Ministering to Multiracial Families Starts with Noticing

The conversation often starts with noticing.

Noticing, after all, is natural for humans. As pastors and ministry leaders, we notice when giving is down and finances are dipping into the red, just as we notice when our own spiritual life feels more than a little parched. We notice when sermon illustrations work and we notice when they flop; we notice how communities of faith become as God intended when tragedy strikes, when sadness hits, when life happens.

But for some of us, the opposite is also true: we don’t notice when the paintings of Jesus that hang in the hallways and the sermon illustrations that flash up on our screens look more like us than like many of our brothers and sisters around the world.

We don’t notice because we haven’t been trained to notice, nor have we ever been invited to really, actually notice. And if we’re honest, we don’t notice because it’s been our privilege not to have to notice in the first place. If we’re honest, we don’t notice because it’s been our privilege not to have to notice in the first place. Click To Tweet

For myself, sometimes I cannot help but notice. When I visit a faith community for the first time, I notice when the only images I see look like more like me, a white woman, than like my black husband or our mixed-race sons. And when I think about how the church might better minister to multiracial families as a whole, I tend to think can begin with this small but important shift: a posture of noticing.

After all, this conversation matters not just for my children but for all of our children. And if we are going to take seriously the invitation to do the ultimate work of healing, justice, and reconciliation in the church and beyond, then as leaders we have to heed the invitation not only to start noticing, but to  actually do something about the things we’ve noticed.

So, how might we better minister to multiracial families in the church? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Notice your halls

As a parent, when I walk through the halls of a church building, I love seeing pictures and photographs of children participating in games and spiritual exercises, but if I only see photographs of children who look more like me than like my bi-racial sons, an unknowing invitation of unwelcome is communicated. Likewise, if the halls are lined with pictures of a Jesus who looks more Western European than “a Mediterranean man weathered by the elements of the sun and sea,”1 this communicates a singular message of “what God must have looked like and also of what God’s followers were supposed to look like,” not only to multiracial families but to white families as well.1

But the act of noticing extends beyond the point of hallway pictures. Helping multiracial families feel welcome also starts with making sure there are multiethnic faces to welcome people to church. Ensuring that multiethnic representation is reflected in public roles, such as ushering, serving communion, and being a part of the worship team, makes families like mine feel valued because we clearly see the image of God reflected on each and every face.

  1. Notice your quotations

If you’re a pastor, chances are that you’re also an avid reader. And whether you find yourself teaching thousands from the main stage or engaging in conversation with a semi-circle of six-year-old children, the information you receive directly informs your thinking as well as the thoughts and beliefs of those you’re leading. So, take note of who you quote from your unique position of power and influence. Do all the quotes that flash up on the PowerPoint or on the front page of the Tuesday morning Bible study guide come from white male theologians and pastors? What might it look for you to spend a year only studying Scripture from the point of view of women and people of color? (Need a good place to start? Start with this list from Christianity Today of ten female theologians worth getting to know). Perhaps ministering to multiracial families begins with making a change to our input, including the books we consume and the quotations we highlight.

  1. Notice your content

As an educator, much of the work that I get to do locally is around equipping parents and caregivers to talk with their kids about race. But the buck doesn’t stop at home or in our schools; instead, the invitation to continue engaging in conversations of justice, race, and privilege in our churches matters deeply. After all, this isn’t a matter of being one of those kind of “justice churches,” but this is a matter of a God who is our peace, who [for Jews and Gentiles] “might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it” (Eph 2:16). If 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning is still our most segregated hour, then we need to take seriously the invitation to engage in the conversations that matter—not just because it adversely affects multiracial families (along with every other family) when we don’t talk about it, but because justice is at the core of God’s very nature.

Years ago, when my family lived in Seattle, Washington, we attended Quest Church, a community that seeks to live into values of justice, compassion, and reconciliation, to name a few. I remember feeling seen when pastor Liz Mosbo VerHage, a white woman, reminded us that Jesus makes God accessible to God in the faith, because Jesus, “a brown-skinned boy of a teenage mom and a working-class dad” is the God of the marginalized and the oppressed. After telling the story of an Episcopal church that installed a statue of a homeless Jesus on its property, she sought to include examples of marginalization that extended beyond those who were experiencing homelessness— examples that included families like mine not feeling seen in a city with a nearly 70 percent white demographic. I remember squeezing my husband’s hand tightly, because when she said this from the pulpit, the two of us felt seen for the first time in a long time.

  1. Notice your power

Picture, just for a second, your elder board or your deacon team. Imagine the faces of those who sit beside you, occupying seats of power and influence. If everyone who’s making decisions, whether externally or internally, looks like you and thinks like you and maybe even acts like you too, then the rest of the community is going to be influenced accordingly. Creating a welcoming space for multiracial families to belong means that we have to “move beyond merely striving toward diversity and inclusion to full equity, by specifically equipping people of color to serve in positions of leadership in all of our churches.”2 As my friend Roy Garanton of Rooted Collective SF taught me, this means taking steps past efforts to occasionally fill our pulpits with a speaker who happens to be a person of color or a woman, just as it means looking beyond the goal of becoming a multiethnic congregation. Instead, it means noticing and doing something about who holds the power.

  1. Notice your posture

I often say that this is where the conversation both begins and ends. When I first began wrestling with my own racial identity, I begged God for eyes to see and ears to hear, because deep down inside, I knew that my white skin had been a barrier to truly seeing and knowing the pain of my black and brown brothers and sisters. Likewise, for those of us who identify as white, ours will always be a learned instead of a lived experience; so, it is imperative that we posture ourselves to listen, learn, and listen some more. As a parent of two elementary-aged boys, my greatest hope when my children walk through the doors of a church building is that they will be seen in the fullness of who they are, which includes their identity both as children of God and as mixed-race young men.

So, when a family like mine visits your church, not only do we want to be seen, but we want you to be open to the totality of who we are. Perhaps this means you’ll learn from us, just as we learn from you. Perhaps this means you’ll open your eyes to struggles you didn’t realize existed before you met us. Perhaps this means you’ll get proximate, as Bryan Stevenson instructs, not only to our pain but to systems of pain disproportionately affecting people of color in our country. For those of us who identify as white, ours will always be a learned instead of a lived experience; in that way, it is imperative that we posture ourselves to listen, learn, and listen some more. Click To Tweet

My invitation is simple: begin to notice, not only families that look like mine, but every individual and every family represented on this good Earth. But I also have to warn you: once you start to notice, you can’t not take notice anymore. Change will begin to happen, perhaps slowly and perhaps at unseen levels in your own heart and mind, but change is inevitable.

So for me, I grab tight to the hope that healing, justice, and reconciliation will ultimately happen in our churches.

To this God I cling, into this hope I lean.

1From The Color of Life, Cara Meredith
2Cara Meredith: The Color of Life,” Outreach Magazine, January 17, 2019

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