While studying gender in my PhD program, I was assigned to read Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896–1920. At the risk of sounding like Nerd Girl, it was the best book I read all year. One of its strengths was that it introduced readers to the African-American middle class that existed between 1890 and 1960. Of special interest to me were photos of male and female seminary students studying theology—including Koine Greek—under male and female professors. Most white seminaries didn’t admit women till the 1970s, let alone hire them as professors.
I had been taught that the U.S. Women’s Movement in the 1960s was responsible for women’s “new” leadership in church contexts and our entrance into seminaries. Some of my teachers had even spoken disparagingly about how women’s presence in leadership roles was due to Christians’ “capitulating to culture.” Yet Gender and Jim Crow forced me to face the facts: The version of history I had heard, if true at all, was true of only a segment of the population.
Part of learning church history is learning Black history.
Fast forward to last summer. I had the privilege of becoming a student again, complete with roommate and curfew. While in Italy learning about medieval art and theology, I got to know and love an African-American fellow-student who is movie producer in L.A. I loved talking with her over two-hour pasta meals and continuing our discussions in the courtyard of the monastery where we were staying.
One night I asked her about her experience as a student in higher education. She told of going to an elite film school and being handed a list of the “100 Best Movies Ever Made.” But not one of the classic favorites from her own subculture—movies such as “The Wiz,” which her church performed, nor “A Raisin in the Sun”—had made the list.
When I returned home, I checked out my own course offerings to make sure they included books from a diverse range of experts. And I saw that my own syllabus needed some serious attention. So I worked to provide a more rounded list, and the course is better for it. (There’s still more work to do.)
Two years ago, when I quoted Toni Morrison during a conference I was keynoting, a woman came up afterward and thanked me. I appreciated her kind words, but it’s sobering to think that in her world it is so rare to hear someone quote a person of color that she felt compelled to thank me.
We have a big problem with ethnicity in our world.
Most white Christians I know feel troubled about it. But they have no idea what we can do. So here are some baby steps to get us started:
1. Pray. Really—I mean it. Pray and pray. Have you even prayed about racism? Much?
2. Repent. Ask forgiveness for sins of commission and omission. Ask God to show you where you’re turning a blind eye in contexts where you have social power you could use for greater good.
3. Watch some movies: We quote what we know. So get ready for some terrific stories. In addition to those mentioned, watch “The Color Purple,” “Selma,” and “42”; “Just Mercy” and “Harriet.” Plus documentaries about race in America.
4. Set the table: Invite someone of a different ethnicity to your home for dinner. Enjoy their company. Build a relationship. Teach your children that you’re not just fighting a bad thing. You are embracing a beautiful thing. Help them understand that their lives are deficient if they lack exposure to relationships with a broad range of image-bearers.
5. Listen: When people talk about their experiences and fears, we need to shut up and empathize. Really listen. Not so we can say “Yes, but…” but so we can groan with all creation over the evil of divisions so deep we may not even see them.
6. Read: Toni Morrison has won both a Nobel and a Pulitzer. Put her books in your Audible queue or pick them up from the library. Or grab Sue Monk Kidd’s book The Invention of Wings, a fascinating work of historical fiction about race, sex, and class. Or for less than three bucks, you can get the Kindle version of The 100 Most Influential Black Christians in History. Include diversity in your authors and/or story subjects.
7. Include a variety of ethnicities in your examples: If you speak publicly or write, consider the ethnic mix of the people you quote and the subjects of the stories you tell. Ever told the story of Bishop Richard Allen? And while you’re at it, seek diversity in your ABF classes, on your worship teams, and on your elder boards and preaching teams.
The above is only the beginning.
The church has the opportunity to model what it looks like to go far beyond tolerance to love. Let us be known for celebrating the beauty of God’s creation in the form of diverse humanity from every tribe and nation and tongue. We can’t expect the world to lead the way. The changes must start in our own homes and in our pews—beginning with the most segregated hour of the week.
You can read more here.