The Evangelical Shift, Part 4: Radically welcoming people of color in spirit and body
Part 4: Radically welcoming people of color in spirit and body
In the previous installment of the “Evangelical Shift” series, we began a conversation about how to make “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” radically true for everyone—including black churchgoers and other people of color. We covered the history of the Episcopal Church and other churches in America, and their shifting relationships with the white power structures of the day.
Today, a number of people of color are making what the New York Times calls a “quiet exodus” from evangelical churches, at a time when many evangelical churches are avoiding the topic of frequent shootings of black men, women, and children, and in which 81% of white evangelicals voted for the current administration.
For black churchgoers who may have long ago left historically black churches, such as the AME Church and black Baptist churches, and who do not feel aligned with evangelical churches, is there a home to be found in Episcopal and other mainline churches?
Even with its long relationship with white power structures, stretching back to its birth in the British Empire, the Episcopal Church has made great strides in the last 50 years to embrace social justice and progressive political ideals. Yet, Episcopal congregations don’t always reflect the diversity of the neighborhoods they are in.
This installment talks about how the Episcopal Church is working to extend a radical welcome to black churchgoers and all people of color and discusses that more can and should be done to attract and uplift our neighbors of every color and culture.
The Episcopal Church repents and recommits
In 2016, after decades of growing in its commitment to equality and social justice, the Episcopal Church decided to recommit to its mission of reconciliation and justice by establishing an initiative called “Becoming Beloved Community.”
This initiative is designed to be the tangible manifestation of the Church’s “long-term commitment to racial healing, reconciliation, and justice.” The Church set out to fulfill “a set of interrelated commitments around which Episcopalians may organize our many efforts to respond to racial injustice and grow a community of reconcilers, justice-makers, and healers.”
Those 4 commitments, as stated in the Becoming Beloved Community mission statement, are:
Telling the Truth
Proclaiming the Dream
Repairing the Breach
Practicing the Way of Love
As I spoke with writers and clergy about what the Episcopal Church can do to better welcome black churchgoers and to people of color in general, these 4 concepts seemed like a useful framework to shape—and challenge—the conversation.
It’s time to tell the truth
The Episcopal Church website expands on the first commitment, Telling the Truth, by asking two questions:
Who are we?
What things have we done and left undone regarding racial justice and healing?
In the conversations I had with clergy and others about how we can make the Episcopal Church more welcoming to people of color, one answer came up over and over again: Admit who you are.
One way the modern Episcopal Church is admitting who we are is by confessing and repenting of what we’ve done, historically, and what we’ve left undone.
In 2008, the Episcopal Church held a service of public repentance for its role in slavery. It was held at the African Episcopal church of St. Thomas, which was started by the first Black Episcopal priest, Absalom Jones, in 1792.
More recently, in step with the Becoming Beloved Community initiative, many churches, including those in my own diocese of New York, have undertaken a “Year of Lamentation,” which the Diocese website states is “to learn about, reflect on and mourn the Diocese’s involvement and complicity in the institution of slavery.”
The stated goal of the Year of Lamentation is to learn about “historical and present-day privilege and under-privilege in order to discern a process toward restorative justice.” Throughout the year, there are programs, talks, readings, educational field trips, and a tremendous amount of listening and reflecting.
Many of the people that I talked with for this article talked about listening—specifically, white people listening—truly listening to and internalizing the experiences of black people and other people of color, is an important first step in making the Episcopal Church more welcoming to people of all races.
When I spoke with writer Rachel Held Evans, author of Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, she cautioned white churchgoers to listen and remain in that painful place of facing the truth for a while, rather than rushing to reconciliation:
A lot of different traditions are faced with confronting racial segregation and racial injustice right now. And a lot of folks are eager to rush to reconciliation, which is understandable, but first we have to go through the difficult process of confession and repentance that a lot of us white folks would sure like to avoid. And something that the Episcopal Church and other liturgical traditions offer that is going to help that process is the practice of corporate repentance. Many people are looking for a way to confess the sins of the past and the systemic and cultural sins of the present, which is a hard thing for people in a society of individualism to do. There are many who feel like they have repented of their own racism, but don’t know what it looks like to repent systemic racism. Our tradition of corporate confession is an important part of the process of addressing racial injustice. It’s certainly not going to change overnight. But starting with that corporate lament is a good way to start instead of trying to jump to reconciliation without doing the work.
I spoke with writer Austin Channing Brown, author of I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, who talked about what needs to happen after that first act of listening and acknowledgement:
Listening is supposed to be the first step, not the last one. Listening is first, and then we do what we said we were going to do. We should start there, but after that comes planning and strategizing and action plans and changing and trying some new things—to make sure that the pain that you listened to at the beginning of the process is not continuing to be caused. Listening isn’t the last step. I think that’s how a lot of white folks think about listening, that it’s the end. If I have joined a discussion group or if I have joined the committee and I listen to a person of color and I cried with them and I acknowledge the pain that I have caused by not listening to them, we hug it out and we have coffee and we’re done. But no, all that work of listening, that was just step one. Step two is fixing it. And if people think that listening part is hard, what is going to happen when we get to the relinquishing power part? That is really so much harder than the listening part.
It’s time to stand for something
The second commitment of Becoming Beloved Community is titled “Proclaiming the Dream,” which asks us:
How can we publicly acknowledge things done and left undone? What does Beloved Community look like in this place? What behaviors and commitments will foster reconciliation, justice, and healing?
As with any effort undertaken by the church, defining and enacting our vision of God’s dream is going to be one of dialogue, trial and error, and ultimately being faithfully guided by the Spirit toward an end we may not fully envision. The conversations I had with various church leaders gave me different perspectives on what the Beloved Community of the 21st century will look like.
One part of proclaiming a dream is to know who that dream is for, what it aims to achieve, and what the end goal is. I talked with the Reverend Canon Dr. Altagracia Perez-Bullard, Canon for Congregational Vitality in the Episcopal Diocese of New York, about the Church’s mission to become more welcoming:
It isn’t just about taking the church that you had and making some tweaks so that it would be more attractive and you would grow. Really revitalizing the church means going back to your roots, figuring out what it means to be church, and focusing on those practices. Then we support, encourage, and work at developing lay and clergy leaders so that church starts engaging the community that it’s in. It means getting people out the door. It means questioning the definition of church that folks carry with them so that they can live into inclusivity. For most organizations it’s like, “We love people to come and join us to be as we are,” not welcoming and engaging people so that you can be transformed in the process. We put a lot of emphasis on transformation and on existing not for yourself but for the community that surrounds you. Which means that you have to get to know the community around you. You have to engage it. You have to change the way you do things in your church so that it invites people to come and engage and be transformed.
For some of the people that I spoke with, the first part of welcoming people of color is to intentionally and thoughtfully create a space that is welcoming for people of color. As Reverend Winnie Varghese, the Director of Justice and Reconciliation at Trinity Church, Wall Street, told me:
If we are a church who really wants people from the neighborhood, people of color, longtime residents who have opinions about their neighborhood, we have to make the choice about who we prioritize. Who it is the safer place for? If we prioritize former evangelicals, what that likely means is white evangelicals, because that is how evangelical is defined right now in America. And those white evangelicals may have thought about race but haven’t engaged it fully in their lives in the way that black folks have, who don’t have an option but to engage. So if we’re not careful, we are prioritizing people who could make the space unwelcoming for others as they do their own work.
Now if we prioritize another community, or communities, white evangelicals can come and learn there with no problem. It’s a space where you can totally be part of our community but there’s going to be some boundaries in this space. You actually have to be fairly articulate about your values to create that kind of space. But it can be done and be welcoming to the people you want to welcome, but still include the rest.
What that means, in a country in that is so immersed in a culture of whiteness, is that saying “Everyone is Welcome” may mean making it a priority to welcome non-white people and uplifting them, so their voices, culture, and influence are heard above the din.
If this sounds like a huge responsibility for a community to fulfill, there are some other voices within the Episcopal Church who remind us that we are not alone in creating a space that fulfills God’s dream. I spoke with Reverend Dr. Matthew Burdette, Curate at Church of the Good Shepherd in Dallas, who pointed out the distinction between the Church and the world around us, and argued that our responsibility is to be the Church, and allow God to do the work through us in the world:
In some ways my citizenship in the Kingdom of God, by virtue of baptism, is a different citizenship than my citizenship as an American. And I hold in myself the tension of a dual citizen. And so the church/ world distinction runs through all the people who are baptized.
Why that matters is that there are things that Christians say God accomplishes by means of the Church, that God seems not to be accomplishing by other means. For example, let’s look at the oft quoted text in Galatians that all who have been baptized into Christ are members of Christ’s, and that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, and so on. We’d like to say we have this ethic of inclusion and of unity that we see in Galatians. And then we want of export it into our public life. But that fails to recognize the really pressing claim that baptism alone accomplishes this radical bringing together of difference, and even reconciliation of enmity and so on.
Christians often think of the church as an agent in the world to make the world better, rather than thinking of the church as God’s project in the world that is making the world better by being itself. So the ideal, which is rarely ever realized, is that the Church attends first and foremost to being the church and living towards itself, right, living towards the ideal it’s meant for. And trusting that God will let it be a light to the nations, including at the local level. I think that when a church is doing something interesting people around it know, and people around it get involved.
Being inclusive is not an end in itself. I trust that the Good News of Jesus is good news. I trust that it’s not bad news. And I trust that the church, which is a gathering of people gathered by the Gospel, is going to be a community that reflects the goodness of the Gospel, so long as that community is striving to be faithful to the Gospel. The way we should try to reform our common life is striving for deeper fidelity to the Gospel. We do not have to put it in terms of who is included or who is excluded or who is feeling excluded or who is feeling marginal. That doesn’t mean we don’t think of those things. Those things are true, and they are good to be aware of as ways to indicate to us whether or not we are, in fact, being faithful. Ultimately, we should pursue faithfulness with what we have and trust that God will make us into the church that He intends for us.
Allowing our faithfulness to the Gospel to shape our welcome is also seen by some as not only shaping what we do within the church but making a stand on certain issues that affect people of color, and not letting our flexibility in navigating the middle way prevent us from proclaiming the specifics of our commitment. As Very Reverend Canon Kelly Brown Douglas told me:
The Episcopal Church, on a national level, has made its welcome clear, at least theologically and theoretically, to all people. The Episcopal way is the middle way, not only the middle way between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, or the middle way that allows diversity in the way one does liturgy, but also a way that lends itself to a wide diversity of theologies.
And welcoming this wide range of ideas really doesn’t allow the Episcopal Church to come down definitively on certain controversial social justice issues. So, there is still room within the church for those who do not support the ordination of women, or the ordination of LGBTQ persons. There’s still room in the church for what I consider a sinful transphobia, homophobia, etc. And we know that to be the case. And so, there are several dioceses within the Episcopal Church where certain persons are just simply not welcome, either overtly or covertly.
There is room for everybody in this sense in the church. But that doesn’t always speak well to our understanding of God’s justice. We can embrace conversation and dialogue, but here’s no compromise with what it means to be a child of God. And no compromise in terms of the justice of God, and sometimes it seems as though the Episcopal Church in its wide embrace, and in its occasional silence, does not come definitively down theologically on what God’s justice looks like in the world in which we live today.
So what can the church do to become more welcoming to people of color? Right now, I focus particularly on the issue of this white supremacist narrative, which has always been pervasive in our land, but has reared its head in some of the most ugly fashions since the 2016 election. And the faith community has to take the lead in this. And because it is clear where a significant segment of white Evangelicals stand on this, it’s no surprise that people of color are leaving that tradition.
What the Episcopal Church has to do, if it wants to be welcoming of people of color, is it has to make clear where it stands on these issues. That more the Episcopal church takes a stand and breaks the silence on issues of social injustice, the more attractive it will become to those people who always find themselves on the underside of injustice.
As I listen to these different voices, I see different views in the practical application of the “dream” of this inclusive community, but despite those surface differences, there is a continuing theme of keeping one’s eyes open to one’s surrounding community, of maintaining dialogue with one’s neighbors, and clearly articulating the Church’s intention to follow the Gospel in its interaction with that community. There is diversity of opinion in the details, but a commitment to use engagement with community as a yardstick for faithfulness seems like a good start.
It’s time to be moved by the Spirit
The next step in Becoming Beloved Community is defined as “Repairing the Breach.” This step asks the following questions:
What institutions and systems are broken? How will we participate in repair, restoration, and healing of people, institutions, and systems?
Repairing the breach between the Episcopal church and people of color includes looking at and addressing potential tensions between asking people of color to assimilate to the largely white, Anglo-Saxon culture of the Episcopal church, and asking the Episcopal Church to be shaped by the culture of its surrounding neighborhood, people, and culture.
A shift to embrace and uplift the culture of people we invite into the church can feel risky for congregations and longtime Episcopalians. But this kind of welcome doesn’t have to be giant cultural shift for many congregations, nor will it likely be. Welcome and acknowledgment can start with those who are already here, or just outside the door.
A well-meaning, largely white liberal congregation may have a range of assumptions about who it wants to welcome when it talks about inclusivity—demographically, culturally, and economically—but we have to start somewhere, and then build on that foundation. And for many churches, that means by starting with acknowledging and talking with the black community that is already within or attracted to the Episcopal Church. As Austin Channing Brown put it:
I would say start where you are. There are lots of black folks who are very educated and very well off and might really enjoy an Episcopalian service. You have to start with what you know and where you are located and who is in the neighborhood. If that means a certain demographic, then start there. Then, once you have reached capacity, once you are actually a diverse congregation, once you have people of color in your leadership positions, on committees, serving in volunteer roles, I think then you can galvanize those folks and say, “Okay, who’s still not here? Who can we welcome and how? How can we reach out to the community? How can we help those who were formerly incarcerated? How can we reach out to the homeless shelter?” And you further increase the diversity from there. But it starts with acknowledging who you are.
As Reverend Dr. Matthew Burdette told me:
Ultimately the question is, are we being faithful with what we have been given? In America, the culture of the black church hasn’t been Anglicanism. It’s not that there aren’t black Anglicans—there are a lot of them—but the “Black Church” is usually associated with a Baptist or Charismatic Church. In many ways, black Episcopalians are choosing Anglicanism against all the other cultural options that might seem on the surface be more of a given. And that’s great. People who choose the Episcopal Church choose it specifically for Anglican music and Anglican liturgy. There’s something nice, actually, about just being who we are.
The Reverend Canon Dr. Altagracia Perez-Bullard told me that our liturgy and values are exactly what attracts some Latinx people to the Episcopal Church:
It’s a very attractive church for second and third generation Latinos is because of its values. The values of democracy, the values of dialogue, the values of rational conversation, that we are not fueled by fear and bigotry. Even if the Church doesn’t live into it perfectly, it creates a space for that conversation to happen in a way that doesn’t always happen in other traditions. It’s really attractive for people who were raised to value democracy and to value free thought and to value the fact that other people’s opinions matter. Also, for Latinx people in particular, the familiarity of the Catholic liturgy and what that means to us in terms of our spiritual practices is a strong selling point. We are not a post-modern people, and those historic practices hold great value to us and make us feel at home. These are some of the reasons why the Episcopal Church is flourishing in the Latinx community.
However, for some people of color entering the Episcopal Church, the welcome can feel dependent upon meeting certain Anglo-centric cultural expectations associated with education, affluence, and history. As Reverend Canon Stephanie Spellers, Canon to the Presiding Bishop for Evangelism and Reconciliation and author of Radical Welcome and The Episcopal Way (with Eric Law) describes it:
When we come to the question of welcome, here is the rub for us. This is a church that says the Episcopal Church welcomes you, and we really do mean it. We want to be the church where everyone finds a home, which is part of our Catholic impulse. But we want them to find a home in the home we’ve built. Our view seems to be “We hope you like the prayers we wrote. Now here are the rules.” These are the words we speak, and we don’t even realize the contradiction and the lack of welcome embedded in that message that everybody can come, fine print, if you love the way we worship, a certain culture, a certain class identity. I will know the Episcopal Church is welcoming when my brother, who sells CDs out of the trunk of his car in Knoxville, Tennessee, feels as welcome as I do. Until that day, we will keep asking, what are the gifts of this tradition that actually can morph to meet different cultural expressions? And what are the things in our church that make it difficult for us to incarnate in the different cultural spaces? Because we love this church so much, we need to point out that it struggles mightily with becoming incarnate in the cultures that we actually call home.
And toward that mission, Spellers encourages us to allow ourselves to be moved by the Spirit and allow it to disrupt our impulse to control, a tendency left over from our days as a tool of Empire:
One of the first principles of being Anglican is being true to context. That’s not what the Empire tells us, but it’s actually one of the first principles of Anglicanism. And we lean into it and then we lean away from it because it’s scary. And when we are leaning into the spirit, what’s the role of the spirit in Empire? The Empire needs to shut down the Spirit. The Spirit disrupts, the Spirit forces you to take risks. The Spirit forces you into unfamiliar spaces. But Anglicanism can do that. There’s so much in our theological tradition says, don’t cling to a particular understanding of what is true, because God may be trying to reveal something else to you. In the reading we have from Pentecost, from John 15, Jesus is telling the disciples, “I’m about to send the Spirit, and you don’t want her, but you need her. There are things that I can’t even tell you right now, she’s going to be the one who tells you. So just hang tight.” And that’s what Anglicanism preaches at its best. It tells people, be free. Be free from the constraints that would stop you from following the way of the Spirit.
What I hear in these messages is that the Spirit is pushing us, to relinquish the trappings of control—control of liturgy, music, class expression, even our coffee hour conversation. The Spirit is going to move us as a body, and in our bodies, as we not only welcome but uplift the culture of our neighbors of color.
If it sounds like a risk of losing our cultural identity, it is important to remember what Reverend Canon Dr. Altagracia Perez-Bullard has to say about change:
After my 30 years’ experience in church, I think that you would be hard pressed to lose your identity. The way that culture functions, the way that organizations organize themselves toward survival dictates against the fact that they would lose themselves. As long as they define their purpose and their mission as sharing the Good News while being transformed by the Good News they will always be Christian. They will always be Prayer Book-centered. They will always be semi-democratic and hierarchical. There are things that even if we wanted to kill me we couldn’t. It’s just not going to happen.
Change is very difficult, very few people embrace it wholeheartedly. If you keep doing the work of trying to continue to be inclusive and engaging like everybody that’s in your church and the people in the community, there’s only so much change you’re going to do because change is real, real, real slow and so that’s not a risk I worry about. We’re better off erring on the side of embracing change wholeheartedly and seeing where it takes us. Based on your gifts, based on your history, based on your identity, how can you be responsive to the needs of this community in a way that authentic to who you are?
It’s time to show up in a body
The fourth commitment within the interconnected parts of Becoming Beloved Community is “Practicing the way of love,” which asks:
How will we grow as reconcilers, healers, and justice-bearers? How will we actively grow relationship across dividing walls and seek Christ in the other?
A refrain that I heard repeatedly in my conversations for this piece was that our relationship with people of color in our midst is not only improved with an attitude of welcome, but the relinquishment of certain kinds of control that limit others’ cultural expressions.
Two fundamental aspects of church life at the heart of that dialogue between cultural control and expression are how express ourselves musically, and how we bring our bodies—not just our intellect—to church.
Musical expression and responding to it bodily, with clapping, with movement, has always been an important part of the religious experience of people of color. Austin Channing Brown told me a story about her mother’s experience as a black woman joining an Episcopal church and helping transform the music within her parish:
Allowing people of color to see themselves is a great way to start the process of welcome. I remember the music being something that I could tell she was having influence over, especially the longer we attended. They never became a gospel choir, but they did somehow manage to infuse songs that we were familiar with in the black church into the music, as the church had always been singing. My mom actually joined the choir because of that. Because she just saw a little bit of herself. She didn’t come in expecting everything to change just because she was in the congregation. She was absolutely willing to give herself over to the Episcopal tradition. But I know it helped her feel like a sense of belonging. She felt like she was wanted, desired, and that she wasn’t expected to leave herself at the door.
Brown also talked about her own experience going to churches with different musical experiences, and how the music embodies the way that people are showing up to worship:
We went to a couple of services and they were all white, and to be honest, they were a little boring compared to a black church. People are singing and dancing and there is so much going on in your average black church. It was hard for us to feel like the Spirit was moving in that church in the way that we expect, culturally.
It’s a constant compromise. The Church is a system, and what systems really want is stability. They want to be the exact same, all the time, so that things function well, and nobody complains. Everyone knows what to expect.
But when we’re talking about adding in real diversity, we have to get comfortable with constantly disrupting the system. In some ways, being uncomfortable and trying things that don’t work and trying things that worked really well. Learning from other churches in the area and really working hard to trying new things.
I think an extreme version of this is the Beyoncé Mass that just happened out in California. I mean, talk about being full of life! I don’t think it requires Beyoncé for your church to be that full of life. There are smaller steps we could take that have just as big of an impact that says we want this to be a place of joy. We want everyone to sing out. We will sometimes have a very intellectual, heavy, bring out your notebooks kind of sermon, but then sometimes we’re just going to talk about the street where you live. And just get comfortable with change.
I wonder if the Episcopal Church is willing to rethink how its theology lives in the body, lives in the church, lives in the service. Bringing the full body is important, particularly to the African-American experience and for other people of color. Not just because of our church experience, but because of society. Because many of us spend all day, every day, sacrificing our bodies for a just cause or to a predominantly white work place or even just spending a ton of time on our hair. Because we spend a lot of time discussing our bodies, because our culture and mainstream media has a lot to say about our bodies.
To attend a church that is only focused on the soul or the spirit or the mind misses a really important part of the African-American experience and the people of color experience. But also, and this is an important part of our theological experience, right, to think about the body of Jesus, and therefore, to think about our own bodies. I wonder if there could be sort of a renaissance around theology and how we show up in church.
If Dr. Esau McCaulley, quoted in the last installment, sees potential reconciliation in the relationship between black people and evangelical churches in terms of Beyoncé and Jay-Z talking communicating through their music, the Episcopal Church may find redemption in mirroring Beyoncé’s breakout performance at Coachella!
The Reverend Canon Dr. Altagracia Perez-Bullard used music as an example of peoples’ resistance to change, even if that change reflects something authentic:
I’ve always been the leader of bilingual, multi-cultural congregations and my question to my Afro-Caribbean Episcopal parishioners has always been this: You have a lot of resistance to certain things being changed in the music in church, but when you go home, and you listen to Christian music for inspiration you are not listening to organ music. You are not listening to classical music. You are listening to Caribbean music. Christian music with steel drums, and congas, and different instrumentation, and different choral arrangements. If that speaks to you in your personal daily life, and that’s what you listen to in your car, why not recognize that experience is exactly what we’re trying to do for people in church?
What we identify with musically is different in all of our cultures, so that’s the kind of question I ask to try to get people to question what they’re doing. Many of them have a fear of losing their tradition, and I assure them it’s not going to happen. They’re afraid their church is going to die, but when they could make changes to make their church feel more alive, they say, “Oh, but that’s not who we are.” Well, obviously it is.
Canon Stephanie Spellers talks about the capacity of the Episcopal Church to embrace multiple cultural expressions, including such expressions as the Beyoncé Mass, without losing its essential identity:
The genius of this Church and part of what a lot of evangelical and other folks are drawn to is this idea that we occupy multiple spaces without whiplash. Don’t tell me that I can’t love a prayer that’s based on something written in the 1500s and love Hip Hop. You don’t get to tell me that. That’s how I grew up, living the contradictions and even kind of enjoying mashing things up like that. I think this Church can hold the mashup better than almost anybody if we want to.
And the idea that an Episcopal cathedral is hosting a Beyoncé mass, that they are taking these Catholic traditions and weaving them together with a context that is completely authentic in San Francisco. And that is a liberation context where people are singing Freedom, freedom, I can’t move, freedom cut me loose. That’s Beyoncé’s lyric but it’s Jesus’ good news. And there aren’t many churches that can pull that off well.
But we do. That’s my thing about, we have these moments that pop up where we are true to, not just the genius, but the dream of God as it lives in the Episcopal Church. Every now and then we live into it, and it’s when we’re true to context. It’s when we’re true to our bodies. We’re an embodied church.
And for folk of color, a part of being on the margins is that we have permission to inhabit our bodies in a way that people in power usually are not allowed. As a white man, you are fit to hold power as long as you are disconnected from your body.
And honestly, we say to black people, we say to Latinos, we say to women, you will also be fit for power if you say no to your bodies. And that’s Empire talking. That’s what the Empire has said in all the places we’ve gone as missionaries, we’ve been like stop dancing, stop moving, stop doing this, stop doing that, right? Jesus doesn’t like it when you move.
But we’ve also said, Jesus shows up embodied, that we are a fleshy Church. There are some churches that trace back to sin as the heart of the story of God with us. We trace to the Incarnation. That we trace to the goodness of God incarnate among us, which transforms the very nature of human life and human flesh. And once Jesus touches flesh, we get to embrace flesh too.
And because we are a church that says yes to the flesh, we should be able to embrace the bodies of people of color. We should be the church that tells white folk who have been told you must separate from your body, get back into your body. Your body is where Jesus is talking to you. Your body is where the Spirit is waiting for you. Which is very much at home for a lot of folk of color.
The truth is that people of color can save the Episcopal Church. If there is evangelism attempting to build relationship with communities of color, let it not be because we have something for them. Let it be because this Church needs to come back to itself, and people of color are the ones who can best reveal that for this Church.
Bearing the cross in our neighborhoods and into the world
And so, the answer to the initial question of this article, which is how we as a church can better welcome people of color (whether from Evangelical or other backgrounds) seems to lie in the Episcopal Church allowing itself to be transformed through the process of embracing and uplifting the cultural influences of its contemporary context and neighborhood.
According to those I spoke with, this transformative process is a matter of not only listening, but of:
Repenting for what we have done in the past, as individuals and corporately
Recognizing where we are and naming what we want to be
Intentionally and thoughtfully uplifting the culture of our neighbors
Working not just as a social organization of people, but allowing God to work through us as a Church
Allowing the Spirit to help us relinquish our control over maintaining a certain cultural order
We can be assured that the Episcopal Church has the room and the flexibility to hold multiple cultural expressions while still being authentically us—and we can have faith that through the Incarnation and through the Spirit, it is ultimately not us, but God, who is doing God’s great work in the world through the Church.
Allowing ourselves to be rooted in and nourished by our local community requires a twofold focus. One aspect of our focus is to be a sanctuary space within the community, and to do our work as faithful stewards of the Gospel. As Reverend Dr. Matthew Burdette says:
People from our communities, rich or poor, often come to church for a spiritual life, not necessarily as a home base for activism. People want a place to sleep, they want clothing, they often times need treatment for illness. But they also want to know that they have a community of people who love them, and that they are welcome to find God there, and to hear the Good News. The people of God throughout history have suffered all manner of injustice, often times with no hope of it being remedied. Injustices matter, but Christians are given the grace of the long view. We can say, “This too shall pass.” In the meantime, we’re going to pray, we’re going to work for justice, we’re going to name injustice, and we’re going to keep talking about Jesus. And we’re going to go to bed at night knowing God is in control.
But even while we cultivate a faithful church outpost in our neighborhoods, we are also still in the world, and called to act within it. And when we are authentically faithful and present, in our fleshy bodies and moved by the Spirit, we can actively live into our beliefs by going out into the world with an attitude of accountability for what happens in it. As Very Reverend Canon Kelly Brown Douglas says:
The Episcopal Church can definitely learn from the best of the Black faith tradition. And the best of the Black faith tradition has always stood steadfastly for that which they believe to be the justice of God. Like the historic Black faith tradition, the Episcopal Church and other faith communities would do well to uphold Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
If, 50 years after his assassination, we are going to take the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. seriously, then we have to take seriously the way in which he lived into what it meant to bear the cross. To bear the cross was to be accountable, not to the way things were, but accountable to the future that was God’s. The Black faith tradition believed in the promise of God’s justice, and it believed that God’s future would be the definitive future. Which means it believed in the resurrection and that God’s future would triumph over the injustices of the world. King came out of that Black faith tradition; he talked about it all the time, he was shaped by it.
And when you hold yourself accountable for God’s future, it makes you restless for the ways in which our present world is not aligned with God’s future. It makes you restless for justice, and that restlessness causes one to act. That’s what King means by bearing the cross.
White faith traditions love to hold up Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but they need to hold him up as one who understood what it meant to be Christian. And lived into that. That was not an easy sort of Christianity. That was a Christianity that took seriously what it meant to have a crucified Jesus, to have a cross, as its central symbol.
For King it was not about wearing a cross around one’s neck, it was about bearing the cross into the world. That’s the Black church tradition at its best; standing up for justice in spite of the challenges and what may be the repercussions as they do so. That’s the tradition we in the Episcopal Church should look to, to learn from the very people that sometimes feel the least welcomed in their church.
[Article originally appeared in Episcopal Cafe Magazine]