A Congregational Conversation About Race

by Julie Weatherford

I was recently asked to explain why Madison Street Church folks are interested in the topic of racism and to describe the kinds of things we’ve been doing to encourage conversation, discernment, and action around Jesus’ call to love across boundaries. I had to share some of our history in order to explain why we care about this kind of thing…

In the early 1980s, in the latter years of the bloom of the twentieth-century evangelical movement in the U.S., I found myself in my twenties and a part of a suburban Baptist church in Southern California, where I’d been a member since I was a young teenager.

The church had attracted a dozen or more college-age individuals in the 1970s from a variety of faith backgrounds—Presbyterian, Episcopal, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Congregational, agnostic—and it had recently hired one of them, Rod White, who had by then acquired a master of divinity degree, as youth pastor. Over a period of four to five years, several of us volunteered in the Baptist youth group in efforts to help high school kids come to know God. Kids came to know Jesus and to grow in faith via discipleship, and the youth group grew well beyond the ranks of church members’ own kids. (This caused some consternation among the parents and other older church members who, despite their allegiance to the evangelical movement’s intense focus on increasing numbers—numbers of attendees, numbers of converts, numbers of church members—had become accustomed to the youth group serving the needs of church members’ kids only. But that’s another story.)

Our enthusiasm for knowing and serving Christ ran high, as did our desire to build relationships with kids and to share the gospel with them. Led by the youth pastor, this team of ten or so young youth group volunteers met regularly, outside of youth events, for Bible study, discussion, ministry planning, retreat and prayer, and team members were also involved in the broader, ongoing life of the church. In the process of trying to serve God as a team, we were drawn deeper into relationship with Jesus. We practiced classic Christian spiritual disciplines, experienced the Spirit at work in and through us, found ourselves in the process of transformation toward being more like Jesus, and enjoyed serving him. We sensed the Spirit’s call to simplify our lifestyles in order to free one another up for ministry, so the few of us who had any savings pooled our money to buy a couple houses on the same street, and we all came together to form an intentional Christian community. We shared life—meals, money, work, ministry, joys, laughter, sorrows, tears, etc. We were young and idealistic, and we made our share of mistakes, but we wanted to follow Jesus’ ways and, in our study of and discernment around scripture, we sensed God’s call to community, to simplicity, to peace, and to a radical, whole-life devotion to Christ.

Not surprisingly, we began to feel less and less comfortable in the conservative, evangelical context of our Baptist church. We were troubled by the church’s acquiescence to the surrounding culture, particularly with its allegiance to the American dream, to greed, to nationalism, to militarism, and to oppression of the less powerful. Our sense was that the church’s unceasing verbal prodding of “the unsaved” to “accept” Christ rang hollow in an increasingly dubious and broken world. We sensed that the church’s verbal witness lacked a strong, Christ-like and authenticating compassion for people in need, a compassion that would have spurred the church on to active involvement in God’s kingdom work of peace, justice, spoken-and-lived evangelism, discipleship, and spiritual transformation.

It wasn’t easy, but we eventually received the Baptist church’s blessing to start something new. (Many of the Baptist folks loved us and hated to see us go, but several people, I’m sure, would have happily warmed our car engines for us!)

We were not at all sure what the new thing would be.

We knew that we wanted to be a church that took seriously the teachings of scripture (even, and perhaps especially, passages like the Sermon on the Mount, passages that challenged us to radical change). We wanted to help one another and others to live into Jesus’ call to wholehearted obedience and discipleship, to spiritual empowering and transformation, to ongoing communication with God, to worship, to community, and to evangelism in its fullest form.

We had never heard of the Brethren in Christ.

But God led our new pastor (Rod White, who had been the youth pastor at the Baptist church) to discover and initiate contact with a BIC pastor whose church, unbeknownst to us, was in the next town over. This pastor connected us with the bishop of the Pacific Conference, who was excited and who welcomed this little intentional Christian community and a few of their like-minded friends. Through these connections, we came to learn about this network of folks called the Brethren in Christ—an eighteenth-century offshoot of the Anabaptist Mennonites, strongly influenced by the Pietist movement of the eighteenth century, the Holiness movement of the nineteenth, and the Evangelical movement of the twentieth—who, in their foundational beliefs, seemed to understand biblical scripture the way we did and who appreciated our intentional community, which reminded them of their Anabaptist roots.

Few of us could have identified the Pietist, Holiness, or Evangelical movements as such, but the BIC’s Pietist, Holiness, and Evangelical values were not new to us. Most of us were acquainted with them, in one way or another, via our Baptist or other faith experiences.

However, it was the BIC Anabaptist distinctive that really drew us to them: peace, justice, compassion, community, service, simplicity, care of the poor and needy, and whole-life discipleship. This was what we had sensed was missing in the conservative, evangelical context of our former church. Our community’s study of scripture, our Spirit-led discernment, and most of all God’s gift of grace had led us to these values, and now, had led us to a new BIC “home” for the 1984 founding of our new church, the Riverside Brethren in Christ—now called the Madison Street Church We soon connected with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the arm of Anabaptist churches that engaged and continues to engage us in the work of relief, development and peace building around the globe. With a BIC distinctive and an MCC connection, we were, we have been, and we are in—hook, line and sinker!

I understand that the BIC in the twentieth century kind of by default de-emphasized their Anabaptist roots and values, believing that they were a hindrance to effective evangelism and outreach efforts. I think this was a grave mistake. Then and now, but especially now, as we’ve moved into post-Christendom and postmodernity, our broken world is starved for God’s love and grace to be channeled through communities of faith that live out the call of Jesus to active, barrier-breaking love. Our community joined the BIC because the BIC held those values. And most of Madison Street Church’s current growth is not due to any great evangelistic or outreach program (we have none), but because our stance on and our actions to promote peace, justice and compassion break down barriers so that people are able to even consider the possibility of getting to know Jesus in the context of a church.

Enough of history. Fast forward to 2010.

MCC had been encouraging racial reconciliation for at least a couple decades. Our church had loved and supported MCC for years, our current pastor Jeff Wright was a compelling voice for peace and justice as central to the gospel of Christ, and we knew that Sunday mornings were the most racially segregated times of the week. So it was no surprise that in 2010, a bunch of us from Madison Street Church went together to a local exhibit in the Riverside Metropolitan Museum, called “RACE: Are We So Different?”, a project of the American Anthropological Association.* We learned a lot about the only-recent but powerful notion of race and its history and effects, especially in the U.S. and in our city. After touring the exhibit, we all went to a local restaurant for dinner, and we talked about what we’d seen and learned. Although this experience catalyzed no measurable follow-up or action, I like to think that it prepared us for further exploration and learning.

In 2015, MCC’s Washington Office encouraged constituent churches to involve their members in book studies on Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. MCC provided a study guide for this excellent book exploring racism in law enforcement, and in the judicial and prison systems. I invited anyone interested, and a dozen of us participated in two separate book study groups in late 2015 and the first half of 2016. Alexander’s book educated us, gave us a lot of sobering information to talk about, and encouraged us toward further learning and action.

In July 2016, we met as usual on the Sunday following the police shooting of an unarmed black man, Philando Castile, in Minnesota. During announcements, a long-time member of the church, Christine Martin, invited any of us who were interested to come to her home the next Tuesday evening to pray and talk about this tragedy and others in a string of racially motivated shootings. We met, talked, prayed, and knew that we needed to do more as a church. We wanted to become more aware and to participate in the healing and change that was needed to address this national sin of racism. We knew that U.S. churches that claim Jesus as leader were far from immune and, in fact, had contributed greatly to its spread. Agreeing to come together again around the issue, this informal meeting birthed the Conversations on Race that we held monthly from fall 2016 through spring 2017.

Our “Conversations on Race,” facilitated by Madison Street’s Andrew Larratt-Smith (UC Riverside ombuds with deep interest and education on conflict resolution and critical race theory) and Chris Bates (director of our community development initiative, commonGood), have focused on educating ourselves about race. Andrew provided a list of a few dozen terms on the topic of race—e.g., white privilege, colorism, Jim Crow laws, race fatigue, etc.**—and individuals signed up to do some research on a term or two of their choice and to bring it to the next meeting. Each time we met, we shared a potluck meal, and then Andrew and Chris provided a safe and loosely structured environment for folks to share what they had learned about “their” term and for others to join in discussion about the terms and their relevance to our church. We considered the terms related to our understanding of scripture, prayed together, and discussed how to apply what we were learning in our church and community.

We are by no means done. After a summer break, our Conversations on Race will start up again this fall. We’ll see where they take us.

 

Julie Weatherford is a founding member of Madison Street Church, Riverside, California. She also serves on the leadership team for the Peace and Justice Project.

 

* The exhibit toured U.S. cities for ten years, from 2007-2016. Information and resources. I’ve recently discovered that there’s a book by the same name (RACE – Are We so Different?), by Goodman, Moses and Jones, published in 2012.

**Complete list of the terms we discussed