Racial Reconciliation and Cultural Sensitivity
Rodney O. Lain - January 1996?
This article was written while Rodney was involved with the Macon, GA, Worldwide Church of God (WCG) congregation. It was originally published on the MarkTab Ministries website, a site which no longer exists. It is copyright by Rodney O. Lain. Links have been retained when possible, but many go to the Internet Wayback Machine. Text in all caps has been converted to bold; otherwise this is essentially as Rodney originally wrote it.
In a recent "department heads'" meeting, our pastor led a discussion about issues that could be or need to be addressed in our congregation. At the end of the list was "race". I made a comment, differentiating the terms "racism" and "race," gently reminding the group that, although the former can be socially stigmatized as an outward problem, the latter will always pose an inward, spiritual threat. My comment was ignored and black and white attendees were shocked that the topic even came up; they immediately chorused that "race is not an issue" (FYI: the Macon church is between 60-80% black; it was established because blacks couldn't attend any other place; over the last few "splits" - namely Global and United - there has been a significant exodus of white brethren). One of the people in this "chorus" apologized to me later and basically said he was wrong; there "could be" a problem....
A few years back, a friend, who has spent over 20 of her 40+ years in the Worldwide Church of God, passionately expressed to me in a private conversation that "the church took away my [African-American] culture." I clucked my tongue at her comment, brushing it off with a laugh. But later (see the next vignette), the intent of her words struck me....
After having attended the WCG for a couple years, I moved into my grandparents' home for my last two years of college. My grandfather startled me with his comment one Sabbath as I was walking out the door, headed to services: "You go to a 'white' church, don't you?" I looked at myself, and assessed my subtle transformation as though for the first time: I had on wing tips, a white shirt, a suit, and a briefcase in my hand....
An attractive, young, white female was always "in my face" whenever I (a black male) visited her congregation. I thought nothing of it. Having been in the church for only a couple of years, I was soundly and sadly disillusioned when her father subsequently pulled me aside one day and asked me if there weren't "some nice black females you'd like to talk to?" His comments stayed with me and crystallized when later it dawned upon me that the minister in that congregation had never read the church's new administrative announcement about interracial dating....
Issue of Race and Culture
Each of these anecdotal and allegorical examples signify, to me, the insufficiently addressed issue of race and culture in the Worldwide Church of God. For years, I've wanted to bring this up, but dreaded the ramifications, namely pastoral silencing and "disfellowship" for "sowing discord". At the outset, I want to say that I know this missive will brand me a "troublemaker" to some.
To those brethren who say there isn't a "race problem" and that I shouldn't be bringing this up, I say this: the fact that some will say there is no problem is a problem in itself; the main reason this needs to be brought up, if for nothing else, is to show that not everyone agrees with that belief - it's a matter of cultural perspectives, many of which have always been silenced in some parts of the country. I am partially hesitant to even discuss race, but I feel it needs to be expressed. I've bounced my comments off of other more objective friends before setting pen to paper, but in the final analysis, all ideas expressed henceforth are mine.
Why Address Race?
Race needs to be addressed because, as the writer Ellis Cose says, racial discussion tends to be conducted in one of two ways - whispers or shouts: the shouters (they are of all colors) are often so wracked with pain or ignorance that spectators tune them out. The whisperers (also, of all colors) are so afraid of the truth that fear stifles their voice.
What I want to do is to neither shout nor whisper, but to, in a more honest manner than is generally encouraged, plead with the ministry and laity (especially where race factors into the congregational demographics) to share in bearing the burdens (Gal. 6:2) of being a minority in a world (and a fellowship) where being a minority has not always been a plus.
Qualifying statement(s): Although I speak as a black male, I accept that I do not speak for all black males in the church, nor for all African-American members of the Worldwide Church of God. But I do speak for those who have felt or still feel marginalized and disenfranchised by being ignored in the construction of the leadership pool and the wells of talent that are drawn from. I have tried to play down the pathos (emotion) in my comments and play up the logos (logic). And although I speak as a black, I'm sure other American ethnics in our fellowship can relate to some of what I'm saying, if not all. Also, I hasten to add that I know firsthand, as well as secondhand, many members and ministers who are racial-reconciliation oriented and extremely culturally sensitive. I thank them. They (Mike Veillon, Dan Hall, Mark Tabladillo, and Ken Frasier, to name a few) gave me the encouragement to discuss this. I write this for them.
Also, I hasten to add that I know firsthand, as well as secondhand, some members and ministers whose actions and words (or my perceptions of them), past or present, are racially offensive and culturally ignorant; some are no longer with our fellowship. Regardless of affiliation, I write this for them. Also, I realize my own words and actions have been (or may be) racially offensive and culturally ignorant. So I write this for myself, also - a catharsis, I guess. But all of these views need to be addressed. So, let's. As the prophet says in my favorite scriptural verse, "come, and let us reason together" (Isaiah 1:18).
There are only a couple of aspects that I have chosen to address, albeit superficially. These points stem from my subjective and emotionally tinged experiences in the WCG, and I am aware that they are very biased. But I was prompted a few years ago, when Mr. David Hulme gave a sermon about facades, to stress transparency in my personality; so, I drop my facade, brothers and sisters; I drop what I term "racial etiquette"; and I bear my soul to you oh-so briefly. (Now I understand that CAD is in flux, and cultural issues may very well be on the agenda, but I have still been moved to make my feelings known, and I appreciate Mr. Lohr's letting me have this opportunity.) Some of these observations may not be an issue to some, and they may very well seem pass. I welcome feedback about each of them, and any others:
Issue One: Method of Worship
I think our liturgy (modes of public worship) will be and needs to be transformed, due to the diversity of our fellowship. Mr. Tkach has already stated that the Christian community would label our present model as Presbyterian. In my culture-speak that would be read "white". Now I have no major problems with this, after having been a member for almost 10 years, and pretty much acclimated to WCG culture (a couple of college degrees, and an upcoming Ph.D. in English don't hurt, either). The problem I do have is that our style may be a cultural barrier to evangelism. Remember my aforementioned comment about my granddad. He represents the type of person who would feel culturally stifled by our modes of expression (low on emotion - too much of which I now loathe - and a totally different rhetorical style - African-American homiletics is high on emotional appeals). Now, I'm not begging for a total change in our style of worship; but I am hoping that we will become more flexible, esp. as we become heavy on local evangelism. Since we are already reevaluating everything in light of the new covenant, our worship services are already becoming more ecumenical as I write. So this, I hope, is beyond being a moot point.
Issue Two: Genetic Israelism
I've always had a bad taste about our "Israelite theology," which has been recanted, thankfully. For the last few years, I've raised many a hackle when I argued that I was an Israelite. Let me explain: I have French blood; therefore, I am a descendant of the "tribe of Reuben"; ergo, I'm an Israelite. A fellow black WCGer censured me once, saying I had to be white to be an Israelite. I said "au contraire, mon frere. You are arguing that phenotype [physical makeup] is a better genetic indicator than genotype [genetic makeup], which is wrong." My main problem with this teaching was the fact that some used this as a badge of racial superiority (I know members who still believe the "son of Ham" and "mark of Cain" fables about blacks, without applying sound exegesis and hermeneutics); the sad flip-side of that thinking is that it also bred racial inferiority in me (I can't speak for anyone else): for example, "I'm not an Israelite, so I shouldn't even think of applying to AC, because I won't be used in the Work - after all, I'm not a Levite". Thank Jesus that that's over!
Issue Three: Other Issues
I could mention others, like interracial dating/marriage, for example. I agree with Mark Tabladillo when he wrote me, saying that the church has never been clear about statements like "Any two people considering marriage will have some compatibility differences, whether religious, cultural, or economic; the key for success is to discuss these issues, what impact these differences will have on them and their families, and determine to make a commitment to make the marriage work despite those differences." What does this mean?!
I'm sure others could present other views.
Let's Discuss Solutions
I know that I have broached a very sensitive subject. But I like to bring up topics like these, not because I'm right or wrong, but in hopes that I will start discussion. There are many sub-issues here that I haven't addressed. It was intentional. Like the fact that the church has done much to promote racial harmony in recent years (articles by Messrs. Greg Albrecht and Norman Shoaf come to mind, as well as Mr. Tkach, Sr.'s many sermons and letters). Also I know that an emphasis on race isn't explicitly stated in the church's mission statement - that may not be our part in the Body of Christ. Groups like Promise Keepers are equipped to make that a part of their mission statement, and I applaud their effort. But we do have to become more sensitive to issues of color. (Not to mention equally important issues gender and class).
Unifying Reconciliation in Jesus Christ
One point I saved for last, but it's prime in its importance: our racial reconciliation and cultural sensitivity is in Jesus Christ. "There is neither Jew nor Greek . . . there is neither male nor female . . . [there is neither black nor white]; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28 KJV). Jesus brought racial reconciliation and cultural sensitivity: he associated with the despised Samaritans (John 4:7-39); he gave honor to women (he actually spoke to a Samaritan, and a woman at that!). So, we have our model (speaking of models, Christian writers Raleigh Washington and Glen Kehrein have written a cogent, timely, hard-hitting book, Breaking Down Walls: A Model for Reconciliation in an Age of Racial Strife. $9.99, Moody Press, 1993. 241 pgs.)
Studs Terkel calls race the "American Obsession" in his book Race. Andrew Hacker says that black and white America has always been segregated into "Two Nations" in the book by the same name. The Southern Baptist conference formed over race. Many fellowships are all-black or all-white. As you can see, race has terribly scarred us, as a nation, and if we are really honest with ourselves, as a fellowship. In spite, God has blessed the Worldwide Church of God with a tremendous blessing: cultural diversity. Our response should be to take advantage of it.
With the loss of talent and leadership over recent months, we will need everyone to serve and use his or her spiritual gift(s). Everyone. Before we do that, in some areas, we may have to do some racial reconciliation and develop some cultural sensitivity. Let's do it. And then we can get on with the important work - our Father's Business of preaching Jesus to the world.
Thanks and appreciation,
Your brother in Christ
Rodney O. Lain
Rodney O. Lain teaches English and Journalism at Georgia College in Milledgeville, GA, and is the worship coordinator for the Macon, GA, Worldwide Church of God (WCG) congregation.
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