Racism and the Ineffectual Church, Chapter 2
Racism and the Ineffectual Church, Chapter 2
“Preaching leads to changed lives,” I recall one of my seminary homiletics professor’s assertation. Another professor, a diminutive Scot, with a marvelous Scottish brogue (involving the trilling of ‘r’s in his speech), offered instead that “Ser-r-mons are r-r-eminder-rs of where God is al-r-r-eady active in the lives of the people.”
In my experience, sermons typically aren’t life-changing events for the hearer — or the preacher. Like workshops they can be helpful, but not often transformative. Now, after more than five decades, I have much appreciation for my Scottish professor’s understandings. A sermon may assist others in taking a step along faith’s journey. I don’t recall anyone greeting me after worship and saying, “that sermon was transformative.” On the other hand, years later a few have said, “You didn’t know it but that word came at a time in my life when I was ready to hear.” Amazingly, years or decades later, some have said, “I remember that sermon back in 19??. It came at a time when I was seeking another path, another vocation, or a new partner. Thanks.”
Recently, I wrote about well-intentioned but ineffectual Diversity, Equity and Inclusion workshops. Like sermons, such events rarely lead to substantial change in racialism and discrimination. But this is not written as a screed against workshops or sermons. Instead, it is the proposition that when these activities are accompanied by a clear invitation to join with others in witnessing and addressing racial discrimination, remarkable transformation is possible.
So, why this focus on preaching and racism? Well, put simply, addressing racism is about more than words or ideas. Racism is often distilled into the belief that it is only about personal attitudes or prejudice. For Whites — for all people – sermons are effective as they are joined to changes in the ways we live. Parker Palmer suggests “Changed thinking doesn’t lead to changed actions so much as changed actions lead to changes in the ways one thinks.” Sermons and workshops are insufficient, helpful perhaps, but in isolation they may serve as an inoculation avoiding fundamental change.
Several Open Housing campaigns in the 1960s carried the slogan: Your heart may be in the right place, but are you? As hundreds of thousands were moving to the suburbs avoiding racially integrated schools and neighborhoods, the church was… well, preaching a lot about racial justice. Meanwhile in only a few cities were churches at the center of racial justice and integration efforts. In 1961 Gibson Winter, theologian and social scientist, documented this in the book “The Suburban Captivity of the Churches.”
A cherished friend of mine, Professor William Pannell of Fuller Seminary, is now in his nineties. We met in the late 1960s when as a young seminarian his book “My Friend, the Enemy” spoke powerfully about racism being more than personal prejudice. As friends, he taught me that it was not enough to have a “changed heart.” I needed to acknowledge the enemy we both faced of white privilege, culture and discrimination.
Sermons, workshops, and conferences can be mechanisms of avoidance. Bill speaks of the 1966 World Congress on Evangelism. The theme for the 1966 gathering was One Race, One Gospel, One Task. Evangelical leaders invited more than 1,200 delegates from 100 countries to Berlin for this World Congress on Evangelism (an important precursor to the historic 1974 Lausanne Congress). Pannell speaks of a small group of African American Christians who discover that even though the theme was One Race, One Gospel, One Task, there was a silence about racial injustice. Imagine this in the middle of the Civil Rights struggles of those years. As Pannell tells it, (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkpYIg8tpOI) those concerned about this omission confronted the conference leadership and, as is often the case, they were asked to write a document on racism to be approved by the Congress. Pannell then reports, these more than fifty years later, that document must be “sitting on a shelf somewhere.” You see, the passing of a nicely worded document, was not connected to concrete institutional and cultural change. Or as Pannell would have it, “Vital and Biblical evangelization.”
All around we have the opportunity to join in activities to address racial injustice and do more than attend workshop or preach sermons. However, those of us who are now, or have been, a part of Mainline Christian leadership need to learn to listen to and support others. There are some remarkable young persons ready to teach and lead us. Persons who come from different racial experiences. I will share more in future chapters. Urgently now, look for places where persons are addressing the evil of White Christian Nationalism. Check out the upcoming event: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/how-white-christian-nationalism-threatens-our-democracy-tickets-439763242697#search. Then do more. A true addressing of racism involves deep change in the ways our institutions understand, and act differently based on the structural, financial and cultural options pursued.
One of my other heroes was Thomas Broden on the faculty of Notre Dame Law School. Tom joined a team working on an initiative called Project Understanding, back in the early 1970s. It focused on city congregations across the country (Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas, Indianapolis, Bay Area, South Bend). My work was to carry out research on ways racial attitudes might be changed and how racism in many forms might be addressed.
I recall the day we recommended to Broden that lay persons from many denominations be gathered to study and consider ways to address racial injustice. Tom’s response was “That’s okay as far as it goes.” He had my attention! He went on, “We will want to get them involved in some activity with persons who differ racially and in situations where discrimination can be clearly seen.” In South Bend, one of the activities he suggested was to have lay people sit in welfare offices and observe the cheating going on there. I was appalled – Tom laughed – “Oh, he said, cheaters will be found, but few of them will be those seeking assistance!” He was right, so very right. Today, in Indiana every welfare office must post “the rights of those who seek assistance.” That came directly from the work of lay people in Project Understanding. In Chicago and Dallas, change came from teams who sought to rent an apartment (some teams were White only, some Black only, some mixed racially). After visiting the same apartment and seeking to rent it, the teams would gather and learn about the ways discrimination was seen in the prospect of renting the same apartment. In California, there were engagements with persons seeking immigration or work documents. Sermons helped, workshops were okay, but the research showed that true and lasting changes in racial attitudes were rooted in real and concrete efforts to address discrimination and unjust institutions.
Or, as my seminary preaching professor would put It, “Serr-r-mons are r-r-eminder-rs of where God is al-r-r-eady active in the lives of the people.”