Everything I Know about Reconciliation I Learned in the Church
WHEN I LEARNED THAT THE CHURCH CAN HEAL WHAT THE CHURCH HAS BROKEN
When the VBS teacher called me a nigger, she cursed my identity. Though I never explicitly referred to myself as a nigger, I internalized the teacher’s racism and developed an inferiority complex that was fueled by my subsequent experiences of racism. I'm sad to say that my race-based feelings of inferiority lived on through my childhood, adolescent and college years.
By the time I started graduate school, my identity was exiled and I felt like I belonged no where; my self-esteem was clinically low; and while I somehow remained committed to following Jesus, I didn’t believe that God’s love for the world applied to me specifically.
But God lovingly and specifically led me to a small but mighty multiethnic church -- in super-segregated Santa Barbara, of all places – led by a middle-aged black man with a striking afro and a wise, reconciling spirit.
Afro Pastor led the congregation in the practice of radical, cross-cultural solidarity by preaching it, modeling it and prioritizing it. As a result, the church excelled at honoring the image of God in diverse people. At this church, which had representatives from over ten ethnicities, everything was upside down: difference was valued, diverse perspectives were given voice, and the congregants from privileged groups in society served the congregants from oppressed groups.
Even though I was culturally different than everyone else in the church, they immediately accepted me, cherished me and invited me way in. I shared countless meals, long conversations, fiery prayer meetings, Sunday gatherings and service opportunities with my fellow congregants. And in the midst of this, God partnered with this church to call me out of my forced migration, beckon me home, and reverse the curse on my identity.
There I learned that I belonged and that my perspective was valuable.
There my identity took root in God’s love and the church’s love.
There my unique experience of blackness was affirmed.
There I learned that I am no longer called Deserted; I am Sought After.
There the chip on my shoulder softened and morphed into a fiery passion for reconciliation.
The church taught me that though racism steals, kills and destroys, the church can partner with God to restore, resurrect and heal.
WHEN I LEARNED THAT RECONCILIATION COSTS EVERYTHING[i]
In 2007, Afro Pastor led a group of us on a trip to Rwanda to continue to cultivate our church’s long-standing friendship with a multiethnic church in the capitol city of Kigali. The church stands out from the typical multiethnic church because it’s composed of both Hutus and Tutsis, two opposing tribes with a long history of strife and oppression that climaxed in the 1994 genocide in which Hutus killed over 800,000 Tutsis. The genocide was an intensely personal one; Hutus killed Tutsis who had been their neighbors, colleagues and even family members.
When I asked one Tutsi church leader how he goes to church with people who tried to kill him, he admitted that it continues to be excruciatingly difficult, saying, “I wake up each morning and choose forgiveness.”
A Hutu church leader told me that her Hutu cousin (since imprisoned for his war crimes) killed the father of one of her fellow congregants. They made this agonizing discovery in the midst of a seemingly unremarkable conversation about their childhoods. When I asked the Hutu church leader how she goes to church with people who bear the pain inflicted by her family she said, “We are one family now, so I must feel their pain as my own. I keep coming to church so I can feel their pain.”
The relationship between the Hutus and Tutsis in this church is marked by solidarity. The Hutus, the historically privileged group, are modeling Christ’s reconciling work on the cross by using their power and influence in the larger Rwandan society to advocate for and partner with Tutsis to bring healing in the wake of the genocide. They serve Tutsis by listening to their stories, sharing their burdens, and working to redistribute power to them on a societal level – even though it would be easier to retreat to their privileged spaces.
The Tutsis, the historically-oppressed group, are modeling Christ’s reconciling work on the cross by choosing forgiveness and hope as they collaborate with their Hutu friends to restore a right and equitable relationship between the two tribes. The Tutsis, like Christ, keep tenaciously pursuing cross-cultural relationships with the Hutus – even though it would be easier to retreat to their segregated spaces.
During the time I spent with our Kigali friends I witnessed the day-in-day-out, un-glamorous work of reconciliation.
The church taught me that reconciliation costs everything and changes everything. The covenant between reconciling parties should be as self-sacrificial, paradigm-shifting, life-altering and long-lasting as a marriage covenant. If it doesn’t cost us everything, it ain’t reconciliation.
The church taught me that reconciliation is not a one-time event, nor is it instantaneous. It's an enduring series of daily, countercultural decisions to choose forgiveness, repentance, incarnation, cross-cultural advocacy and power subversion over bitterness, arrogance, self-centeredness, and participation in oppressive structures.
The church taught me that reconciliation and justice must go hand-in-hand. Reconciliation went beyond the Hutus making a daily decision to forgive the Tutsis past wrongs. It also required that the Tutsis work with the Hutus to restore an equitable relationship and to bring about justice. My recent post Why Reconciliation Needs Justice discusses this idea in more detail.
By the time I reached adulthood, I believed that the problem of racism in the church was a people of color problem. If anything was going to change, it would happen solely on the backs of people of color who fought for justice, equity and peace in the church. This belief was based on my limited experience with white people in the church and the fact that the vast majority of those with whom I interacted were either active, intentional agents of racism or passive, unintentional agents of racism who contributed to the problem by not being part of the solution.
Sometimes white people listened politely to my concerns while flashing sympathetic looks my direction. But for the most part, my grievances were either ignored or trivialized. The idea of a white Christian laboring for racial justice in the church alongside people of color was foreign to me.
This idea was still foreign to me when I started working for the east coast Christian organization that I described in the 5th and final story in the Everything I Know About Racism I Learned in the Church post. But even though most of the people in that organization fell neatly into the active, intentional agents of racism group or passive, unintentional agents of racism group, there were a handful of people who used their clout to advocate for the ethnic minorities who tended to have less power.
One such person was my immediate supervisor, a white woman who had worked for the organization for a long time and enjoyed a good amount of influence. When I first spoke with her about the structural racism within the organization, I expected her to give me the typical puppy-dog sympathetic eyes that other white Christians had given me over the years and then go on about her business as usual.
But she surprised me (and taught me something about reconciliation) when she responded with true compassion, which social psychologists define as empathy + approach (e.g., feelings of solidarity and action). Beyond listening to me, she advocated for me. She used her power and influence to organize an empowerment group for the people of color and even offered to host the meetings in her home. She raised awareness among other senior leaders in the organizations and challenged the status quo, at great risk to herself.
She even wept with me when I returned from my meeting with the president of our organization devastated and broken. And in that moment, I knew that the problem of racism in the church was not mine to bear alone; it was her problem too. Further, even though the racist structure of this Christ-representing organization had just come crashing down on me, I had a supernatural sense that I was not alone. Jesus was present in her fierce hug and in her heaving sobs that kept rhythm with my own. Immanuel.
She helped me see that advocacy is central to the process of reconciliation. If we don't bear the burdens of our disempowered friends, we will never achieve reconciliation. Since then, I've been on a quest to use my power to advocate for others and to find other advocates of all colors who are going out of their way to collaborate with people across ethnic, gender and class lines to create a better church and community for all. These are the people who understand the heart of our Great Reconciler and proclaim it to the church.
The church taught me that everyone should be a reconciler.
The church taught me that true compassion = empathy + approach
The church taught me that racism in the church isn’t a people of color problem – it’s a people problem. I've said it before and I'll say it again: diverse groups are stronger and more effective groups. We must all work together in order to fully address this problem.
All hands on deck, y'all!
[i] For a much more thorough (and frankly, breath-taking) discussion of the costs of true reconciliation, I recommend Allan Boesak and Curtiss DeYoung’s Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism.