I was part of a multi-racial church plant that went horribly wrong. The majority white church I attended “partnered” with a majority African American church in our college town to plant a multi-racial church in a nearby city. It looked great on paper: a white pastor and a black pastor coming together from two segregated congregations to give witness to the reconciling power of the gospel (and it looked great on the Billboard the church paid for!).
I was drawn to this vision from my own experience growing up in segregated neighborhoods and churches and always having a gnawing feeling that this division was counter to what God intended for us. I longed for relationship and community with my African American brothers and sisters and thought what better way to tear down the barriers than to worship together and start a new kind of church.
So I put my energy into this effort until it slowly crashed and burned. We were all scratching our heads wondering what the heck happened? How could God let such a worthy cause derail?
What derailed this effort, is the same thing that derails so many genuine attempts at reconciliation. Power. There was a power imbalance. Everyone on the leadership team of the new church plant except the black pastor was from the white church. The white church provided the majority of the money, so the white church felt like it had the authority to call the shots. The black pastor preached on alternating Sundays, but the day to day decisions of the church were controlled and made by the white pastor and congregation. Pretty soon the black pastor stopped coming to the leadership meetings out of frustration while the white church saw this lack of involvement as further proof that he was not really committed. The church lasted only a year and a half until it crumbled.
When I relocated to Chicago I had this experience fresh in my mind. I decided going to a multi-racial church was not enough. I needed to plant myself in an African American community, not from a position of power, but of submission. I made up my mind to submit my white instincts to lead, control, fix, and dominate. I felt like a character in Lord of the Rings trying to avoid the lure of the ring of power that so easily distorts and destroys lives (and ministries). I decided I would not seek to lead in the community, but to place myself under local African American leaders. I wouldn’t try to start my own organization or church, but support the dreams and visions of the community. I wouldn’t seek my own advantage, but leverage my privilege and resources for the community’s benefit.
Soong Chan Rah is a professor at North Park University and he is a prophetic voice for the church in the area of racism and multi-ethnicity. Earlier this year at a round table discussion on race, he was asked what white people can do to address the power dynamic that so often befalls reconciliation. He suggested white people place themselves underneath people of color. He said they should seek a mentor that they can learn from. When white people put themselves in the place of learner, they challenge the power imbalance. He says the majority of people of color have had to submit to white leaders, be it pastors, teachers, professors, or bosses. The majority of white people have not had to submit to leaders of color. By choosing to do so, they open doors for amazing opportunities for partnership and growth.
This is something we feel strongly about at Mission Year so we intentionally partner with churches and organizations where our team members can serve underneath community leaders of color. This allows our white team members to practice submission so they can enjoy meaningful cross-cultural relationships. It is also empowering for team members of color to see strong, respected diverse leaders who are passionately pursuing God’s call. And lastly, it is incredibly affirming for the leaders themselves. Sadly, too many leaders of color have experienced the discouragement and paternalism of well intentioned white people who do not know how to practice mutual submission.
For the last six years I have experienced the joy that comes from living among, working under, and being mentored by tremendously gifted leaders of color. As I have done this, I have been able to build authentic relationships based on trust and mutual respect. I have also been able to grow by listening and learning from those who are doing kingdom work in the community. I will always seek out ways to overturn the power imbalance until we have true mutuality in missions and in the church. I believe this is vital to the work of the gospel. The prophet Isaiah said the work of the Messiah would include hills being brought low and valleys being raised. This is the movement of the gospel. Those with privilege are humbled through voluntary submission and service, while those that have been disadvantaged are raised through empowerment and leadership. This mutual movement creates equality which allows us to meet as equals and friends. When this equality is achieved, together we will experience the glory of the Lord.
“Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low, the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 40:4-5