Well, it was all simple enough. The conference ministerial director spun the wheel and assigned a young African-American pastoral intern to this church. And this Christian man, sitting in his well-appointed house, told me without blushing or rancor, “I’m a bit of a redneck.” And that was that. He transferred out immediately.
I know, it’s just one anecdote. And it’s conveniently easier to begin my reflections telling you about someone else’s prejudices than to peel away the layers and admit my own. But the well-worn adage continues to be true: eleven o’clock on Sunday (or Sabbath) morning is “the most segregated hour in America.”
Even in church communities where believers are determined to seek unity, old feelings and remembered prejudices are writhing in the background like a tangle of snakes. How do we defuse these sinful but heartfelt emotions? Are there tangible things we can do to move toward the heavenly ideal where all God’s people live and work and minister together?
Here’s my list of five:
First – One key way is to simply be open and talk about it: in sermons, in Sabbath School discussions, small group gatherings, church growth forums. This can take diplomacy of the highest order! I write these words with last weekend’s children’s story still vivid in my mind. We all remember the ageless kindergarten gimmick: hands folded together to form a “church.” My friend Pastor Dan Matthews teamed up with Gilda Roddy. They jointly recited the familiar lines: Here is the church; here is the steeple. Open the door – see all the people.
But on the overhead screens, the video close-up of their mingled fingers preached its own poignant sermon. Pastor Gilda brings our church family a sweetly colorful background from the Mauritius Islands. While after decades of service with Faith For Today, our self-proclaimed “Grandpa Dan” is, um, an aging white guy. Clearly black worshipers and white worshipers – and okay, Asian, Native American, Hispanic, and both Dodger and Angel fans – can sit next to each other in church pews and happily worship together as one body in Christ. And for a few priceless moments, Dan and Gilda actually said as much; their teeny sermonette about black fingers-white fingers was disarming and unforgettable.
Second – We need to be intentional about lowering barriers, diminishing tensions . . . and winsomely proclaiming our public commitment to racial harmony. Put a sweet cultural mix of people in your church bulletins; make sure the church’s web page looks inclusive. Put it in the Mission Statement: “All are welcome here!” Those who plan the Sabbath School programs need to commit to the goal of stocking the talent pool with the widest variety of saints possible. The Supreme Court may offer shifting boundaries on this matter, but within the Body of Christ we have the liberty – and even the mandate – to go the second and third mile to make sure service opportunities look wide open and are wide open. If new talent cries out to be hired, what an opportunity to add fresh colors to your church’s palette.
Third – Let’s learn from and cash in on the exuberant innocence of our children. In our lower divisions, kids play and pray and sing together and cheerfully rock side by side in the missionary boat without the slightest regard for racial distinctions. As they grow up, teens and millennials are increasingly disdainful of prejudice; they crave a worship family where people are valued for their important and eternal characteristics, not skin tone.
Fourth – We must pray for a lowering of tensions. In your own prayers to the Lord of all nationalities, confess your errant thoughts. Ask God to purify your heart. Give the Holy Spirit the right to nudge you or flat-out blast you with conviction if you need to make things right with someone who has experienced your prejudicial attitudes. Look for avenues of unselfish service to people who are painfully bumping into barriers.
Fifth – Focus on the glorious reality that we are one Church and there is only one Heaven! Since the great mingling of that better land is our highest goal, we’re exhorted to begin building that community already and living by its divine charter. My brother Dan pastors a church in Garden Grove that is a veritable League of Nations. They’ve got everybody! And he often proclaims with a huge smile: “We love it! Look at our national dress parades! Taste the recipes! Savor the lilting accents and the unusual musical instruments an imported Christian from far, far away can bring to a worship hour.” Healthy Christianity thrives on the rainbow variety we find in our Sabbath pews. In contrast, even Hollywood has learned to portray the grim reality that a person steeped in racism lives a narrow, pinched, and ultimately suffocatingly bare existence.
Let’s expand on this fifth optimistic point. The reality is that we face both repentance and then wondrous opportunities. Let’s say it kindly, but’s let’s say it: some of our racial attitudes are sinful. Some of our Facebook posts are purposely inflammatory and immoral, appealing to divisions and stirring up resentful “remember when’s.” And a whole lot of what we harbor inside is unchristian. We know what’s right, but festering stereotypes are still there. “Those people” still irritate in the same old ways. And all the revised vespers programs or colorblind web pages can’t erase that.
“I grew up a racist,” confesses bestselling author Philip Yancey, baring his soul in his standout book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? “We used to call Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘Martin Luther Coon.’”1
But then Yancey goes on for many inspiring pages to paint a picture of church growth and revitalized spirituality when we repent of our divisions. So many positive, healing things can happen when God’s people turn away from the shackles of intolerance. My daughter and son-in-law are a mixed-race couple. They live and work in Birmingham, Alabama, a former hotbed of racial animus. And perhaps some is still there. But their church is a stellar model of brotherhood: black and white worshipers sit side by side (after exchanging many hugs!) The musical team up front is a delightful mélange of skin tones and both American and foreign beat patterns. The Jumbotron screens are awash in smiles and handclasps. Why? Because the church has decided on this better way. They preach it; they live it. Clearly, they love it.
And this is one of the fastest-growing churches in the Deep South.
So try this.
Picture our Savior Jesus occupying a pew right in your church. What sort of heart does Christ have toward every other person there? The person of a different skin hue – what are His emotions toward them? The teen with a hoodie. The unwed college student seven months pregnant who’s wearing garish native dress from far, far away?
Two thousand years ago, Jesus sat by a well and ministered selflessly to a foreign woman. My NIV text notes inform me “Jews viewed Samaritans as half-breeds, both physically and spiritually.” Nineteenth-century writer Ellen White comments about the Israelite attitude: “Trained in the school of national bigotry, they had become selfish, narrow, and exclusive.” A few pages later, she comments grimly: “Caste is hateful to God. He ignores everything of this character. In His sight the souls of all men are of equal value.”2
Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan specifically addresses the mandate to cross over to the dangerous side of the road and minister to the person labeled an outcast. The same author suggests that this was much more than a parable; the principals were likely in the crowd listening. And this classic story has swept around the world to illustrate that same point: compassion drives out racism. We cannot love people while harboring the poisonous fallacy of racial superiority.
Let’s think more deeply about Jesus as our Example within the church. His compassion isn’t forced and it isn’t theoretical. The Good Samaritan was moved by compassion. His was the sort of love that bound up the crime victim’s wounds and paid not just his deductible but the entire hospital bill. Tyndale commentator Leon Morris observes: “It is the need of our neighbor and not his nationality that is important.”3 And residents of God’s kingdom don’t desire to ease racial tensions just for the resulting calm and the improved photo ops, but because hurting people’s lives will be so radically improved.
The incomparable John Stott, who inspired the worldwide Christian community until his death in 2011, once wrote: “We have to go beyond binding up people’s wounds like the Good Samaritan,” he writes, “[and get on] to the task of ridding the Jericho road of brigands.”4
I think back to Dan and Gilda’s finger play: “Here is the church and the steeple . . .” I recall Charlie Brown and Linus running through the same folksy liturgy. And when Linus examines his eight waving fingers, he laments: “Looks like a pretty meager congregation!” Take heart, Linus; God’s activated community can do so much better! People will flock to this sort of church where tension is replaced by active love and dynamic solutions. Where muscular compassion drives away prejudice and consigns bigotry to the hellfire extinction it so richly deserves.
1 Yancey, Philip, What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1997, p. 130, 131.
2 White, Ellen G., The Desire of Ages, Pacific Press Publishing Association, Mountain View, CA, 1898, p. 500, 403.
3 Morris, Leon, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Luke, InterVarsity Press, Leicester, England, 1974, p. 189.
4 Stott, John, The Contemporary Christian, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1992, p. 350.© 2017 - 2018 When People Are Kind. All rights reserved. Click here for content usage information.