This is the fourth reading in the joint program “Black History 2020: Looking Back to Live Forward” led by Rev. LaDonna Nkosi, the new Director of Intercultural Ministries and Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. We will be offering various blogs, videos, and articles throughout the month of February exploring the intersections of faith, Black history, and current day racism. We hope you join us this month to read, listen, and reflect as we look back through history, so we can better live into Christ.
Written by Alexandra Toms, Racial Justice Associate in OPP
When picking a church, people try to find a church where they “fit in.” It may be that they attend a church that has a strong children’s program because they are a young family. It could be they attend a church with opportunities to share their musical talents or offers services with their preferred style of music and worship. If your Brethren, you make sure to find a church that has a lot of fellowship activities with awesome potlucks. Regardless, most people try to find a church that matches their beliefs in God and meets their needs and wants. What if one of those “wants” is that the fellow congregants are the same race as they are?
The most segregated time of the week is Sunday morning, when many citizens of the United States are attending church. As people choose the church they want to attend, they choose one where they “fit in.” We tend to “fit in” at churches where people look like us, act like us, and have similar customs. The race of people in our congregations often influences our choices even when we are not aware. We may feel comfortable in a congregation because of specific practices and traditions, but those traditions come from cultures. Different ethnicities and different cultures practice their faith and live out their faith in unique ways. For example, I teach as a college professor, and a student of mine from Puerto Rico shared how she was reprimanded in high school for wearing her rosary beads around her neck. In Puerto Rico, wearing one’s rosary was a symbol of faith! In the continental US, in a predominantly white Catholic high school, it was a sign of disrespect. So what type of church is she going to feel most comfortable attending? One where she can proudly wear her rosary or one where she feels condemnation for doing so? If you were Catholic, where would you want to attend?
Where we “fit in” at church ends up being segregated by race, which at face value may not sound like a bad thing. However, history has taught us that there is no such thing as separate but equal. What ends up happening is instead of simply coexisting in different churches, we become unaware of different churches. We become unaware of how others live out their faith. We become unaware of other customs, traditions, and ways of knowing the Divine. We become unaware that our way of knowing God is not the only way, and we forget how to learn. When we stop learning, we end up being the ones who criticize a young girl for how she wears her rosary beads.
When we practice our faith with people of different races, customs, and traditions, we learn more about who God is. The Lord created people of all races, cultures, and ethnicities to worship him in their own ways. As we practice our faith with people of various backgrounds, we learn more about who God is because different cultures connect to different characteristics of God. As a young white woman, the images and characteristics of God I have grown up with are different than the images and characteristics of God that a person of color may connect with. For example, for many people of color, the Lord is a God of liberation. God used Moses to free the people of Israel who were enslaved and oppressed. During his life, Jesus liberated people from oppressive forces in society: the sinners, the outcasts, the foreigner, the poor. He gave them a new life in a society that had pushed them to the margins. In Luke 4:18-19, we read that Jesus stood up in the synagogue and read from Isaiah, “‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’…’Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’” (NIV).
Jesus did not choose a church because he wanted to “fit in” nor did he spend time with people he fit in with. He chose to spend his time with the marginalized and the outcasts, but it was not solely for the purpose of healing. He broke bread with, lived with, ministered to, and was ministered to by those who were marginalized in society. He lived alongside the oppressed getting to know them, who they were, and what their needs were. If those in positions of power struggle to even learn about who God is from people who are oppressed, how are they going to learn about the person being oppressed and what their needs are. If I, as a young white woman, who is in a position of power simply because of my race do not live alongside people who are oppressed, I may never learn. If I never learn, then I will continue living a segregated life perpetuating discrimination.
Segregation is no longer considered illegal, however much of the U.S. is segregated by race including housing developments, schools, workforce, and employment. Even though a company may employ people of different races, quite often the jobs and duties are segregated by race. Even with affirmative action, there are various struggles that people of color disproportionately encounter. For example, a position that requires a master’s degree is often considered a high-level position, and these positions are disproportionately held by people who are white. The difficulty comes in attaining a master’s degree. Higher education in general is costly for people in the United State, including expenses beyond tuition such as room and board, textbooks, travel, etc. People of color have a greater likelihood of experiencing financial insecurity than people who are white. An undergraduate education often is a huge success and huge financial toll for anyone. For those who experience financial insecurity, education beyond undergraduate becomes even more difficult and may seem unattainable. This results in predominantly white affluent people achieving graduate level education, so the applicant pool for an upper level position requiring a master’s degree is predominantly white. Even with affirmative action, the monetary toll of graduate level education and the need to provide financially for one’s family limits integration in these areas of the workforce.
How do we know money is one of the hindrances to integration? It requires that people live and work alongside those who are oppressed, listening to their stories and learning from them. If people do not step out of their comfort zones and remain on the outside looking in, incorrect assumptions will continue to be made, assuming that people who are oppressed do not have the drive for graduate level education, or they do not desire those types of jobs. Or concluding that they have every opportunity as everybody else, but they choose not to get the education; they are self-segregating!
These assumptions would be wrong.
As we move about our daily lives, instead of always finding places that we fit in, maybe we need to be looking for places that we don’t fit? Live alongside people that are different from us and learn what it means for them to live. What brings them joy, pain, sadness, and trouble? Celebrate with them in the joyous moments. Mourn with them in the times of pain. Be present even when it is not comfortable. Live like Jesus lived.
In the United States, our churches are segregated, and the average American’s life mirrors this segregation. Below are various roles people have in our lives. For each of these roles, identify how many people you interact with regularly who are of a different race than you.
- ______ Family
- ______ Friends
- ______ Congregants
- ______ Coworkers
- ______ Clients (people you work with who are not coworkers)
- ______ Additional______________
- ______ Additional_______________
What are ways that you could increase the diversity of the groups you are a part of? What are some ways you could break out of your comfort zone to live alongside people who are different than you?
The parable of the good Samaritan is often used to explain how our neighbors who we are to love are not just the people who are like us, but also the people who are different than us. It is a common Scripture used when discussing race because the Samaritan extended love and care for the person of a different race; of a race who he was supposed to despise. By stopping to take care of the man, the Samaritan showed love for his neighbor. He also stood up to racism in the process by crossing the racial divide of the two ethnic groups. The Samaritan put the needs of the person above his own comfort and above societal expectations.
- What are ways that the Priest and the Levite wanted to protect their comfort over helping the person in need? Who were they “fitting in” with?
- What was the Samaritan risking by stopping to help?
- When is a time that you saw a “man along the side of the ride,” a time that you encountered racism, but simply continued walking? What could you have done instead?
- When is a time that you were the Samaritan, and stood up against racism? How was the experience?