Recently, an open letter from the Asian American community to the evangelical church pointed out that all too often we are racially divided, indifferent, and prefer to make generalizations at a safe distance rather than confront difference and make amends face to face.
The authors call on evangelicals to take further steps toward racial unity by hosting dialogues to discuss racial stereotyping, examining hiring practices in Christian organizations, and committing to higher standards of media portrayals of Asian Americans. I would add this call to action: White Christians, make an active effort to put yourselves in situations where you are a minority.
White Christians hold a majority of the power in the American evangelical church. They hold most leadership positions in nationally influential Christian organizations, including Christian media. Their congregations are usually wealthier and have members with higher social status. Also, white evangelicals, like all other white Americans, benefit from living in a society that has historically been tilted to their advantage.
When you have always been in the position of power and privilege, it can be difficult to understand what it's like to be in the minority. As much as well-intended efforts by majority white churches to be more culturally inclusive are necessary to bridge racial divides, things such as hosting conversations on race, I think something more is needed. Why? Because these efforts still start with white people operating from their position of power. They remain the hosts, the benefactors, the do-gooders.
But when people put themselves in the minority, the power dynamic is reversed. For example, when my husband and I started attending our Hispanic church, we found ourselves on the cultural margins as the only white and Asian in the group. We struggled to make ourselves understood in our halting Spanish, we strained our ears and mental energy to catch culturally embedded jokes, we waited shyly by the coffee until others beckoned us to join their conversations.
In a country where whites and Asians generally hold higher status than Hispanics, our attending the Hispanic church reversed that dynamic. Our Hispanic sisters and brothers became the hosts; we were the ones who needed to be accommodated to. They had the linguistic and cultural advantage; we became like children who need to be led around by the hand and have the obvious explained. They gave; we received.
After several years of going to this church and receiving such generous hospitality, we truly feel that this church is our family. We know them as Gloria, Carlos, and Elizabeth, not as "those Mexicans" or "those Latinos." We've prayed with families through hard immigration situations, we know the difference between Peruvian "ají" and Mexican salsa, and we know we'll never go hungry at any church event. We are part of them. They are part of us.
Would we have gained such a deep solidarity with our Hispanic brothers and sisters, say, if Gloria or Carlos had started attending our former white suburban church? Perhaps. But it would have been easier for us, being in culturally familiar territory, to bypass the uncomfortable work of getting to know them as individuals despite the communication barriers. Easier to remain distant. Also, we would have lost out on the priceless experience of being strangers on the receiving end of grace.
In her book An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor sums up an oft-repeated command in the Pentateuch from God to the Hebrews, "You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." In other words, God reminded his people of their experiences of being on the outside, being in the minority, so that they would be better able to love the strangers in their midst. Another white pastor put it this way, "Time spent submitted to diverse community holds a lot of promise for our own spiritual formation." When we have experienced what it's like to be in the minority, to be the ones who are misunderstood and less-powerful, we are changed. We will never treat others who are different from us in the same way again.
Our experiences attending a church where we are in the minority has been paradigm-shifting, and that's why I believe having white Christians place themselves in minority positions is so crucial to the work of racial reconciliation in the American church. It is transformational. And it is a concrete action, not just talk. It demonstrates a true humility and willingness to change.
Attending a non-white church (even just on occasion) is one way to practice this. Being a guest in a foreign country, joining a non-white cultural group, or even moving into a non-white neighborhood are others. The important thing is that we become willing to give up power and position ourselves as guests, receivers, and students, rather than hosts, benefactors, and teachers.
Jesus did the same when he came in the flesh as a vulnerable child to reconcile humanity to God. He humbled himself and did not cling to his status as Son of God (Phil. 2). As his followers, we are called to this same humility and downward mobility as we walk the path toward racial reconciliation.