A Black Face In An Evangelical Space
There are very clear lines drawn for a Black person in White evangelical spaces that are not often addressed. Speaking openly about these realities can be hopeful, yet tricky and difficult; however, the call, for me, is very missional and fully aligns with the ministry of the disciples after Christs’ commissioning. I don't speak for all Black people who operate in these spaces, but I believe that my experiences and relationships, coupled with the research I've conducted in this area, allow me to bring a broad perspective to certain realities surrounding this subject matter.
(Note that when I refer to evangelical churches, I'm referring to predominantly white churches, thus the exclusion of the language, engagement with black churches and vernacular used within the Black church.)
I, like many of my Black friends, fall in love with the new language, liturgies and sermon content occupied by the evangelical church. In modern evangelical churches, there is great pride in the authority of Scripture, accurate hermeneutics and appropriate exegesis of Scripture. At times, there are historical facts and liturgies presented that are not always found in Black churches. When I began attending and working at my first evangelical church, this new language and preaching style became very attractive to me. I felt my love for this new experience grow as I continued to learn. Consequently, to my detriment, I grew further away from my own culture. I started to feel that everything I loved about church, while growing up in the Black church, was a lie. For a short season, I grew bitter, hurt and angry with the Black church because I felt they kept from me the truths and historical facts that I began learning in the evangelical church. My frustration with the specific lens through which the church communicated and the lifestyle that was promoted grew as well. Boy, was I wrong. As I gained more influence within the [evangelical] church and increased my knowledge and understanding of God, I started seeing the gaps in my church, and the church as a whole. I later enrolled in seminary and it changed my life. I will never forget watching a sermon by Dr. Tony Evans where he stated that he was one of only four Black’s to attend the Dallas Theological Seminary in the 1980’s, and that those four were some of the first to attend in DTS history. I found this information inexcusable and devastating, and it affirmed what I've known my entire life - Black churches were not holding anything back from me; they didn't have access to the same information as their white counterparts. This realization began shifting my view of my culture and my Black church experience. The idea of Black people not being able to attend “accredited” seminaries until the nineteen-eighties became a real issue and tension for me. It also brought a greater appreciation for the Black church and its ability to have such powerful services and accurate sermon content. This reflects the narrative of not only the church, but our dearest America.
Many of us grew up being taught that America was built so that equality for all human beings could be attained. We have a certain historical view of Christianity; however, if we take a closer look at history, we'll learn that many of our brothers and sisters failed us in this regard. The tricky part that comes with this is diving deep into motives while highlighting the gaps within not only the country, but the evangelical church. The church, historically, segregated congregations based on preferences. To this day, churches continue to segregate, and have zero conviction about it. Many white evangelical churches adhere and fully affirm the work of Martin Luther and the Reformation while also ignoring the ramifications of this movement. While I believe Luther’s work was great and indeed needed during sixteenth century, I do, however, realize that many evangelicals overlook the other parts of Luther. We often think of Luther as the great catalyst of the Reformation, the re-discoverer of the doctrine of justification by faith and the one who stood up to a corrupt Roman Catholic Church, but we fail to acknowledge his overlook on the importance of reconciliation and the equality of all mankind. Condemnation, bondage and hierarchy were prevalent then and because it was not addressed during the Reformation period, it damaged, and continues to damage many people. The language of the Reformation and Luther's work is exclusively used in evangelical churches.
This highlights not only a historical tension, but the difficulties that come with it. There is no denying the good in Luther's work; however, it's made the journey of forward progression more challenging. The difficult challenge and frustration that I find hard for many of my white friends to grasp, is the need to repent for their beliefs and inattentional blindness acquired while growing up. Inattentional blindness, as Walter Bruggerman states, is known as perceptual blindness. It's due to a lack of attention that is not associated with any vision defects or deficits. In other words, it means missing or negating to perceive what is right in front of you. Working in white spaces and getting white people to see the oppression they cause, theologically, is quite difficult. Many evangelicals, if they're being honest, approach oppression as Black employers would call a 'misnomer.' They often negate the real pain and frustration that Black's endure because they choose to be colorblind and fail to see hierarchy and white supremacy as a great cause for concern. As a result, tensions arise at some point with Black’s who grew up in different denominations or church environments. Although, this may not always be the case for those who grew up in suburban white culture and those adopted into a white family.
Despite having affirmation from peers, congregants and certain church leaders, I was viewed as a liability because of my theology prior to working in the evangelical church. All that I attained while growing up in the Black church would ultimately keep me from excelling higher within the evangelical church. By limiting my role in leadership while still allowing me a certain level of influence, they'd do just enough to keep my voice quiet. This would, however, keep the church from ultimately becoming diverse. I began asking my church hard questions in an attempt to understand why they wanted to be diverse. I came to learn that my perception was accurate in that the church didn't want diversity in leadership; they only wanted it in certain areas like entertainment (worship) and family ministry - departments that were merely limited to freedoms of expression and custodial services. While many white parishioners would deny that this is their intention, I would argue that it is and point them to the term 'inattentional blindness.' Many say that there are systems in place to protect the unity of the church and that if someone disagrees, they should “seek God’s call elsewhere,” meanwhile, making this situation very difficult for Black’s who operate in White evangelical spaces as they live with these realities and tensions. To say that the gospel is inclusive and that you want diversity while failing to accept the culture within the Black people that are hired negates their perspectives, giftings and who they are in Christ.
I want to send a message to my evangelical friends: It's important to remember that sound hermeneutics, appropriate exegesis and historical content is very subjective. I'm afraid that many evangelical churches explicitly view the interpretation of these principles as absolutes. To view these principles dualistically or as absolutes is not only dangerous, but quite damaging. Churches that practice communion should be reminded of its meaning, power and purpose - to unite and remind us all of the work of Christ. It's purpose is ultimately to bring us together. Diversity should not be viewed as a threat, but as a gift from God. Moreover, there needs to be a clear understanding that God has not given us all the same gift(s). I believe that Black's do more than add value to diversity and that Black culture itself is indeed diverse. Black people and culture are embedded in every continent, and this is not only our nature -- it's our gift. As Black people, we are a strong race that knows how to persevere, and there are many things that can be learned from us. It's important that we, the church, reject the notion that black people are a threat, unable to be trusted in leadership; a lie that America taught us. I recently held a conversation at my house with a diverse group of friends who came together to talk about these very things. Many of them were surprised by the stories shared by Black people who felt discouraged and faced the same challenges I endured while working at a White church. That night, we all encouraged each other. We rebuked anger, frustration and hurt. We broke bread together to be reminded of our union. It's time for us all to seek the kingdom and stop building our city. It's time for us to stop feeling threatened by different perspectives and start embracing the gifts that are all essential to a healthy body. It's time to truly embrace our duty to love.
"Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend." (Martin Luther King Jr)