Communication problems between black and white believers

The enthusiastic crowd of three thousand Sunday-school leaders was seated. Platform personalities and visiting dignitaries had arranged themselves. The informal service in the Convention Center proceeded step by step. Still the well advertised and much anticipated Negro choir did not arrive. Finally the speaker was introduced. The choir never did appear.

A church leader wrote to two leading black pastors to invite them to attend a major white evangelical convention, hoping they would influence others to attend. Neither of the two responded.

A denominational official contacted a well educated pastor in the black community about a proposed citywide Negro-white pulpit exchange. The black pastor never answered.

What causes the communication lines between blacks and whites to collapse, or perhaps never be established? Could an entire choir forget to show up? Was there confusion on dates? Did the bus break down? Was there an accident? Did anyone from the white organization ever inquire? (No, out of fear of embarrassing the blacks, and lending support to a stereotype in their minds and those of others.) As for the evangelical convention, were the two leading Negro clergymen uninterested? fearful? hostile? just plain discourteous? And why did the pulpit exchange never develop?

Three words seem to describe the white believer’s attitude toward his black counterpart: isolation, ignorance, indifference. Isolation is the state in which the white finds himself (or is it the black who is isolated?); ignorance and indifference are the brick and mortar that build those walls of isolation.

Nearly one hundred white pastors and laymen representing several denominations were asked to select one of several suggested answers to this question: What is the basic reason for white non-involvement, personally or financially, in an inner-city ministry of evangelism? The highest response of 72 per cent said “indifference” while 68 per cent checked “ignorance.”

The primary question then seems to be: How can we overcome the ignorance and indifference that cause the isolation of the white and therefore hinder black-white communication? First of all, let us take a look at what the white tends to expect of the black.

Pent-up frustration was rising like steam around a man as he talked of the communication problem: “If I write a letter to my black Christian brother, I should expect an answer, shouldn’t I? If I wrote to a black businessman I’ll bet he would answer!” Some black social patterns are unfathomable and irritating to the white. Most difficult are the times when he makes his tentative reach toward the black believer and gets no response. “Why don’t they return my phone calls? Why can’t I ever get hold of them? Why are they always late? Why don’t they keep appointments?” At the heart of the problem for the white is the black’s casual attitude toward time and his uncertain response to any white overture.

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The “hang loose” attitude toward time is evident in most black church services. One time I had been slowed on the freeway and arrived just two minutes before the eleven o’clock worship hour. Breathlessly I rushed into the building. When I reached the pastor’s study he seated me and leisurely proceeded with other matters. I could hear the choir enter the sanctuary. As the minutes ticked by, the sound of singing and praying filtered through the walls. In my anxiety I asked: “Are they beginning out there?” “Oh yes,” was the reply; “our deacons are leading the devotions.” After both casual and serious conversation we at last entered the service at 11:40. People continued to come, some as late as 12:15 and 12:35. Finally at 12:45 I was introduced as the preacher of the morning (now afternoon). Following the thirty-minute message came the invitation, four offerings, and finally the dismissal as the clock moved well toward two.

On a banquet occasion, a white who attended reported that very few were present at the starting time. “Everyone just sat around for an hour or more while my stomach gurgled and growled with hunger. People casually drifted in all this time and continued to arrive long after we were finally served. Why don’t they keep some kind of schedule?”

Whites have said: “If they want to live that way among themselves, all right. But if they are going to operate in a white society they will have to shape up.”

Too, the white responds and expects response in clear, logical terms, preferably in writing. The black most often responds from a gut level of personal warmth, in a face-to-face meeting rather than through a carefully worded letter or even a formal telephone reply.

When the response is not what the white thinks it should be, he is likely to associate it with ignorance or backwardness and decide the matter doesn’t merit any more of his time. The value judgments the white makes of the black’s time concept and response, whether accurate or unfair, proceed from a basic attitude framing an unvoiced question, “Why don’t they respond like whites?”

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Let us consider some things that condition the black to respond as he does. Dr. Charles Taber, linguist and anthropologist with the United Bible Societies, points out that “black society is a highly verbal society, which prizes and rewards verbal virtuosity.”

Differences between Negro and Caucasian cultures are sharply profiled in most black churches. The choirs, soloists, and group artists sing from memory. The congregations are without hymn books. A white church, on the other hand, makes slavish use of hymn books, and the choir is sure to have music in hand. Negro preachers use few notes and encourage the congregation to “talk back” to them, repeat their phrases or words, and signify agreement with “amens.” In many white churches, an “amen” would be startling; anything beyond this would be considered fanatical. Even the more demonstrative white churches appear frozen in comparison with the typical black church. This verbal orientation helps explain in part black pulpit oratory, largely unknown among white preachers. It is often richly developed, more than a match for most non-black preaching.

The white pastor may assume that the black pastor’s relations with his fellow clergymen are the same as in his own circles. But Negro pastors seem to have much closer ties. Most groups meet weekly, and nothing interferes with this time together. To observe such meetings is also to recognize again the oral tradition versus the written. I have observed the next week’s Sunday-school lesson being taught by a master teacher-pastor to other pastors without Bible or notebook visible in any hearer’s hand.

Of course, at one time in black history in the United States, oral communication was the only way of passing on information. The present-day emphasis may well reflect the Negro’s long submersion in a white-dominated society. This “verbal virtuosity” (to use Taber’s phrase again), while productive of great values, also builds a barrier. This barrier the white sees only vaguely, and he easily labels it unresponsiveness.

The white who received no answer to his letter should consider that the average Negro pastor has no secretary; that he probably works forty hours a week at some secular job to support himself; and that he is not culturally oriented to give written communication the same priority his white counterpart does.

Had the visitor to the black church found out a little about the function of the church in the Negro community historically and today, he would have known that the church has been the one institution in the community the black could call his own. He would have realized that the church serves a variety of purposes and needs, and that when the people come they are in no hurry to leave.

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To the Negro, time is less a matter of chronology—the hours and minutes measured on the face of Big Ben—than a state or quality of experience that lifts him above the clock. Therefore he tends not to see the importance of a given time appointment.

Still another factor is the contrast between the highly structured white society and the more loosely structured black society. In the white community, the top executive, the secretary, the custodian—all are used to meeting deadlines, making precise appointments, writing and receiving reports. But black society is not highly structured in the daily routine of life. And so, when the white believer attempts to contact the black, the elements are set not for meshing but for clashing.

Finally, whites should recognize that the Negro has been ignored and “used” so often and so long that he is not about to rush a response when the white casually telephones him or writes him a letter for the first time. The reason is not pique or perversity but disbelief.

Now, what can the white do to help span the racial gulf? I shall mention some things my exposure has helped me understand.

First, let us frankly and penitently admit the problem. The despair of some in the National Negro Evangelical Association as they evaluated black-white communication was reported in CHRISTIANITY TODAY (May 12, 1972, page 42) in this sentence: “As for cooperation with white evangelicals, delegates decided they had run the gamut of rhetoric with inadequate response and must now do ‘what has to be done’ alone.” This may be an accurate assessment of the present status, but it is no answer for either group. It reflects from the other side the same frustration expressed by whites.

A second step for the white is to recognize the moats of separation he has dug. The fact that this generation is not directly responsible for slavery and its attendant evils makes it difficult for whites today to understand or perceive the hurt; we do, however, perpetuate some of the results of slavery today.

The white would rather ignore the severity of the wounds that have been inflicted upon the Negro. It is as though he were saying: “All right, we did some wrong things in the past, but now let’s pick up and go on from here and be friends.” It will not be that easy. Not that the Negro is forever nursing his hurt; the white just does not recognize the depth and breadth of estrangement—the psychological, sociological, and even physiological wrenchings whites have caused within the black culture.

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Moreover, the white does not objectively see himself as he tries to relate on a one-to-one basis with the black. Without realizing it he may be adopting a patronizing manner or bulldozing tactics. He finds it hard to come straight across person to person—a scar of his own produced by the past.

Another step whites can take, a relatively easy but active one, is to read. Where isolation between peoples has existed, what better way for one to begin to know the other than to read what their authors have written? How can you talk to someone whom you know little about or whose image is distorted in your mind? When a missionary (or even a business representative) is anticipating contact with a different culture overseas, he can be expected to read ravenously. If the evangelical pastor or layman will read some black authors, over a period of time he will gain not only general background but awareness and at-homeness with black thought. This will greatly help the communication problem.

Non-Christian as well as Christian writers have much to contribute to our understanding of the Negro and his history. The current spate of radical black writing can give insight if we are willing to listen. But if the evangelical wants to hear from another whose orientation to the Word and to Christ is like his, there are a number who have told their story well. Bob Harrison, William Pannell, and Tom Skinner are easy but very helpful reading. And there are others. For continuing current exposure, I have found the bi-monthly publication The Other Side ($3, Box 158, Savannah, Ohio 44874) to be extremely valuable.

A fourth and highly important fact to recognize is that seeking response from the black by letter or phone call or even through a common third-party contact just isn’t sufficient. The white evangelical may think that if he knows a Negro or two has a white friend working in the Negro community, he can depend on these others to make the contacts and influence black Christians to join in some white evangelical venture. This gives us the illusion that we know the black community and are bridging the gap.

If whites as individuals or organizations sincerely want to build relations with Negro believers, they will have to become involved on a broad person-to-person basis. All of us, especially evangelical leaders, need to be involved at the personal level, making direct contact ourselves. The white must get out of his office chair, out of his board room, out of his suburban security, and make his own direct, personal, ignorance-dispelling contact with the black. And he needs to do this with many blacks in many different life situations.

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A fifth point to consider is that the white must learn the black structures, the organizations or persons that will be most likely to produce the desired response. If the white makes contact with the wrong person, i.e., one who does not have the knowledge and confidence of others, he will still hit a brick wall.

In their efforts to get something going with blacks, white evangelicals often restrict themselves to working only or mainly with an organization that closely mirrors their own image; however, such an organization is likely to reach only a small percentage of black churchmen. Perhaps 90 per cent are working in other church structures, which may be just as gospel-oriented. For instance, it is essential to realize that approximately 70 per cent (nearly ten million) of all black church membership is Baptist. If the local Baptist Ministers Fellowship of four hundred members votes to do something, almost all will do it. But are white evangelicals dealing with them?

A sixth and very practical step to remember is: Take the initiative in bridging the moat. Go to the Negro. Don’t expect him to come to you, even at your invitation. One Negro pastor put it this way: “It has always been that the white man wants the Negro to come to him, and this can’t be. We’ve got to come to one another.” Furthermore, some will lack the sophistication and poise to reach out to the white. Feelings conditioned by generations of past white attitudes may cripple the black and prevent him from reaching out.

Before inviting the black to a white evangelical function, the white needs to begin by visiting a comparable black function. He must learn to appreciate the Negro way of doing things. What some write off as noise and emotion mixed with a somewhat different vocabulary just may be stimulated by the Holy Spirit.

The blacks, of course, have the advantage of knowing the white culture much better. They have been railroad porters or cooks and nursemaids in our homes in past years. What whites have lived or worked in black homes? Through TV, the black has had a thorough (though media-distorted) picture of Caucasian life, but not so the reverse.

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Hear, proud people
sequestered in your
high red rocks!
Your birthright bartered
centuries past,
think you yet to reign?
Did your wise men
so counsel you
to double-cross Jerusalem,
crush your once kinsman?
If so, duplicity
will yet
be Esau’s bane.

The white evangelical needs the experience and growth he can get only by going to the Negro. For instance, a layman can visit a Negro church on Sunday, not just once out of curiosity, but repeatedly over a year’s time. He can volunteer to serve under Negro leadership in some capacity, no matter how menial, in an evangelism project or similar opportunity. The problem is to get us out of our comfortable pew to where the action should be.

A ranking Republican leader in the House of Representatives, the Honorable John B. Anderson from Illinois, when speaking at the 1972 Southwest Region NAE convention, said: “Three years ago we established an office of voluntarism to channel volunteers from our affluent society into places of need. We fell far short simply because we have been unable to wean people away from their interests.” Not much better a report could be given of the gospel believer’s involvement in the inner city.

A pastor in any area where a Negro population and a Negro pastor are within reasonable distance could begin by telephoning and then stopping to see that pastor. Let him know you are a brother in Christ, have been thinking about him, and would like to take him out for coffee. Talk about his family and yours, his church and yours; talk about Jesus, too. Begin to build ties of friendship. No matter how slim the strands or how cautiously woven, begin! Of course it will take more than one coffee time. Any friendship is built through time, effort, and proceeding in faith.

You will have to take some risks. You will have to risk rejection. Not every black pastor will want or be able to relate to whites in general or to you in particular. But as John says, “We need have no fear of someone who loves us perfectly; his perfect love for us eliminates all dread of what he might do to us” (1 John 4:18, Living Bible). Ask God for that kind of love for both of you.

When you have reached a point of ease with one another, you may want to include another pastor or two. Or you may feel God’s leading to try a pulpit or choir exchange. Or perhaps on an individual basis attend one another’s special meetings, or a church social event where a brief testimony or message from the Word may be given. Try attending each other’s ministerial fellowship. Who knows where God may lead?

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A great door is opening in the ghetto despite many hindrances. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians of his work in Ephesus he said: “A wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (1 Cor. 16:9). Contrary to Paul’s emphasis on the opportunity, we too often see the hindrances. If we are hunting for an excuse to stay out of the ghetto or to forget about communication, we can find it. But I am persuaded that the Gospel, which is the power of God for salvation, is also the power to illuminate the path to exciting and innovative means of communicating where communication is desperately needed.

George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”

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