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Racial Reconciliation Requires a Painful Level of Self-Awareness

To participate in the work of justice, we pastors need to grow and change.
Racial Reconciliation Requires a Painful Level of Self-Awareness
Image: Julio Reynaldo / Amir Babaei / Steward Masweneng / Unsplash

One month after our church’s annual Gospel and Race conference two years ago, a small group of black congregants asked for a private meeting with me. I thought the conference was a success, so I wondered what the meeting could be about. For the conference, we brought in top-notch thinkers and leaders from the outside, but it was evident to some in our church that we still had lots of work to do on the inside.

For three decades, our multiethnic congregation has worked extremely hard to bridge racial barriers. We address racial injustice, encourage relationships across ethnic differences, and seek to model something of the kingdom of God. But even with this history, there remain blind spots.

In the days preceding the meeting, I heard words of frustration from some of the people who were planning on attending, so I was already on guard. When the time came, I walked in and greeted the ten congregants who were patiently waiting for our meeting to begin. I did my pastoral thing, greeting everyone around the table. There were genuine smiles, hugs, and handshakes exchanged, yet I sensed some tension in the room. I had a piece of paper handy so I could take notes and a cup of water to hide behind in the event that things got too tense.

It didn’t take long for the points of tension to be expressed. Each person took a turn first affirming the work we’ve done over the years and then proceeding to share frustrations. The things I heard made my heart sink: “Pastor, I feel invisible.” “I don’t know if I belong here.” “I wonder when things will change.” “When will we get equal treatment here?” “We’ve made progress, Pastor Rich, but we have a long way to go.”

There was some hard truth in their observations. As I listened, I captured the comments on paper, which gave me a bit of emotional distance from the surprising and disorienting words I hadn’t expected. I’d worked hard to preach and lead from a place of racial justice and reconciliation. How could this be?

This meeting led to additional good conversations which helped pinpoint particular areas that needed to be discerned (such as whether we needed more ethnic-specific communities within our church), and it served as a good reminder that the work of racial healing is deep. Our leadership team agreed that we were not equipping leaders at our church well enough to promote our core value of reconciliation, so we decided to gather together key leaders to dialogue, train, and deepen our commitment to racial wholeness. For us as a church, the journey continues.

And for me, as a pastor, the journey continues as well. As I grappled with my own reactions of frustration and bewilderment during that initial meeting, it became clear to me that my parishioners needed more than a defensive reaction from me as their pastor. To participate in the deep work of racial healing, I also needed to grow and change.

We all have racial habits. We all have conscious and unconscious ways of racially engaging others. Some habits are rooted in love, justice, and appreciation for others’ differences; other habits are rooted in ignorance, fear, and a propensity to marginalize whoever is different. But the good news is that bad habits can be changed. For old habits to die, we need a new set of habits in their places. Here are some of the habits God continues to form in me as I seek to pastor with a commitment to racial healing and justice.

Racial Self-Examination

One of the ways we dishonor the image of God in others is by not doing the hard work of examining the assumptions and biases we have against them. We have all been socialized by our families of origin and surrounding culture to see people in particular ways. We often live our lives without ever reflecting on the stories and lies we’ve been told about certain groups of people. Consequently, we perpetuate the myths and stereotypes subconsciously. Racial reconciliation requires us to develop a deep level of self-awareness.

I remember sitting in a library in Queens and working on a sermon. While deep in thought, I glanced to the left and saw a black man slowly looking around the library. My initial thought was What is he looking for? The question very quickly became an assumption and morphed into a judgment: He’s looking to steal something. But I discovered—to my shame—that the man was looking for a place to charge his phone. I’d gone from observing to interpreting to judging, all in a split second. Something deep was at work within me.

Implicit racial prejudice infects all of us—even us pastors. Rather than passively acquiesce to it, we can combat it through the spiritual habit of racial self-examination, regularly and honestly wrestling with questions like “Is there a particular people, ethnicity, or race that I don’t trust? Why?” or “What types of people cause me to cross the street if I am walking alone?” As we honestly respond to questions such as these and identify the ways we’ve been deeply de-formed in our thinking toward others, we position ourselves to walk in greater freedom.

Nondefensive Listening

When it comes to conversations on race, our level of offendability often reveals the level of our maturity. If we can’t overcome offense in the moment, we are not going to get very far. If we react defensively or try to justify ourselves or our ministry efforts, we aren’t able to pastor well. Reconciliation requires us to listen deeply to one another.

Most of us can admit that we can do better at listening, yet this remains virtually impossible for many reasons. For example, we equate listening to agreement, we would rather be right than open our minds to different perspectives, we might carry deep anxiety about negotiating differences, we reduce people to their worst belief, or we are simply afraid of change. When I look at my life, I can see these perspectives flowing through me. As a result, listening is hard. To truly listen to another person requires something of a crucifixion. I must undergo a painful process of leaving what is familiar territory (my perspective on the matter) and make space in my heart for a different narrative.

I’ve worked hard to remain curious with people who come from different backgrounds, seeking to ask more questions than to give prepackaged answers. More than anything, I’m learning to monitor my own triggers and defensiveness when I’m in conversation with congregants who can’t—or even refuse to—see the perspectives I offer. This is hard and holy work.

Regular Repentance

Reconciliation requires regular confession, repentance, and forgiveness. When we gather as a church, we come together as deeply broken and frail people. We sin against God, and we sin against each other. We are all complicit—myself included. Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf has said, “Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.” Christians—and especially pastors—are called to the deeply formed ways of confession, repentance, and forgiveness.

Racial reconciliation requires us to open ourselves to the truth that things we hate in others we also find in ourselves. In confession and repentance, we see that we have disappointed people, dominated and used others to their harm, rarely if ever given away power unless forced to, said harsh things, not followed through on a promise, gossiped, lied, been insensitive, and been unforgiving. We have confessed to being followers of Jesus without becoming truly shaped by the values he lived and died for. For me, repentance has often meant turning back to people I would rather give up on because of my own frustration. I believe repentance is not just a return to God but often a return to people we have difficulty loving. As pastors, this is the kind of work we cannot avoid.

In this moment, the church desperately needs courageous and compassionate pastors to respond to the injustice and toxicity we see around matters of race. Our congregations need models of love, maturity, humility, and truth telling to navigate the complexity that surrounds this issue. And I believe God longs to empower us for this task.

Rich Villodas is the Brooklyn-born lead pastor of New Life Fellowship, a large, multiracial church representing more than 75 countries in Elmhurst, Queens. This article is an adapted excerpt from The Deeply Formed Life: Five Transformative Values to Root Us in the Way of Jesus. Copyright © 2020 by Rich Villodas. Used by permission of WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

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