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Published Date: July 31, 1997

Published Date: July 31, 1997

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Plain Vanilla Christianity: The Ongoing Need for Racial Reconciliation in Evangelism

Debra was attending a Christian conference on evangelism in the Spring of 1996. A black woman in her thirties, Debra worked as the urban staff representative in a predominantly white evangelical youth ministry.

“This will build teamwork for all of us,” her boss said. Debra agreed, though she was somewhat skeptical after seeing only white faces pictured in the conference brochure.

Midway through the morning workshop, participants were dismissed for a coffee break. While she talked with other staff members, Debra looked around the lobby. It confirmed her concern: She was the only person of color at the event.

Maybe nothing will happen, she thought, while smiling at her colleagues. Maybe this time things will be fine.

Things weren’t fine, though. A short white woman with white hair walked up to Debra, tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Missy, we need more coffee over here.”

Awkward tension silenced the group standing around Debra. Her friends riveted their gaze to the dark red carpet.

Debra sighed and then graciously informed the woman that she did not work for the hotel and the woman would have to get her own coffee. The woman apologized, walked away, and eventually found her coffee.

Debra turned to her embarrassed colleagues and joked: “Honey, I gave up servin’ coffee when I was in college. Tips were lousy.” Laughter eased the tension, the workshop resumed, and Debra waited for the day to end.

The incident Debra faced comes as no surprise to the few minority professionals working for the white evangelical ministries in the United States. Stories like Debra’s of cultural insensitivity or stereotyping are common among the non-whites who enter the world of professional ministry.

Other examples include the black business manager who was told he wouldn’t understand how the company’s economics worked; the black woman in the Christian music industry who was told she should be “cleaning or cooking” instead of pursuing a career; and the black worship pastor in a Baptist church whose white colleague told him he was “praying that I would be delivered of the [music’s] beat.”

Amid an increasingly polarized U.S. society, does the evangelical community reflect the dominant culture more than the biblical mandate for unity and justice in race relations? Some suggest the coals of a “racial reconciliation movement” in the church are catching fire.

During the last few years, evangelical and mainline denominations alike have issued repentant public confessions of their racism; parachurch groups have developed multiethnic arms of their ministries; individual churches have crossed cultures to partner together; Christian colleges have increased recruiting strategies; and evangelical publishers have targeted non-white audiences with ethnically relevant articles and books. It would seem as if the sleepy church giant has started, finally, to stir.

Still, Debra’s situation is a telling indication of how small the fire is. Reconciling the races looks good on a business plan or in a mission statement, just as a racially diverse staff suggests to supporters that a ministry is on the right track.

Although these public efforts are both good and essential, many minority employees who work for white evangelical organizations aren’t so sure such efforts will bring lasting change. Their concerns about the lack of cultural sensitivity, racially diverse leadership and inclusion raise important questions. They also indicate Christendom has a long way to go before racial unity and equality are common hallmarks for the evangelical community.

The Reality Factor

Some white Christians might call encounters like Debra’s and the others’, “harmless mistakes; hardly the stuff of racism.” Other whites suggest there is not much of a racial struggle anymore in our country, that racial tensions are minimal, and that integration and affirmative action programs solved most of the problems of the past. One white editor for a leading Christian magazine, for instance, assigned a white journalist to cover the reconciliation movement and then asked, “But, really, racism isn’t much of a problem these days, is it?”

The reality is that racism continues to be a major problem in society and in the church.

“Racism is a monstrous problem with incredible implications, and the average white person does not understand the daily routine, constant expression of racism that African Americans face,” Dan Weiss, general secretary of the American Baptist Churches USA, said last May at the Baptist Leaders USA Summit Against Racism.

With the burning of sixty-seven black churches since 1993; membership in white supremacist groups rising; animosity toward immigrants mounting; and consistent discrimination toward non-whites in housing, employment and education, the reality of racism in the United States can hardly be questioned. Rather than taking the lead in reconciliation, however, evangelical organizations fall dismally behind the small steps secular America has taken toward racial equality.

Only eight percent of the employees at twenty-five of the largest white evangelical organizations are non-white, a percentage that’s more than two times higher in the secular workplace. Sunday mornings remain the most segregated time of the week. And Christian boardrooms are far from racially inclusive.

According to Dolphus Weary of Mendenhall Ministries in Mississippi, the perception of many whites is that racial tensions simply do not exist like they used to. The result? Many people of color still are not equally represented in organizational and church leadership and consequently often believe their contributions are insignificant and invalid.

“Many white people tell me reconciliation is a black thing. They say: ‘We don’t need it. You all need it.’ They think if they just invite us, they’ve done their job. But there’s much more to it than that,” Weary says.

Frank Robinson, senior pastor of Memorial Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles and one of the few white pastors in the Church of God in Christ denomination, believes whites are often in a state of denial about racial issues and reconciliation.

“We’ll talk as if nothing is wrong, but we live another way,” Robinson says. “In many ways, it is going to take a great deal of courage for whites to confront some of these cultural and theological teachings that have been ingrained for so long.”

Beyond Civil Rights

When Robert Gelinas, a young black pastor, was hired as an assistant pastor at an all-white suburban church, he discovered many of his new white friends sincerely thought the Civil Rights movement did away with racial issues. “Why do you want to talk about it now?,” they would ask him. They, like many other white Christians, had not considered life in America from a black perspective.

Gelinas came from white Baptist churches where the racism was thick. “As long as I played by their rules, I was fully accepted. But if I brought up racial issues, the relationships became strained,” Gelinas says. “On the surface, you think you have genuine friendships, but you’re always wondering if things would change if you brought up how race affects you personally or that you feel like a token.”

At his new, more liberal mainline church, Gelinas studied books on reconciliation in Sunday school, preached on racial issues from the pulpit and facilitated meaningful dialogue. He found, as a result, that the discussions were “healthy, without the relationship being at stake. Now they can’t write me off if they disagree because Pm their friend.”

 “The race problem manifests itself in different degrees,” says Edward Gilbreath, the first African American editor at Christianity Today (CT), and now associate editor of New Man, a magazine produced jointly by Promise Keepers and Strang Communications, the publishers of Ministries Today. “It’s not so much racism—which is a more deliberate act—as it is racial insensitivity—good intentions but blindness or assumptions we make about people. Many fail to recognize or acknowledge certain realities about our history.”

Gilbreath’s own story is also indicative of the “good intentions” in white evangelicalism. Shortly after he was hired as a marketing representative, CT editors, all white, recognized Gilbreath’s editorial talent and potential and moved him to an editorial position.

Gilbreath’s presence, with that of Latino senior writer Andres Tapia, began to challenge CT’s long-held white value system. Coverage on racial issues increased.

CT’s publisher, Harold Myra, wrote in a March 6, 1995, editorial: “A white evangelical mistake in the ‘60s was to leave civil rights at the margins. Now we must not only make up for lost opportunities, we must learn to give sustained effort to racial reconciliation. Remorse calls us not to occasional fits of good intentions, but rather, in Eugene Peterson’s words, to a ‘long obedience in the same direction’.”

Gilbreath moved last year to New Man, leaving CT’s full-time editorial personnel again all-white.

Myra told Ministries Today that his management team at CT is discussing ways to become more intentional about minority hiring. “We have few minority colleagues here, but we would love to have more,” he said. “Although we advertise widely for minority employees, we get far fewer minority applicants than we desire.”

CT’s racial makeup is certainly not an isolated one. Virtually every evangelical magazine and publishing house from Colorado Springs to Grand Rapids is staffed primarily by whites. Minorities make up less than ten percent of the staffs of parachurch organizations such as Campus Crusade for Christ, World Impact and Young Life, which all have urban outreaches.

The Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities reports that in the organization’s ninety member schools, less than fifteen percent of the enrollment last year was nonwhite. The percentage of non-white faculty was even less. This includes colleges such as Westmont College, Colorado Christian University and Wheaton College.

Gilbreath, however, is not disillusioned. “My experience at CT might be a valuable contribution [in encouraging] other white organizations to look for people of color. Once they do that, they’ll recognize there’s a lot of talent out there,” he said.

Gilbreath likewise recognizes Strang Communications has a long way to go in race relations. The company has only recently increased its minority hiring. As of September 1996, twenty-five percent of the staff at Strang were minority employees—in a Florida county that is nine percent minority.

Says Gilbreath: “New Man hired me because of my experience and because of Promise Keepers’ message of reconciliation. They recognized that in order to be credible in this ministry, their hiring would have to reflect their message.”

Mixed Messages

“The proof is in the paycheck,” says one Christian worker, referring to racial reconciliation. “Look simply at the history of any of these white evangelical organizations, and you won’t find many people of color on the payroll.”

Yet the personnel handbooks or mission statements of most white evangelical organizations indeed reveal an openness to hiring people of color, suggesting that, in theory, racism is not a problem. “Christians see past color,” they say. They welcome the diversity but don’t often get “qualified minority applicants,” one human resources manager said.

The problem with this thinking, some say; is that it doesn’t understand or target non-whites. “Ask the board members of white evangelical America how many have read minority authors. You’ll find less than ten percent,” says Clarence Shuler, newly appointed director of Black Family Ministries fur Focus on the Family.

“If you go overseas, you learn the people’s culture. If you don’t, you can’t be effective,” he says. “But what often happens in evangelical ministries is they don’t learn the culture of non-whites. This can send the message that minorities don’t impact white evangelicals.”

It also means that what often occurs is misunderstanding or feelings of tokenism—the policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort to improve racial relations.

One black woman working for a Christian sports ministry and a black man working for a large parachurch ministry both sensed they were hired in an effort to help their respective ministry’s public image and donor base. Although they are thankful for the opportunities to build cultural bridges, the daily encounters they face don’t make their jobs easy.

“I saw myself as a missionary going into the white evangelical world,” says another. “That’s even how they interviewed me. They knew they weren’t reaching the black community; and I guess they saw me as the ftrst step toward that goal, in wanting to change. That got me excited.

“But since I’ve been here, I’ve seen that it takes more than one person to make it change and more than a few verbal commitments.”

Janet Mayhue and Elvon Borst work at large Presbyterian churches; Mayhue in Denver, Borst in New York. They are the only blacks on these large staffs and see themselves as “missionaries” helping their colleagues understand black culture.

“I struggled with feeling inferior or belonging because there were times when people were condescending,” Borst says. “Being the only black person on staff—at meetings, at social functions—after a while that can get to you. Often people think you’re being hypersensitive if you call it ‘race.’ And you might be. But that’s one of the problems of being the only minority on staff, because you have no one else to go to as a gauge.”

Mayhue says some of her colleagues assume she works at the wealthy; suburban church because she wants to be white.

“That’s not who I am at all, and if we had a deeper relationship they would know that,” she says. “Sometimes I have to get on my knees and tell the Father, ‘You have to help me because these people can get on my very last nerves.’ The people I find I connect with the most here are the ones who have had a lot of struggles and have gone through a lot of pain, where the clutter is gone and they are struggling with purpose and trying to fulfill it.”

Most ministries, says another leader, are run more like a business in search of a profit: “‘t doesn’t seem to me like white evangelical America really wants to serve blacks; if they do it’s because of guilt or pressure. It gets down to power and control. White evangelicals do not see black men as equals.”

Pressing On

One-on-one relationships seem to be the only hope for alleviating the racial tensions in white evangelical America. Mayhue says spending time getting to know people, “finding out what makes them weep and pound the table, makes all the difference. Then I say, ‘God uniquely made me. Wouldn’t you like to know why I am who I am?’ Relationships will help tear down all these barriers and cut through the foolishness.”

Rene Rochester of Kids Across America says: “Anyone can do integration, but it takes the Spirit to work together side by side. White evangelicals have the comfort of living in a country that is governed by a white value system. If they know anything about another culture, it is only because they have chosen to enter it. African Americans and other minorities, however, must abide by the same dominant culture, though their culture at home is entirely different from what they enter each day when they punch a time clock.”

Some organizations are making an effort to increase their minority presence and build relationships. “That will be the key to changing the racial insensitivity. As we get to know each other and work alongside each other, we’ll get rid of the racial stereotypes,” says Gilbreath.

Is a dream fur racial unity in America possible? Is there hope for racial unity? Ministries have taken steps toward inclusiveness, movements like Promise Keepers are bringing the issue home to whites, and more than ever before, books and articles on the subject are being published.

But those in the forefront of reconciliation efforts agree with nineteenth century slave-turned-orator Frederick Douglass, who wrote: “There can be no progress without struggle.”

This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 1996 issue of Ministries Today, and is reprinted by permission. Because of the nature of this article, some names of people and organizations were intentionally omitted.