The Opportunity for Racial Reconciliation in the Local Church

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Photo credit: Jason Isbell

An Interview with Leaders of the Manhattan Church of Christ

The Manhattan Church of Christ has been a racially integrated congregation for a long time. The church is made of people who want to be a part of a diverse congregation racially as well as culturally, economically, politically, and in many other ways. As tensions surrounding racial issues were rising in popular culture, we wanted to be intentional about making the church a safer space for people to express and explore their experiences and feelings surrounding the topic of race. In an effort to do this we began a series of Sunday morning classes entitled Responding to Racial Discrimination with Faith, Justice and Love . I asked two of the people who led the class, Carl Garrison and Shannon Harris, to share their experiences.

How would you describe the focus of the class?

Shannon: The class was focused on exploring, addressing and dealing with race and racial justice issues in a Godly, Biblical, Christ-like manner in our personal lives and our relationships inside and outside of the church. We also explored ways that we can deal with them as a church body.

Carl: The focus of the class, as far as I was concerned, was to create a safe space in a community of faith to interact with and grow from reflections on race and racial injustice. We were also attempting to find appropriate language as a social tool to better reflect on and extend conversations about racial injustice.

It is important to emphasize that racial injustice impacts everyone, from all demographics, negatively – whites, blacks, latinos, etc. We are all negatively impacted by racial injustice and the challenge is for us to find unity in Christ.

What was the tone of the class?

Carl: The tone of the class was safe, open and explorative, which was intentional.

Shannon: The tone of the class was safe and open. I appreciate that honesty and open-mindedness were supported and encouraged.

What were the effects of the class from your perspective?

Carl: I experienced an expanded and renewed interest in looking at the social interactions of Jesus — searching to find principles that spoke not only to racial injustice but showing how a follower of Jesus should respond to racial injustice.

Shannon: It was encouraging and edifying to have these conversations in my church home. I was able to get to know members of the church who I didn’t know and deepen relationships with folks I already knew.

If you were advising a congregation that wanted to take steps toward providing support for racial injustice, what advice would you give?

Shannon: A good place to start would be a weekly time set aside to start the conversation as we did.

Carl: I would advise that a church be very intentional in setting a specific space, place and time for discussing and engaging the subject of racial injustice, reconciliation and healing. I would also be very specific about why such conversations are important. It is important to set a goal to engage in these discussions for at least six months. Six months (to a year) is the amount of time required to develop new habits, norms and expectations. Community building takes time and this is true especially when it comes conversations on racial injustice.

Many times conversations about race, even on the national level, are short-lived. Racial fatigue, discomfort, fragility, defensiveness, anger and guilt all contribute to the conversations ending before they do much good. When people become impassioned and emotional, the intensity of the emotions tends to scare members of the group. Thus the conversations are stopped before they have the chance to achieve any sort of social comfort level. Unfortunately, this is precisely the point at which they have the potential for significant breakthrough. This dynamic creates a sense that race is an unmentionable issue. Therefore it is very important to be intentional, consistent and to persevere through the difficult and uncomfortable feelings.

I’d also like to emphasize the importance of prayer in these reflections. I think it is so important to ask God specifically to help us to be the kind of people who respond like Jesus to issues of race and racial injustice. We prayed these specific prayers in real time, sometimes right in the middle of a class, to help us stay open to the Spirit’s leading.

What do you think the role of racial healing and reconciliation should be in the local church?

Shannon: Racial healing and reconciliation is a need like other needs; so there is a place for it. That said, the manner in which one church chooses to address it versus another may differ depending on the congregation.

Carl: I think the role of racial reconciliation and healing is central to the Gospel and not merely a positive attribute of it, thus racial reconciliation and healing should be included as normative in all aspects of a local congregation’s community life. The manner, in which this normative behavior is practiced practically, will depend on the cultural DNA of that local congregation.

Why is the church a good place for engaging in issues of race and racial injustice?

Carl: The church is not only the best place to discuss and engage in issues of race and racial injustice, it is quite frankly the ONLY place that is unequivocally designed by God to function as the incarnation of the body and function of Jesus in every way, including reconciliation and healing in regards to racial injustice. Because of that specific incarnational design, the church is the only place in the universe that has, embedded in her very essence, a narrative and ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). Thus, the church provides the only antidote available for racial injustice, offering the potential for true healing and reconciliation. Disciples are by definition learners of reconciliation, healing — being seeing salt and light to a world in need.

Shannon: Church should be the best place to discuss these issues because, as Christians, we are called to love one another, to bear with one another, and to forgive each other. Of course, we are human so the challenge to be Christ-like in these ways is still there. However, if we make a decision and a commitment to listen to one another, even when we disagree, and to be gracious with one another as needed, there is great potential for healing and reconciliation on multiple levels and in multiple areas of life.

What scriptures have shaped your thinking as youve wrestled with the subjects of racial injustice and reconciliation and healing?

Carl: This is an interesting question. My background and tendency has always been to find particular scriptures that specifically deal with controversial issues. But as I wrestled with the issues of racial injustice, reconciliation and healing, I found that far more scriptures that helped shape my thinking were texts that communicated principles consistent with the mission and character of Jesus. So I actually began to re-read texts with Jesus in mind, and in doing so, texts dealing with racial injustice, reconciliation and healing were easier to come by. After a while, everywhere I looked I was finding scriptures that dealt with reconciliation, healing, justice, empathy, and compassion in some way or another.

Some of the scriptures that have been meaningful to me are the following:

1 Corinthians 12:12-27 (One body many parts, the parts the viewed with less honor, treat with special honor)

Matthew: 5:13-16 (Being salt and light to the world)

Philippians 2:1-8 (Humility, the proper use for privilege)

Matthew 25:31-46 (“When you did to the least of these you did to me”)

John 4:1-40 (Woman at the well, Jesus spoke to her marginalized reality and from her truth empowered her mission as preacher)

Luke- 2:1-20 (The incarnation, word became flesh, breaking down every barrier between God and people, therefore  breaking down every barrier between people, racially, socio-economically, in terms of gender, etc.)

Shannon: So many. In one class we asked participants to bring scriptures that shaped their thinking on race and racial justice related issues. These are the two that I shared:

Matthew 6:33 (Bringing our consciousness and action regarding race and race-related issues under the dominion of the kingdom)

Matthew 25:14-15 (Praying about, reflecting on, how God speaks to/can use you specifically – according to your personal bandwidth, etc. regarding these issues)

Conversations about race are difficult. They are very personal and often involve a lot of pain and fear. By definition they are highly emotional. But the gospel is all about reconciliation. As Christians we have been reconciled to God and to each other through the love of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore the church is the best place for these difficult conversations to happen. If we can encourage each other to courageously listen, even when we are uncomfortable, and to courageously share, even when it is hard, our churches can become sacred spaces where people feel known and loved for who they really are. And with Gods blessing we will be able to lead our culture in the way of kindness and peace, participating together in the kingdom of God. – Amy Bost Henegar

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