I was five years old when a white church leader called me the n-word.

Hoping to expand our cultural horizons, my parents had enrolled my siblings and me in a Vacation Bible School at a predominantly white church in our San Francisco suburb. Midway through the week, my brother and I became so engrossed in our game of tetherball that we failed to hear the teacher calling us to return to the classroom. Exasperated, she yelled at the top of her lungs, “Get in here, niggers!”

I had never heard the word before. But as the only non-white kids in the VBS program, my siblings and I instinctively knew that it referred to our blackness. I lowered my head and ran back to the classroom, feeling unwanted and unsafe.

This was the first of many times that the white church has dishonored the image of God in me as a black person, resulting in feeling unwanted and unsafe within white church walls. It was also the memory that immediately came to mind on June 17, when a white gunman entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine congregants, including senior pastor Clementa Pinckney.

Because of this early experience, I have long believed that white churches are not safe spaces for black people. Over the course of my lifetime, I have been treated like a mascot, encountered astounding cross-cultural incompetence, faced unambiguous prejudice, and been silenced. That’s why the attack on Emanuel was so disturbing: it communicated that black people are not safe even in our own churches. The trauma is exacerbated by the fact that the black church was created to be a haven for black people.

The historic black church was established to protect black people from the anti-black ...

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Truth Be Told
Truth Be Told is a series on privilege, power, and how churches can be more attuned to both as they live out the gospel.
Christena Cleveland
Christena Cleveland is associate professor of the practice of reconciliation at Duke University’s Divinity School, where she also directs the Center for Reconciliation.
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