September 23, 2020 / Donnell Wyche

In Search of White Partners: What BIPOC Need

I am one of 17 Black senior pastors in a mostly white denomination. I'm still here. But I'm not sure for how much longer.

I am one of 17 Black senior pastors in a mostly white denomination. I'm still here. But I'm not sure for how much longer.

I am one of 17 Black senior pastors in a mostly white denomination. I’m still here. But I’m not sure for how much longer.

In their scholarly article “Estranged Pioneers: The Case of African American and Asian American Multiracial Church Pastors,” Drs. Korie Edwards and Rebecca Kim accurately describe my experience: alienation. Alienation is exactly what I have felt as a vanguard leading a growing multiethnic church. Here are just a few examples why:

  • When the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney and eight congregants were murdered during a Bible study in their church building in 2015, our denomination was quiet. I drafted a letter to one of our denominational leaders about this silence:

The silence from the movement during the Charleston massacre was gut-wrenching. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so alone. I had already been grieving the treatment of African American men in our country, but this slaughter rocked my otherwise stable foundation. Rev. Clementa Pinckney was 41, I was turning 40. He was married with two daughters, I’m married with two daughters and a son. He was murdered in his church, I’m almost always at the church. It hit home in a way that was previously unimaginable.

Ultimately, I decided not to send it. If our leaders did not care to say something on their own, why would my letter compel them to do anything differently? I did not need my white colleagues to do much here other than to be a friend sitting with me and others pastors of color in the pain of a world that isn’t what God intends it to be. This demonstration of friendship would have been a healing balm to the racial wounds I experience as we journey together with Christ on the assignment he has given us.

  • When a colleague in my region told a racist joke about donning a white robe and lighting a cross on fire to attract people to his church, I was told (when I emailed him about the inappropriate nature of this joke) that it was supposed to be a “ridiculous, off-the-wall comment.” I no longer attend our regional meetings because I do not feel safe being the only Black senior leader there.
  • When our multiethnic church redesigned our website, a long-time (founding) white congregant emailed me complaining there were not enough young white families on the site.

When I share these stories, reasonable people ask, “Why do you stay?” I often reply, “Where else would I go?” I’m in a multiracial marriage and my kids are multiethnic. We want to worship God in a diverse, multiethnic, multigenerational community. When I arrived at our church in 1997, we were about 98 percent white; today, people of color comprise 46 percent of our congregation, and we are one of the most diverse churches in Ann Arbor. Our kids are at home in our Sunday School classes with others who look like them, who are growing up in families like theirs. My daughters see women and women of color who preach and co-lead the church with their dad. My son sees himself reflected every week in the multiethnic face of the church.

In principle, I should belong. But I do not.

Understanding Whiteness

The telos of the Gospel is the reconstitution of God’s multiethnic worldwide family. (Eph 3:1–6) But the demonic imagination of whiteness—by which I mean a system that forces people to disorient themselves, breaking their connection to place, to land, to language, to the work they were called to by God all in the name of a construct of superiority and equality with Christ that is denied to the rest of humanity—and the white supremacy and racism that whiteness produces are in the way.1

Let me be clear about this: white people and whiteness are not one in the same. When I speak of the demonic imagination of whiteness, I am describing an anti-life, anti-human, anti-God system that is rooted in cultural genocide, enslavement, conquest, plunder, and oppressive power. It is a system that invites people to give up their ethne in order to participate in this evil system in order to see themselves as co-equal with Christ at the top of the hierarchy while the remainder of humanity is at the bottom. This demonic view of the world created the racial construct of whiteness, which has resulted in devastating effects for all involved. Despite all we are seeing today in with our own eyes with the perpetual flow of racial injustice in our nation, the church refuses to confront its partnership with this death-dealing system.

Despite all we are seeing today in with our own eyes with the perpetual flow of racial injustice in our nation, the church refuses to confront its partnership with this death-dealing system. Share on X

Vanguards such as myself and others hang in the balance. In order to survive, I have had to partner with other BIPOC2 vanguards inside and outside of my denomination who are leading multiethnic churches. We attend conferences together. We have created private text groups where we share our experiences with our congregants and denominations. We get together just to hang out and remind ourselves that God has called us to this work. We are organizing groups of BIPOC for action after the protests3 so that together we can see the world that the Gospel imagines.4 It should not have to be this hard to survive in ministry, but it is.

During this time of racial upheaval, it is so discouraging to me that white pastor after white pastor seems to be choosing to partner with whiteness5, with racism, and with white supremacy. As James Baldwin says, “Whites became white by slaughtering the cattle, poisoning the wells, torching the houses, [destroying the businesses], massacring Native Americans, raping black women, [and creating that “Strange Fruit” by lynching black men, women, and children].” The harm was not limited to participation in the dehumanizations of others, it has also affected the well-being and prospects of those who became white. Look at the rates of poverty among whites in the South, look at the effects of the opioid crisis across the United States, look at the rates of suicide among white men. There are lots of whites who are dying of whiteness. Participation in whiteness has to be taught, internalized, and passed on. But there is hope: because whiteness was created, it can also be divested from and dismantled.

Dismantling Whiteness

Christ calls us to repentance. We need to repent of our partnership and participation in whiteness. We need to repent of allowing whiteness to exist, to flourish, to victimize, to terrorize, and to oppress. We need to repent of the ways we have remained silent as whiteness has destroyed God’s creation, God’s image-bearers, and God’s vision for humanity. We must turn our backs in condemnation of whiteness and all of the benefits it provides. We still have an opportunity to repent before the Lord sends a prophet like Nathan to tell us our story of brokenness, our wickedness, and our participation in the demonic imagination of whiteness. To resist the move of the spirit is to test God. We must repent as David did in Psalm 51 and 32.

“Estranged pioneers” such as myself are used to doing the work of dismantling systems of oppression and divesting from whiteness alone, but many of us do not want to. We want to partner. However, our partnership must not require us to sacrifice our racial and ethnic identities in the process. Here is what we need from our white brothers and sisters in Christ:

'Estranged pioneers'...want to partner. However, our partnership should not require us to sacrifice our racial and ethnic identities in the process. Share on X
  • We need white partners who are convinced that racism is alive and well.
  • We need white partners who are co-invested in our liberation and freedom.
  • We need white partners who are able to go ahead of us in affirming our shared humanity.
  • We need white partners who are self-aware and committed to helping others become self-aware.
  • We need white partners who are repentant and have already lamented and are ready to get to work.
  • We need white partners who are able to name the sin of whiteness and its harm to us and to God’s church.
  • We need white partners who will go to work dismantling the systems of oppression both inside and outside of the church.
  • We need white partners who are able to divest from whiteness and the benefits whiteness affords them.
  • We need white partners who are educating their congregations about the racialized past and present of the United States and the harm that this racialization causes all of us.
  • We need white partners who know that the United States is not the Kingdom of God, and that nationalism, authoritarianism, tribalism, and consumerism are antithetical to the Kingdom of God.
  • We need white partners who see the same urgency we do.

It’s been said the most difficult thing to articulate to another person is “I need you.” Asking for mutuality when it should come naturally to one another in the family of God is an act of humility, but one that demands a response. If you choose to remain silent, then those of us who continue to suffer in isolation will see our deepest fears realized—that no matter what we say or do, we will remain alone.

White pastors who are seeking to engage in issues such as those raised in this article might want to consider the forthcoming learning community that author and pastor David Swanson is leading on Rediscipling the White Church, starting on October 8. To register or for more information, click here.

[1] No one is born white because whiteness cannot be located in biology. “When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there; nor, according to the colonial records, would there be for another sixty years.” (Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race, v. ; vols., v. ; London ; New York : Verso, 1994). That’s because white people and what would later develop as whiteness would not come into existence until the Virginians legislated whiteness into existence around 1680. “Whiteness,” in this case, is a social-racial construct developed primarily in the Americas by colonization. No one was considered “white” or “black” until colonization needed ways of differentiating who had access to human dignity, various rights, privileges, social, and legal standings.

[2] BIPOC means Black, Indigenous, People of Color. It is becoming the preferred term instead of merely “people of color.”

[3] Since the death-dealing system of whiteness touches everything in the United States, BIPOC, are constantly fighting for the dignity of our humanity. We are fighting for equality in housing, education, finance, government, religion, media, business, and in the legal system.

“White supremacy is a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.” (Frances Lee Ansley, “Stirring the Ashes: Race Class and the Future of Civil Rights Scholarship” 74 (n.d.): 86.)

[4] Claudia Rankine’s New York Times Magazine article “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning” explores the idea that there is no peace for people of color, especially African Americans and their children. This lack of peace touches all African Americans regardless of educational, economic, or social status. Rankine states that there is significant pain because as African Americans, you realize that any moment “you can be killed for simply being black: [meaning] no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black.”

[5] In order for whiteness to exist, those who participate in whiteness had to give up their ethnic identity, their link to their ancestral land, language, customs, and their traditions. They also had to do damage to themselves and others by participating in the violence and dehumanization of colonization as they stole land, committed acts of genocide, enslaved fellow image bearers, plundered resources, and used oppressive power to subjugate and control. Nelson Mandela says that “a man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness.” Jürgen Moltmann tells us that oppression is “always a crime against life.” Human life is supposed to be lived in interdependence and community, full of joy.