Psychological homelessness in your church

Many people of color who attend predominantly white churches and Christian colleges/seminaries talk about feeling explicitly welcomed by the majority group but implicitly excluded.  On the surface (and for the most part), members of the well-intentioned white majority are really, really nice to them. People of color are greeted warmly in the hallways, on the bike path, and in the pews.  They are explicitly told that they are welcome at the church or school.  They are even invited into the homes of colleagues, classmates and fellow church members.  However, despite these welcoming individual actions, people of color often report that their experience at these Christian organizations is marked by feelings of loneliness, marginalization, exclusion and misunderstanding. This response both befuddles and discourages the well-intentioned white people and leads people of color to experience a seemingly-unshakeable feeling of what theologian Miroslav Volf calls “psychological homelessness.”[i] They feel out of place, on the edge of the circle, disconnected from the life-giving heartbeat of the community. Unfortunately, the well-intentioned efforts of the majority group are not working.

When talking about diversity and reconciliation in the church, American Christians (who tend to be highly individualistic[ii]) often focus on the explicit actions that individuals can take to make different others feel welcome.  However, a focus on explicit, individual actions can easily lead people in the majority group to ignore the implicit, collective actions that communicate to people of color that they are not at all welcome.  Even though these actions often go unnoticed by the majority group, they sound loud and clear in people of color’s ears, like a noisy alarm that you can’t turn off.

Nancy Schlossburg introduced the concepts of mattering and marginality to talk about the subtle but powerful ways in which a group of people can include or exclude different others.  Mattering and marginality exist on opposite ends of a continuum, such that the more an individual feels like she matters, the less she feels marginalized and vice versa.

Individuals tend to feel like they matter when their experience in an organization is marked the presence of all of the factors listed below.

Identification Feeling that other people will be proud of your accomplishments or saddened by your failures
Attention Feeling that you command the sincere attention or interest of people in the group
Importance Believing that another person cares about what you want, think, and do, or is concerned about your fate
Appreciation A feeling of being highly regarded and acknowledged by others
Dependence Feeling integrated in the community such that your behaviors/actions are based on how others depend on you

Individuals tend to feel like marginalized when their experience in an organization is marked by the absence of one or more of the factors listed above.  For example, the vast majority of the students in my introductory psychology course are 18-year old first year students.  In order to teach well to this specific group, I use lots of examples that resonate in their teenage world.  However, two non-traditional students, both of whom were over 50 years old, recently joined the class.  I was ecstatic to have more age diversity in the class and I explicitly welcomed the two older students.  But I continued to use only teenage examples in class and pose class discussion questions that related more to a teenage world. Of course, my 18-year old students were perfectly content; the class catered to their concerns, needs and experiences.  But by the third week of the semester, each of the older students approached me separately and told me that they felt “out of place” and disconnected in class.  Uh-oh!  I had meant well and had explicitly told the older students that they were welcomed and important members of the class.  And then I implicitly showed them that they weren’t.   Actions speak louder than words.

Do different others in your church feel like they matter?  How do you know?

(For a helpful exercise on mattering and marginality, click here.)[iii]

(For an example on how multicultural worship can help people feel like they matter, read this recent Christianity Today article.)

[i] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace

[ii] See Soong-chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity for a more in-depth treatment of this idea.

[iii] This exercise was created to help majority members think about how they make non-majority members feel. However, it can easily be adapted for a group that includes both majority and non-majority members or only includes non-majority members.