My Experience with Race in The Church

**Written in 2015/Published in 2017**

I sat in the library with one of the most kind hearted ministers I’ve ever met and he recieved an email about a ministry position. He opened the email and clicked the link to the church to see that it was a Gospel, predominately Black, congregation. He took one look at the webpage and said “I think I’m pretty much out of the picture.” Why you ask? He’s a 24 year old white male.

My heart sunk for a second. Not because I was offended or embarrassed, but because I know ALL TOO well that same feeling.

Looking for jobs at churches has a workflow similar to this:

  1. Click the Job Description.
  2. Look up the Church’s webpage.
  3. Are their any signs of a heterogeneous culture or is it homogenous?
    1. Heterogenous culture
      1. Check the images. (Church Photos)
        1. Does everyone look the same?
          1. Yes.
            1. If you match, Apply.
            2. If you do not match, it’s likely that you will not be hired. Exit the page and move on.
    2. Homogenous culture?
      1. Do You fit?
        1. Yes, apply.
        2. No, Move on.

I acknowledge immediately that both my friend and I are guilty of assuming. The assumption is that churches that are racially homogenous do not want diversity. If they wanted it, it would exist. (Read a fellow blogger talk about this here) What I’ve learned is that for some reason, we don’t like to enter into racial relations voluntarily.

My Story

As I’ve stated before, I am a Reformed Episcopalian from the Southeast Diocese. My church at large is predominately white at large, but my diocese is predominantly African American. My home church, Mt. Carmel R.E Church was founded in 1880, and many of our congregations were early places of worship for African Americans of the Charleston area of South Carolina right after the Civil War. Our diocese was the “mission diocese” of the Reformed Episcopal church for some time and I’ve recently learned that my family, both maternal and paternal, of four generations were Reformed Episcopalians.

While in Divinity School, I first worked at a local church that was about 65% white, 25% black and about 10% Hispanic. Here I experienced my first taste of ministry and it was AWESOME. The church was also a school and I worked with the youth and really got to develop cool relationships with the students and staff. I was aware of race at this church but since I was constantly in relationship with multiple races, I felt comfortable.  This was a God-send as I’d just had an awful experience with a church who “wasn’t ready for a black minister.”

My second year came about and I had to have an internship. I’d planned to continue working with the church I was at as there was so much room to grow and I loved being apart of the community. My voice was valued, I was being paid to be there, and I could speak into the lives of students unencumbered by political correctness.

As a Reformed Episcopalian in communion with the Anglican Church of North America, I saw one day online that there was an affiliated church in Winston Salem. I emailed the priest and he asked me if I would like to have lunch with him to which I agreed. (Free Lunch as a Graduate Student equals an AUTOMATIC Yes!) We met and talked and I told him about my plans for the internship to which he asked a question that dramatically altered my next year, “Well have you asked your Bishop?” It NEVER even crossed my mind. A phone call to my Bishop ended with the phrase, “If there is an Anglican Church in your area, then that’s where you should be.”

As you can imagine, I wasn’t happy about this as I was happy at the church I was at. They were good people who believed in Jesus and were ready to work with “a black minister.” Attending this new Anglican Church meant I had to open the still very sore wound of the previous year and go to a church where I would daily question the validity of a call and my self worth. You see my first experience with ministry hurt me badly and deeply. I’m a visual person and I associate images with meanings and for me that same pain and hurt that I was trying to deal with, looked just like the congregants of this new church. I believe many people experience this…black, white, methodist, anglican, jew, gentile….we are hurt by an experience and find it extremely difficult to re-enter the space that hurt us.

So what happened? Well when you’re under a Bishop, you go where they send you. So I went. I remember two things vividly, my first staff meeting and the first question I privately asked the priest. The question was, how will your congregation receive a black male? His response was “Our Bishops are Black! We should receive you just fine! :)” I remember reflecting on this after two weeks thinking “Your Bishop’s are African. They are not African-American. Our experiences are different and the evangelical church has long been critiqued for being supporters of Africans and not African Americans. We’ll see which is true.”

I started at this church and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve always been a racial minority in spaces, but never to this extent. We came from different cultures and enjoyed different things and even ate different types of food. Things that were fun and awesome to the staff was just weird to me. Aspects of the worship was equally different. As an example, I grew up worshiping like this. (Click Here) or (Here) At this church, this is how we worshiped. (Click Here) As you can imagine, this was HARD. For so long I couldn’t feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. I didn’t want to make friends as they looked just like the people who’d hurt me, and I really didn’t have it in me to be hurt again. The only thing that kept me was my weekly meetings with the priest that my internship afforded me. Weekly I would leave his office feeling light. Feeling like God was with me and with the priest and Christ was saying “Just hold on a little while longer.”

Day by Day things started to change….

One Sunday, I felt it. I felt the Holy Spirit and I found myself WORSHIPPING to Hillsong!

I couldn’t believe it. I really never would’ve thought I’d meet God at the church not because he wasn’t present, but because different cultures don’t worship the same and the language God was speaking here, I didn’t speak. I couldn’t believe it when God showed up. Yes, the preaching was always awesome, but HILLSONG!? WHAT!?!

Five years ago, you could’ve told me that I would be on staff at a church that was predominately white and I would’ve responded, “Cool.” Two years ago, I would’ve cursed you and said “I will never step foot into a church like that ever again.” The difference? Experience and pain.

I really think that’s why Sunday is the most segregated day of the week. Our experiences, our fear, and our comfort, make us choose people who look just like us. That’s not what the Kingdom of God will be like.

This is not a post encouraging Black people to go to white churches or white people to join black churches, rather it a call to ALL PEOPLE to proactively work to integrate your spaces. PLEASE stop expecting people to come to you. Go to them! Realize people have been hurt by the church, some abandoned. Realize some churches stand for hate and not love but and it’s our responsibility to show them the love of God, by asking to enter their space and commune. It’s our responsibility to ensure our spaces are heterogeneous! You break beliefs and biases through communion and contact.

Every week I kept my guard up. I didn’t want to make relationships because I was scared. I didn’t want to share my experience because I thought it wouldn’t be welcomed, but I learned something by being at this church: Those who sincerely Love God will Love the Spirit of God within you, regardless of how you look. You will disagree, because humans disagree, but if you close your eyes in prayer and ask God to mend your differences with the blood of the cross, all will be fine. When God is our guide, all is well. 

I can worship with John P. Kee or Hillsong and feel the presence of God. God forced me into this space, kicking and screaming, but I learned that God’s people who truly seek his face can share Love that is unmatched.

It’s uncomfortable, but growth always is.

My Challenge to ALL ministers of every race and background, is to step across the line into spaces that are not like your own. You are not disqualified because of your color and yes it may be uncomfortable to worship in spaces not like your own, but frankly, suck it up and go. Churches hire a staff member who isn’t your race. If your space or church is homogenous, that’s not the Kingdom of God.

To those who say, it’s not about race, please know that many have experiences that are directly influenced by race so for us, it is. Love us first, by being in communion. Hear us out and our experience, and then check your statement to see if it’s still true.

To others hurting: Communion freed me from the beliefs that real experiences gave me. If i’d left it at one experience, I would’ve stayed hurt. Forgiveness is another blog post, but know the pain you feel inside came from real experiences with people who were afraid. They may truly love God but sometimes as a creation we do things that aren’t Godly. Sometimes our flesh leads our actions. Let God heal you. Let that person that reminds you of the pain you felt back into your life and let the blood of the cross, shed for you both, heal your blistered wounds. I know you can do it, because I’m doing it too. 🙂

This is what the kingdom of heaven will sound like.  🙂 Until we meet again!

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