In my late teens and early 20s my family attended the Community of Reconciliation, an interracial, interdenominational, left-leaning church at the edge of the city’s university district. And for me, in many ways it was a poor fit.
My previous church was conservative theologically, in that it really studied the Bible thoroughly, and before long I felt on a spiritual level that I was dying on the vine. Furthermore, COR was pro-choice on abortion and gay-affirming, stances I couldn’t accept, and I ended up leaving at the end of 1983 (by this time, my family had already broken up).
Two things came from that, however: One, a member of the choir was on the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — and it’s because of him that I work there today.
The other is that COR got the race thing exactly right.
I don’t recall any discussions of “white privilege” — this was well over 30 years ago — but when it came to such relationships nothing was off the table. By definition the leadership was split down the middle between black and white. (There weren’t enough Native Americans, Hispanics or Asians in Pittsburgh, let alone in the church, to make a difference.) I recall no attempt to “spare” the feelings of white members but, by contrast, no resentment toward the white race from its black members.
For the longest time I wished for an evangelical congregation that had a similar commitment to racial reconciliation because the Gospel, as I have come to understand it, is all about reconciliation. One obstacle to that, however, is the “individualistic” way in which American evangelicals often read the Scripture, focusing on “fire insurance,” personal holiness and cultural issues.
But while we’re “saved” individually, we’re saved into a Body — the Body of Christ, that is — and as such we belong to one another. As I Corinthians reads, “But God has put the body together … so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (v. 24b-26).
That passage should have an impact on race relations in the church, but sadly it often doesn’t. In fact, racial reconciliation has been an issue in the evangelical church only in the last quarter-century and largely because Bill McCartney of the Promise Keepers men’s ministry made it one — and hurt the ministry financially in the process because folks didn’t want to hear about what he called a “spirit of racism,” which he personally witnessed in his previous life as a college football coach.
Thing is, he was right.
Now, people may say, “I never owned slaves. I didn’t live in the South. I really don’t see color.”
All true, perhaps, but the effects of racism still exist especially in or near most major cities, where many of your black “brothers and sisters” live. They may be stopped by the police for no good reason. They may have trouble finding jobs, in part because the people doing the hiring don’t live in their neighborhoods.
In other words, the effects of past racist practices have yet to be overcome. I hope people can hear that and not complain that African-Americans are simply whining.
By the way, I eventually located an evangelical church that is committed to building bridges — right here in Pittsburgh. I’m honored to say that I’ve attended that church for nearly 18 years, and I knew that God called me there because I was at first resistant as I thought it might be too good to be true.
I’ve met people who aren’t really on board with it, but that’s OK. It has the potential to be a true “community of reconciliation,” where differences aren’t emphasized or papered over but transcended. Moreover, other churches in the area are doing the same.
Remember the old chorus “They’ll Know We are Christians by Our Love.”