Promoting Race and Diversity in the Church

Not too long ago, I had an opportunity to talk with Leroy Barber (LB), co-founder of  The VOICES Project, and Aaron Graham (AG), Lead Pastor of The District Church in Washington, D.C., about their ideas on leading an organization, church, or other group toward a deeper, shared understanding of race and reconciliation. I value both highly for their own commitments to the slow work of pastoring congregations and moving people into greater, more diverse expressions of Christianity. 

What is one thing churches and organizations that are trying to birth multicultural movements most often get right and most often get wrong?

LB:

I think that, more often than not, the desire to create and develop multicultural movements comes from a place of good intentions—a place of genuine concern and desire.

However, what most people often get wrong is that they start planning the movement without a multicultural group of people. People jump over the space of initial conversation and relationship building before they plan. The desire for the movement shouldn’t lead directly to the plan; first, it should lead  toward gathering the right group of people to work on a plan. Rather than feeling like they have to join into something after the plan is in place, by including people of color in the planning process, they participating in putting something together. Without participating in the planning, it is more difficult for them to feel any sense of ownership. They may still join in, but ownership is important. Plus, without a involving a diverse group of people in the planning stage, you’re losing out on a more innovative and compelling plan that comes from including different perspectives, opinions, resources, knowledge and experiences.

Lastly, when you talk about multiculturalism, you also need to address diversity within cultures. We don’t want to only bring in people of another culture, who already think like us and vote like us, or who are in the same socioeconomic group. True multiculturalism needs to encompass people who don’t start from the same baseline. This is something that is easily overlooked.

AG:

One thing churches often get right is that they articulate this as a gospel issue. They share how the existing racial barriers—in our country as well as in our world—are a barrier to calling people to faith in Christ. They articulate how it compromises our witness—as the body of Christ—and communicate this theologically and not just sociologically. Sociologists are good at deconstructing what is wrong with society, which is appropriate, but ultimately incomplete. As pastors, we are called to reconstruct what is possible in light of the resurrection of Jesus. I’m thankful I meet more and more pastors who are rooting for this vision of being a multicultural church—not one that is politically correct but one that is biblically correct.

One thing that churches often get wrong is that they articulate the value of being racially diverse, and they do this when they are not racially diverse, themselves. This is true with many mainline churches—and even with many newer missional church plants. Often, this is because these churches value flat leadership structures in a way that is not compatible with the leadership dynamics with which many people of color are familiar with—where there is a clear leadership structure with a clear senior leader. Many progressive, white churches are so allergic to hierarchical leadership structures that they end up failing to affirm the gift of leadership with which God has gifted some people. I have found that many people of color, and particularly people coming from low-income contexts, do not typically connect well with churches that operate with a more flat, or egalitarian, leadership structure.

The point is it is not enough to simply value racial diversity; you actually have to create a culture and systems, within the church, so people are not just assimilated into the dominant culture. This a challenge we are trying to address in our own church. The biases we carry—in terms of how we structure leadership—is just one example of why I believe some churches stay mono-cultural despite the fact they value racial diversity.

What do we most miss out on when we don’t strive for diversity in our organizations?

LB:

Maybe this sounds like a dream, but I really think that it is only together that we are a true reflection of God—so if we aren’t working toward that or seeing the need for it, then we are missing out on living, reflecting and experiencing the depth and beauty of who God is. That means, as churches and Christian organizations, we also can’t represent accurately who God is without diversity. If we’re homogenous, we don’t reflect God’s image. Even taking it out of the Christian space, diversity is a truer reflection of humanity and we are our best self as humans when we are diverse.

Secondly, we don’t know how to partner well together. It’s true that not everyone needs to be able to do everything, but how we partner across cross-cultural lines is inhibited by homogenous organizations because we don’t understand each other or know how to value and work through multiple perspectives and approaches.

AG:

The only way I can explore the gift and weakness of my culture is to be around people who are different than I am. When I am around other cultures, it helps me see how other people worship and follow Christ in their own native culture, and it challenges my biases that can prevent me from experiencing the fullness of God. For instance, when I am around Latino culture. I realize how attached to the clock and to a schedule I can be, and I learn about the beautiful gift of relationships that God gives us with one another. My fast-paced culture too often overlooks the sacredness of relationship in efforts to accomplish something.

What are some steps an existing church or organization can take to begin to steer in a new, more diverse direction?

LB:

Moving toward diversity requires a double commitment—from the “top” to the “bottom”—from the board through the person who mops the floors.

An important aspect of this is “evaluating up.” Typically we evaluate the people who work below us, but we need to evaluate up for accountability toward our commitments. This eliminates top-down elitism, and it makes people think about how they get along with those whom they are leading and how their actions will be perceived. I would do my job differently as restaurant manager if I knew the bus boy underneath me was going to evaluate me. Similarly, as a board member, if I know the people beneath me are going to hold me accountable to multiculturalism, then I would think through the policies in a different way.

In that case, I would advise creating a group of diverse individuals within your organization, empowering them, and giving them the resources to evaluate and make suggestions. This must also be accompanied by a commitment to make policy changes and strategic, planning decisions based on their feedback. This is important anywhere, but especially in organizations that have a primarily white leadership and people of color working in the lower levels of the group.

AG:

One of the things we have done this last year, as a church, is to move from implicitly valuing racial diversity to explicitly valuing it. We realized that if we really wanted to become a multicultural church—and even a multi-class church one day—we needed to name why we were sensing a call to move in this direction. Without a biblical vision it simply becomes another opportunity for people to fight. But with a clearly articulated understanding of how this relates to the gospel, people in the church are able to make the necessary sacrifices in order to change. It is amazing what people can do when they are given meaning to their sacrifice. Being a multi-cultural church means that leadership is going to need to reflect this; it means the music is going to be different; it means there will need to be some racially specific spaces where people can come together to process their experience. Without having the vision, these actions can be interpreted a million different ways, and they can actually take a church or organization backwards instead of forward.

What encouragement do you offer to people who desire and are pursuing diversity but are running into hard barriers of demographics, tradition, lack of opportunity, etc.?

LB:

It all circles back to relationships. The group (whether board, organization, or church) needs to focus on growing its own relationships—whether with another organization, other churches, colleges with leaders of colors, etc. in order to bring in leaders of color since they won’t naturally emerge out of homogeneity in their existing relationships or their setting. Eighty-percent of people hired in non-profits are hired based on relationship, and seventy-five percent of white folks don’t have non-white people in their social networks. If you put those two statistics together, it looks very difficult to break that cycle without putting in the work to expand our network of relationships.

AG:

I realize that not everyone is in as diverse an environment as I am in. Our neighborhood—the greater Columbia Heights area in Washington, D.C.—is one-third Black, one-third White, and one-third Latino with 100 different nationalities represented.

I think the key is to focus on what you can control in terms of giving your people cross-cultural immersion opportunities. I am a big fan of short-term missions when they are done right. God used a trip to Belize, when I was 16 years old, to rock my world and call me into ministry. That calling to ministry, and the short-term mission experiences, I had gave me the courage during college to drive across town to tutor kids, several days a week, in a low income neighborhood in Richmond. That, then, gave me the courage to move into a low-income neighborhood in Boston after I graduated and to find myself pastoring a primarily African American church for several years. This, then, gave me the courage to seek to build a multicultural church in the heart of our nation’s capital.

The point is that, as a leader, you can cultivate cross-cultural immersion experiences where people can learn to take steps (even if they feel like small ones) to learn the history of another culture and to be confronted with their own biases, which result from living in homogenous communities. Celebrate these small wins and use them to work toward even more sizable structural changes in the church or organization.

What would you say to help diversity move from a guilt-driven, law-bound duty to a grace-based, desirable Christian reality in which we get to participate?

AG:

I think it is important to celebrate the good things about your own culture. As a white guy, I often realize that I am one of the most privileged persons because of my race and gender. For many years, I just felt guilty about this and felt like my calling was to just sit on my hands for the rest of my life. But I came to a point, in my relationship with God, where I sensed God affirming who I am—that it wasn’t an accident that I am white—that it is not an accident that I am male. It is not an accident that I was able to get a great education. I came to a point where I realized I could sit around the rest of my life and feel sorry for what my race has done to other people, or I could be part of the solution. I know, now, that God wants me to—humbly—use my privilege in working toward a Kingdom vision of calling people to faith in Christ and mobilizing them to live out their faith in the context of a multicultural, local church.

LB:

Diversity is rooted in theology, not just in social constructs. We’ve moved it into just a social thing, as opposed to keeping it within a theological context. That theological basis is not one from which we typically teach, when it comes to diversity. If we saw it as part of our identity as Christians and as the church, then we would view it differently than just limiting it to the social sphere. If it’s rooted deeply in our theology, we won’t see it as optional. Rather, we’ll see it as necessary for our own—and others’—flourishing. We will see it as God created and intended us to live.

The church, when it started, was a diverse expression. At that time, a lot of what they were doing, saying, and becoming was the result of being made up of people from all over the world. They named the church at Antioch “Christians,” because there was no other category to fit them—nothing geographically based, nothing gender-specific, or racially based. Early Christianity was born out of this radical diversity, where there were women, men, people of color, Jews, Greeks, slaves, and free. Communicating the Good News across boundaries was the birthplace and basis of the church.

 

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Theology and Culture