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Discomfort Clarified My Calling

Tense conversations about race led Riana Shaw Robinson to become a bridge-builder.

Sometimes God makes himself most known in the in-between moments of our lives—in times of uncertainty, tension, or waiting. This has certainly been true for Riana Shaw Robinson, a mother, wife, pastor, and seminary student from the San Francisco Bay Area. And my guess is that you’ve experienced this, too.

Born in Richmond, California, Robinson grew up in the church, but met God for the first time as a pregnant 15-year-old. Although she experienced intense feelings of fear, guilt, shame, and isolation, she felt God telling her to trust him. And it was there, in the depths and darkness of the in-between, that Riana was restored by the love, acceptance, and care of her family and community.

“Each year on my daughter’s birthday,” Robinson told me, “I am overcome with emotion as I remember all of the ways that I have [experienced] and continue to experience God’s grace, mercy, love, and provision.” Not only did the Spirit provide her with unexplainable peace during that uncertain time, he also changed the trajectory of her life by giving her a heart for coming alongside people who feel disconnected and unworthy.

Standing in the Gap

As minister of city engagement at Oakland City Church (OCC), Robinson identifies and supports opportunities for service and community engagement. But on a broader level, Robinson finds herself a bridge-builder in the multi-ethnic church, particularly when it comes to conversations of racial healing, justice, and reconciliation. In both of these roles, Robinson continues to experience waiting in the in-between—there’s a constant focus on the way things are, the way they should be, and the work it takes to move in that direction.

Raised with strong roots in her African American heritage, Robinson holds strong ties to the black community of faith that raised her: Faith Presbyterian Church in Oakland, California. For her—and for her brothers and sisters of color—the church was one of the few places that felt safe. Sometimes, Robinson explained to me, racial separation in a faith context offers something very special for people who may struggle to thrive in the majority culture.

When Robinson’s time at Faith Presbyterian Church ended and she started attending the multi-ethnic OCC, she struggled. In a recent Q Commons talk, Robinson stated that the multi-ethnic church model initially “felt like an attack on a place that for so many oppressed people was a place of refuge.”

She voiced her discontent to OCC lead pastor, Josh McPaul, who encouraged her to do something about it. So she and a small group of women began working through Donald Miller’s Storyline, discovering where God had been showing up in their lives, and seeking to understand how the Creator could redeem even the hardest moments. At the end of the series, the women spent time discerning what God had next for each of them. Together, they wondered if there might be opportunities for Robinson to preach. Two weeks later, McPaul invited her to take the pulpit.

Then the seemingly impossible happened: Robinson’s sermon started a series of conversations about race at the church. Eager for continued dialogue, Robinson recruited a white woman and an Asian American woman to co-lead a series of small groups with her. The groups focused on issues of race, power, and privilege.

They soon found themselves asking: What does it mean to foster a community of grace while having hard conversations? How can we, as individuals in Christian community, reflect personally on our own stories and build lasting relationships that embolden us to engage with systems of injustice in society and the church? By establishing a foundation of grace and redemption alongside the spiritual practices of writing psalms, lamenting, and interceding, conversations of race felt full of hope. This experience illuminated Robinson’s call to ministry, and, in particular, to racial reconciliation.

A Calling Becomes Clear

Robinson continued to serve as a lay leader in the church for two years before entering into a formal time of discernment: Was serving in the church in a role dedicated to issues of faith and justice God’s calling for her life? Was it time to leave her job to pursue this ministry?

Soon, pieces of the puzzle moved into place, and the path ahead seemed clear. She attended the Black Theology and Leadership Institute at Princeton Seminary. Then, she started working at OCC, began the ordination process, and entered a graduate studies program at Pacific School of Religion, all of which she continues today. While Robinson sometimes struggles to juggle family, ministry, and school, it’s clear that God is moving in her life as she stands as a bridge between the way things are and the way they should be when it comes to issues of race.

“I’ve accepted that I will likely find myself in situations where I don’t feel 100 percent comfortable,” she said. “But I know that God is using me toward the restoration of everyone who has been impacted by systems of oppression and white supremacy. And that means everyone: the oppressed and the oppressors, the victims and the beneficiaries.”

What are the in-between spaces you’re living in? What tensions do you hold as you lead people toward the future God desires for the church while admitting the ways we often get it wrong?

When we find ourselves feeling the tension of the in-between, we can, like Robinson, lean into our callings. We can seek to be bridge-builders and translators and encouragers, helping people on both sides of the gap understand each other. And we can willingly wade through the waters of the messy, difficult, tense times of waiting and in-between in order to move people toward the glorious vision God has for our lives.

Cara Meredith is a writer and speaker from Seattle, Washington. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and co-host of Shalom in the City's monthly book club podcast. She holds a Master’s of Theology (Fuller Seminary), and can be found on her blog, Facebook, and Twitter.

February09, 2017 at 8:00 AM

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