Lonely and displaced. That’s how I sometimes feel as an African American leader who is called to serve within the white evangelical culture. I know the feeling all too well when dialoging with seminarians, participating in Christian conferences, writing for Christian publications, or even attending predominately white and multicultural churches. Too often, this experience reveals the laments of my sisters and brothers of color who see the physical banners which read, “Come as you are…” and yet understand that the invisible subheading demands, “and be like us.” I want to come as I am, period. As minority leaders of faith, we don’t want to assimilate into the white culture. We simply want to be as God created us in His image with value, dignity, purpose, and not have our racial or ethnic differences viewed as a threat to the “normal way” of doing things.
The racial and ethnic demographics in America are changing, and if the North American church is going to thrive in its relevance and evangelical pursuits, we need compassionate, educated, informed, and articulate leaders who understand the issues of race. These leaders should have a theological framework for racial reconciliation, hold the church accountable to the biblical commitment of unity (not simply tolerance) within the church, and raise up leaders of justice in our communities.
With the many strides concerning race relations in our country, some continue to ask, “Why talk about race?” Most people of color do not have the luxury of asking that question, because the experiences of our skin color—historically or otherwise—is not something that we can shake. My blackness is not something that I can simply “get over;” it is every bit a part of my being, it is how God has chosen me to present myself to the world every day, and that is good.
Race, racism, and racial conflict are all sources of tension. However, when white Christians seek to escape this tension, the subtle avoidance reveals a false assumption that race is bad and it is not. Our racial and ethnic differences are just as sacred as our gender, and it is at least one of the ways that we reflect the image of the Triune God—who by his very nature is three in one—and therefore, values unity in diversity. From the beginning of time, God created two human beings in his own image. Like the monotheistic God of creation who reveals himself throughout scripture as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Adam and Eve were different—created as male and female—and they were one. Through his own identity and the sacred union of Adam and Eve, God lets us know that unity does not equal sameness. True unity reflects the diversity of God who lives in harmony with himself, and he calls his image bearers to this holy living.
Some like Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile would argue that we do not see a representation of race in Scripture, but concludes that the idea of race is a human-made phenomenon. We know that from two people, God populated the entire earth. What we also see throughout scripture is God’s heart for panta ta ethne, people groups, or the nations of the world. This is a blessing that was rooted in his covenant with Abraham and fulfilled in the blood sacrifice of Christ. He has purchased “men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rom. 5:9b NIV).” Therefore, this idea of ethne includes the many beautiful ways that we show affinity within a community of people. This can include culture, language, traditions and heritage, food preferences, music, fashion, and so on.
Therefore, the missional responsibility of the church is to reflect the beauty of this diversity by ensuring a cross-cultural communication of the gospel. It is not good to say, “Come as you are” and imply, “be like us.” It is not good to have token minorities represented in the leadership of our nonprofits, church staffs, conferences, seminaries, and publications. Diversity within the body of Christ cannot be an afterthought. True unity is reflected when our ethnic differences are recognized, not as points of division, but as a deep and holy need to see our God more clearly and to love each other more purely.
As an African American leader in the evangelical church, I have a commitment to humility, education, bridge building, and peacemaking. I also have a commitment to love. These commitments have led to the theological conviction that when there is no value for an ethne of people, then our ideas of evangelism, missions, and how we “do” church, only serve as a means of self-preservation and destroying the people groups and cultures that are not dominate. I understand that I will never feel at home in this fallen world; we are all indeed displaced in this earth.
However, I would love to see more glimmers of hope for what we, as Christians, have to look forward to, through the fellowship and communion of the Church. May it be so, Lord Jesus.