10 Ways to have a Different Conversation on Race in 2015!

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A lot of people who have read our book, Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith, have asked for more practical advice about how to move forward once they put the book down. We put our heads together and offer our Top Ten ideas for you to consider as you discern how you and your congregation will take the next step on the journey toward racial justice!

1. Do not be Afraid of Discomfort and Suffering

In many American churches, we gravitate towards a triumphalistic narrative. We want to hear stories of success and triumph and ignore or disregard stories of suffering. In our worship life, the sermons that we hear, and in the books that we read, we want to hear tales of great exploits of success and victory. However, the complex and difficult issue of racial injustice requires that we engage stories of suffering. Is there space in our communities to engage in the Biblical practice of lament, which allows the worshiper to engage the full spectrum of emotions, both joy and suffering. Reading psalms of lament, or singing songs of lament allows the church to lament our tainted history and acknowledges the need to engage stories of suffering. Instead of running from suffering and pain, maybe we are called to places of discomfort that express pain and suffering. To encounter the stories of those who are hurting is a necessary step towards healing the pain in our community.

2. The Benefits and Limits of Personal Responsibility

Most Americans are taught from an early age that education and hard work result in opportunities and prosperity. A few years ago, Troy was challenged to think of his own story, as a white male. He had the privilege of opportunity. While Troy doesn’t downplay the importance of effort and discipline, he also realized he benefited from having two college-educated parents, a school system that was amazing, and a father who was a math teacher. So when he won a math contest at Franklin College in Indiana that provided him with four years of tuition-free college, this was the result of a mix of acumen, work, and opportunity. When we move from the individual to social trends, we quickly see that economics and race are pretty good predictors of the horizons available for an individual. Most people born poor stay poor, and these are disproportionately people of color in the United States.

So here is the challenge: examine your story. How much of your relative successes and challenges resulted from opportunity or the lack of it. How much from personal responsibility and commitment?

3. Be No Longer Conformed to the Patterns of This World

The world wants us to think we live in a binary society, where everything is a zero or one, where every idea and person can be categorized as Democrat or Republican, progressive or conservative. But guess what? The current political wineskins and patterns are not eternal, and are products of a very specific social, economic, and political moment. The political parties in the United States are different than they were twenty years ago, or fifty years ago, and they will be different a few decades from now. This means that we can have thoughts and commitments and act in ways that are not conformed to the patterns of the political and ideological constructs of our current environment. In fact, we can be so bold as to act and speak and think based on minds and hearts transformed by Jesus!

While we cannot act in the world as if the patterns do not exist, we do not have to allow the world’s categories to define us.

As Medeleine L’Engle writes in Walking on Water, “It seems more than ever the compulsion today is to identify, to reduce someone to what is on the label. To identify is to control, to limit. To love is to call by name and so open the wide gates of creativity. But we forget names and turn to labels…If we are pigeon-holed and labelled we are un-named.” MSNBC and Fox News specialize in pigeon-holing and labeling. As followers of Jesus, we should specialize in creatively naming, living, and loving.

4. Be Willing to be Misunderstood

One of the real tragedies of the internet era is the ability to do web searches to find unsavory relationships of major public figures. We assign the worst possible motives to a couple of people sharing a cup of coffee or assume that if a person spoke before a certain organization, that individual must be a card-carrying member of that group. As a result, we are told to be careful who we associate with. We are told to distance ourselves from controversial figures.

The spirit that drives this type of behavior is that of fear and timidity.

Read through the Gospels again. Did Jesus worry about being misunderstood for “palling around” with prostitutes and tax-collectors? Did Jesus mind being misunderstood? Jesus was far more concerned about love and sharing the grace and hope found through his life, death, and resurrection. What would it look like if we began to act courageously in the public arena? If we stood with friends on the margins of society? If we stood in solidarity with young people of color who are feeling undervalued by our culture? What if we had the courage to be misunderstood for the sake of Jesus?

5. Worship in Contexts Where You are the Minority

A great way to enter into intentional diverse relationships and conversation about racial justice is to spend time with people who are from different backgrounds, cultures, and experiences. Intentionally attend a multiethnic church or a worship experience of people from a different ethnicity. Pay attention to the themes of the music and the service. Are there things you notice that are different from your own experiences? What aspects of the nature of God are emphasized in the service? Do you see themes of hopefulness, lament, freedom and liberation, purity, righteousness, or do other themes stand out? As you reflect about these worship experiences, it is helpful to consider how different racial groups worship often comes from the historical experience of their people.

6. Expand Your Reading Library

Read a biography or historical account written by someone of a different race. Some books to consider include Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David Garrow; The Autobiography of Malcolm X; God is Red: A Native View of Religion by Vine Deloria; God of the Oppressed by James Cone; The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini; Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. What aspects of the story stand out to you? Do they change the way you understand that person’s cultural background and the significance of race? How might that person or group’s narrative shed light on the experiences of other people from within their community? As you read, be intentional about noting where you observe and can identify privileges and opportunities or challenges and injustices based on people’s racial background.

7. Journey Together

Participate in a multi-ethnic immersion experience such as the Evangelical Covenant Church’s Sankofa Journey. The Sankofa Journey is an intentional, cross-racial prayer journey that seeks to assist disciples of Christ on their move toward a righteous response to racial injustice. This interactive experience explores historic sites of importance in the Civil Rights movement and journeys to the land where real oppression and inequality happened to people of color. Participants’ eyes are opened to the depth of the wounds caused by hundreds of years of racial sin in the United States.

8. Talking Circles

We were first introduced to Talking Circles by Dr. Randy Woodley (Keetoowah Cherokee). Randy explained that Talking Circles are a sacred means to help groups listen to each other’s hearts, increase awareness and grow shared understanding. Most effective with diverse groups, they can be as small as 3 people and as large as 30 (or more, depending on time). Randy says these three things are most important when holding a Talking Circle:

  • They should be led by a respected person in the community, known for their humility and peacemaking disposition (i.e., wise elders).
  • People should be honest—always sharing from their hearts, not their opinions.
  • As the staff (or another chosen symbol) is passed to each person, that sacred space to speak belongs to the one holding the staff, and they should not be interrupted until they are finished sharing their heart.

We recommend using Talking Circles to process current events that raise the issue of race within your congregation, to process books that multi-ethnic church leadership teams or small groups read together, or to engage discussion with neighboring church groups of difference races and ethnicities.

9. Racial Healing Confession and Repentance Service

Recent events have awakened many churches to the current reality of racial injustice in society. Leadership teams and congregations have been following the news and reading Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith. A lot of pastors feel stuck. They want to move their congregations to action, but they know there is a long walk from awareness to engagement. One great next step could be to hold a Racial Healing Service for confession and repentance.

Racial Healing Services take many forms. We’ve experienced super creative gatherings with diverse stations for prayer, confession and repentance. Liturgical services are just as powerful. Either way, space is made for groups to be still, listen to their hearts, listen to the scripture and the witness of the saints, and identify the spiritual lies they have been captive to—lies about “the other” and about themselves. It is a time for reflection, lament, confession, and first steps toward repentance.

10. Establish a Social Justice Leadership Team

A lot of mainline Protestant denominations have an Office of Social Justice in their denominational headquarters. That office is absent for many evangelical denominations. We have compassionate ministries and sometimes we even have a community development ministry, but it’s rare to find a group in an evangelical church focused on the ways sin is working its way into the structures, policies, and systems in their community. Once your church is on its way to growing in awareness, has done the work of confession and repentance, and has begun to engage in the community to understand the issues as those most affected understand them, then it may be time for your church to form a Social Justice Leadership team.

NOTE: This is NOT a group for the people who love justice in your church. This IS a group of leaders committed to leading your whole church to engage issues of justice on a systemic level. Warning: If you are going to form such a group, the church must be hungry for leadership in this area.  Otherwise, the team could turn into a club for the disgruntled or (worst case scenario) break off from the church and become its own thing. Not entirely bad, but again that leaves the church high and dry and without leadership in this crucial area. This team has to view itself as the bridge God is using to help the congregation to connect and engage with real-time social justice movements happening in your community right now.

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Your Turn

Join the conversation about social justice on our blog! We’d love to hear from you!

Mae Elise Cannon

Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon serves as the Senior Director of Advocacy & Outreach for World Vision USA. She is a minister, writer, and academic who cares deeply about God’s heart for the poor and the oppressed. She is the author of Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World (IVP, 2009) and Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action (IVP, 2013) and co-author of the forthcoming Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith (Zondervan, 2014). Cannon is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), was formerly the executive pastor of Hillside Covenant Church located in Walnut Creek, California, and has served as Director of Development and Transformation for Extension Ministries at Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Illinois. Prior to joining World Vision, Mae lived in East Jerusalem and served as a consultant to the Middle East for child advocacy issues for Compassion International. She earned her doctorate in American History with the minor in Middle Eastern studies from the University of California – Davis, focusing her dissertation on the history of the American Protestant church in Israel and Palestine. Cannon holds an M.Div. From North Park Theological Seminary, an M.B.A. from North Park University's School of Business and Nonprofit Management, and an M.A. in bioethics from Trinity International University.

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Lisa Sharon Harper

Lisa Sharon Harper, Sojourners’ senior director of mobilizing, was the founding executive director of New York Faith & Justice—an organization at the hub of a new ecumenical movement to end poverty in New York City. In that capacity, she helped establish Faith Leaders for Environmental Justice, a citywide collaborative effort of faith leaders committed to leveraging the power of their constituencies and their moral authority in partnership with communities bearing the weight of environmental injustice. She also organized faith leaders to speak out for immigration reform and organized the South Bronx Conversations for Change, a dialogue-to-change project between police and the community. She earned her master’s in human rights from Columbia University in New York City. Harper serves on the board of directors of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good and is a member of Metro Hope Church in New York City, an Evangelical Covenant Church.

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Troy Jackson

Troy Jackson is Director of the Ohio Prophetic Voices campaign, an initiative to gather more than 500 clergy in Ohio to organize for racial and economic justice. Troy has been involved in community organizing for four years—first as a volunteer leader and then as a faith organizer in Cincinnati and throughout Ohio. He has been actively involved in calling for comprehensive immigration reform and the Dream Act, and recently finished serving as faith outreach director for the highly successful We Are Ohio campaign that led to the repeal of Ohio Senate Bill 5 by a 61-39 margin. In addition to his organizing work, Troy formerly served as senior pastor of University Christian Church (UCC) in Cincinnati, Ohio for 19 years. UCC is a part of the Christian Community Development Association, a network of churches and organizations working to reshape urban neighborhoods. Under Troy’s leadership, UCC established Rohs Street Café, a seven-day-a-week community coffee shop committed to community engagement, the arts, and social justice. Troy is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and earned his Doctor of Philosophy degree in U.S. history from the University of Kentucky. He is a regular blogger on the God’s Politics blog. Troy lives in Cincinnati with his wife Amanda and their three children Jacob, Emma, and Ellie.

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Soong-Chan Rah

Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah is Milton B. Engebretson Associate Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL and the author of The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (IVP Books, 2009). He currently serves on the board of Catalyst Leadership Center and Sojourners/Call to Renewal. He has been an active member of the Boston Ten-Point Coalition (an urban ministry working with at-risk youth) and is a founding member of the Boston Fellowship of Asian-American Ministers. Soong-Chan, his wife, Sue, who teaches special education, and their two children, Annah and Elijah live in Chicago.

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