Overcoming Barriers

by Jennifer Sudderth

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28 NRSV

Jesus Christ wants his body to become one—every church, every person. He wants his body to experience the unity with him and with each other that he experiences with his Father. But this unity is hindered by barriers of many kinds.

These barriers may take tangible and intangible forms. But whatever their form, they are always accompanied by one thing—fear, fear of our differences and the unfamiliarity which those differences bring.

In order to become one, we first have to overcome our fear of differences by facing them and by changing the way we perceive them.

“THERE IS NO LONGER JEW OR GREEK...”

As an African-American, I have experienced, too often, the sting of racial discrimination. I have seen in the eyes, heard in the words, felt in the deeds of others their contempt, yes, even their hatred of me. Yet, I know that it is not me that they are hating; for the barriers they have erected between us have not allowed them to know me, to find out who I really am.

No, it is their lack of information about my heritage, their insecurity about my freedom, their fear of everything my skin color represents in their minds that keeps them from seeing and appreciating my worth, and makes them respond differently toward me than they would to their own kind.

The beginning step in overcoming barriers is to recognize our differences and see them as helps, not hindrances; channels, not barriers. There is value in learning to love and appreciate the rich heritage and unique experiences that come with different cultures, different people. The Apostle Paul expressed it best when he said: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews...I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” As Christians representing Christ in the world, we should be willing to accommodate ourselves to the culture of others in order to save some.

My own childhood was a living example of Paul’s ideas. I was raised in the barrio of the city and attended a predominantly Mexican-American elementary school. I spoke Spanish and attended weddings, funerals, and birthday parties with my Mexican neighbors. I cooked and ate Mexican food and sang, danced, played, and learned among people whom I found to be more like me than unlike me.

Though our skin color was different, our racial barriers were down. I knew these people, they knew me. We had no reason to fear each other. To each other, we were no longer “those people,” but brothers and sisters. Later I was able to share the gospel with people from communities like these because I was able to become like them to win them for Christ.

“...NO LONGER SLAVE OR FREE...”

The factors which segregate our communities vary. Some are social factors—people who share a history, an ethnicity, a heritage tend to flock together. That’s why we have barrios and ghettos in most major cities throughout the United States.

This segregation is often the result of economic factors— people live where they can afford to live. This usually means that poor people live among poor people, middle-income people live among middle-income people, and rich people live among rich people.

There in the midst of our independent, isolated, self­contained communities, stand our Christian churches, independent, and isolated, and self-contained.

As followers of Jesus, this isolation should greatly concern us! The goal of unity among Christians is to reflect Christ’s love for the world through our love for each other. Trustful cooperation between churches is a significant way to show our unity. And yet, too often, we remain isolated and removed from each other. Why?

Why can’t we come together for worship and fellowship? Think of the potential for evangelistic outreach if we would only risk joining those who we see as a little different from us. What a statement we could make if we could work with those unlike us to build something together like a home for the elderly, a drug rehabilitation center, a hospital, or a school that would stand as a symbol of our unity with Christ and with each other.

“...NO LONGER MALE AND FEMALE...”

One of the harshest and most painful barriers which I have encountered in ministry is the one between men and women. As a woman in ministry, I have seen my sisters labeled feminists, accused of being aggressive, said to be in competition with our brothers, and viewed as oddities. Many times our ministry is not taken seriously but written off as frivolousness by some, non-scriptural by others, and even an assault on the divine will of God by a few.

Ministry is more difficult for a single woman. Often her motives for ministry are in question. Is she in ministry to fill some deep, dark void in her life? Is she just marking time, waiting for something or someone special to come into her life so that she can become a “regular” woman? Or, is she having a difficult time accepting or coming to grips with her womanhood?

I have felt the pain of discrimination more as a woman in ministry these past 12 years than I ever have as an African-American over the span of my entire life. I have suffered insult and injustice, endured disregard and indignity, and experienced loneliness, isolation, and sometimes even despair. I must admit that there have been times that I have thought how much easier it might be for me if I were just a “regular” woman, doing and being whatever it is that “regular” women do and are.

But women in ministry are not “regular.” No one in ministry is “regular.” We have all been called by God to step out from where it is comfortable, safe, and acceptable and to step into the risky, uncomfortable, often unacceptable zone. For women, the barriers encountered make this step an even larger step of faith.

It has been a long process for me, but I have come to terms with my ministry and my life. The process required me to let go of all the things that I thought I wanted and needed. It required me to take hold of those things the Lord desired for me. The process required me to rebuke those things that are not of God: the fears, the bad feelings, and the attacks waged by the Accuser that used to make me doubt, dread, and fear the challenges that lie ahead.

God has given me the assurance that I am within his will. He has given me the assurance that he will be with me always—completing in me the work that he has started. He has given me the assurance that I need not fight for nor defend my ministry—that I need only to stand firm, be still, and wait for the Lord to gain glory for himself through my life.

This action—to stand firm and be still in the confidence of the Lord—is the beginning of overcoming barriers, barriers laden with fear and anger, barriers that cripple and destroy. God will change attitudes and hearts if we stand firm and are still. He will open doors to ministry. He will gain the victory over our adversaries. He will awaken and revive the Church in the 21st century...and he will use both men and women to help do so...if we stand firm and are still!

“...FOR ALL OF YOU ARE ONE...”

Christ prayed for the unity and oneness of believers (see John 17). His divine will and desire for believers is that we transcend the economic, racial, and gender barriers that divide us and prevent us from moving as a single unit. God’s desire is that we view ourselves as one entity, composed of many distinct components with different functions.

To complete this task Jesus has set before us, we must work in harmony with unity and consistency in purpose “so that the world may believe... so the world may know” the love of Christ as reflected in our unity and in our love.

Jennifer Sudderth received her MA in Christian Education from Bethel Theological Seminary West in 1982. She was ordained through American Baptist Churches USA in 1992. Currently she leads Tree of Life Ministries in San Diego, CA and teaches at Rancho del Rey Middle School in Chula Vista, CA. In addition, she travels extensively, sharing the gospel message with men and women cross-culturally.

Originally published in Priscilla Papers, Volume 13, Number 2 Spring 1999, pp. 1-2 ISSN I 0898-753X