By MaLaysia Mitchell, Sophia Porter, and Katelyn Skye Bennett
Welcome to Intersected. This week’s post is a little different than usual. Here, the three of us will be writing on our experiences in the Black, mainline, and evangelical Protestant Church. It’s reflective and may push a few buttons, but if you claim to value the Body of Christ, it’s worth the read.
Christianity Today just published a piece by a fellow Wheaton alumna titled “Saving America’s Soul with Oral History.” The subtitle reads, “Why one Texas pastor believes racial reconciliation should start with stories,” and it recounts his work recording stories of racism in the context of ministry. Today’s Intersected post serves as a miniature history of our own experiences in the Protestant Church.
At the end, instead of our typical call to action, we include resources to help Christians of any denomination grow in the depth of their faith as they engage with their American racial and cultural contexts. Some resources are linked in the text to provide explanation as you read and list others at the bottom. (We encourage you to think beyond race to other ways that the Church may be excluding or including folks on the margins as well!)
Enjoy, and don’t forget to click that follow button at the left or on the bottom!
I grew up in the Black Protestant church. I have attended Baptist, Church of God in Christ, Pentecostal, and non-denominational congregations within that umbrella. My first experience with realizing that I was doing church completely differently than most of the U.S. was in the classrooms of my Midwestern, evangelical college.
Although I am grateful for all that I learned there about American Church history, little of it included the Black Church. I felt isolated in my spirituality and sensed from others that it was not intellectual enough, tamed enough, or theologically correct enough. It wasn’t until I joined the anthropology department that my world opened up to BIPOC theologians.
Black theology and liberation theology made so much more sense to me and resonated with my upbringing. They verbalized the Jesus I knew.
Just like any institution in the America, the Church is not immune to the legacies in our history: colonization, slavery, and racism. This is why Christianity, especially the variety in the Western world, must constantly critique itself and reevaluate what is Christian and what is just plain American.
If we were to name a few lines of the American social contract, specifically the details of decency and civility, it would say:
- One must align with, assimilate to, and adhere to white culture and its expectations.
- One must not critique or challenge white culture, especially in ways that would be offensive to white culture.
- One must not agitate or disrupt the power of white culture.
- If the above are abided by, then you will obtain some form of prosperity and a fulfilled life.
Unfortunately, Christianity has not strayed too far from this and uses white “Church” in lieu of white “culture.” However, for people of color, even while upholding their end of the contract, they are not given the same payout as their white counterparts and are all the more disillusioned from a faith that they are not represented in.
While at that Christian liberal arts college, I constantly wanted to walk away from the faith, thinking, “God is not for me,” despite Scripture like Romans 8:31. I began to feel that the promises in Scripture also held a sign in the background saying “Whites Only.”
Black Theology reclaims the view of Jesus who dwelt among an oppressed and colonized group — in his context, the Jews.
The work we see in the Bible and the faith that we see in the modern-day Black Church is political and always has been. It is facing a colonized contract and dogma that has been deemed as simultaneously American and Christian, advocating instead for kingdom-likeness. Yet this kingdom-likeness is not what we see across Christianity in America. Some are engaging in the work of reclaiming power instead of drawing near to the giver of power.
God’s grace and the faith itself has not failed people of color, but the systems that oppress them under the guise of Christianity — and individuals complicit with it — have. However, there is hope. This summer is the epitome of the Church coming together, standing for justice, and promoting unity as the country deals with racism and the pandemic.
I grew up in a mainline Protestant church. Each service had a racially diverse congregation, even though the worship style was generally ascribed to white culture. The liturgy brought a warm, familiar call and response. But the sermons often had an intellectual and political bend that I rarely fully understood.
I craved opportunities to visit my cousins’ Black Protestant services where there were no quotes from academics or blushed faces when we clapped during the recessional song. At their church, there was life and joy. The Gospel was enough, and this is where I had my first distinct memories of understanding who Jesus was.
My faith has continued to grow throughout the years, and I’ve transitioned to a new church community, which is predominately white.
Something we know to be true is that the enemy loves to sow division. Christians and the Church are not exempt. For centuries, we’ve let it happen in the walls of all our churches, our minds, and our hearts — so much so that we struggle to put aside political associations or preconceived notions that we cannot empathize, fellowship, and empower our brothers and sisters who look differently from us when they are hurting.
People I love deeply have conflated their faith and politics, on both sides of the aisle.
I’m biracial with very light skin, so I can outwardly pass just about anywhere. Internally, it feels different. Interactions with institutions can prompt me, intentionally or unintentionally, to choose one identity over another. It can be difficult to see where I fit, if anywhere. At times, the Church can feel no different.
My mom’s experience inside countless Iowa churches over the years as the only Black person in the service is more striking.
But there is hope. Pastor Keesha Mwangangi of Jubilee Christian Fellowship provides a beautiful illustration that reminds us how we are part of the body of Christ. When we celebrate Eucharist, the Celebrant breaks every piece of bread individually for each recipient. This act is the manifestation of Christ’s body.
As the Church, we are all part of the Body, and no two pieces are the same. We must celebrate these differences, empower one another, and respect the dignity of every human being.
As a white woman in the Church who doesn’t fit the “norm” (I don’t identify with conservative politics or other conservative beliefs necessarily, though I am accustomed to them) I’ve experienced a lot of internal tension, essentially from what Layla and Sophia have described above.
I grew up in white evangelicalism but do not feel comfortable there anymore, not because of the basic faith tenets but because of the political associations that do not reflect what I believe to be Biblical values and the lack of racial, ethnic, and gender inclusion.
(I’ve seen it done well in evangelicalism only once, and it was only in regards to race and ethnicity; women were not trusted to speak or lead at that church, and like all the churches I’ve attended both in and out of evangelicalism, it was definitely conservative in its views on sexuality.)
In short, I have often felt like an outsider in the Church I so love because it seems one can’t be both liberal and Christian. In reality, I know that’s not true, but when the church circles around you are all conservative to the point that race is still a touchy subject…well, they’re either too conservative or too white to the point that it’s not Biblical.
While certain pastors and churches are working on it (drop some comments on how yours is!), it’s slow going, and it can feel like some of us Christians are constantly going against the grain in a place where we ought to be most comfortable. (I believe that’s also why so many Millennials have left evangelicalism in particular, either for other faith streams or from the faith altogether.)
Now, I love the Church, and even when it fails, I have my faith because God is faithful even when his people misrepresent him (it, her). But the Body of Christ is the Church, and that community has an impact. It matters. Faith is not meant to be lived without it! Thus, shepherding those communities is central to Jesus’ teachings and is worth going the extra mile for, even if it does mean disrupting dominant white culture to include marginalized members.
I rejoice to be a part of the Body of Christ, the Church as a whole, and hope to see the American Protestant Church grow in some necessary ways as it loves God and neighbor.
Resources for Those in the Church
- These are a few lines of our Christian social contract, as opposed to the American one:
- Must-read Black theologians: Howard Thurman, James Cone
- (Shoutout to Vincent Bacote from Wheaton College)
- The AND Campaign, a recent Protestant campaign for social justice and Biblical principles together
- Christians are Hate Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies I’ve Been Told by Bradley R.E. Wright, PhD
- Marcella Althaus-Reid’s explanation of decency