An Honest Conversation about Race

Nazarene Theological Seminary opened the second day of a week honoring Martin Luther King with a serious discussion around of race, privilege, and our responsibility as the church.

Dr. Carla Sunberg, president of Nazarene Theological Seminary reflected on her own privilege growing up; and how she was confronted by that difference while a missionary in Russia. Revisiting her experience, she recounted how Russian police identified international people, and also how stark life remained in rural Russia. Sunberg realized she had access to resources and abilities that often other people would die for. Citing Luke 12:48b, Sunberg acknowledged that some participants had more privilege than others, but asked honestly, what will we do with what we have been given.

The morning session continued with a panel discussion and honest conversations about Race. Moderator Deth Im,  Assistant Director of Training and Development, People Improving Communities Through Organizing (PICO) National Network, invited a conversation around truth and reconciliation. Participants included

Brandon Winstead, Director of Student Ministries at Killearn United Methodist Church (FL) and the author of There All Along: Black Participation in the Church of the Nazarene, 1914-1969

Montague Williams, Assistant Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Department Chair at Eastern Nazarene College

Angela Sims, Dean of Academic Programs, Robert B. and Kathleen Rogers Chair in Church and Society, & Associate Professor of Ethics and Black Church Studies at St. Paul School of Theology

Wallace Hartsfield, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Central Baptist Theological Seminary and Pastor at KC Metropolitan Baptist Church

Charles Tillman, National Black Ministries Facilitator, Virginia District Black Ministries Director and Senior Pastor of Richmond Woodville Church of the Nazarene

Many of the panelists noted they had no choice in engaging race, it extends from their personhood and social situation. Angela Sims noted that conversation alone does not work in truth and reconciliation. If we do not speak truth in the midst of privilege (revealing and repenting our assumptions that certain relationships, actions, etc. appear “normal”) we cannot embrace reconciliation. Perhaps one of the key constructs to cross the racial divide is to acknowledge and repent privilege. Montague Williams noted that a lot of times people say “sorry” without knowing what they are sorry for. Language proves important, so we need to both recognize our vocabularies but also honor stories that shape us. When it comes to race, truth is really caught up in the narrative which often includes painful stories of exclusion.

Wallace Hartsfield actually challenged the idea of truth and reconciliation unless we name two key issues.

“Whose truth?” Hartsfield noted that we often assume an “objective truth” that actually assumes a Western European perspective rather than including the perspectives, the realities of people of color.

“Whose reconciliation?” How do we talk about reconciliation if there has never been a conciliation? If we are talking about this country, there is no time when African Americans were ever constituted as full participants, full human beings, in the past.

Deth Im asked, how do we then become the church again? Hartsfield noted we have to really be honest with truth, that we begin with people that have never had an opportunity to be full participants. We need to begin to talk about conciliation as the primary task, the hard work, to acknowledge a past that did not exist and work toward a future that truly “conciliates.”

Tillman noted that for black pastors to participate, there has to be a real platform for real respect and understanding. Noting the desire for multi-ethnic services Tillman noted that “we don’t worship” alike and the presence of “black folk” may well change the practices of worship, preaching, teaching in that congregation. Instead there may be a place for ethnically framed black churches and Korean churches if only to empower those people within the broader cultural milleux, and respect the strengths and contributions of those congregations and leaders till a time when they will be respected a true participants in predominantly white congregations.

Winstead noted that we need conversations around power, history and money if we really want to challenge congregants to address the “nitty gritty” stuff that shapes congregational life. Winstead noted the history of African Americans, Caribbean, and other black churches in the Church of the Nazarene actually possessed robust views of holiness and sanctification, yet raised a social questions alongside personal piety. Winstead noted working in the field of youth ministry afforded opportunities to engage the conversation but often lead pastors did not understand the task. Winstead noted that neurologically many Anglo pastors have never dealt with the concepts of race to the point to have a working cognitive framework to seriously engage questions of race, reparations, and privilege. In other words, the conversation has rarely entered church life. For Winstead, beginning with the history of injustice opens the door to churches and leaders to understand the depth of racism, that helps them to move to the possibility of engaging reconciliation.

Angela Sims noted that the church has to understand how “whiteness” has been constructed in the United States so that even previous outside immigrant groups (like the Irish) were later incorporated historically into a nationally view of whiteness. Even in theological education, resources often used reflect only euro-centric theological traditions. When other ethnic theological texts are introduced, normally they are supplemental at best.

Working with college students Montague Williams noted that often young people struggle with the questions of “am I racist?” Montague suggested that we can begin with race as a socially constructed reality, a habitus, that people find themselves within. Williams argues then that we can explore the “virtues” and “practices” of racism and its underlying assumption that all people are called to be white. Taking this approach, we can then explore the construction of whiteness globally. You know that whiteness is at the center of race when someone can live poorly based on white norms is considered “white trash” while blacks who live according to white norms are considered “good” negroes or “accomplished” African Americans. Williams argued that invoking the call to holiness offers a chance to “go beyond” what the cultural norms assert including the construction of whiteness.

Charles Tillman had to resolve early if he would have to become white in order to become Christian? He resolved it was not necessary. Instead Tillman brings a uniqueness that the Church of the Nazarene needs, a different view of Christianity. Tillman did note that the dominant leadership in the denomination still does not understand black Christianity which impedes not only strategy but just comfort for engaging racial differences.

Hartsfield noted that he is constantly learning how to engage the racial divide. Wallace acknowledged that his early efforts to disciple people as Christians often resulted in the wrong outcome. Wallace noted Martin Luther King’s observation of King’s fear he had lead people into a burning building. King noted, even with the accomplishments of Civil Rights, things had changed on paper, but people’s lives had not changed. This led King to advance the poor people’s campaign, so that valuing people including valuing the economic well-being of people. Civil rights resulted a stroke of a pen, but did it change the view that privilege needs to be shared, much less sacrificed, for the sake of others? Normally, Wallace noted, conversations tend to go silent. It is one issue to create catharsis, to both acknowledge and assuage guilt, another to go on to begin how one changes conducts one’s life. The second approach reflects our task in theological education. Beginning with scripture, Wallace notes that the view of a single “Adam and Even” often implied blacks came from animals, the curse of Ham extended to blacks, and the Psalmist interpretation of “black but beautiful.” When we do not engage the history of the misinterpretation of the scripture and how scripture has been used to dominate, we cannot disciple people. Unless we critique misinterpretation that has allowed the domination of colored bodies, we are not engaging scripture in a way that liberates blacks and whites to bridge the racial divide.

Williams noted we don’t have to give up scripture, but we have to also embrace the primary vision of the Kingdom of God. One way to respond to misuse of theology and scripture entails scholars also willing to move out of their own disciplinary “guild” and work together toward a Christian “discipleship” that creates also invites people to engage in larger questions of race. Williams also hopes for inter-ethnic worship as long as people will be willing to “give up” their particular privilege across racial divides.

Sims argued that until we have an honest conversation of “black/white” racial difference in this country, all other ethnic conversations remain superficial. Though other ethnicities need equal attention and access to the conversation, until “whiteness” is addressed, the problem remains persistent. Winstead noted that history and context really influence this conversation. Brandon, however, also stated any regional, historical, examples of oppressing African Americans must be a part of the conversation. Winstead observed that history still influences similar deliberations today, including how other ethnic groups experience the same historical exclusion. It is not enough to espouse universal platitudes, we have to explore this history of that provides privilege and results in real challenges for just acts today. Sims noted that we cannot talk about how black lives matter alone, but also how black lives have not mattered in our history and even in our society today.

Williams noted that race really is a category for “most human and least human.” In the history of the US the term “white” reflects “most human” and black “least human.” When African Americans remain absent, then people of “color” along the continuum tend to reflect the “least human” reference point to whiteness. So some communities will pit one ethnicity against African Americans as the “best minority” of option. Until we acknowledge the fact that white/black reflects most human/least human, we have problems dealing with other ethnicities. Williams noted the problem is not being of European descent, whiteness proves problematic by assuming that background reflects the most human perspective and current participating systems endorse this assumption.

Questions from the audience including attending to whiteness, truly incorporating people into worship across the racial barrier, and exploring how to engage racism locally. One concern, in light of this gathering resting in a theological seminary, entailed asking how the discourse might change by bringing people into the conversation who possess less education (including youth).

One the issue of people with less theological education, Winstead noted that young people often “do” recognize the racial divide and may well be ahead of adults in understanding the injustices around their world. Williams noted that the conversation does occur with people possessing less education but perhaps in different ways. Williams did note that having theological degrees might lead “us” to think we should have conversation like this. Truthfully that may only work if we also bring about change in the church. Williams also works with young people and shared Winstead’s observation that the conversation does occur… but primarily outside the church. Brandon observed that the ongoing struggle to translate the day’s conversation at the seminary into the lives of youth may well reveal our lack of discipleship in local congregation when it comes to addressing race locally.

Hartsfield noted that, in Kansas City, the same white descendants of people who engaged in “white flight” to leave the city, are now returning. The question remains whether the “gentrifying” of the urban core risks the same divide by pushing out blacks from neighborhoods that had been devoid of resources. Until returning white people recognize how they implicitly controlled many of the resources by restricting their access. Rather than “reforming” or “reconciling” there needs to be a true transformation through black and whites truly living “together” and sharing resources and expecting the same justice.

How to move forward? Congregations must respect and prioritize the challenge of racism and also receive information from other communities of color as part of the Christian story. In addition, the church must support those willing to invest in the pursuit of bringing justice and bridging the racial divide. Sims noted that we need not merely repent privilege, but ask what we intend to do with our privilege for the common good. Ultimately churches must act, as Tillman says, put a “body” to the conversation. Moving forward may well entail embracing the pain of the past, the problems of our assumptions today, and the conviction to truly change, for the same of the future.


About Dean G. Blevins

Dr. Dean G. Blevins currently serves as Professor of Practical Theology and Christian Discipleship at Nazarene Theological Seminary. An ordained elder, Dean has ministered in diverse settings and currently also serves at the USA Regional Education Coordinator for the Church of the Nazarene. A prolific author, Dr. Blevins recently co-wrote the textbook Discovering Discipleship and edits Didache: Faithful Teaching, a journal for Wesleyan Education.
This entry was posted in Bible, Clergy, Continuing Education, Culture, Discipleship, Practical Theology, Race, Theological Education. Bookmark the permalink.

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