Editor’s Note: This is the final in a four-part series exploring “the seductive nature of white supremacy” and Black Christian identity and faith. You can find the other entries at the following links: part 1, “The Hound of Hell;” part 2, “Breaking White Supremacy’s Grip;” and part 3, “Black Freedom in Christ.”
“Heal before you help. When you’re healed, you tell the story differently.”
– Lisa Fields, Jude 3 Project
I had been to many other church conferences like this one before. You likely know these conferences well. They would be hosted by a popular parachurch ministry at a large predominantly White megachurch or convention center, hosted by a team of White church leaders, made up of mostly White speakers, and attended by mostly White churchgoers. You’d walk in amongst a crowd of eager attendees excited to hear their favorite White pastor-theologian preach and their favorite Black Christian Hip-Hop artist perform. A sea of booths setup by predominantly White organizations, colleges, and seminaries would usually greet you in the lobby with free pamphlets, free books, free pens, and stickers, and notepads, and whatever else might entice you to visit their table. Most likely there would be a makeshift bookstore with a plethora of books written by a favorite celebrity pastor or on the latest controversy in the church. A few Black faces may be scattered throughout. There may be a Black host who kept you entertained in-between speakers, or a Black singer to help lead worship. There may be a Black organization set up here or there or a few Black authors scattered throughout the bookstore. The one Black speaker—if there is one— may even be speaking on a topic unrelated to race if they are able to make it to the main stage rather than relegated to a breakout session. While I often enjoyed the booths, the worship, the preaching, the breakouts, and marked down books—especially the marked down books— it was always as if I was doing the work to find something to take back with me. I felt like Denzel at the Oscars: “I’m leaving here with something!” Very rarely would I attend a conference like this and ever get the slightest impression that it was for me.
I hadn’t yet moved to Chicago when I attended a conference in the city’s historic southside neighborhood of Hyde Park. I remember the excitement I had knowing, even before I got there, that I was attending a Christian conference for me. It was organized by a Black-led organization and would have a predominantly Black audience. I would be able to listen to preaching from Black men and Black women and hear songs lead by Black worship leaders. We didn’t meet in a grand church or convention center, but a historic Black church in a historic Black neighborhood. It meant more that way. When you entered the old doors, you felt the floors creek beneath your feet. You could see and smell in the walls and the carpet the evidence of a time-tested local church. And almost immediately, rather than feeling alone, you felt loved. You felt like you were right where you were supposed to be and that your presence was valued. You heard and saw your presence celebrated in the laughter and embraces of the people around you. Here, you didn’t have to worry about what you were going to take back with you. No, the people and preaching and singing and whooping would grab you. I know it did me. It filled me with joy and led me to praise. Just being in the room made me clap and made me sway. But even still there was something more than just good worship and good preaching to be found. There was a Spirit at work; the Spirit of the Black church. It was the Spirit that comforted me in my sorrow and released all the bottled-up tension in my body. It was the Spirit that grabbed me and shoved a word in my mind and in my heart to take with me. It was a place where, only a few minutes away from my family’s apartment now, I felt like home. I felt free.
Centering Our Community
2019 was an important year for our community. For those of us who found ourselves wondering in the wilderness after coming to terms with— or just being plain tired of the insufficient witness of their predominantly White Christian community, there were finally opportunities to escape. In May, The Front Porch hosted the Just Gospel conference under the theme “Reconcile Us, O Lord.” That summer, the Jude 3 Project held “Courageous Conversations,” a conference that hosts discussions between Black Christians from both conservative and progressive backgrounds. And in October, The Witness: A Black Christian Collective hosted its national conference which celebrated Black “Joy and Justice” 400 years after 1619. Without the need for our explanation, these sacred spaces recognized our mutual worth and value. They understood that our solidarity needed cultivation in collaboration and relationship with one another. They provided us with a communal balm and escape; an intentional solidarity with other Black Christians, regardless of the context of their worship. They were testaments, in real-time, that we truly are more than a reaction to White presence. And they reminded us now of the possibility of our collective flourishing when we value those who share our wounds. We gathered not knowing the explosion of hatred that was to come. And we left not knowing it would be our last time together for some time. As I reflect on our collective experiences we’ve had and the work we must do to rebuild the basis of our dignity on the love of Christ, I am increasingly thankful for the community of Black Christians that is being expanded around us. I am reminded of the importance of cultivating intentional solidarity. But I am also reminded that such solidarity will take real work. It will take more courageous conversations, more celebration, more joy and more justice as we seek to participate in the reconciling of God’s people here on earth.
In doing so, we must take heed of Howard Thurman’s words and be careful that our hatred does not become the foundation on which we rebuild the basis for our own sense of dignity. In our hatred, we can be quick to justify in ourselves that which we would normally condemn in others– what Thurman calls “disciplined hatred.” Disciplined hatred keeps us from recognizing our own moral responsibility. To avoid developing a disciplined hatred in our own lives, we must exercise the love ethic of Jesus to our neighbors. And not only towards the neighbors who are the sources of our injury and in positions of strength in White Christian spaces, as is often the preferred focus of flawed racial reconciliation rhetoric, but towards those who share our wounds and our racial trauma. In doing this we will find, as Thurman calls it, a “life-affirming” posture towards other Black Christians that recognizes their mutual worth and value and refuses to demonize them based on the communities they’re associated with. After all, the recognition of our mutual worth and value has historically been what has galvanized the Black community towards collective action, even when those involved had major differences between them. Historic examples of justice minded solidarity within the Black community include the organizations formed in the face of racial terror and injustice. Whether it be the American Negro Academy, the NAACP, and the Niagara Movement of the early 1900’s or SNCC, CORE, and the SCLC during the Black Freedom Struggle, Black people have long produced imaginative organizations when we most need them. And in the last decade, the imaginative organizations produced within the Black Christian community are no different.
Through platforms like The Front Porch, Jude 3 Project, The Witness, Truths Table, The Institute for Cross Cultural Mission, the Black Christian Experience Resource Center, Be The Bridge, United? We Pray, and The Call & Response Conference, among others, the spiritual health and collective flourishing of Black people is centered. As we move forward, we must continue to focus our resourcefulness on the intentional solidarity being built in these spaces so that our creative expressions can flourish into great ideas for the betterment of Black people everywhere. This solidarity, however, is not an end in and of itself. It is a pathway towards something greater— redemption. And God willing, as we journey along the pathway of solidarity, we will find healing, restoration, and freedom from White supremacy’s grip. In Race Matters, Dr. Cornel West writes, “that which fundamentally motivates one still dictates the terms of what one thinks and does.” As we reflect on the seductive nature of White supremacy, and seek to establish an intentional solidarity with other Black Christians, we must ask ourselves what motivates us? Are we motivated by hatred, or by our freedom in Christ?