We managed to keep emotions in check, but we also had to admit to the presence of an elephant in the middle of the room, with its large trunk and body nearly tipping over food plates and drinks, evidenced by the way the conversation began awkwardly, tentatively, with a palpable fear of offending someone else in the meeting.
We touched on Affirmative Action, Christians appearing condescending when we want to help, the need for whites to give up their power, show mercy and build relationships rather than appear as the “white saviors.”
I left the talk with more questions than I arrived with, and I don’t consider myself someone unengaged from this issue. I searched for any hidden motives on my part for why I give, why I care, why I try and build bridges to be part of the solution rather than the problem. But this conversation turned in directions I didn’t anticipate.
Many years ago I read an article in ByFaith Magazine by a former New Orlean’s pastor, Mo Leverett, who spent decades in the poorest housing project in that city, investing in the lives of its residents. In the article, he challenged the church to “get their uniforms dirty” by serving the poor and under resourced. The analogy is based on his love of baseball as a child and how the greatest shame for him would be to walk off the field at the end of the day with a clean uniform. He wanted to slide into home plate, covering himself in dirt and feel proud that he had behaved like a warrior.
For years, I’ve held onto Mo’s article and returned to it again and again, feeling his words to be a call to the church.
At Pub Talk, we touched on the church coming into the city bearing gifts as opposed to just giving a check. Personally, I struggled with the idea of giving checks only and forgoing the relational aspect of ministry. But to quote Mo, “I’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t want to just write a check, I want to get my hands dirty.’ But it’s a good idea to start by writing checks.”
In the book, When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, the authors address the issue of the church (and the government) hurting the very people they are trying to help. We may have good intentions, but we bring naiveté to ministry and service which inflicts harm sometimes. Pub Talk was a brief forum for educating both sides and creating a dialogue among people committed to helping rather than hurting.
The Caucasians in the group were challenged to consider why we want diverse churches, why we want to go into the inner city and partner with minority churches. We were told Black and Hispanic churches don’t look around on Sunday mornings, wringing their hands, wondering why more white folks aren’t joining them. This perspective felt unsettling to me, and I woke the next morning wondering why I felt so troubled. I had to do some soul searching, and came to the conclusion interracial services feel so powerful because they are the very representation of reconciliation, and not an example of lording power over someone else. They represent the whole Kingdom of God, which is not exclusively white.
We need these discussions because minorities need to know many people care and want to live intentionally in their communities as friends and neighbors. Folks want to share in their experiences, seek justice, and show mercy in any way possible. And Caucasians need to know our help can be perceived as condescending. Despite the misunderstandings, we need more awkward, elephant-in-the-room conversations until we uncover the misconceptions and wounds.
Despite being an amicable group of people who came together over a common passion, some misunderstandings arose. And if a group of folks intentionally seeking racial reconciliation could feel a bit out of sorts, then how much more difficult would it be for people outside our circle to engage in productive conversation?
Talks are hard work. Listening is hard work. But both are oh so necessary.