldom visit in each other’s homes. The real key is how we feel when we see a stranger of another race.
Fallacies that inhibit relationships include:
• 1. A sense that everyone should be able to just “move beyond” something that not only has influenced the way we see each other, but the way we see ourselves.
• 2. A sense that racism is in the past while many still live with its effects.
• 3. The concept of “reverse discrimination.” It’s easy to see why we as white people prefer to believe it, but it ignores history.
What do individual Christians and churches need to do to make genuine progress in race relations?
JOSE CASTILLO: Whether we recognize it or not, whatever improvement has been made in relations among races is the result of the influence of Christianity and biblical morality.
We Christians have the potential to help overcome prejudice, racism and discrimination.
But in order to produce this change, we need to be the model of the new society that we would like to see.
We cannot successfully challenge the world to change its thinking while we still have churches where racial-ethnic discrimination is rampant. In Miami there are churches that are almost exclusively white or black. I have known Hispanic preachers who are not treated equally with their English-speaking colleagues, and Hispanic congregations that are treated more as cousins than brothers in the Lord.
It is the job of spiritual leaders to teach biblical principles regarding human dignity, equality, justice, church unity and love. They must encourage members to evaluate their attitudes toward others.
Aside from biblical teaching, the most significant step we can take to improve relationships between people of different races is taking the initiative to relate to people who are different from us and encouraging others to do the same. Getting to know people outside our racial or cultural circles will do away with the fears, suspicions and all preconceived notions we might have. In some cases, it will endear them to us.
LAUREN COLLINS: Many Christians naively think race doesn’t matter. I understand the power of faith and realize the awesome sovereignty of God — who can change any situation, including negative race relations. But we have a responsibility to stay connected to the realities of our communities. Thus, the first thing individuals and churches need to do is welcome these conversations.
Historically, the black church was the center of social, political and religious engagement, and much of our success and progress as a people can be credited to that foundation. Our youths need to understand their cultural identity. Coupling their confidence that they can do all things through Christ with knowledge of a rich history that speaks to determination, spirit and triumph despite extreme adversity will create a powerful generation.
Secondly, our leaders must begin to conceptualize their role as one that extends beyond the pulpit. I would love to see more ministers, elders and deacons on community boards, panels and action committees that are fighting for economic progress, educational equity and social justice. What better place to lift up Christ!
I think Christians and churches should be conscious not to use our salvation as an excuse to be reclusive and oblivious to the very real challenges faced by those sitting in the pews with us.
JAY GUIN: The gospel compels each follower of Jesus to be a peacemaker. It isn’t enough not to be bigoted and not to discriminate. We are commanded to work for racial unity.
I don’t have all the answers. I just know that racial division is one of the worst sins because it so contradicts the gospel. Here are a few things we just have to do: Preach plainly and repeatedly that racial prejudice is sin. Tell our members in the racial minority that they are wanted and appreciated and ask them how our church can do better at uniting the races. Bring members of the racial minority into positions of leadership, seeking opportunities to hire a racially diverse staff. Make every effort to eliminate the anti-gospel practice of having white, black and Hispanic congregations in the same town. Instead, we should merge churches.
We need to be working in the inner cities, the housing projects and the schools to show the love of Jesus so that he is lifted up and our broken society can be cured by the only physician with the power to heal our hearts.
We must resist governmental leaders who appeal to prejudice. We must insist that our leaders be peacemakers.
Ultimately, the solution to our racial divide can come only from hearts regenerated by the gospel and God’s Holy Spirit.
HAROLD REDD: First, Christians and churches need to believe the best solutions for race problems in the world are found in Jesus’ teachings and model, especially in the cross.
Christians must reject anything that conflicts with the unity purpose of the cross and solve racial problems within the church first, thereby making a model for the world. This means the issues that divide us need to be understood.
Additional study could help determine the best methods and contexts for addressing the struggles. Public addresses to mixed audiences at joint worship services or lectureships should continue, but may not be the best strategy. In Christian homes and home churches, natural families acknowledge issues honestly and learn management more readily. This helps them hear the struggles and differences of others.
The gospel calls all races from sin to salvation and additional teaching. Teaching and learning are keys to genuine progress in race relations. Education dispels ignorance, avoids pretentiousness and acknowledges racial differences. Churches must furnish atmospheres for people of all races to learn, associate and grow as means of overcoming ignorance and fears. Church leaders must intentionally engage congregations in good works that erase the artificial lines of race.
ELENA SANCHEZ RHODES: Problems in race relations will be greatly diminished when our leaders both inside and outside the church encourage us to love one another, to serve one another and to help one another.
Hatred for any reason blinds us. We are then vulnerable to being led away from good toward others who have a divisive agenda, which often is designed to empower themselves.
Our relationships within our churches and with our fellow believers should be based on our common goal — getting to heaven. We should be actively learning to love and serve each other. We should reach out to our ethnic, political and social communities in love regardless of who they are — even when they don’t fit our idea of who should attend our church. We learn about other cultures by developing a heart for local and non-local missions. We must treat people as people, not as a color or as a political or social group.
BILLIE SILVEY: As individual Christians, we need to make friends of people of other races. I was surprised at the shock expressed at Obama’s minister’s words. How could we think centuries of racial domination could not make people angry and bitter?
How many individual African-Americans do we know well enough to know their feelings? How much do we know about black churches and their historic place in black society? Shaking hands and asking innocuous questions on Sunday morning is no substitute for really getting close.
As churches, we need to attract and include members of other races — not just in Sunday morning service, but in positions of leadership and through open discussions in classes and care groups. We need not just church fellowships, but small-group and one-on-one sharing.
We need service projects that don’t involve one group doing the service and the other receiving it, but both groups sharing on both ends of the interaction. Only then can we discover our own and others’ cultural presuppositions — those definitions and attitudes we take for granted.
We all have a tendency to assume our way is natural and best. We have to work and socialize to discover our differences — working out solutions together.