Thursday, May 13, 2010

Race and the Emergent Church

So, I'm a little late in letting you all know about this but remember when I wrote about an interview I gave to a couple of reporters?

I have two responses, maybe three: one is to the content of the article, which may or may not be mixed with feedback from my Guatemalan-American friend from church, Jhonathan and finally, some meta talk about the process of being quoted in a major national magazine.

The article on race and the emergent church was published in Sojourners May 2010 edition. You can find the article here under the title, "Is the Emerging Church for Whites Only?" although in the ensuing online conversation, my favorite alternate title was suggested by Eliacin Rosario-Cruz: "Some color is not enough color in the Emerging/Emergent Church."

On that note, let's start here: a characterization of the emergent church as all-white is wrong. My church as an example is about 25% people of color. A picture of a box of uniform white crayons tells members of my church family that they are persona non grata and I will not let anyone do that without challenging them. By setting up a straw man argument that the default is white that needs color added to it, rather than acknowledging the color that already exists, the article disempowers the very people it claims to be advocating for. It disempowers Jhonathan and Noe and Mirari and LaDonna and Nkosi and Andy and Dev by denying that they even exist in the first place and this is happening from a major Christian publication. This assumption put forth in order to write the proof to convince people that Emergence is just an example of privilege self-perpetuating steals my friends' identities as both people of color and emergent, without ever getting to know them.

(By the way, ignorance can't be claimed here. I pointed out this demographic fact about my church to the authors and I introduced them to Alise Barrymore, an African-American pastor of a multi-ethnic emergent church. Although they quoted her, they did not mention that she was a person of color.)

So, I won't participate in the discussion within this incendiary frame. If we can agree to a frame that acknowledges the true starting point of the emergent movement, then I am happy to continue this important conversation and I appreciate Dr. Rah for bringing it to the attention of a larger audience.

My friend from church, Jhonathan, subscribes to Sojourners and when he stumbled across my name in the article, he texted me to see if we could sit down over coffee to talk about it. Before I talked with him, I would have protested Professor Rah's fixation on book contracts and speaking gigs. Many of the online responses point out that a majority of the work being done in the emergent movement is not by the writers and the speakers but by everyday people opening themselves to God to be transformed so that they can do the work of bringing justice to this world. (And many of these folks are people of color.) I often quote my pastor when she said that our church would have more non-white participants when we become the type of people who have more non-white friends.

However, Jhonathan thinks that the amount of attention that article authors focus on systems of oppression such as publishing and conference gigs is appropriate. He spent some time explaining to me that our emergent movement needs to be concerned with how we are perceived. He said that as a person of color, our church feels like home to him but it is also sometimes uncomfortable. He overcomes that discomfort but knows that there are lots of people of color out there who won't make the effort if we just sit back and wait for them. This was eye-opening for me.

The sentiment is echoed in a post by my friend Julie Clawson on power and the church, when she says
I’ve also encountered those that approach power openly [rather than hierarchically] who tell me, “step-up, we’d love to hear your voice.” It took me a long time to actually trust those voices and to take them up on it, mostly because I didn’t fully understand that there were people who truly did hold power in an open hand. I expected there to be hoops to jump through, votes to be taken, and popularity contest to be won, but when it came right down to it, none of that stuff actually existed. I think this is where the emerging conversation is most often misunderstood.

Jhonathan's point is that while Julie overcame her learned helplessness, other women and members of oppressed groups need to see -in authors and conference speakers- that their kind are actually welcome. I'm willing to back down from my earlier thought based on Jhonathan's willingness to challenge me.

So, we have a little bit of a dilemma. We can't just sprout people of color just to make other people of color feel welcome. (But don't forget that there are some there already.) It's actually part of a larger conversation that my church has all the time about how to empower folks to muscle through feeling uncomfortable so that they can welcome others both on a racial level and a regular-old introverted or socially awkward level. We don't have any answers: we just keep praying and experimenting and cheering each other on.

Still, it would be nice to have a toolbox to use for how to make the mechanics of our services more welcoming or how to go out and proactively invite people of color in an authentic way. Someone should edit a book of essays about that, right? If that person is white, he or she should co-edit with a person of color. Even better, all essays should be written in teams that include at least one non-white partner. How cool would that be?

On the topic of the experience of being quoted, I really like being in conversation with Professor Rah -he quoted me in book a couple of years ago, too- but I would not call his article comprehensive of the subject. I was surprised by which parts of the 90-minute interview he left out of the article and when I spoke with other contributors, I found that they too felt like he was pulling quotes that agreed with the point he wanted to make rather than using his research to generate a theory. Christianity Today published an article on race and evangelicalism recently and I thought they did a much better job of representing a variety of viewpoints. They are a more conservative publication.

However, I want to make sure that I point out that Dr. Rah's assistant was meticulous in making sure that the quote they did use accurately represented beliefs I hold and I really appreciate that diligence.

On a final note, I want to draw attention to the response my friend Mike Clawson wrote, entitled, "I Didn't Learn It From White Males" that points out an additional level of the conversation beside who the celebrities are and who the practitioners are: theology. He reminds us that some powerful theology has been developed by people of color and those people are who initiated him on his path to Emergence. This is another reminder that to have the conversation within a frame that claims that the current state of the emergent church is colorless will distract from the picture within. Dr. Rah is right to continue to bring up the issue of race in the emergent church, as well as to push other movements within the Christian movement to do the same. Racial reconciliation is hard and necessary work, with some great voices speaking into the process. I am convinced that the Kingdom of Heaven is totally mixed racially and I don't know how to recreate that here but I believe that if I keep following God and talking with God's children, I'll be able to do my part in mending what has been broken, if only a little.

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