Ending Racial Disparity Calls for Non-Traditional Congregations


August 12, 2015

This last week Sojourners magazine gave us Jenna Barnett’s interview—A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Faith in Ferguson—with Leah Gunning Francis, a professor at Eden Theological Seminary professor. The article centered on professor Francis’ thoughts on racial disparities and the real “Ferguson Effect.”

When asked, What role should the church play in current racial justice movements?, Professor Francis said,

In my observation there are congregations that are taking seriously their roles in seeking to be agents of change in the movements for racial justice, but the church writ-large, is not. At some point we need to move beyond statements and posture to actually engaging in these matters in life-transforming ways. One good first step toward this is to open the constructive conversation about race in congregations.

Important in this statement is recognizing some congregations are serious about systemic change in favor of racial justice. However, this desire to engage and to act for racial justice is absent for most Christian congregations (“church writ-large”).

Barnett goes on to ask, What church did racial justice well this year? Professor Frances responded saying,

Compton Heights Christian Church is a modest size Disciples of Christ church in St. Louis. Maybe 25 percent of the church are people of color… They reimagined what it means to be a safe sanctuary…[by opening] their sanctuary doors as places of training, gathering, cooking—and equally important—as places of prayer.

The article gives gristle for a number of conversations. Two come to mind. First is the consideration of how inadequate the church is in conversing the issue of racial justice. One example of this struggle is the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) who in 1998 approved an Anti-Racism/Pro-Reconciliation initiative. This initiative called the church to practice faithfulness with regard to the elimination of racism, which exists in all manifestations of the church, to discern the presence and nature of racism as sin, to develop strategies to eradicate it, and to work toward racial reconciliation. Good stuff, but as a whole not the stuff Disciple congregations want to jump in the middle of. As a result, the office of Reconciliation Ministry (whose ministry is to implement a conversation on racial justice) has struggled since it conception due to a lack of financial resources. And don’t we know, where congregations put their money is an indication of what matters to them? Today, seventeen years after approving the Anti-Racism/Pro-Reconciliation initiative, the longevity of the office of Reconciliation Ministry and a “constructive conversation about race in [Disciple] congregations” is doubtful. The crux of the problem of having a race conversation in the church is congregations—White, Black, Hispanic, Asian—have yet to move toward wanting (for they assuredly need) to become non-racist in both structure and theology.

The second chunk of gristle comes from Professor Frances’ response to What church did racial justice well this year? Her response is typical and expected. She moves directly to what many folk historically and typically consider church—a congregation (mostly white) who meets each Sunday within the walls of a building. However, while this type of congregation is important to the race conversation and systemic race change, it is not the congregation that will drive the race conversation.

When it comes to church, who or what might drive the race conversation? The answer may lie in the people who are attending seminary these days. Many if not most folk attending seminary have little interest in pastoring the typical-historical congregation. Instead, they are looking for and wondering about new congregational structures who better engage issues of justice. Often, these justice-oriented congregations do/will not look anything like yesterday’s congregation. While Professor Frances’ answer lifted up a congregation most people recognize, it would have been nice to hear an academic lift up a congregation that would have folk questioning “Really? Is that really a congregation?

Consider the Oakland Peace Center. Under the leadership/ministry of Sandhya Jha the Center is a collaborative community of artists, activists, cultural workers, educators and nonprofits whose focus is to help bring about a community of hope, justice, nonviolence, and compassion. Since Ferguson, the Center not only has worked to raise awareness, teach, and converse on racial justice, but it has intentionally created action-orientated opportunities to bring about racial justice and community wellbeing. More so, Jha has helped move the community to understand racial injustice is more than a race issue, but rather an issue of injustice that intersects with many issues of injustice. Jha calls her community and church to understand systemic injustice is complex (After all, are not we humans capable of complex thought?) and lasting justice occurs when folks of action cross lines of injustice. Such thinking eliminates the systemic segregated injustice(s) construct and replaces it with injustice that has many hurtful tentacles.

Recognizing the intersectionality of multiple injustices is hard for the church. Just as hard, is for the church to recognize what is congregational. Generally speaking, the church observes the Oakland Peace Center as another non-profit center, doing good non-profit work, which individual congregations may or may not support. However, Jha and many other seminary-trained folk who have chosen a path other than the traditional (let it be said what Jha is doing isn’t exactly new, there are a pastors who have been pushing this edge for forty years or better) are showing the established church that tomorrows congregations look a lot more like the Oakland Peace Center than the historical norm.

US systemic racism is not going to change because of the good work of one or a thousand, traditional congregations. Rather, change will come when the traditional congregation/church moves “beyond statements and posture” and joins (and supports) those non-typical congregations who are made up of artists, activists, cultural workers, educators and nonprofits. Thus when the question What church did racial justice well this year? arises, the academy and the Church will do well to recognize (and support) their pastors and congregations who look and act like Sandhya Jha and the Oakland Peace Center.

The A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Faith in Ferguson article ends with Professor Francis saying,

The role of faith communities is to keep the heat on, if you will. We have to continue to be the voice that names this as an injustice against humanity and a crime against God.

Spot on. It will take communities of faith, like the Compton Heights Christian Church, the Oakland Peace Center, the Food Bank, the Women’s Shelter, the Homeless Shelter, the LGBTQ Center, the Low-Income Healthcare Center, the Prison Ministry, the Center of Public Art, and the Low-Income Law Center, endlessly working together to end the hurt of Creation and Creator.

1 Comment

  1. Your article says many things that I have been dreaming/envisioning about how to break this cycle of miscommunication and misunderstanding that divide people – one person from another. All because of a very small difference in one enzymatic component that lives only in the outer layer of the epidermis and in some hair molecules. But, it is the one physical characteristic that we have not been able to permanently alter – even if we wanted to – why? So racism is an artificial construct. I like the conclusion you have drawn, this construct can only be destroyed by the natural construct of “communing together” in community-based industry. Sounds like the culture that most people call primitive with disregard and others seek to reinstate. We are investigating just such a ministry that will literally take people from all over a community to make it happen. Thanks for your insights.

    Liked by 1 person

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