This week, guest writer Renea Overstreet, a third-year law student at Texas Wesleyan and author of the novel Always a Bridesmaid, talks about her uneasiness as an African-American visitor at predominantly white churches.
The very first Bible Girl quiz immediately follows.
Why I'm Trying to Stick With the Black Church. For Now.
By Renea Overstreet
As sincere praise rose from hearts all across the sanctuary, I lifted my hands and joined in the experience. I knew some of the songs and quickly learned the unfamiliar ones with the help of the words on the big screens. I sang and praised and absorbed the awesome communion in corporate worship. Inhaling, I was overcome by God’s greatness. Exhaling, I laid my burdens down.
The service flowed seamlessly, from the praise service through a few announcements and on to a video introduction of the sermon. After visiting a few times, the format became familiar, but I was always pleasantly surprised by the variations. There were testimonies from people heading to or coming from missionary work abroad, special programs around the holidays and presentations about how to get involved in service work locally.
This was just one of the many churches I visited in the area. After moving to the Dallas-Fort Worth area in 2004, I began a search for a church. I would ask around trying to get recommendations from neighbors. I searched the Internet and studied Web sites. I even looked in the Yellow Pages. I visited traditional black and white denominational churches as well as more progressive gatherings. I even attended a groovy service where congregants drank coffee while the speaker used an extensive PowerPoint presentation to get his message across.
Finally I thought I'd found a place to call home. It has almost everything I ever wanted in a church: accountability in leadership; awesome children and teen ministries; small groups; great music; sincere, meaningful corporate worship; and, most important, very sound biblical teaching and preaching.
So what was my problem? What stopped me from making that place my spiritual home?
I am chagrined to admit that my problem was that most of the people did not look like me. It is annoying to acknowledge that because of the social and political impact of racism in this country, I have a problem being in a ministry under white leadership where most of the people are white. My understanding of the history of slavery, racism and the long struggle for justice is likely causing me to miss out on enriching experiences.
Even in the midst of a wonderful worship experience, my mind was bombarded with questions from history, voices from the struggle. Did I somehow think the white man’s ice was cooler? Why couldn’t I find a church under African-American leadership that offered all the same things?
My heart’s response: Why couldn’t I just become a member of that wonderful church and forget about race? Did I need them to publicly denounce the history that makes Sunday morning the most segregated time in America?
I wanted to follow my heart. I knew, however, that if I took that leap, I would feel this strange, ironic sense of guilt, as if I had given up the struggle and sold out. As if I had betrayed my “people” and gone over to the other side. As if I thought a white church is better than a black church. Most of all, I would feel like I was depriving a black church of my support (time, talent and treasure) and lending help to a ministry that didn’t really need it. So I found a black church and tried to make it home.
Believe me, I know there is no “other side” in Christ. I know that there is level ground at the cross, and that there are no racial divisions in the kingdom of God. Yet, I find myself bound by the social and political constructs of race in America.
How different would things have been if so long ago Europeans had gone to Africa with different motives, perhaps looking for business partners and fellow adventurers rather than free labor? How would things have been if Africans had simply refused to sell other Africans into a horrific system? What if enough people had fought back and ended the system before it developed into an economic base for the advancement of this country?
If the history of my fore-mothers and fathers had been different, maybe I could lift my hands in the sanctuary and not even think about the racial background of the person standing next to me.
What will I do about this strange legacy that leaves constraining residue in my life? I will probably buck against it. Eventually. Right now I still feel a real sense of responsibility to support what is familiar, to stay in this comfort zone. I am compelled to keep searching, to keep visiting black churches until I find the place where I’m supposed to be.
On the other hand, it may be time for me to realize that I’ve already found that place.
In my experience, white Christians have a tendency to think, Hey, Jesus abolished the color line at the cross, so everything's cool between us. Let's pretend we're a big, happy family.
So Bible Girl has a few questions. Feel free to answer all or a few. I'm not looking for correct answers; I'm looking for honest answers.
The Big, Happy Family Quiz
1. How, in your opinion, are people of different ethnicities and cultures treated in your church?
2. Among the few congregations in the area that are ethnically mixed, how many offer worship and preaching that are unabashedly ethnic in flavor?
3. Do you think most American evangelicals who undertake missions to developing countries assume they're offering a superior version of doctrine and morality?
4. How would you respond if a Nigerian pastor came to stay at your house, and he was deeply grieved that you allowed your child to play with toy snakes--when snakes, in his culture, symbolize an evil spirit characterized by extreme manipulation? (As you've probably guessed, this actually happened to me.)
5. How many close Christian friends do you have from different cultural backgrounds? Close Christian friend defined: You love them. You can be open about disagreements, instead of brushing them aside. You call them for counsel, and you take their advice with the utmost seriousness. You ask them to pray for you. You can entrust them with a confidence about yourself.
6. Can you name a preacher or Bible teacher of a different ethnicity from your own whose ministry you follow closely?
7. Is abortion a more important moral issue than racial reconciliation?
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8. Do you think most white evangelicals are sincerely interested in racial reconciliation, though they might not know how to go about it?
9. In your view, are most white evangelicals willing to submit to black church leadership?
10. Have you ever seen a need to repent of your prejudice to Jesus Christ?
And last, if you will, what is your racial/ethnic background? --Julie Lyons