In the wake of the no-indictment verdict in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, I noticed an avalanche of tweets, updates, and pictures from people articulating their anger, justification, theology, venom, ignorance, and sadness. In moments like these, in large part due to the ubiquitous nature of social media, everyone is given an opportunity to express ideologies pertaining to our nation's sociopolitical and religious milieu.
I appreciate the democratization of technology that we enjoy, especially via social media. But our anger, sadness, and wisdom tends to be short-lived. Our society suffers from what some have called a "continuous state of partial inattention." Consequently, issues that arise hardly get the kind of slow, thoughtful, and contemplative attention that's required for substantial change to occur in our personal lives, churches, and cities. In a few days or weeks, our anger and concern will subside. The dust will settle and we will be on our way to the next issue the media feeds us. But there is a better way.
To begin to see new communities emerge that reflect Jesus' reconciled kingdom reality, the conversation of race and class needs a comprehensive and continual strategy to keep this at the forefront of our theologies and discipleship. We need conversations on matters of race and reconciliation to be perennial dialogues that fill our churches and consequently our cities. After all, this matter is not going anywhere soon.
This is what we have endeavored to do at New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York, over the past 27 years. Founder Pete Scazzero, an Italian American, wanted to see a church cross barriers of race, culture, economic status, gender, and generation. Today, I have the great privilege of leading this church, which has people from over 75 nations. At New Life, conversations on race and class are not simply black and white: they are also East Asian, South Asian, Latin American, African, and European. We have had to wrestle with the complexity of race, class, and culture on a seismic level. We have made great progress in the process, yet we clearly realize the ways we have to go.
In seminary, a wise professor presented the real question we need to answer in order to break down racial barriers. He said, "When it comes to breaking barriers of race, the question isn't ‘Can I be your brother in Christ?’ Rather, the question is, ‘Can I be your brother in law?’" This question gets to the core of reconciliation. It's one thing to be in close proximity to someone who looks different than you. It's another to be in relationship with one different than you.
The former is what I call “aesthetic multiethnicity.” The quintessential image that captures this (at least in NYC) is the subway car. The subway car is a crowd of anonymous, diverse people in close proximity to each other. This image gives the impression that barriers are coming down, but it is all an illusion. The biblical image of reconciliation goes far beyond being a sanctified subway car to something much more beautiful—namely, a reconciled community.
In order to work toward a racially reconciled church community, we must first recognize that racism exists. Once we acknowledge this, as a church, we need to spend time learning and processing a theology of reconciliation. This means we must preach on it regularly as well as create space for dialogue in classes and other meetings. But most importantly, we must learn to listen deeply to each other.
Douglas Steere said, "To listen to another's soul may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another." To become reconciled churches and communities, we need to learn to listen incarnationally. When we think of the word incarnation, we tend to immediately think of Christ coming and taking on human flesh for the purpose of our salvation. While that is true, the incarnation also serves as the framework for a flourishing world and, in this case, as a means of listening and conversing on the topic of race.
I'd like to submit three simple movements of incarnational listening:
1. Leave your world (leave what we are familiar with—risk, step out, especially in regards to race and culture.)
2. Enter into the world of someone else (through active, humble, and curious listening).
3. Allow yourself to be formed by another person and their worldview
In short, the incarnation describes not just Jesus' ministry to us, but how we can listen to one another. A great example of incarnational listening was demonstrated in the filming of Munyurangabo. The 2009 film focuses on a young man following the Rwandan genocide, where 1 million people were killed. The young man is looking to exact revenge on the man who killed his father. He travels with a machete looking for him, and at the end of the story, we see something surprising: we see a glimmer of reconciliation.
Isaac Chung, the director of the film and a member of New Life, said this about the process of reconciliation:
“Reconciliation involves a willing act to be vulnerable to another culture, and I found that this can't be authentic if it's done with any feeling that the other culture is better or worse than your own. When I went to Rwanda, I thought that as a Korean who grew up on a farm in Arkansas, I knew a lot about bridging cultures. But I realized I had some deep seated prejudices in assuming that I had more to offer people in Rwanda than they had to offer me. It would have been just as false to assume that I had nothing to offer, demonizing my Western and Eastern upbringing to embrace a fully African way of life.
Instead, when I embrace them as equals and they see me in the same way, I have seen us shape each other in a healthy way, as good friends. I also found that there was never a moment of epiphany that made me embrace and learn from Rwandan culture. Instead, every conversation and visit seems like a process, the way close family members might have issues they must work through for an entire lifetime. This isn't easy for me and it doesn't come naturally. But my commitment to the friendships I have in Rwanda is a commitment to keep at the process of reconciliation, believing that deep down, this process itself is holy work.”
This is the work of reconciliation: not that we despise ourselves or others, but that we listen and live humbly and incarnationally, and through that process, see the image of God in one another. Reconciliation is hard and protracted work. Yet by the grace of God and the courageous steps we take, we can begin to taste today what is waiting for us when the new creation is fully consummated.
Rich Villodas is the lead pastor of New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, NYC. New Life is a community with people from over 75 nations in one of the poorer neighborhoods in Central Queens. Rich is married to Rosie and they have a 5-year old daughter named Karis and a baby boy named Nathan. You can follow Rich on Twitter at @RichVillodas. To learn more, visit newlifefellowship.org