Recently a friend invited me to speak to Intervarsity students at UCSB on how the Holy Spirit leads us to action. More specifically, she asked if I would talk about racial reconciliation. Unsure of what I was getting myself into, I agreed, believing this would be a good opportunity to flesh out some thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head for a while. Little did I know how much this process of writing a talk would spur my passions and convictions about reconciliation and peacemaking. Below is an adapted version of my talk about racial reconciliation and multi-ethnic community. In many ways I feel like this barely scratches the surface. But I also believe that this is a good place to start and I am hopeful for whatever comes next.
Quick disclaimer: In no way do I consider myself to be an expert on these topics, but I do I have some very real convictions that I believe God has place on my heart and my hope is simply to share some of that with you. All I can do is speak from my experience, things that I’ve learned and observed, and I sincerely hope you can glean something out of all this.
Let me start off by telling you a little more about myself. I am from the Bay Area, born and raised in Oakland, Ca. And I lived there pretty much my whole life except for the 4 years I was in college. I have a BA in Global Studies and minor in Sociology from Azusa Pacific University. And I just moved to the Santa Barbara area last summer because my husband got a job at a church in Goleta.
I was raised in christian community, I literally went to the same church my entire life until moving here. And it’s that church, my home church in Oakland, that I think really set the foundation for my understanding of reconciliation and multi-ethnic community. Obviously, being in the Bay Area, diversity is almost a given, but even in my lifetime, I witnessed this church grow and be challenged in navigating what it means to truly be in multi-ethnic community together.
Without going into too much history, let me just tell you that this church was started about 150 years ago by a handful of Swedish immigrants. And while they were located in the Bay Area, I believe it could have been very easy for this church to remain insular and maintain a predominantly white congregation. But instead of keeping to their comfortable cultural group, I believe they made conscious efforts over the years to reflect the diversity of their surrounding community by intentionally being multi-ethnic, multi-socio-economic, and multi-generational.
And so while that’s great and all, the harder lesson to learn was that diversity is really just the first step. Especially in recent years, as both racial and political tensions have increased in this country, we discovered that even within a beautifully multi-ethnic community there can be a false sense of peace.
What I mean by this is, that even though this church had a large variety of people groups gathered in one place each week, that didn’t necessarily mean we all actually interacted with one another or really knew each other’s stories and struggles. Moreover, I think in well meaning attempts to remain open and welcoming, the church would often tiptoe around topics that might be considered divisive. There seemed to be a lot things that we just didn’t talk about, like there was some unspoken rule. Let me be clear, I highly respect churches that refrain from declaring a political stance from the pulpit. I don’t think that should be a thing. But the issue was that, for a long time, there seemed to be a hesitancy to rock to boat which cultivated a reluctance to address issues that were truly relevant to the surrounding community. The very real pain and struggles of many was left unseen.
Ultimately, I believe that the church had bought into the lie that silence would keep the peace. And sadly, I think this is a mistake many communities make. We are often hesitant to go against the grain or to disrupt the status quo because we fear that doing so will cause everything to fall apart.
I have found however, that this doesn’t have to be the case. Addressing relevant issues and seeking to understand the pain of those in our communities will not break the church. Instead this ought to make our churches stronger.
But in order to do so, we must rediscover our ability to dialogue and discuss things together. I believe that our churches and christian communities need to form new spaces where we can seek to navigate these tense issues together. This requires patience and creativity. But my hope is that we will discover that we can indeed trust our communities to hold the tension together, to stick it through the uncomfortability and as we begin to address all those things that have gone unspoken for far too long, we may learn to truly listen to one another and hear each other’s stories.
So how do we actually create space for dialogue that leads to reconciliation? I would like to suggest 3 main points.
(1) First, we must learn the difference between peacekeeping and peacemaking.
One of my favorite authors, Sarah Bessey writes,
“I believe in creating peace, in disrupting for peace, in the truth that peace isn’t always polite and it certainly isn’t status quo and it isn’t always cozy…and it will make people uncomfortable because they’re so used to benefitting from the lack of it.”
More often than not, the pursuit of true peace requires us to shake things up, to stir the pot, and rock the boat. Peacemaking requires us to take risks in the hopes that there is a better way forward. But this is no easy task. And this is where I think the Holy Spirit comes in.
I believe Holy Spirit is disruptive and likes to shake things up when we get too comfortable and retreat into the safety of false peace.
You can see this even back in Genesis 11 with the Tower of Babel. This story tells us that all the people of the world spoke just one language. And as they expanded and moved eastward, they decided to stop and build a great city. But rather than let them build a tower reaching to the heavens, God scattered them across the earth and confused their language. Often people interpret this story simply as God punishing the people for trying to build a tower up to the heavens. However, Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, explores this issue in her book Roadmap to Reconciliation and reveals that there is much more at play here. She explains that God’s initial command for people to “fill the earth” was with the expectation that over time, as people expanded into different regions of the world, new cultures would develop. She writes, “it was a decree to create cultures, because no one culture, people or language can adequately reflect the splendor of God.” Accordingly, we can now see that in Genesis 11, this group’s decision to settle down and stop migrating, was in fact a refusal to continue their God-given mandate to fill the earth, thus inhibiting any further diversification of people groups. Furthermore it becomes clear that the scattering of peoples and confusion of languages was in fact the fulfillment of God’s plan for diversity.
This story reveals that God’s intent for humanity is for us to be beautifully diverse, but so often we tend to settle down into comfortable, like-minded circles. This is why we need to invite the Holy Spirit to disrupt us and shakes us out of this false sense of peace.
Another example of the Holy Spirit shaking things up can be found in Acts 2, we see God’s people disrupted by the Spirit and suddenly gifted with the ability to speak a variety of languages. This time, however, the confusion of languages is actually seen as a gift. Here, the early church understands their calling to spread the gospel and further God’s kingdom. And so, empowered by God, they used this gift to speak across barriers of culture and language to invite others into the family of Christ.
So I pray for each of you, as you lean into the guidance of the Holy Spirit: keep an eye out for how God might be shaking things up and pushing you (or your community) out of this false sense of peace. Rather than clinging to the comforts of familiarity or sameness, how might we embrace discomfort as a gift and trust God to equip us with what we need to engage with others across divisions of race, culture, ideology, etc.
(2) The second point that I believe is essential to understand in creating space for dialogue is that at the heart of reconciliation is a call to remain in community together.
Hebrews 10:24-25 (NIV) says,
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
I don’t know about you, but when I was in college, I found it difficult to find a church. A major part of this is that I was continually looking for red flags in the sermon or searching for some other aspect of the church that I disagreed with. I wanted to find a church that perfectly aligned with everything I believed in and that cared about all the things I cared about.
Not to burst your bubble, but I can tell you with great certainty that no such church exists. It is nearly impossible to find a community that is 100% aligned with all your beliefs and passions. Moreover, no church is perfect. But nonetheless we seek to surround ourselves with like-minded individuals and often leave the church when it fails to meet our standards.
But here in Hebrews we are called to keep meeting together that we might spur one another on toward love and good deeds. We must keep meeting together in ordered to grow in our faith and be challenged by one another. This challenge and growth is not possible when we only surround ourselves with like-minded individuals and opt out any time we run into a community that holds different views from our own. Rather than leaving the church, I believe we are called to stay in church communities even when we don’t entirely agree with everything or everyone. I encourage you to find a community and stick with it. Seek to love it through its imperfections. Only then, out of that love and commitment to staying in community together, can you earn the right to truly challenge one another and seek reconciliation.
I will admit that this is much harder than it sounds. With any issue there is always a push to choose sides and clearly determine who’s right and who’s wrong. We want to know where to draw the line because we find security in knowing who’s in and who’s out. But the challenge of reconciliation is, instead of drawing lines of separation, asking how we can remain in community together. What might it look like to expand our “in” circles to embrace those who might not see the world the same way you do? Reconciliation asks how can we better understand one another, even if we might not agree.
Galatians is a perfect example of this. While this book is often read as an argument for freedom in Christ versus the Law, I believe that the overall purpose of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is to encourage them not to divide over cultural differences. Jewish culture was essentially defined by keeping to Jewish law. However, Paul urges the Galatians to not let cultural difference separate them, but rather to embrace their common identity in Christ.
In The Message, Galatians 3:28-29 says this,
“In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ.”
This call for unity amongst believers can also be found in Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane. Praying for both his disciples and future believers, Jesus says in John 17:20-23 (NIV):
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Jesus’ disciples and the early church are a perfect example of what it means to be unified in Christian community, to love and serve and gather together across all barriers, of race, culture, and economic and social status. They show us what it looks like to continue meeting in community together despite differing perspectives and lifestyles as well as cultural and economic divides.
Yes, sometimes we need to rock the boat, but we must also be willing to stick it through in community together.
(3) Finally, my third point is that when we are in true community together, we find that it is our responsibility to bear each others burdens.
Galatians 6 in the Message says this:
Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law.
Additionally, 1 Cor 12:25-26 (MSG) says:
The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.
Here we see that reconciliation calls us to examine the ways we’ve distanced ourselves from the pain and suffering of others. It challenges us to recognize who we see and who we’ve been taught not to see. We must grow in awareness of the lines and boundaries we have drawn that separate us from our brothers and sisters in Christ and keep us from seeing and embracing their humanity. We must increase our proximity to the pain and brokenness of the oppressed in our communities and learn to recognize their pain as our own. Again, “If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing.”
Reconciliation is essential to being in true multi-ethnic community together. And so it is my hope that when the Holy Spirit shakes things up, rather than clinging to our comfortable circles, may we embrace the challenge of navigating the tensions together and guide our communities towards seeking the mutual flourishing of all. Rather than dividing, may we be convicted to remain in community together and challenge each other in love, thus furthering our witness as the body of Christ. And finally, may we bear each others burdens. As it says in Romans 12, may we weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.
It is my sincere belief that when we hold to these things we will find the courage and creativity to guide our communities into new spaces of dialogue. This, my friends, is where the real work of reconciliation begins.
Grace and peace to you as you follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit.