Everything I Know about Racism I Learned in the Church


racism is taughtWHEN I LEARNED THAT I WAS A NIGGER

Every summer, my mom would sign us up for vacation bible school (VBS) programs at local churches so we could experience God in diverse settings. The summer I turned six, we attended VBS at an all-white church in a neighboring city. During recess, my brother and I were so engrossed in our tetherball game that we didn’t hear the teacher calling us to return to the classroom.  Exasperated, she yelled at the top of her lungs, “Get in here, niggers!!” Being six and all, I had no idea what the word nigger meant; I just knew that it referred to me and that it was negative. I ducked my head in shame and ran toward the classroom.  The teacher’s words violently contradicted the VBS theme: “God loves all the children in the world” and made me question whether God’s love was meant for me too.[i]

The church taught me that God’s love is only for the white kids.

WHEN I LEARNED THAT ALL BLACK PEOPLE RAP

Many people recall junior high as a dark and stormy stage in their identity development timeline. But as one of two black girls in my class at my Christian school, I had the unenviable task of figuring out who I was and where I belonged while surrounded by a sea of white classmates who only interacted with me long enough to ask to touch my hair. Feeling different and excluded, I signed up for choir class, hoping to find a place to belong.

That year, the Christmas musical script un-ironically called for a “Rapping Angel” who rapped Luke 2:14. Without holding auditions for the part, our choir director (with obvious support from my classmates) cast me as the rapping angel, saying, “You can do it, right Christena?”

Nope, I couldn’t.

MC Hammer, I was not.

MC Hammer, I was not.

But since I did not fit in with my classmates, I was desperate to prove that I belonged to another relevant social group – namely, black people. So I went along with our director’s decision and now have the distinction of being the most woefully miscast Rapping Angel in the history of cheesy Christmas musicals.

The church taught me that I belong nowhere – not even in the tiny stereotypical box that they tried to stuff me into.

WHEN I LEARNED THAT I WAS OVERLY SENSITIVE

When I was a high school student, I walked into a local pastor’s home and was immediately assaulted by the sight of a large confederate flag hanging on the wall. I gasped and asked them why they had a confederate flag. With disarming matter-of-factness, they told me that they liked the colors, the aesthetic and the “rebel” image that it projected. I tried to explain (as best I could as a frazzled teen) that the flag invokes painful images of black oppression but they remained committed to their blissful ignorance. Ultimately, they shoo-ed me away, telling me that I was making a big deal out of nothing and that I focused too much on negative events that were resolved long ago. The flag remained mounted on the wall for years.

The church taught me that my perspective is invalid and that the pain of my people is unimportant.

WHEN I LEARNED THAT RACISM IS HILARIOUS

During college, I volunteered for the youth ministry at a church. Every year at the volunteer Christmas party, the two white guys who worked for the ministry dressed up as “black guys from the hood” and performed an entirely unoriginal and unfunny skit that exploited negative black male stereotypes for laughs.  I remember looking around the room full of volunteers, seeing the delight in their eyes as they laughed loudly at the racist jokes. I also remember feeling discouraged that a predominantly-white group of Christians (who were supposedly my friends) were laughing at white guys impersonating black guys in extremely unflattering ways. When I asked the pastor (the staff guys’ boss) about the skit, he agreed that it was offensive. But he failed to confront the issue; the skit was performed every year for the multiple years that I served as a volunteer.

The church taught me that racism is acceptable as long as it’s carried out in pursuit of laughs.

WHEN I LEARNED THAT STRUCTURAL RACISM IS A FIGMENT OF MY IMAGINATION

As a young adult, I spent several years working for a well-respected and well-known Christian organization on the East Coast. On an individual basis, my majority-culture colleagues were overtly pleasant for the most part. However, in a subtle but haunting way, the organizational culture marginalized, befuddled and oppressed the ethnic minorities in the group. peanutsThe evaluation and promotion policies, social structure, and even the ways that they talked about faith worked to accommodate people from majority culture and alienate people who were different.  As a result, the people of color in the organization were plagued with loneliness, plundered identities and perpetual stress. Indeed, at least one person of color was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, a diagnosis that was directly linked to the way that the organization oppressed people of color.

When I brought my concerns to the president of the organization, he became fiercely defensive, accused me of inventing stories, and denied that structural racism was at work. I moved on after a few years. But as far as I know, the organization remains unchanged.

The church taught me that my experience of racism is only real if the majority culture says it is.

****************

These stories are just a fraction of the many stories I could tell about my personal experiences of racism in the church and frankly, they bring up painful memories that I would prefer to keep dormant. But I share them to a) affirm the voices and stories of those of us who have been on the receiving end of racism in the church. (You are not crazy and you are not alone!) And b) invade everyone else’s consciousness with this reminder that the church continues to be a powerful agent of racism in our world.

By grace, I’m still standing. And also by grace, I remain committed to the church and hopeful that we can work with God to turn this barge around. But the fact remains: the evangelical church has a serious credibility problem* with people who’ve been targeted by its racism.

(FYI: I’m not suggesting that racism only exists within the church or that Christians have cornered the market on racism. But it’s worth pointing out that our modern, segregated version of Western Christianity is a breeding ground for prejudice,  marginalization and even outright hostility.)

As a millenial, I’ve lived most of my years in our so-called “post-racial” American church.  Yet my earliest and most painful experiences of racism have all occurred in the church – at the hands of sincere Christians.  And unfortunately, my stories are consistent with the stories of many other people my age and younger.

The ongoing racism in the church exposes an explosive hypocrisy. If we do not consistently and courageously confront it, the church will continue to instruct people that being different is a curse, demonstrate to them that God doesn’t love them, eviscerate their identities and compel them to seek refuge from the church outside the church. Those of us who are aware of individual and structural racism in the church must continue to point it out, facilitate discussions, speak the truth in love, challenge our pastors and leaders, pray for healing and work for justice.

Up next, Everything I Know about Reconciliation I Learned in the Church.



[i] While all the stories in this post are true, some identifying information has been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.

* For an accessible historical-theological account of this problem, read Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree

 

130 Responses

  1. Juliet
    Juliet August 5, 2013 at 7:56 AM |

    Thank you for your courage in sharing your story, Christena! We can grow as God’s people because of it.

  2. Drew Hart
    Drew Hart August 5, 2013 at 9:03 AM |

    Yes!!! If I were to write my own (which I kind of have already for you) it would be entitled “A Lot of What I Know About Racism I Learned on a Christian College Campus”. Thanks for telling not only your story but the story of countless minorities that have ventured unknowingly into racially prejudicial & harmful places within Christendom.

  3. Brian Foulks
    Brian Foulks August 5, 2013 at 9:08 AM |

    Wow! It is amazing how a place meant for solace can become an impetus of deluge at times. I think we would be shocked to find this happens more frequent than we realize.

    Christena this is a very important piece for a myriad of reasons. Great job and thanks for sharing.

  4. suzannah | the smitten word
    suzannah | the smitten word August 5, 2013 at 9:27 AM |

    this is horrible, heartbreaking, and all to common. it couldn’t have been easy to write, especially when it opens you up to charges of being “divisive” just for speaking vulnerably about your own painful experience.

    i learn so much from you, and i’m eager to read part two. thanks, christena.

  5. Kenneth
    Kenneth August 5, 2013 at 11:02 AM |

    Thanks for sharing Christena, I know much of this story all to well because I’ve lived most of it as well. Thanks for you courage!

  6. Carl King
    Carl King August 5, 2013 at 11:42 AM |

    Very accurately tracks with my story and those of my brother and sister. Let’s keep talking about this and the reconciliation God allows through these painful experiences.

  7. Kurt Rietema
    Kurt Rietema August 5, 2013 at 11:45 AM |

    Christena, I’ve done a lot of work attempting to uncover structural injustice for evangelicals and the reception of that news is always a mixed bag with whites. Full disclosure, I’m white myself. But I’ve often felt that is does fall on deaf ears. Here’s a study that came on NPR’s code switch blog a couple of weeks ago that underscores this: http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2013/07/19/203306999/How-To-Fight-Racial-Bias-When-Its-Silent-And-Subtle?sc=tw&cc=share

    It was a bit depressing for me because I’ve dedicated a lot of energy towards teaching about injustice. This study reveals that what’s needed more than anything are positive cross-racial experiences that shatter stereotypes that people unknowingly hold. I don’t want to decouple relational experience from straight-forward teaching about injustice because I think that there are some other studies like Kawecka Nenga’s study: “Volunteering to Give Up Privilege” in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography that show that they must necessarily be bound up together. Any thoughts on this?

    1. Jason C. Stanley
      Jason C. Stanley August 9, 2013 at 8:55 AM |

      I witnessed this a few weeks ago. A church youth group did a dance/skit. There was a Satan figure and a Christ figure. A young black man was cast as the Satan figure, while the young white man was cast as the Christ figure. Structural racism at its best.

      Christena, thank you, thank you, thank you for your witness.

  8. Kyle
    Kyle August 5, 2013 at 1:09 PM |

    Your post brings up a lot of painful memories – especially the accusation of being overly sensitive. As I think back on all the incidents in my life most are tied to life within evangelical circles. The stereotypes were mostly about my ability to fight, rap or dance. I went into a shell for a long time–I simply didn’t want to be noticed but of course the privilege of hiding was not available. I can remember people reacting in shock when they found out that my parents were married. smh

  9. idelette
    idelette August 5, 2013 at 1:19 PM |

    I just want to weep …

  10. Justin Idlet
    Justin Idlet August 5, 2013 at 2:49 PM |

    Thank you for sharing your story. And encouraging us within the church still to continue to push against these things that continue to exist within the structure.

  11. Sarah
    Sarah August 5, 2013 at 9:50 PM |

    Thanks for writing this and for your courage!

  12. Lisa Heaner
    Lisa Heaner August 5, 2013 at 10:14 PM |

    Thank you for consistently being so courageously truthful. I hate that this happened to you (and countless others) and is still happening. There is so much I want to say, to do… I often feel impotent and afraid to step out. Your voice gives me the courage I lack. And your stories remind me that keeping silent when I ought to speak is just as harmful as willful persecution.

  13. Charlie Drozdyk
    Charlie Drozdyk August 5, 2013 at 10:21 PM |

    Thank you for sharing this, Christena. I’m sorry you’ve experienced this in the church.

  14. dianeemiller
    dianeemiller August 5, 2013 at 10:23 PM |

    Some days it’s just so hard to believe that 50 years have passed since Dr. King challenged us all to live with an avocation for justice… your stories grieve me, Christena. Why do we people of God act this way?… it is not of Him.

  15. Darlene
    Darlene August 5, 2013 at 10:28 PM |

    Christena, I appreciate your voice and perspective in all of this. I too have stories (and for a while I wondered if it was safe to share them – not anymore though); this post reminded me not only of my stories, but also reminded me of how deeply it hurts to be marginalized. I never imagined I would experience this type of thing until I joined the staff of an all White congregation. Let’s just say it was eye opening and in turn makes me more conscious and sensitive to more of the issues surrounding racism. Got to keep working towards better days and experiences. Thanks again.

  16. delonteharrod
    delonteharrod August 5, 2013 at 10:40 PM |

    Thanks for sharing?

  17. lulabelle5@aol.com
    lulabelle5@aol.com August 6, 2013 at 8:56 AM |

    I apologize for the believers who still don’t get it. Remember that the church is a hospital for the “sick” and we are all in different places on the journey to “healing”. All people groups are stereotyped in some way (I’m a doctor’s wife and get put in a box all the time by people who don’t know me) Keep remembering who you are in Christ while gently continuing to point out the inconsistencies to God’s love as you see them. Well written.

  18. Pastor Kris Franke Hill
    Pastor Kris Franke Hill August 6, 2013 at 10:47 AM |

    Painful reading. Thank you so much for sharing. May God help us change.

  19. Justin W. White (@JustinInFondren)
    Justin W. White (@JustinInFondren) August 6, 2013 at 11:32 AM |

    Thank you so much for this honest and raw post. I took a class with Dr. Willie Jennings at Duke and we talked about how Christianity has been the root cause of racism across the ages. It is so sad, yet the church still turns black bodies into commodities for work, comedy, entertainment, etc.

    I am sorry this is your experience in your church and I pray for the day when God’s love breaks through the barriers of racism in the church.

  20. D.Holland
    D.Holland August 6, 2013 at 11:38 AM |

    Had it not been for my involvement in my local, very white church, and especially beyond my local church, I would never have learned about white privilege, institutional racism, and racism in the church. It certainly wasn’t part of my small town Nebraska education in the 50s and 60s. I’m still being educated about how much pain we have caused and even about the conversations that black men are having with their sons in 2013. Thank you, Christena, for helping me see a tiny bit of what your life has been like. I am truly sorry for the hurt you have experienced at the hands of thoughtless, ignorant and/or hateful people. God bless you.

  21. Mary Ann Dimand
    Mary Ann Dimand August 6, 2013 at 12:07 PM |

    I am so terribly sorry. And I am so very grateful to you for telling your story.

  22. thinkerfromiowa
    thinkerfromiowa August 6, 2013 at 12:29 PM |

    I am white. But I know exactly what you are talking about because I have a visual disability. My experiences as a disabled person are not that far removed from experiences of people of color. And I learned the same negative attitudes towards disabled people that you learned about Blacks and others of color at the same places that you did — the Christian community.

  23. andrew
    andrew August 6, 2013 at 12:52 PM |

    May I also point out that if you look at the african american “pastors” (jesse jackson, al sharpton, jeremiah wright, etc.) you will notice that racism isn’t just in the “white churches” you were a part of. Racism exists on both sides. Being a white person who was raised in a multicultural church, i can say that there are churches out there who don’t display this type of racism. Putting christianity as a whole under the flames is not an accurate picture of what is out there. I’m sure there are white people who visited black churches with the same types of stories.

    1. Cal
      Cal August 6, 2013 at 7:14 PM |

      Andrew,
      I would encourage you to simply hear this story. What you may not realize is that you have simply marginalized Christena’s experience with your comments. It is unfortunate that your response voices a defensiveness which is unnecessary.

  24. Benita
    Benita August 6, 2013 at 2:44 PM |

    I am so sorry this has been your experience. I hope you will forgive them “for they know not what they do”. There are so many thoughtless, and ignorant people out there. Telling your story/stories will serve to educate many, unfortunately not all because there are those who will not empathize, and are truly racist. I am white, and have never used the”N” word, but I know people who use it. Some do not realize the deep hurt it inflicts and just grew up in uneducated surroundings, and are too old to change. For whatever reason they are wrong, and I try to admonish as many as I think will listen and change.
    It does go both ways, I have been the only white couple at a party, and ended up being hurt by words, but I know that not every Black hates Whites, and vice versa. We are above the name calling, Keep telling your stories they will open many hearts to want to change. I have a question though, my 3g grandfather fought for the Confederacy, I don’t know what his personal convictions were. He never owned a slave, and ended up blind with one arm paralyzed. He was in his early 20s. His way of life was drastically changed. Many fought because they didn’t think the federal government should tell states what to do. I am not sure why he fought, just as many young soldiers fight today without truly knowing why. I am proud of him and the flag they fought under. This symbol means different things to different people. Please try to look at that flag with an understanding that it doesn’t just stand for slavery. Everyone needs to be proud of their heritage. Be proud if your family came from modest slave beginnings, and show the world how, even with these horrible conditions, you have overcome. Do stay in the minority, become somebody people admire, without playing the race card. Bill Cosby, Oprah, and many others in our communities have done it. Respectability has no color.
    We all have to be true to ourselves.

    1. Dara
      Dara August 7, 2013 at 12:43 PM |

      Why must we “overcome”? Why can’t White folks do the heavy lifting of NOT being racists? Why must people of color work so hard to finally be accepted as equals? Sheesh. Also, the Confederate flag = death, although it’s nice that it can mean different things to different (White) people.

      1. Benita
        Benita August 7, 2013 at 4:54 PM |

        Dara, All White people are not racist. Just as all people of color are not racis. Everyone has obstacles to overcome. You should only work hard to be respectable, the same as I have to work hard to be respectable. I ignore people’s careless remarks all the time. There was a time when people called me too “thin skinned” when they made sexist comments.I spent 20 years in the military and hope some were changed for the better as a result of knowing me. We are all different, and have our obstacles. Racists are racists, THEY COME IN ALL COLORS. and many will never see it, because they have never been exposed to enough respectable Blacks/Whites etc. Some people are stupid, and uncaring. Label these people as stupid…not by their color. It is that person’s character flaw. Life is not easy for most people. Not all white people are privileged. Education was always described as a way to overcome.Overcome life’s difficulties. Because my mom only had a 7th grade education, she had an inferiority complex and that negatively affected her perspective. My Dad was Italian, and we lived on the wrong side of town, we were encouraged to pursue education, and treat people with respect. Which means listening and trying to understand. I treat everyone the same. I try to be nice, and I expect them to be nice to me. I avoid people who make me feel bad. Education brings more opportunity and money. Money is power. Be proud of who you are, but not arrogant. This is hard for many of us. Humility is not grovelling, it is accepting yourself.
        It’s saying thank you when complimented. I do not expect help, but when I get it I thank them. The church should be a safe haven for all, but unfortunately, we are all struggling
        with our own background and upbringing issues. It was so wrong for Christina to have experienced these things. I hope everyone there did not mistreat her. The Lord’s Prayer
        tells us to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us… It is hard to remain positive. We are all soldiers in Christ and must try to do as Christ would have.

  25. Debbie
    Debbie August 6, 2013 at 3:31 PM |

    Thanks for writing this out. I’m white, 59 years old and did believe in red and yellow, black and white Jesus loves all of us. It was a very big reveal to move to Memphis, TN in 1976 and discover in your face racism. You described it well. We’re all a bunch of lousy sinners in need of a Savior. Be blessed and keep being the change that is needed in this evil and sick world. May God bless your work for Him. Amen!

  26. Tweedy Sombrero Navarrete
    Tweedy Sombrero Navarrete August 6, 2013 at 3:44 PM |

    Thank you for this, truly appreciate the honesty of church and what it can do if we are not aware. I am also wondering if the church turns racial ethnic people against each other? This has truly been my experience.

  27. Juliana Lightle
    Juliana Lightle August 6, 2013 at 4:00 PM |

    Somehow, not sure, I accidentally found this. Thought about hitting “like” but like in no describes what I deem an appropriate response. Sadly, Christian churches not only teach directly or inadvertently racism, but a wide variety of prejudices as well. Usually, they do not teach what Jesus taught, but other beliefs developed over a couple of thousand years, including Paul’s letters, and I won’t even comment on what I think of Paul. Furthermore, they use Christianity to conquer others for their knowledge and wealth in the name of Christianity, e.g. to save their souls. I just wish a wider group of people could read your post.

  28. Bruce
    Bruce August 6, 2013 at 4:07 PM |

    Christena– thank you for such a powerful article. Even with a mom who gave much of her life to working with people of all backgrounds to eliminate racism and sexism– I still had to fight against incredibly strong and subtle ways that my surrounding culture attempted to bolster racism– systematic and individual. I’m a pastor in a state that still has a confederate insignia on its flag. When I look at my own flag I imagine a swastika on it– to remind myself how repulsive and oppressive a symbol it is. I am a white male– my mom taught me very early about white male privilege. She lived through Bull Conner’s Birmingham. Thanks for reminding me there’s a lot on the line for all of us to rid our church and our world of this horrid cancer. Keep writing Christena! Keep shining. I hope that young people can say of me one day that I never implied with my actions, words or non-actions that anybody was not worthy, or didn’t fit, or wasn’t made in the image of God. I hope that a different kind of church is emerging from the ashes of all the hate and violence we’ve perpetrated.

  29. Shirley Johnson
    Shirley Johnson August 6, 2013 at 4:09 PM |

    I was raised in an all white, Northern European community in northwestern Minnesota in the forties and fifties. Ecumenicalism meant different Christian protestants and maybe an occasional Catholic might be considered in fellowship.

    I would like to hear what experience people of different races have had in atheist settings. Is there self selection out of atheist groups or a feeling of rejection in atheist groups? Generally, atheists do not promote evangelism because there isn’t the need to bring people to what is perceived as salvation but, they may want to promote awareness of an alternative perspective (think Neil deGrasse Tyson).

  30. Chris
    Chris August 6, 2013 at 4:14 PM |

    I didn’t need the church to teach me about racism. My own white family was school enough. I had to learn about my own racism from a group of people of colour in New York and I’m spending the rest of my life repenting, battling it in my own self first, and being ashamed of my past blindness. My prayer is that young people in the future will not learn racism in their own families, neighbourhoods, churches, or anywhere else.

  31. David Dominguez
    David Dominguez August 6, 2013 at 4:37 PM |

    Thank you for writing and sharing this…tough to read, and much needed.

  32. elaine evans
    elaine evans August 6, 2013 at 4:38 PM |

    I feel deeply for you and as a in appearance white girl I hang my head in shame. Not because I have behaved this way but because anyone would ever make you feel less than human. I also experienced prejudice but in many different ways.a few generations back my great great grandfather and Great great grandmother pretended to be from England and France. the family explained that is why they could not speak English. they did not anyone to know they were native Americans and Canadians. my family consists of many races there is not one that I can truly say I am. we have native american, native Canadian, Mexican, African american, English, and German. There could be more I am not sure. My great great grandfather was a fiddling man he could play a fiddle like no other our family still has pieces of his fiddle to this day. He was an american Indian and a drunk. But he was famous in these parts of Michigan.he was called the fiddling fool injin ( not sure how to spell that correctly) Joe.He made money fiddling it was the white man that introduced him to booze. I thank them very much for their wonderful disgrace to my family.They actually spoke Algonquin we came from the tribe that followed chief cobmoossa, Cobmoosa (1768 – 1866) was an Ottawa leader.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cobmoosa here is a link if interested. I am not sure if we are related to him or not but really who cares. we are all human thats it it does not matter who or where we came from what does matter is who we become. I never heard the end word until I was about 12 or 13 and I got caught kissing a African american (colored boy as it was stated) boy. then shortly after that I started hearing the awful word but I did not speak it because I did not understand. I am not claiming to be Innocent by no means I just did not ( ever I think) get into racial name calling. mine was more like faggot and stuff like that and guess what I am a faggot. lol My whole life it seems has been a struggle for me, the beginning of my life I was torchered and abused severely. it was very bad I look back now and sometimes it does not seem real. I tried to tell my teachers about what was going on at home, they just punished me for lying. trust me I was not lying I was beaten with every object you can think of. according to my mother it started when I was a few days old. I remember the day my father first had full sexual intercourse with me I was 3 and 1/2 years old how I know that to be my age is because it was my older sisters first day of preschool. she was 1 year and 2 weeks older than me. I say was because when she was 38 years old she was horribly murdered. anyway back to my story my father was angry when I was born because I was not a boy. so he started beating me when I was around 10 days old. he treated me and dressed me like a boy. well until he started having sex with me. he still treated me like a boy just a boy you have sex with. so the reason I told you so much is this. I looked like a boy but I was a girl. I was made fun of all the time. I was always asked are you a boy or a girl. even to this day I could grow my hair out and wear a dress to the floor and I would be asked are you a boy or a girl. Well I am a girl I feel like a girl and sometimes I act like a girl and I am a lesbian. lol Life has been tough for me and I still do not understand the race thing. I was in my 20′s when I heard other race’s names such as wetback and so on. its weird for people to judge another in my mind for the color of their skin it was weird to me when I was young and it is still weird to me. I grew up on a farm and we had all sorts of animals and they came in all sorts of colors, But cows were cows, pigs were pigs, rabbits were rabbits, it did not matter what color their fur was they were what they were. So why isn’t a human a Human? And why oh why do humans have to be so mean. PS I think it is funny when I get called a cracker I wanna turn around and say yes with a rich and buttery taste. LOL I send Love to you and I pray that for the rest of your life no matter what is said to you All you can hear is I love you.

  33. Rob
    Rob August 6, 2013 at 5:38 PM |

    I also learned about racism from seminary.

  34. Kathryn
    Kathryn August 6, 2013 at 6:04 PM |

    I am 59 years old and also learned about racism in the church but in an entirely different way. When I was in high school the church to which I belonged (United Methodist) was sponsoring “consultations on racism.” It was in that context that I came to understand the difference between prejudice and racism, the dynamics of power and privilege, and the ways in which I, as a white person, had participated in perpetuating racism. It was very formative to learn these lessons from persons of color within the Christian community. I wish all churches were as active today in confronting institutional racism and in teaching and making connections for people, particularly young people, between faith and working to end racism and its many manifestations. I find hope in the fact that my daughter, at 19, has experienced such a wealth of diversity in her friends and acquaintances throughout her life.

  35. Richard L.
    Richard L. August 6, 2013 at 6:26 PM |

    Christena, Your stories are so nicely written. I absolutely understand what you went through. When I was in second grade back in Michigan, my best friend was African American. We would talk and laugh and just thoroughly enjoy each other’s company. Like you, I was too young to know what the word “Nigger” meant. It wasn’t used or permitted in our house.

    One day, a bunch of kids on the playground started yelling at me, “Nigger lover!” They were all kids who’d moved up there with their families from the South. Back then there were jobs in Michigan.

    The bullying went on for too long and I didn’t know who to turn to because I just couldn’t understand it. What I did was the stupidest, meannest thing I could have done. I ended my friendship with Charles abruptly. I wouldn’t let him sit with me on the bus. He just busted out crying and asked me, “Why, Ricky, why?” I couldn’t answer. I was so ashamed and never could bring myself to talk to anyone about it.

    I never saw Charles again. Apparently his parents yanked him out of that school. To this day I wish I could find him and apologize and just hold him and hug him. I’ve tried looking on Facebook, but I have no idea where he might be or what he would like like now. There were a lot of men with the same name and I just couldn’t tell.

    Then, just before I turned 13, my parents decided to move to Florida (of all places) to be near my Mom’s sister and her family. And my Grandfather. That was a cruel learning experience, living down there. It was before integration, not that integration ever sunk in to the minds of Floridians. We lived in Panama City, in the section of the state that lies underneath Alabama. My schools were all integrated and my high school experienced its last year of segregation the year I graduated – 1964. The school for African Americans was only a couple of blocks away and I could hear their wonderful high school band rocking out with so much rhythm that the white folds in Panama City had no feeling for. I couldn’t even say I enjoyed hearing their band because I already had one strike against me. I was a damned Yankee. Strike two was that I was gay and had anyone known that I would have been lynched on one of those old moss-covered trees like they used in earlier times for lynching.

    It makes me actually proud of you for always questioning. Even though you didn’t get the answer you would have liked to have gotten, you showed enormous bravery to question bigotry. I’m still fighting for rights in a nation where no one should ever have to fight for rights. And all the hatred and bigotry towards LGBT people comes from exactly the same source the discrimination against you came from. Unlike you, though, I stopped going to church before I even graduated from high school. I was born into the Catholic faith but tried others. It just didn’t work because I saw too much hypocrisy and misuse of the meanings set forth by the Christ. I read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for myself and found nothing in there that even came close to what the evangelicals say about it and actually teach their children. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when a 12-year-old boy’s parents told the old gray-haired preacher that their son was a queer and he needed to tell the congregation to shame their son into not being one. I got so angry at the parents and the preacher for conspiring against that poor boy in such a way that I never set foot in a church again and I will refuse even if they change. I do as Christ instructed and worship silently on my own and without flaunting my religion, also as He instructed.

    Thank you, Christena for sharing your story. I wish you happiness and want you to know that there were many of us nasty ol’ white folks who were in total support of Dr. Martin Luther King’s freedom movement. I just couldn’t talk about it. It’s so wrong to be afraid of people because of antiquated beliefs that bear no resemblance to reality.

  36. Richard L.
    Richard L. August 6, 2013 at 6:31 PM |

    Christena and readers: In my fifth paragraph of my post I accidentally stated, “My schools were all integrated…” I meant to say segregated. Sorry.

  37. Caroline Reid
    Caroline Reid August 6, 2013 at 6:49 PM |

    Christena,

    Without being able to cite specific examples, I am embarrassed to say I must have said or done something sometime in my 59 years to perpetuate, condone, or let racism pass unchallenged. Your article pulls me up short and reminds me that if habits, including mine, are to change we need to exhort each other as brothers & sisters in Christ to change our default setting to “grace”.
    If I’ve been part of the problem, I now want to be part of the solution, one encounter at a time. Thank you for your frankness. Thank you for stepping out.

  38. CassandraToday
    CassandraToday August 6, 2013 at 7:44 PM |

    I know that many of my seminary classmates who were black learned another lesson, which I’m sure is taught in the “liberal mainline” churches as much as it is in their seminaries: Issues of racism and race-related topics are black people’s issues.

    My seminary, bless her heart, tried. There were 20-25% students of color, mostly African American. There was an ongoing series, supported by faculty and administration, called Race Matters — kind of a panel discussion / conversation format. Consistently, the vast majority of the students attending were black, with a few of us white students sprinkled through. What could more clearly say that matters of race are not matters of concern for white people? It must have been so discouraging for the black students, who really wanted to believe they were attending a liberal seminary with good-hearted, liberal, Christian white people.

  39. Erin Thomas
    Erin Thomas August 6, 2013 at 7:47 PM |

    Christena, I grew up in a mostly white suburb in So. California. The first time I met a black person was at Girl Scout summer camp when I was 10. And yes, I was infatuated by their hair because it was so different than mine. The deeply ingrained racism that you speak of (rebel flags and overt racist jokes), I did not experience. But the subtle racism that comes from living in a mostly white town (we live here, they live there) is harder to name and confront. I hope you can help with your strong and faithful presence in many places, to teach that we all need to be aware of each person’s unique experience and hear what they are saying about God’s family and their place in it. Churches are not immune from the injustices of the world around us. Sometimes they are breeding grounds for bad ideas. I hope you will continue to serve the God of all peoples, who sees us as God’s children, perfect, strong and worthy of love and acceptance. I am sorry you had to run up against folks who didn’t know how to behave. Ignorance sometimes runs for generations. I hope your sharing of your story will teach all of us how to love unconditionally.

  40. Moira
    Moira August 6, 2013 at 8:15 PM |

    Powerful. My heart is rendered and convicted. God heal us of the sin of racism. Thank you for the courage to bear witness.

  41. hugginsdocs
    hugginsdocs August 6, 2013 at 9:03 PM |

    Thank you Christena. I appreciate your testimony as a gift. I hope to keep it before me as a reminder as I work in ministry. Blessings.

  42. Christine Gordon
    Christine Gordon August 6, 2013 at 9:13 PM |

    Thank you for writing. I would love to read your book. Raised in rural Illinois in a very white community, I worry that I am totally blind to some of these places where white privilege and power still dominates. I have a black adopted son. Though I spent a portion of college in a black community and was semi-adopted by my black best friend because of my parents living overseas, I know that I will never see the world totally through his eyes, or experience it the way he does. I try to read everything I can get my hands on to better understand how to be a help. I have taken my children (the older 2 are biological) to MLK day parades every year, read them MLK biographies, teach them about my hero, Frederick Douglass, read them books about musicians, artists and scientists who are of some ethnicity other than white. Their lives are full of many families and children of mixed races. But I would love to know more! What advice would you have for a mom like me?

  43. Victor S Patterson
    Victor S Patterson August 6, 2013 at 9:22 PM |

    This puts a lump in the pit of my gut. Our ministry opens our door to everyone and no one says anything but our hearts loves all the children. Bless you

  44. Kathy Friedman
    Kathy Friedman August 6, 2013 at 9:34 PM |

    I am always very sad when I hear these kinds of stories. It is a terrible thing to have experienced. It is my prayer that we will all learn to be more accepting of others different from ourselves,
    be it in race, age, ethnicity, economic status or sexual orientation

  45. Allen Wayne Jones
    Allen Wayne Jones August 6, 2013 at 11:29 PM |

    In actuality though many in the Church and elsewhere called you a Nigger, with the intention of denigrating you . . . they in fact paid a great compliment and acknowledgement of highest honor, The word [name] Nigger was misconstrued beginning in 1440 AD when Portuguese merchants kidnapped 20 African males and presented them to Prince Henry of Portugal, perplexed by their complexion and physiques he asked who are these men, they replied, they are Niggers – inhabitants from the region of the Niger River in West Africa. Prince Henry made a gift of 10 to Pope Eugenius IV who issued Papal Bull “Ilius Qui”meaning for whose it is, to Portugal and later Spain authorizing them to inter West Africa, Ngola (Europeanized as Angola) etc. to rape, pillage, rob, enslave the people because Africans were little more than animals and soulless beasts.

    the word (name) Nigger, Niger became bastardized because they Prince Henry nor Pope Eugenius knew the etymology of the name. It means in the ancient Nile Valley lexicon and system of belief, philosophy, and science – Great Black God I have come to worship You. In fact this is the background upon which the African Simeon in Acts 13:1 is called Niger [Ni-ger, not Ni-jer]. The New Testament was written in Greek, Niger is Nu, iota, gamma, epsilon, ro, and gamma is a hard “g”. So in church when you pronounce it NI-jer you are violating the original and Greek text pronunciation.

    Despite all of the misappropriation of the word’s meaning – given negative and destruction connotation by uninformed teaching the misinformed, the fact and truth of this is laden in the English language, particularly in the word “denigrate.” The prefix de – means to undo, reduce, or minimize or yet to divide; the suffix – ate means to place in the state of; now if de- is to undo or minismize, and -ate is to place in the state of, what is it that is being minimized or undone . . . the root word is the concept of property that is minimized or reduced – nigr, or nigger. If to de-nigr (nigger) is demean, then nigrate is to make great, as is the meaning of the word name Nigger in Africa today except when misused through ignorance by the misinformed and uninformed.

    Nigger, Niger, Ngr, Ng, N are all variants of the ancient Nile Valley name of the Diety . . . hence the name Negro, meaning Black and Divnity. Check the etymology of ancient Egypt and Kush and you will find that God, in the Oldest Books in the world was referred to as N. in abbreviation of Ngr, or Nigger. The first letter of the alphabet – what we call A, is in fact Nigger.

    When next someone calls you a Nigger, you have two responses you may give, 1) Thank you, I did not know you thought so highly of me, or 2) Bow when you say that! We who are African must recapture our ancient and cosmic greatness in our identification with God – by the way, the Hebrew word for carpenter which is what the Black Jesus Christ was, is a variant form of Nigger, Nagar, and in the International rules of language and spelling, all vowels are interchangeable. Be proud of the 2nd most powerful word in the language of man . . . Jesus, Yeshua, Yahoshua is the first.

  46. Wynette Clarke
    Wynette Clarke August 7, 2013 at 12:24 AM |

    This is not a one way street. All my pre-adult and adult life, I have attended churches that were either all black except me, or predominately black. I have listened to black pastors teach dislike towards white people, being white, I was always considered, “different” when they made their references. Often referred to as “being like one of us” or “being white on the outside, but black on the inside.” Still trying to understand what that means. While unfortunately racism still exist, and in some places is thriving in this country, I have witnessed a greater hatred in church for blacks within their own race. Let another black church be doing better than another, then you will hear the pastor, deacons and members speak ill against the church, slander the pastor, and not support anything it does. If black person has worked and is becoming successful, then its said, they think they are better, or don’t remember where they are coming from, that house nigga. If a black person has a business, then it is assumable that “you can hook a brotha up” “give me a discount” “let me hold something” and if its not done, they will take their business to a competitor. I have even heard of black people going to white owned businesses cause ” I can get it done better.” How many Asians, Chinese, or Saudis do you know wear weave? me? NONE !!! So why do they own all the hair stores?

  47. Sue Shields
    Sue Shields August 7, 2013 at 3:47 AM |

    Christena – thank you for adding your voice and broadening a deeply needed conversation. People who are not of the dominant culture have experienced such events for so many years. It is good to hear a voice expressing the pain and harm caused by racism – and by structural racism that seems at times to be inherent within the church and the society. Sue (Lenape – Wolf Clan & Dine)

  48. Everything I Know about Racism I Learned in the Church | signs of life

    [...]  “Everything I Know about Racism I Learned in the Church” by Christena Cleveland.  Be sure to read the entire post over at her blog. I’m looking forward to hearing from Christena at the Mosaix Conference in November. [...]

  49. Justin
    Justin August 7, 2013 at 8:58 AM |

    Disturbing and gripping. May your truth in your story inspire deep change. Thank you for sharing.

  50. Mark Snyder
    Mark Snyder August 7, 2013 at 9:21 AM |

    I agree that the Church has been imperfect in its treatment of differences. However, in my experience, that has not been unique to “White” churches. As a youth and adult, I have heard some pretty brutal racism spewed from the pulpits of various “Black” churches and listen to the hatred and divisiveness fostered by Al Sharpton and others.

    As a privileged white Christian, I also remember and continue to experience the concerted efforts of my “White” Church to actively reach out to the minority community and make them feel welcome. But I have been told by members of that community that we are too “white” for them (literally). I recall hosting the Black moderator of our “White” denomination because an unaccompanied Black woman could not stay in a decent hotel in our town and suffering the bad behavior of our neighbors. I remember growing up learning about my “White” Christian Great-Grandfather freeing his “slaves” before the civil war, because his faith led him to believe slavery was wrong. He was run out of his home as a result.

    If you have read to this point, you are likely either open minded and really want to solve the problem too, or are looking for ammunition for some pithy reply. Good – it means your not lukewarm. Now here’s the rub for me – In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he reminds us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and James teaches that “Mercy triumphs over Justice”. Christena, where is the recognition of that in your missive? The Church is not a temple for the worship of perfect members, it is where we go to Worship God; recognize that we are not perfect, but sinners; and try to learn how with God’s help we can do better -> but none of us are there yet!

    What you are expressing is not a “Black” problem or a “White” problem. It won’t be solved by focusing on or ranting, no matter how eloquently, about differences. The problem is the sin in our hearts and our failure to follow Christ. As a result of God’s love and mercy, Christ came to reconcile the world to God and paid the price for our sin. Hmmm……. Love, mercy, reconciliation, forgiveness. What beautiful concepts. Maybe we should focus on those for a while, NOT our differences and hatred.

  51. Bob Farrell
    Bob Farrell August 7, 2013 at 11:49 AM |

    Wow. I’m sorry that has been your experience with the church. I’m glad that GOD has given you the grace to see beyond that to see that that’s not JESUS, but sinners ( like you and me) gone astray.

  52. charleysblog
    charleysblog August 7, 2013 at 2:00 PM |

    I understand and empathize with most of your points. But can you give specific examples of the “structural racism” you experienced in the organization you mentioned? I need a little clarification with that one. Thanks

  53. s. badiyah austin
    s. badiyah austin August 7, 2013 at 2:29 PM |

    i am so sorry for what you have endured throughout your christian church experience.

    however, the common thread i see here is not in the church, itself, but in the white-washed world you lived in. i went to a black church. i was surrounded by black people, so i couldn’t relate to your experience. in fact, my first encounter with racism wasn’t until i entered an all white highschool. it wasn’t the highschool that was racist, it was the community it sprang from.

    i guess, what i’m saying is, it isn’t racism in the church, so much as it’s racism in any white community that isn’t used to minorities being among them.

  54. Bonnie Reinders
    Bonnie Reinders August 7, 2013 at 2:42 PM |

    Dear Christena and Kurt,

    I appreciate the efforts of both of you to engage the evangelical community with the goal of eradicating racism. Kurt, as a member of your home church and of its Faith-Mission Outreach Committee, I know you are passionate about trying to be the hands and feet of Christ in your community.

    I have a positive example of a cross-racial experience involving my daughter, Caroline. We lived in Escondido, CA, and she was attending VBS at a Lutheran church. She came to me after the first evening, holding the hand of a fellow four-year-old girl, and announced, “This is my friend.” I asked, “What is her name?” Caroline answered, “I don’t know.” Caroline did not say, “This is my friend, and she’s black.”

  55. Marcus
    Marcus August 7, 2013 at 3:02 PM |

    Not to take away from your story…But this topic is a swinging door!

    “Trinity United Church of Christ” – Ever wonder what they talk about here?

  56. Samuel Zalanga
    Samuel Zalanga August 7, 2013 at 3:17 PM |

    My humble counsel is that for any Christian who really wants to understand what is happening in the church, what the church can do or cannot do, he or she should start by studying the society in reference and human behavior first. After having a thorough grounding and understanding of his or her society and human behavior across the ages, then focus on the church and understand church history and what role the church has played in the past 2000 years in human history. If one approaches the issue this way, there is no reason to expect the church which is as much a social organization as it is a spiritual one, to behave clinically different from other human social institutions and organizations.

    Indeed, the church in America is as much a spiritual as a business entity and as the rational choice theory of religion argues, churches in America are like “business firms.” They have to struggle to survive. In order for them to survive, they have to produce “spiritual products” that are marketable, and in a free society like the U.S., it means their products have to take into consideration “customer taste” i.e., the taste of church members or potential church members in a society where humans are conceived as autonomous individuals out there pursuing their self interest. We design and build our major social institutions (education, politics, business, family, church) around this concept of the individual and his or her self-interest.

    So churches compete for market share. If they want to thrive, and when the competition for survival and thriving is tough, consumer taste becomes very important. It is either you remain an island as a church (with a small niche), with small groups of people who are willing to take whatever you tell them, or stop the members voting with their legs by preaching middle class values as Will Herberg argues instead of true Christianity.There is even a church growth theory that says your church and Christianity is more likely to survive if you build it around the principle of “homogeneity” i.e, the people in the church must be the same, whether that sameness is caste, race, socioeconomic status, or political ideology etc.Apostle Paul’s vision of a Christian community that transgresses those social boundaries is thrown out of the window by the demands of market pressure. Note that no religion in the world has come face to face with the full pressure of market economy and remained the same. The religion is often the loser because it compromises its ideals.

    What this means is in this competitive market environment, the church is going to be dynamic but also always compromising because of the need to be relevant and attend to consumer taste which is changing because of so many forces compelling change in American society that have nothing to do with the ideals of Christianity. At best the church is just reacting to those forces and the forces are producing changes at an alarming speed, giving the church little time to deeply reflect on the issues. Churches can always change their position and then look for some theological justification for that.

    Bible-believing Christians used the Bible to defend slavery, gender oppression, the dehumanization of dark-skinned people etc. (see the chapter on the Social Gospel in “Race: The History of An Idea in America” by Thomas F. Gossett.) when it was convenient to do so, presumably the Holy Spirit guided them to that truth. When things changed, theologians look for Scriptural rationales to justify the changes. Where were the Scriptures in the first place? One critical component of the Christian faith is the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Are we saying that the Holy Spirit for sometime told people that slavery, racism and gender oppression etc. was right and Biblical. Did the Holy Spirit go to sleep at that time when these things were happening? Will the Holy Spirit give an interpretation of the Bible that is diametrically opposed to bible-believing Christians? The bottom line is that the church reflects the society it is in, and if you understand the society first, and then study the church, you will not be surprise.

    For the church to achieve its ideal goals, the believers will have to sacrifice and decenter themselves. How many Christians are willing to do that? Many churches cannot even preach the whole truth on the pulpit publicly because they are afraid of the public relations disaster and the reaction of the parishioners who will leave and get the church in budge problems. Promise Keepers went out of money when they started talking about racial reconciliation (See: “Divided By Faith” by Emerson and Smith). White evangelicals in their evaluation of the Promise Keepers said they did not want to hear much of racial reconciliation and they followed that up by not donating money to the organization and the organization collapsed. In this respect, one can see how in America, faith or the church is as much a business issue as it is a spiritual. This is true of course not just in America but also in Latin America and Africa where Pentecostal Christianity is spreading. Just go and do an long term ethnographic study of such churches. Here is a brief documentary here you can watch: http://saharareporters.com/video/nigerias-millionaire-preachers-seyi-rhodes-channel-4.

    If one can learn good things and bad things from the church, then methodologically, the issue then is not primarily about the church per se, but about either the people in it, the cultural baggage they bring into it and their willingness to sacrifice by De-centering themselves in order to incarnate Christ’s sacrifice. WE should not make the mistake of assuming that simply because someone knows the truth, the person will automatically comply with it. I truly believe the Holy Spirit is always there to empower believers, and so if things are not working as the author describes, the problem is the human condition. If we are not willing to carry our cross and sacrifice, then forget it. In our world day, unbelievers who understand the need to self-sacrifice and decenter themselves in humility may accomplish much more than a situation where Christians who claim to to have the Holy Spirit but never willing to sacrifice, decenter themselves and live in humility, will accomplish little except solving the world’s problems through declaring propositional truths.

    If for two thousand years some problems continue to persist in the church, and where they changed, sometimes the pressure came from outside the church, to simply believe that the church can miraculously transform society in the future behooves us to ask ourselves, what made it impossible for us to transform the same society in the past 2000 years? Is it because of the absence of the guidance of the Holy Spirit or because we did not know the truth or did not have a certain modicum of truth? I believe these are not the problems. The problem is our unwillingness to sacrifice and our willingness to find scriptural justification for what protects our privileges. You can just say that because of original sin, things will continue worsening until Jesus comes back. The church has great role to play in transforming society by incarnating Christ, but Christ sacrificed himself. So do not focus on the power and the victory while ignoring the sacrifice that is an integral part of the Christian journey. If we are not willing to do that, then we should not expect much to change in the church. And do see the church is operating in social and historical vacuum. The church is as much a social organization in a ferociously competitive market economy in America as it is spiritual and often market pressure plays more role than the spiritual in the direction of decisions made in the church.

  57. Steve Rosberg
    Steve Rosberg August 7, 2013 at 3:50 PM |

    Can you tell us which “organization” on the east coast you worked for? I just want to know out of purely gossipy, fleshly reasons so i am going to admit that up front. :)

  58. Steve Rosberg
    Steve Rosberg August 7, 2013 at 4:44 PM |

    I was born in Sweden and my dad was born there and my mother was born and raised in England. When i was growing up as a kid i was never exposed to racism or hating people because of the color of their skin and I definitely didnt hear the “n” word used EVER. I guess it’s an “american” thing.

  59. Hannah M
    Hannah M August 7, 2013 at 4:55 PM |

    Christena, that was really sad but a good article! Some of it rings true even all the way from Africa.
    I am glad though that we’re part of the generation that gets to challenge and change that.

  60. Sergius Martin-George
    Sergius Martin-George August 7, 2013 at 5:48 PM |

    I’m intrigued by this notion that only whites can be racist, because racism, unlike mere prejudice, requires power, and Blacks don’t have any. That is not the definition of the term that was regnant, say, a generation ago. What is the origin of the change in definitions? It seems to have taken place over a 5-10 year period, mainly because a fairly small group of academics and activists simply declared it to be so. Certainly, the meaning of terms changes over time, but the change in the definition of racism has been unique in my view, and I’ve never heard a good explanation for it. Unfortunately, the link you provided to the piece by (surprise!) Peggy McIntosh, while addressing white and male privilege, doesn’t really address this new definition of racism.

  61. Jil and Brander McDonald
    Jil and Brander McDonald August 7, 2013 at 8:13 PM |

    Wow, what a powerful article. Thank you so much for having the courage and strength to write it. Being a First Nations couple – we have found exactly the same type of racism – almost daily in church. After my husband, a Pastor, has spoken at a church we’ve visited, we’ve had people ask us “How can you be Native and a Christian at the same time?” Or, they’ve slipped him books about “how to follow Jesus” etc.
    Please know you are not alone and that together, person by person, we really can change things. God Bless and thanks again for sharing your heart.

  62. J
    J August 8, 2013 at 1:00 AM |

    This is heartbreaking :( thank you for sharing. Experiences like this need to be shared so that change can happen. I am curious, in your experience, have you felt more accepted and included in secular society as opposed to the church? This question I ask is in no way meant as some kind of qualifier. The racism you have experienced is wrong, period.

  63. Sarah W. V.
    Sarah W. V. August 8, 2013 at 8:35 AM |

    On behalf of your white sisters and brothers in Christ everywhere I apologize for all the ways we have failed you, if not individually then at least corporately. I am grateful that you were able to hang on to what good can come from being His within the Church despite the myriad ways we so often fall short of His commandments to LOVE. Thank you for a thought provoking article and for forgiving us. May we all strive harder to deserve you and each other. God bless you & all you do.

  64. Heather Caliri
    Heather Caliri August 8, 2013 at 4:07 PM |

    Oh, this kicked me in the gut. I can’t imagine what it was like to live it. I think that’s the part of being in the majority culture that befuddles me: our blindness. I feel like I see _very little_ of the reality of generational sin about race/ethnicity, and yet when I look around, I see SO MUCH of it. Your writing on privilege is helping me see more and is starting to give me the vocabulary to explain to others who still don’t see.
    I am reminded that Christ touched the eyes of the blind. Heal us, Jesus.

  65. Heidi
    Heidi August 8, 2013 at 4:53 PM |

    Thank you for having so much courage and sharing your experience. I’ve been reflecting lately on the missions focus of many churches and noticing that the majority of mission trips/missionaries are focused on “serving” people of color (worldwide–whether the people are African-American, Indonesian, Chinese, Kenyan, Mexican, Indian, Guatemalan, Native American, etc.), but rarely have I seen a church taking a mission trip or raising money for a missionary that serves white people. I am wondering if you have reflected at all on your experiences with missions in churches and, if you were to write a paragraph/takeaway like you did for your other experiences above, what would you say that church missions programs/trips taught you about race?

  66. Julia
    Julia August 8, 2013 at 6:03 PM |

    Thank you for sharing your story, Christena. I am so sorry you experienced these things. Thank you for being willing to stay with the church: you are making a difference.

  67. boom
    boom August 9, 2013 at 2:48 PM |

    Sorry I wasn’t able to read all the comments, but without knowing specifics about the organization and if they are actually affiliated with the Catholic church, which I as a catholic, consider as ‘the church’, I feel that there’s a bit of generalization here. Heck even Westboro Baptist tries to pass itself off as a church. Do I think this isn’t going on? of course not. Growing up as a catholic, I feel that religious people, catholic, christian, or whatever, are the most judgmental people at times. However, there are some good organizations out there, and there are good people out there, as well as bad. I just don’t want these good people to be dragged in the mud as well. I do hope you find these good organizations.

  68. John Cannon
    John Cannon August 10, 2013 at 9:39 AM |

    I’m a 52-year-old Caucasian male (married, three children) and I grew up in the St. Louis area. I was raised in a heavily integrated church in the city of St. Louis (very liberal – both socially and theologically) and I was raised in an integrated school system (University City; suburb that borders St. Louis; historically, very liberal).

    Christena, you described several stories about negative instances in your life that involved race. I will submit to you that all of us have experienced negative occurrences that have revolved around racial issues – which have caused ALL of us to have honest and deeply held perspectives on matters of race. Each perspective is valid – because each person has a life that has been impacted on this.

    Ethnicity is completely irrelevant on this.

    Truthfully, I yearn for the day when people are allowed to talk about these issues – truthfully talk about these issues.

    However, as long as whites run the risk of being called ‘racist’ for ANY perspective that doesn’t toe the leftist worldview on matters of race, these conversations will NEVER occur…..

    ….and that’s tragic.

  69. Victoria
    Victoria August 12, 2013 at 12:31 AM |

    I am white and this article is incredible and I have to say exactly reflects what I have seen since coming to the US from England and having alas stepped into these mega white churches. I have named these institutions the home of the “born again bigot”. In fact I pulled my kids from a Christian school because there was zero racial diversity and there was a very paternalistic attitude to the mission out reach in Africa which was disturbing. I think it was brave to write this because it will not make you popular but it candidly reveals the pervasive nature of institutional racism which I believe can flourish unchecked in these homogenous white churches which seem to define themselves by what they are against. Not to mention I highly doubt Jesus was blond with blue eyes either but that’s a whole different post.

  70. Tim
    Tim August 12, 2013 at 1:14 AM |

    Very nice article. You are amazingly spiritually mature through all of this. We are told that those who seek to be godly will suffer persecution. There is much ungodliness in the forms of church dominant in America. The system of church where 99% of the personal expression of truth is dominated by a hired professional is contrary to the scriptures. “Preach the word…” does not mean lecture the Word only by hired experts with zero interaction or participation by the gathered saints. The scripture that teaches to not forsake gathering specifies “one another” communication on both sides of the warning. Heb. 10:24,25. This is bad enough but when a church hires leaders they are led to consume 75 – 86% of their “giving” to buy stuff for themselves. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also”. So if your giving goes primarily to yourself, your heart will be stuck on yourself. The system trains saints to be self-centered, wanting everything to match up to their human level preferences. Most of God’s supernatural expectations are thrown out the door. Self centered gatherings keep believers perpetually immature, unable to cross boundaries of age, color, culture, economic, etc. Crowd oriented gatherings are systemically non-mutual and non-personal and very shallow relationally. These systems will not change until individuals stop participating in them and choose God’s design for gathering.

    I have one disagreement with one of your later replies.
    “but I do not think that racism exists in black churches. Racism is systemic and requires societal power. Black people do not have access to the type of power that systemic/societal racism requires. (Here’s a classic article that helps to explain this point:”

    Jesus taught us that evil proceeds from the heart of man, not from a system. The individual heart is to blame, and that is what God will judge. Exempting those with no societal power is a bogus excuse. Anyone’s heart can be corrupted by sin, whether pride, bitterness, unforgiveness, greed, envy, jealousy, etc. Any of these can push racism regardless of economics or position in society.

    I think African Americans have a bigger problem than racism and that is abortion – the rate at which they participate in aborting their own young driven by sexual sin, and the rate they vote for candidates that promote abortion as a solution needed for women for any reason any time paid for by someone else. Walter Hoye with Issues4life.org is confronting this with little support form the African American community of believers.

  71. Everything I Know about Reconciliation I Learned in the Church

    [...] the VBS teacher called me a nigger, she cursed my identity. Though I never explicitly referred to myself as a nigger, I internalized [...]

  72. Dano
    Dano August 12, 2013 at 3:21 PM |

    As often is the case, your post has encouraged me to (nervously) look at my own life and ministry yet again to see how I do things and how those things might look/sound/be received by people of color. I have so much to learn!

  73. MC
    MC August 12, 2013 at 8:28 PM |

    I came across this site through a link on FB. I loved this post. Yours was not too far from my own experience in Texas. I clearly remember the most horrific pastor in our mostly 99% white Baptist church in Pasadena, TX. He stood up in a crowded sermon at his pulpit and said in the middle of a long and boring passage, “…and that’s why Black people need to go to their own black churches and we whites should have our own.” I felt so tiny in that moment. I was super religious and let me tell you– I actually listened to those long sermons. I clearly remember peering around and saw only a handful of families stand up and leave. My mother didn’t speak English well and we nudged her–let’s go, let’s go. But she didn’t understand. We stayed and outside, told her we’d never go back. She went there because there were English classes for mostly Asian spouses of all the military folks who went there. I still despise that place. We were marked as black. My dad never went. I wonder what they would have thought about him there. Ha!

    And then it just got worse when we shuffled ourselves around to different churches nearby thinking maybe this time it’ll be different. We thought we had found a little bit of a mixed race Methodist church in Houston but thinking back on it, mixed meant you could count less than a handful of blacks in a congregation of 200. We encountered less abrupt racism there but it was never comfortable. In high school, I went with our youth group to volunteer fixing up houses way out in rural Texas–out near Longview, TX I think. I was only 1 of the 3 non-white people in the group of 40 or so teens to go. Anyways, we broke into smaller groups and my small group of 10 went to a house of an older woman who took one look at me in her living room for the meeting and announced she “didn’t want no nigger” repairing her home. Again, that same feeling of smallness like when I was a much younger person in that sermon in Pasadena came over me. I looked at my white youth group leader, a man I had a lot of respect for and he just looked down at his feet. Didn’t say one word –like he could have taken that as a perfect teachable moment but he was a coward. He could have said how un-christian like that was to say/think or that he needed to take the time to regroup to discuss this very hurtful thing said to me. Nothing. They all pretended it didn’t happen. I sat outside near the van in the sun for several hours until they were ready to go back to the church that was hosting us. I was humiliated and angry. It reminded me of your confederate flag hanging in that guy’s home. The fact of the matter is that a lot of these kinds of people don’t know how to acknowledge the realities of racism and think of it as just part of their daily landscape. It’s so infused into our cultural fabric of this country that when you raise it as such, people chicken out and shuffle around to avoid real conversations that matter around these kinds of topics (or they get ultra defensive).

    Anyways–this very long response to say thanks for raising it. It made me think of why I left the church entirely and all organized religion for that matter after all these very disappointing encounters all the way through college. And your blog post made me think of how my own ideas about race were shaped in the church as well.

  74. Steven Spears
    Steven Spears August 13, 2013 at 10:34 AM |

    These stories are needed. We just do not understand or care at times. I am so convicted.

  75. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth August 15, 2013 at 7:17 PM |

    Thank you for writing this and sharing your story! I appreciate your honesty and why you shared this.

  76. Diversity in Churches | Tina's Thoughts from the OC

    [...] articles about racism + reconciliation and the church, see Christena Cleveland’s posts here and here. I’ve personally never experienced such overt racism in a church setting, but [...]

  77. bounds of their habitation: a request for guest posts | Defeating the Dragons

    [...] that brings me to this: racism is endemic to evangelicalism. It’s especially severe in Christian [...]

  78. Sara Mangan
    Sara Mangan September 2, 2013 at 9:54 AM |

    Thank you for sharing this story.

  79. 7 things @ 9 o’clock (9.2)
    7 things @ 9 o’clock (9.2) September 2, 2013 at 11:10 AM |

    [...] Don’t miss this one-two punch from Christena Cleveland: “Everything I Know About Racism I Learned in the Church” and “Everything I Know About Reconciliation I Learned in the [...]

  80. The_L
    The_L September 2, 2013 at 5:59 PM |

    That is so horrifying! I can’t help but wonder now what was going on while I was growing up in the South that I didn’t see. I’m also a Millennial, and I remember there being a few Asian- and African-American students in my class, but we were mostly white. I always made sure to treat everybody the same, because I felt that was what Jesus wanted me to do, but it was also southern Alabama.

  81. Maggie Manoti
    Maggie Manoti September 8, 2013 at 2:33 PM |

    I am a recent African immigrant struggling to think that racism does not exist in churches but have no doubt now that it does. My Pastor who is white was pleading with the congregation to vote wisely in the last Presidential elections when he said it is important to know the history of the person they are voting for. He then passionately looked up and after describing how the President had bailed motor companies, the pastor, referring to black people said “They do not even save for retirement, how can you trust one of them”

    I was in shock and abandoned the church that I had attended for nine years!

    I know God is not racist, but to go to church to learn racism is not my idea of Chriartianity.

    God help us

    Maggie

    1. Samuel Zalanga
      Samuel Zalanga September 8, 2013 at 4:46 PM |

      Not surprising. People only thought that there is no racism in the church because many of us Christians hide behind the language of the Holy Spirit and being sanctified and therefore assume that we are new creation and alright through and through. The church is part of society and churches can struggle to transcend their culture but that is only if they are willing to embrace “COSTLY GRACE” instead of “CHEAP GRACE” to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s language. Deep down, the issue is not race per se i.e., being White, Black or any color for that matter. In many churches in Africa, people are discriminated against because of their ethnicity. We should not underestimate the consequences of ethnic prejudice by saying it is not racism. Christianity does not condone that wherever it happens. So we need to go beneath the observed reality and see what is the underlying cause of all this.

      It is true that Christianity is expanding and from the 1940s to date, Christians in America has made great inroads into the culture in ways that suggests you cannot take Christians for granted such as what happened after the Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee. But would anyone say that in the past fifty years as American Christianity has penetrated the culture, Christians have grown more to embrace the Christian life of Costly Grace?

      Some churches are more willing to change because of market pressure than because of the true word of God.If it becomes worthwhile to change because of market pressure, they will go and search anywhere in the Bible and the Holy Spirit will lead them to get a verse that supports why they have to change at that historical moment. And when they do that, you wonder as a Christian why the Holy Spirit has not led them long ago to do the right thing.

      Christianity has the capacity to transform human beings and the world, but it is not going to happen cheaply. All of us will have to be prepared to pay the price. But this is a culture of “Walmartization of everything.” Remember the book titled “The Juvenilization of American Christianity.” The book’s main argument is like saying in order to make Christianity attractive, we made it to be fun, and in the process, we adopted a walmart mentality i.e., give great value to people at cheap price. How about that? Is it not quintessentially American to do that in our competitive market economy? The principles of market economy penetrate the culture, church and human consciousness of Christians with evangelical zeal. How can one go against that if their goal is to assimilate into mainstream American culture? A bargain Christianity is good business but it may not be the best that Christianity can offer the world and humankind. It is hard to understand and follow Christ without coming to terms with suffering.

      1. Maggie Manoti
        Maggie Manoti September 8, 2013 at 10:08 PM |

        I am overwhelmed and very grateful for your comment Samuel. I will look out for the books that you mentioned. I have a lot to learn but I will not let any church draw me away from the peace and grace that I have known for years.

        Maggie

  82. Chris
    Chris September 14, 2013 at 5:55 PM |

    Thanks for your courage and insight. Personal as a missionary from Nigeria to England, I have received first hand subtle racism mostly from the Church ( Evangelical) that I thought as I was called will receive warm welcome and there will be collaboration as we seek The Lord to reach the nation for Christ. I now resolving it in mind in prayers that God will give me his grace to fulfil His work in my hand. I take it to be part of my cross and things I have to learn how to live with. The issue of racism is a long-history global problem rooted deeply by fall of man. It is not only majority white against the minority black/Asian. I have come across some Black displaying this terrible sin of insulting ‘image of God’ ( racism).
    I trust God to help you as you seek to encourage unit in the Church.
    Blessings,
    Chris

  83. Tanya
    Tanya September 14, 2013 at 8:47 PM |

    Thanks for your post.I can relate to much of what you’ve said in your post.As, a child growing up I was taught to accept everyone for who they were.I didn’t knowing experience racism, until I was an adult.At which time I was shocked,because my thinking was we had come along way since MLK.This couldn’t have been happening, but unfortunately it did.I was able to seek spiritual counsel which in term helped me to realized that ones actions towards me because of ones presummed beliefs wasn’t about me at all.The experience however distasteful was an opportunity for my growth.I was able to process my situation, accept it, and am now working on moving forward.Its unfortunate, but at some point in life we all will come across that one individual who preferred living in another timeframe.What Ive learned through it all is, no matter one can not let others dictate their behavior.

    We’ve come along way but still have a ways to go….that’s the REALITY of it.

  84. Chris Enwerem
    Chris Enwerem September 15, 2013 at 3:34 AM |

    Thanks for your courage and insight. Personal as a missionary from Nigeria to England, I have received first hand subtle racism mostly from the Church ( Evangelical) that I thought as I was called I will receive warm welcome and there will be collaboration as we seek The Lord to reach the nation for Christ. I now resolving it in mind in prayers that God will give me his grace to fulfil His work in my hand. I take it to be part of my cross and things I have to learn how to live with. The issue of racism is a long-history global problem rooted deeply by fall of man. It is not only majority white against the minority black/Asian. I have come across some Black displaying this terrible sin of insulting ‘image of God’ ( racism). However, it is important to know it is a single story of any given community.
    I trust God to help you as you seek to encourage unit in the Church.
    Blessings,
    Chris

  85. irresistibly graced
    irresistibly graced September 16, 2013 at 10:18 AM |

    […] My initial reaction to seeing all this wasn’t anger, but sadness. When I began perusing through the Twitter profiles of some of the people who expressed their bigoted remarks, I couldn’t help but notice how normal they seemed. They looked like many of the people I went to school with, that I work with, that I’m neighbors with. Some of them even touted Bible verses or “Christian” labels. I don’t think most white Americans are racist, my experience has shown me otherwise, but I was reminded that bigotry and wickedness still remain in the land of the free and home of the brave. I was reminded that racism is common even among minority cultures like my own, where we would freeze and stiffen whenever a black person walked into our South Indian church. It’s a tragedy and distortion of the gospel of Jesus Christ when racism exists in the church. […]

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