One Church’s Conversations About Race

*Reprinted from the Spring 2015 edition of Shalom!

Hank Johnson is pastor of discipleship and youth ministries at the Harrisburg Brethren in Christ Church, where he has been on staff since 2008. In Monrovia, Liberia, where he was born, his family was part of the power structure—directly descended from the African American families that moved from the United States in the 1800s as freed slaves to create the nation of Liberia. He moved to the United States when he was nine years old. “I came to the U.S. as an African, but living here made me African American,” he says. The northern New Jersey town that was his first home in the U.S. was mostly white, with a large Asian population and some Latinos. As a child perceived to be African American, he was in the minority, an outsider, and not part of the power structure.

When he was in seventh grade, he moved to Philadelphia, and eventually attended Central High School which was very diverse and where he was once again an African and not an African American. He eventually attended Messiah College. He didn’t know anything about the college or its theological history (including Anabaptism, which immediately resonated with him), but was attracted to it because it was Christian, had a wrestling program, and he liked the campus. All of these experiences have given him perspective on race in America and in the church, and a valuable vantage point from which to talk about the congregation where he now serves.

Referring to the church in Antioch, where many non-Jews became believers and Christians were first called Christians, Hank notes that wherever the church has grown, it has become more diverse. He gave a number of examples of this, and agreed that the Harrisburg Brethren in Christ Church is another example of how when the church has grown it has become more diverse. The church was predominantly white for many years, despite its previous location in a racially mixed neighborhood in the city. The church prayed many times over the years that they would begin to better reflect the diversity of the community, but it didn’t happen. They eventually had what some call a “come to Jesus” moment, when they decided they needed to either “get in or get out” (stay in the city and “diversify” or relocate), and still there was very little progress.

Then one day an African American grandmother from the neighborhood came to the door and told senior pastor Woody Dalton that God had told her and her husband they should start attending the church. This couple was followed by several other African Americans. In 2000, Cedra Washington, also African American, became part of the pastoral staff. Pastor Cedra, with deep roots in the city, knew the needs of the community, and spearheaded the development of various ministries that directly met those needs. All of those ministries became part of an emerging brand for the church. In the years since the “come to Jesus” moment, the church has moved to a larger location in the city (a refurbished car dealership), had an explosion of growth, and in the process become perhaps the most culturally, ethnically, and racially diverse congregation in the denomination.

The congregational vision statement reads: “Our vision is to be a thriving diverse urban church sharing Christ’s love and serving the needs of our local and global communities.” That they are accomplishing the vision can easily be seen just by observing the diversity of the congregation on a typical Sunday morning and by the variety of practical ministries, such as a food pantry, recovery support group, an English-as -a-second-language class, a “meet and greet” alternative to Halloween, and Thanksgiving and Christmas outreaches that draw people of many races and nationalities to the church.

These more obvious outward markers of diversity are reinforced by a number of intentional internal structural activities: 1) An intentionally diverse staff and church board. Currently, there are more people of color on the church board than white, including Liberian, Indian, Guyanese, Haitian, and African American. 2) Five worship teams, all of which reflect not only different worship styles but racial and ethnic diversity. 3) A series of classes on racial reconciliation. The church does not assume an understanding of racial reconciliation, but actively engages people in conversation about what it means practically. The introductory class is based on the book, More Than Equals, by Spencer Perkins, an African American, and Chris Rice, a white, who as two friends of different races talk about racial reconciliation in terms of relationship. This class allows people to hear each other’s stories and engage in personal conversations about race.

A second class, called “Next Steps,” delves more deeply into some of the systemic issues that undergird racial inequalities in the U.S. This class is based on the book, The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S. Racial Divide, by Meizhu Lui, et al., which “makes the case that until government policy tackles disparities in wealth, not just income, the United States will never have racial or economic justice.” Through case studies, the book helps people understand the strengths of various ethnic groups and the challenges they face. Another class is based on the book The Skin You Live In: Building Friendships Across Cultural Lines, by David Ireland, which provides an introduction to multiculturalism and is more introspective.

Hank believes that racial reconciliation is a spiritual endeavor. We are one in Christ, and our unity in Christ is what matters most, even though often our natural inclinations are separated by race. What’s most important is valuing that unity and working intentionally to maintain it. Unity doesn’t mean being color-blind, but it does mean that whites need to let go of white privilege, and blacks need to let go of the idea that white people are not trustworthy. At Harrisburg, they work hard to create settings where people can have conversations about race and hear each other’s pain; they pray regularly for situations where racial tensions are high, such as in Ferguson, Missouri last year, or more recently in Baltimore, Maryland. And they build relationships, one person at a time and as a church community. While some might say that such an emphasis on the personal avoids the tough and seemingly intractable systemic issues that perpetuate the racial divide in America, Hank’s response is that we need to “be faithful to what’s on our plate,” to do what we can with what we know and can control. If we are faithful in small ways, racial reconciliation will happen.

This article is based on a conversation between Hank Johnson, pastor of discipleship and youth ministries at the Harrisburg (PA) Brethren in Christ Church, and Harriet Bicksler, Shalom! editor.