When I became a Christian in 1960 – I was 16 years of age and from a non-Christian background – I soon learned that I had to start to change a lot of my views and opinions as God began to convict me of lots of skewed views I had taken on board even in just those 16 years. Racism was something I had picked up along the way. Nature or nurture? I guess it was a mixture of both. I recall a story I heard then – from the 1950s – that has stayed with me down through the years.
Sam travelled all the way from the north down to the south of the USA to spend some time with his widowed sister-in-law, Lorraine. Sam didn’t have a lot of money but he had saved up to make the trip because he wanted to help his sister-in-law who was going through a tough time. Sam was ex-army and he had been away on a tour of duty when his brother, Joel, had died two years previously so he couldn’t get to the funeral. But now Lorraine needed him and this time he could be there for her. Although Sam and Joel had been raised in a Christian home, Sam was the only one of the two of them to go on with the Lord once he and his brother had left home so he felt an additional reason to go down south to help out if he could.
Sam helped out around Lorraine’s house, fixing various things (Sam was a good fixer), doing some of the cooking (Sam was a good cook), and looking after Lorraine’s two kids when she had to work evenings (Lorraine was a waitress). Come Sunday, Sam wanted to go to a Church Service so he dressed up in the smartest clothes he had with him (Sam was a ‘sharp’ dresser) and walked a few blocks to the smart looking church he had spotted in a neighbouring district earlier in the week. He walked up the steps to the main entrance but when he went to enter he was stopped by two stewards on the door who told him in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t welcome in ‘their church’. Sam didn’t understand what was going on and tried to go back in … only to be restrained again and unceremoniously bundled back down the steps into the street. It was only then, as Sam lay there in the dust and the dirt, that he saw the sign: ‘Whites Only!’
As Sam, trudged sadly away from the church, hurt and confused at the blatant racism displayed by those he had thought to be fellow Christians, he suddenly sensed the presence of the Lord Jesus walking alongside him (rather like the two on the Emmaus Road that we read about in Luke 24:13-35). Jesus put his arm around Sam and, pointing back at the church Sam had been refused entry to said, ‘Don’t worry Sam … I’ve been trying to get in there for a long time as well!’
‘But surely those days are over now!’ somebody says. ‘Such a thing just wouldn’t happen today … even in the USA!’ Well actually … things have got worse in many ways. The latest statistics reveal that 87% of Christian Churches in the USA are ‘mono-cultural’ as opposed to ‘multi-cultural’ and I suspect things in the UK are not that much different. The rise of ‘black churches’ in the UK, following the arrival of immigrants from the West Indies from 1948 (on the Windrush), is perhaps understandable. Many of them were practising Christians and, initially looked to join existing British churches, only to be met by blatant racism from many of them. No wonder then, that they formed their own mono-cultural churches. This is something we white British Christians need to acknowledge and repent of, like Isaiah of old recognising that we too share an ‘unclean’ heritage with our forefathers in this (Isaiah 6:5), even if we ourselves were not around at that time.
Has anything really changed, however? Is ‘racism’ still alive and well within largely ‘white churches’? Are we continuing to perpetuate the current pandemic of mono-cultural churches built along cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and tribal lines rather than take seriously the biblical truth that ‘There is [to be?] no longer Jew or Greek … slave or free … male and female – for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). In the light of all this I wonder how many Reading residents would commend us at Abbey for providing a ‘home’ for three other very different, independent, ethnic churches at Abbey … or see us as actually fuelling racial discrimination (albeit unwittingly) with ‘they have the Asians worshipping early on a Sunday, and then the white British later in the morning, and then the black Africans in the afternoon, and finally the Latinos in the evening!’ Is it time we tried to find a path in which (whilst retaining positive cultural differences) we could be ‘connected yet focussed’ in a meaningful way?
Many Christians (although sadly not all) the world over have been united in their revulsion over the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer, and faith leaders from across the theological spectrum have spoken out about the lessons they think Christians should draw from the incident. For example, Michael Curry (presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church) draws our attention to the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) who stopped to give aid to a man who had been beaten and left on the side of the road: ‘Only the Samaritan saw the wounded stranger and acted … Love, as Jesus teaches, is action like this as well as attitude. It seeks the good, the well-being, and the welfare of others as well as one’s self.’
On the Day of Pentecost the common people were ‘amazed and astonished’ (Acts 2:7) to hear the disciples of Jesus proclaiming the Good News in the languages of just about every known nation that existed at that time (Acts 2:8-11). It took Peter a little longer, however, to ‘truly understand that God shows no partiality but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him’ (Acts 10:34). There are not five different races (as Samuel Morton and others have taught) but just one race – the human race – and the Christian Church should be at the forefront of modelling this wonderful truth!
And so we pray (using words from Bloomsbury Baptist Church)
Loving and forgiving God, we come to you today recognising that in matters of ethnicity we have no choice – we are who we have been made to be. Before you we rejoice at our diversity, and our hearts lift at your great vision of a worshipping multitude gathered from every nation, tribe, people and language. But nonetheless we recognise that our present reality is very far from this ideal.
We have each of us been shaped by different forces; some of us have been ground down, whilst others have been built up. Some of us have been worn away, or have become fractured and broken. Some of us have found life a burden rather than a joy. None of us have experienced the perfect life.
Some of us have inherited power, whilst others of us have inherited powerlessness.
Some of us have been born white, in a world where whiteness confers privilege. Others of us have been born black, in a world where darker skin carries disadvantage.
We know that this is not the world as you would have it be, but it is our world, and it has been our experience.
None of us asked for our skin colour, none of us asked to be born the heirs of oppression, none of us asked to inherit power or powerlessness.
So before you, and in the name of Jesus Christ who loves all people equally, regardless of ethnicity, gender or social status, we come now to recommit ourselves to your vision of the world.
We come now to pray ‘your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven’, and to offer ourselves once to live out your coming kingdom of equality and justice in our lives, in our churches, and in our communities.
And so we confess our own complicity in the status quo which divides and distorts humanity. As we pray, we ask that you will release us from guilt, and will help us to find ways of laying down the burdens we have inherited.
Help us to discover our true and rightful place within the new humanity created in Christ Jesus. All races together, we confess that we have sinned, and that we have fallen short of the glory of God.
We confess our failures to speak out against injustice. We confess those times when, as individuals and as churches, we have witnessed the fracturing of humanity along ethnic grounds, and yet have remained silent. We confess those times when we have been the powerful ones and have chosen to withhold that power whilst another human suffered.
We confess the sin of racist exclusion, the abuse of power to oppress and demean. May those of us who have ourselves experienced exclusion be the first to speak up for others. May we create spaces for reconciliation.
We pray for our churches. May they become places of reconciliation, where each human soul is valued, and where equality in Christ is a reality in our midst. Forgive us those times where we do not live out our calling as your people. May our churches model the new humanity of Christ to those in the communities where we live.
We pray for our communities. Where there is division, may we bring restoration. Where there is inequality may we bring justice. Where there is powerlessness may we lift up the broken hearted. Where there is damage may we bring healing.
Loving and forgiving God, hear our confession, hear the desires of our hearts to be different, grant us your forgiveness, and remake us according to the likeness of Christ.
~ Jim Binney