February is Black History Month. At Rooted, we’ve started asking ourselves an important question: How can we equip parents and other leaders of youth to help their teens foster authentic interracial relationships, as part of God’s design for his kingdom? We thought we’d begin this journey by taking the posture, first and foremost, of listening. We’re thrilled to share with you the second installment a conversational interview between our editor-in-chief, Charlotte Getz, and African American Rooted contributor, Isaiah Brooms. Read the first part of this conversation here.
Isaiah is the Director of Youth Ministry at Restoration Anglican Church in Arlington, VA.
CHARLOTTE: Isaiah, yesterday you said, “The church body as a whole has created and perpetuated racial division. We have walked away from easy opportunities to connect to others and instead have built internal systems that mirrored the separate but not equal sentiments of the past.” Can you expand on this?
ISAIAH: My thoughts on this go all the way back to the Civil War and how, after the war ended and slavery was abolished, Christians in the north did not readily invite the slaves to worship in their churches. I am not at all blaming those Christians for a lack of trying. I have not been able to find evidence of any real movement by the ex-slaves to try to be integrated into those churches either. Sadly, the same happened in England as well, and probably should have been a template to learn from. What resulted for America was the creation of racially specific churches or even black versions of a denomination (for example, the American Black Methodist Episcopal church, etc.).
Let me be clear, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with the idea of contextualizing Christ’s message so that it can meet people where they are. However, the danger inherent to that approach is that you run a serious risk of lacking the ability to detect when Christ has become one with your tradition exclusively. I think the roots of that sentiment are bred into the very foundation of the American church. This makes it unusually hard for us to find common ground. It is the same issue that Peter and Paul went to verbal blows about in scripture. Just change the circumcision issue to race issues and you can infer from the Biblical text that Paul would have had a lot to say about how American Christians handled integrating ex-slaves into worship.
I so wish that at the end of the Civil War, the churches in America simply integrated. So much of what we are discussing now wouldn’t be a top issue we are dealing with. It’s all kind of absurd if you really look at the Gospel and listen to the words of Jesus. If requiring circumcision was a huge barrier to truly living and reflecting the body of Christ, I’m pretty sure things like similar race, politics, and zip codes also aren’t part of a healthy body.
Happily, I don’t believe this is hard to fix. It just takes brave and courageous members of congregations to step across the street and make a regular habit of worshipping God in a context very different from their own. It is very important that this not be a “tourist” activity; it has to be a regular occurrence that over time will build on the foundation of Christ a familiarity, trust, and open door to noticing and taking advantage of “easy opportunities” to integrate. I believe this kind of approach would lead people to eventually discover lots of common ground in the areas of missional activities, youth ministry, service opportunities, prayer gatherings, and maybe even find common ground in launching a fully integrated church plant! This is a dream of mine.
CHARLOTTE: Oh wow!
ISAIAH: Wouldn’t that be amazing!?
CHARLOTTE: YES. Let’s come back to that. You’ve talked a lot about how the black church could engage the white church (which is extremely generous in my opinion). How can the white church more effectively engage the black church, other than some of the strategies you’ve talked about, like attending services? What about the youth in particular?
ISAIAH: The reason for my initial suggestions about the black church engaging the white church is this: when a culture is the predominant culture, it is not intrinsically motivated to change. There is a distinct void of the stuff that necessitates the desire for things to be different (injustice, equality, etc.).
In his letter from the Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. touched on this issue when he wrote:
“Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a non-segregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago. But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of Rio shall lengthen.”
King was trying to rally every church in America, white ones included, to get behind him because he was calling for the things of the kingdom of heaven to be made manifest on Earth. To his disappointment, and I believe it was because of this term ‘privilege,’ the white churches did not have the urgency or reason to upset the American way of doing things. I wonder what would have happened if King added to his call for political and legal changes, the call to reform the church of North America — to free the church specifically from its roots of racial segregation and separation. I don’t mean to suggest that he wasn’t trying to affect the church in this way. It just appeared that King had a lot on his agenda and the more urgent and pressing issues (legal and political) for African Americans rightfully pulled his attention and focus. I find myself wondering what would have happened if “sit ins” were actually happening in white congregations all over the country? I think that would have gotten the attention he was hoping for from those white church leaders. Simply put, the cause for freedom and justice just wasn’t enough to motivate people who were free and lived in a just world already.
Sadly, what my pastor is doing at our church is unique. He is a white pastor motivating a white, affluent, and comfortable congregation to engage the messiness of racial reconciliation. My point is that both sides need to be making efforts, but it appears a voice from outside is more likely to be the one helping a white or even an all-black congregation to tap into their desire to be more like Christ, and for their desire for the Kingdom of God to be fully reflected on earth in the body of Christ.
Motivating the youth to be more open to reaching out to others, I think, is simply providing opportunities for integration as young as you possibly can. It’s the same when you think about the advent of pornography. If we (as parents and youth pastors) don’t talk about pornography, its effects, and what it will do to the lives of our kids spiritually, physically, and mentally, when our students encounter it for the first time it is going to be a shock to their system and they will have the very reactions that we hoped they wouldn’t. The same is true for race. If I don’t encounter someone of a different race or culture, in an authentic and meaningful way until I’m a teenager, then I will be shocked, and the range of reactions can go from acceptance to pure hatred and disgust.
There will never be a substitute for a parent raising their kid early in the ways they want them to engage the distortion of sin on earth. Youth pastors can come alongside the work of the parents by seeking opportunities to team up with other youth pastors from other parts of town for the purposes of discovering opportunities to regularly worship, break bread, and play together. We should never discount the power of worshipping together.
I think it is an error to discount the power and opportunity for reconciliation that is found when kids learn to negotiate through playing together.
Visit rootedministry.com tomorrow, for the final installment of this remarkable conversation with Isaiah Brooms.