On Being White in My Black Church

As a preface: Part of Paul’s job as a chaplain in the Air Force is to pastor one of the chapel services held on the base. There are three different services each weekend at these chapels; a Catholic Mass, a Protestant service and Gospel service. Each of these services function much like an individual church and so Paul is the “pastor” of one of these “churches.” Of the 225-ish members, 90% are African-American and are either active duty airmen, retired airmen or somehow related to someone in the military. There are five lay leaders in the chapel and these leaders, along with Paul, direct the group as a whole. While not a church in the biblical sense (well, at least, there is no membership and thus no discipline, elections etc.) Paul still serves in many of the same ways as a typical minister would with the lay leaders doing much of the day to day work of assisting members and running the organization. This is a significant part of his responsibility as a Chaplain.

This is my second post about my ongoing education about the concept of the universal church. My first post gave an overview of the topic (and why this little baptist girl even started thinking about it!) while this one is about a specific way that I’ve been challenged.

Race is such a touchy subject. Writing a blog post about our gospel chapel seemed like a pretty straightforward task, but it’s been quite the contrary! As proof, I’ve been sitting here for a long time trying to think how to open this blog post and I keep coming up empty handed.

You see, it’s hard to write a funny story about being white in a black church. At least, as an opener. I feel as though a thorough explanation is needed before I mention any humorous parts of the situation. And that feeling, the sense that this is a big deal, makes it difficult for me to say what I want to say because I don’t want to be trite, insensitive or dismissive.

Nevertheless, for lack of a better introduction, here’s what I think.

I think that skin-color is not a main cause of any discomfort I’ve felt when worshipping with our predominantly African-American congregation. Instead, it’s my complete lack of understanding for the black church’s culture combined with the sense that my “whiteness” carries some an innate reminder of the entire historical context of race relationships in our country.  This feeling is always there, even when I join this group of believers in worshiping God.

I also think that it’s that second issue which has resulted in the first. It’s so overwhelmingly uncomfortable to delve into the complex and painful history of American race relations that we as white believers have, instead, removed ourselves from any situations that might have forced us to interact with the black church in America.

Because, well, it’s awkward.

Now, it’s always awkward to step into a new culture and even more so as a minority participant. I expect that I would have been more comfortable walking into the “new culture” of a white Anglican church, or a white Mennonite church or a white Pentecostal church than it was walking into a black Gospel church.

That first Sunday morning, when our family snuck into the chapel on a reconnaissance mission to check out our new church family before Paul officially stepped into his role as the Pastor, I felt so out of place. We didn’t know any of the songs, didn’t understand the flow of the service, couldn’t really learn the trick to singing, clapping and swaying in tandem and weren’t prepared for the overwhelming amount of hugs that we (as visitors) would be receiving during the meet-and-greet. As is common practice (unbeknownst to us) every visitor is handed a mic and expected to introduce themselves, their family and as much of their history as deemed applicable to the situation. Add to this culture shock the truth that yes, we are a family of five very white people so we did stand out a bit. Taken all together, I felt like there was conspicuous (neon?) sign hanging over our heads blinking “New, awkward and rhythm-less white people here!”

(Also, Meg started wailing in the middle of the service…but then, that has nothing to do with race or religion and more to do with the ubiquitous need for children to embarrass their parents during the most inconvenient moments. Can I get and Amen?!)

In other words, there was no slipping in and slipping out.

But it’s here that I want to brag on our people from the chapel. Though I felt very uncomfortable, they did not! Having watched them for a while now, I know that they showed us the same genuine love and acceptance that they always do. We were loved from that first moment when our congregation saw and heard us stumble through a hastily prepared introduction. And Paul’s position didn’t seem to have any bearing on the way that we were greeted. They have shown the same exuberance for all visitors who come through their doors. It felt like John 13:34-35 love. Brothers and sisters in Christ meeting each other with a joyful welcome ensuing. And it’s been that way ever since. They have encouraged us and loved on us and helped us when we needed guidance for how to navigate in this new environment.  God’s grace has been shown to us through them.

Now I know that culture plays a part in the various ways that groups meet new people. For example in a typical white church the meet-and-greet is a polite handshake and a friendly verbal greeting…and plenty of personal space. In our black church a typical meet-and-greet is big hello along with an equally big hug. Personal space? What personal space? But even accounting for the differences in culture (hugs vs. handshakes to show to love) I’ve felt a more palpable sense of welcome in our chapel than I have from the people in some of the white churches that we’ve visited in the last few years.

So, we’ve been here for eight months. And I’ve learned a thing or two in that time. Happily, both Paul and I have adjusted to the excitement of the worship service. I even throw out a “Praise Jesus!” every once in a while : ) We’ve also learned to be better huggers. (You laugh, but it’s skill!) We’ve also learned just how passionate our church family is about the God that they love. They express it differently than I do (or any of the churches that I grew up in did) but it is genuine and it is moving. I have much to learn from this body of Christ! I am learning to embrace their passion and find ways to show it in my own life. Most notably, I believe that my time at the chapel has helped me become a more open and loving believer.  I’ve learned the value of moving towards people, all people! I interact with more people when I’m out on a walk. I encourage my children to be kind to strangers and talk to them. In doing so I’ve come to realize that truly, we humans are more alike than we are different. There is much joy to be found in discovering our commonalities. Especially when those people are brothers or sisters in Christ.

Another notable thing I’ve learned is that it’s extremely stressful being the member of a minority participant within a group of people. In a crowded church service, knowing that we stood out (for better or worse) made it hard for me to concentrate on the message, the singing (other than how badly I was singing the unfamiliar music), or even the kindness of the people around me. Worship did not come easily for me that first Sunday morning.

This observation may provide valuable insight for my fellow white American church-goers. You may need to recognize that people of a different culture or race who walk into your church one Sunday may never come back again. Contrary to what you might be tempted to think, they may not have left because they were spiritually deficient and unable to accept your “superior” Christian traditions (music, dress, liturgy etc.) Rather, it may be because they felt really uncomfortable….even if you did your best to welcome them (with your different music, dress and liturgy!) In my case, even the way that my African-American brothers and sisters welcomed me was stressful! When God called us to unity, he didn’t say that it would be easy. I have always loved my churches and have naively assumed that any normal, clear-thinking, God-loving, bible-reading believer would love it to….if only they tried.

And that is really the salient point. Just because you love your worship, your culture and your traditions does not mean that everyone will love it. In fact, your traditions and practices (all perfectly fine) might actually make it very difficult for them to engage in worship.

So what if they leave your service and find one where they feel more comfortable, where worshiping God comes more easily and they can praise him with less awkwardness and angst? Is that a sin? Are they wrong to do that? I’m throwing the question out there because I haven’t really come to a good conclusion in my own mind yet. It will have to ping-pong around in my brain a little while more.

In our case, God pretty much said, “Well, here is your new church family! Play nice! Love them! Serve them!” There wasn’t another option for us and in many ways, I am extremely thankful for that. Our time here has forced me to think about topics that wouldn’t have come up naturally in my life. I’m studying issues of race in America because some of my good friends here are black! I’m reading about the black church and its history in America because they are my church family!It’s relevant to me and I want to understand.

One of the most memorable lines from my recent trip to the conference Together For the Gospel came from Thabiti Anyabwile when, during a seminar on race in the American church, he said that one of the most amazing acts of God in our history is that the God of the slave owners became the God of the slaves. And yet he questioned the larger white church as to why those Africa-American believers were not welcomed into the established churches of that day, thus setting in motion the roots for the black denominations we have now. “We have black churches,” he said, “because we had white churches.”

Bringing racial reconciliation to the church is a topic way above my pay grade and bandwidth. But something that Thabiti said has stuck with me. One of the simplest ways to embrace reconciliation on a personal level is to show love, to be a friend. When God saved each of us he moved towards us. Jesus calls all believers his friends. Do you? Have you ever moved towards a person from a completely different background and sought to be their friend (without any ulterior motives of trying to make them more like you?)

Perhaps you should. Perhaps you need to move towards that person that is so very different from you. It just might change the way that you’ve been thinking.

(And, as a prep course, you can always come and visit us on a Sunday morning : )

Morma Francis, of Atlanta, raises her hand to ask a question during a community town hall forum at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church where The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, Monday, Dec. 8, 2014, in Atlanta. Dozens of people met at the church to discuss recent cases of unarmed black men being fatally shot by police and ways to improve the way officers interact with the public.(AP Photo/David Goldman)

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

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