Monday, December 18, 2006

Relevant Race Discussions

The other day a copy of my friend Ed Gilbreath's new book, Reconciliation Blues, arrived in the mail. I've been devouring it ever since.

Ed, an editor at the magazine Christianity Today, shares his perspective as a black man working in mostly-white evangelical surroundings. But the book goes well beyond that in looking at various other African-American figures in modern Christianity, who have sought to truly break down racial barriers. Despite progress that has been made, we've got a long ways to go.

One particular small paragraph in Ed's book really strikes me (among many). It cited a study demonstrating that when whites spent quality time with blacks (I believe they were referring to an educational setting), their critical thinking faculties and creativity rise to a higher level.

I certainly have found this to be true. When I have stepped out of my comfort zone and exposed my thinking to those persons from different races, cultures or socio-economic groups, I have felt a deeper richness of perspective and joy of simple fellowship.

I find that as I grow older (and hopefully wiser), I am less prone to stay immersed in that comfort and more likely to pursue the opportunity to fellowship and partner with persons who aren't just like me. (The challenge is that the places I tend to work are almost exclusively white in their staff composition--including the two churches I served as a pastor, where the only persons of color were the janitors; the Morgan Stanley branch where I worked for two years; and my current health care company's organizational development team. The church where I worship? Yep, pretty much all suburban white.)

For me, this type of reaching out felt artificial at first but has come to be more natural. In the past, with my black friends I was often afraid to bring up matters of race, uncertain whether even bringing up the subject would seem racist or offensive--i.e., "Are you talking to me about race just because I'm black?" "Can't you notice anything else about me?"

I have worked hard over the years to see people for their talent and character rather than their race. But now, I think that striving not to see color does a disservice, in a sense. It denies the white person an opportunity to gain deeper empathy and appreciation for the person of color, and denies the black person the opportunity to share his or her perspective on what life has been like.

As long as race is nervously not acknowledged in the relationship, an unspoken tension hangs in the air, I believe. Race must be grappled with, as uncomfortable as this might be, because it is a reality.

The other day I was having lunch with our church's children's pastor, Rick, who is African American. Rick and I were chatting about a number of things, and got to the subject of books we liked to read. I mentioned that I had just ordered Philip Yancey's new book on prayer, and then--after hesitating for just a moment--mentioned Reconciliation Blues.

I certainly saw a gleam of interest in his eyes, and perhaps even surprise. Although we didn't dwell on the subject (it was our first chance to really hang out), I felt good that I didn't censor myself out of fear as I might have done in the past; as in, not mentioning that I'm reading a book about race because I'm too scared to bring up the topic of race even though race hangs in the air that flows between us.

I guess my thinking is that, if I'm going to have friendships with persons of other races, we have to be able to go deep on race if we're going to go deep on any of the other stuff---careers, family, faith, struggles, hopes, dreams. I just want to be able to fully relate, and to be authentic with my friends.

I think this issue is part of what makes me so restless about institutionalized western Christianity. I look around at my church, and I see the kingdom of white suburbia and the many guises it wears to impress or maintain the status quo.

I know that my family tends to connect best in such an environment, so I don't do much to extract myself from it. But I see Rick the children's pastor and feel like we're missing out on so much because there aren't more Ricks. Of course, my issues with the western church go far beyond race and multi-culturalism, but that's another entry!


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