In October 2011, Jemar Tisby sat in front of his computer, his hand hovering over the keyboard. On the screen in front of him was the form for a new Facebook page, which Tisby had filled in with the details of his latest project—a group called the Reformed African American Network.
As he did his final check, he felt a tension. He wanted this group to be small, but he had a sneaking suspicion that once the page went live, it would take on a life of its own. Was he really ready to follow along and see where it led?
Swallowing his doubts, he pressed the “Enter” key, making the page live.
Looking back now, he’s glad he did. Nearly five years later, RAAN has grown from a humble Facebook page to a flourishing community with an influential voice on justice, diversity, and racial reconciliation in the church. Tisby, meanwhile, has fully embraced his role as RAAN’s cofounder and president, even as he continues to serve as director of the African American Leadership Initiative and special assistant to the chancellor at Reformed Theological Seminary’s Jackson campus.
For Tisby, though, racial justice isn’t just a pressing cultural issue—it’s his calling, and it’s never been more timely. In a season when Christians nationwide are puzzling out how best to respond to protests, shootings, and domestic frictions surrounding race, he has a vision for how churches can cultivate a commitment to diversity:
You have to build awareness. If I am looking at a predominantly white church and, as a minority, thinking through whether this would be a comfortable, welcoming place for me, I don’t want to come into a church where the pastor or the church leaders say, “Well, some folks in the congregation are here with racial reconciliation. [Some] really don’t like the idea—they think it’s a Marxist, liberal, social agenda that really shouldn’t be in the church—but there’s these other folks who really are clamoring for it, and there’s a bunch of folks in the middle who aren’t quite sure what to make of it.”
I desire for churches that are predominantly white right now, but [are] looking to become more diverse, [to] do the groundwork first. You’ve got to pull the weeds. You’ve got to break up the soil. You’ve got to cultivate the land that would make it amenable to planting the seeds that would bear fruit of diversity. . . . The minority shouldn’t be the first one at your church to broach topics of race and diversity. That should’ve already been done by the leaders, and it should’ve been done in such a way that they’re shepherding the congregation through those issues. . . .
Churches that are predominantly white need to start talking about diversity, and they need to begin to build a cultural vocabulary such that the congregation is clamoring for diversity as they have built awareness. And that makes it comfortable even if you’re the only African American, or the only Korean, or the only immigrant in the church. When you have people who have the right mindset, you can get through. There are going to be some uncomfortable parts, but you can still get through.
How else can churches create space for God’s diverse people in their congregations? Find out on this week’s episode of The Calling, as CT managing editor Richard Clark chats with Tisby about #BlackLivesMatter, being the only black member in a Dutch Reformed church, and why racial reconciliation is a gospel issue, not just a social issue.