Black Man in White Man’s Territory, 1: A Contemporary Crisis
In January 2019, in the midst of ongoing “family drama” in Evangelicalism, Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile reflected on the history of the relationship between the Black and White church expressions of Christianity. Painting an eloquent picture of the two expressions as “half siblings of a ‘step family’ who “grew up in different family homes, lived very different experiences” and “connected only around the holidays,” Pastor Anyabwile asked two questions: “Can we live together as one family, valuing the differences without tending to disunity?” and, “What will it take to live in a deeper, richer, affirming, understanding unity than the two churches have known to date?” These questions, and others like it, have been common talking points in many of our everyday conversations, national conferences and discussion threads on social media. And yet, even with the countless conversations, panels, and debates it still, as Pastor Anyabwile stated in his article, “…remains to be seen just how well the two [expressions] can live together as one family without reckoning with those different backgrounds and experiences.”
While listening to J. Cole’s song, “Neighbors,” a specific lyric resonated deeply with me. As Cole explains the seeming inescapability of police brutality for people of color in our society, no matter their power or wealth, he recalls his own experience of being racially profiled. In the song’s video we see footage of a local police station’s SWAT team raiding one of his homes in an affluent North Carolina suburb. While no one was home at the time and no crimes were committed to warrant such a raid, it was clear to him that he and his guests were racially profiled and reported to the police. As he raps, he speaks of the subsequent paranoia that accompanied having to sleep at home in fear of a similar event happening again. But what if next time he was home? In the midst of this verse he utters the phrase reflected in the title of this article series: “Black in a White man territory.” This single line delivered by Cole precisely encapsulates the experiences of so many Black males in predominantly White churches. It seems as if, for Black males, no matter the level of one’s acceptance or assimilation, there are constant reminders that your predominantly White church, just like the world you live in, is not a territory for you to openly be yourself or claim as your own.
The purpose of this article series is to tell the stories of Black males who currently attend or have recently attended predominantly White Evangelical churches. With my original research, conducted in the summer of 2018, I intended to provide Black males with a resource to aid them as they face what I believe to be a crisis for Black males in predominantly White Evangelical churches. Not only has that intention remained in the time since I conducted the research, it has been amplified as a result of current conversations in Evangelicalism.
There is a certain level of internal liberty that can come when one is able to tell their story. Especially if that story is associated with pain or grief. But even more so if that story has been buried or overlooked. Truth is a liberating force, but what happens when the truth is never uncovered or when stories are never told? In my experience, time stands still for those who have experienced pain and are forced to relive such traumatic experiences. Of course this stillness does not occur physically, but for those who are never able to tell their stories of pain and grief, time might as well be standing still. Imagine the further pain and grief it causes for one’s painful experiences to be overlooked or, even worse, suppressed? Unfortunately, that is what’s happening with the experiences of many Black Christians in predominantly White Evangelical churches. Their experiences are being overlooked and it is causing deep spiritual and emotional harm. Beloved, stories of the experiences of all Christians of color in predominantly White churches must be both uncovered and told in their entirety. No matter their ugliness. It is a greater indictment on the church to continue to overlook these experiences than to face bad press or discomfort when they are brought to light. As the experiences of each respondent became the commonplace experience for Black males in predominantly White Evangelical churches, we must acknowledge the factors impacting their experiences. It is time for radical and courageous truth-telling.
A Modern Problem
There has been much discussion among Evangelicals on social media and other platforms in recent years regarding the public “disassociations” from Evangelicalism from high-profile Black Christians such as Anthony Bradley, Jemar Tisby, and Lecrae. What intrigues me amidst these conversations is the subsequent divorce of the macro and micro experiences of Black Christian males. Many engage in discourse about the words and experiences of a few well-known voices in our community, and rightly so, but seem to be failing to have that same discourse with members in our own local churches and communities. And even if we do we are often far less enthusiastic and empathetic. There seems to be a recurring cycle of Black males concluding they have no place in White Evangelicalism. This pattern deserves further attention and research.
I have often wondered, of the White Evangelicals who have had much to say online in regards to these high profile experiences and subsequent dissociations, how are they ensuring that Black Christians and other Christians of color are not having similar experiences in their local church and have the opportunity to thrive both spiritually and culturally? For Black Christians and other Christians of color, I often wonder if they feel supported and are being equipped for their journey through predominantly White Evangelical spaces? Personally, it wasn’t until I heard men like Anthony, Jemar, and Lecrae and women like Austin Channing Brown and the women of Truth’s Table speak on their experiences that I realized this may not just be my isolated experience. This is an obvious reality looking back now, but after being in predominantly White Evangelical churches for 20 years this reality was not apparent to me. Subsequent interviews with Black males on their experiences confirmed this realization.
I spent much of my first three years of college questioning whether or not I had a place in Evangelicalism at all. In 2015, I watched as Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Eric Harris, and Sandra Bland were murdered at the hands of the police. And in 2016 I watched Alton Sterling and Philando Castile suffer the same fate. I was 15 when Trayvon Martin was murdered, only two years younger than Martin. As I watched the news assassinate his character and delegitimize his humanity, I saw myself in him. Then, while in college, after two years of what seemed like a continuous shedding of the blood of Black bodies, I could no longer watch the body cam videos or cell phone footage of these tragedies. It was too painful. As I tried my best to maintain a healthy level of sanity in the midst of tragedy, there was a constant weight of lament and anger over the lives that were being taken. Amidst this lament, the one refuge I thought I had was my predominantly White Church. But my perceived refuge was mostly silent when it came to the death of Black image bearers and ignored my subsequent lament. I would go to church days and sometimes just hours after a shooting and these tragedies would receive no acknowledgement, not even a prayer. This blindness and apathy impacted me deeply.
Even though I am personally the product of an interracial marriage, grew up in a predominantly White church, and am well versed in navigating and communicating within White Evangelical culture, I had to step away from the predominantly White churches I had always attended. This exodus has become a trend among Black Christians in predominantly White churches and it must be further discussed and researched. Otherwise, we may very well begin to see a reversal of the recent rise of multiracial congregations in America as many Black Christians, like myself, are answering brother Walter Strickland’s question with an emphatic “no.”
With a posture of lament, predominantly White congregations must seek justice where there has been injustice, forgiveness where there has been harm done, and reform for the structural ways in which we have built a dismissive and unwelcoming culture towards Christians of color in predominantly White churches.
In the next five articles I will make a case for why I believe sociological inquiry is necessary to better understand the experiences of Black males in predominantly White congregations and to inform those congregations as they seek to understand these experiences and to build healthier churches for Black Christians. I will provide historical context for the racial divide in Evangelicalism, discuss the presence of academia in the church, and address the current conversations on whether or not the church should affirm academic theoretical frameworks as “analytical tools” in light of their long and complex history. I will then give, what I believe to be, a healthy way forward based on the experiences of the respondents in my study and the posture of the predominantly White churches they attended.