The multi-ethnic church movement has captivated many Christians. In my capacity as a NT scholar and a preacher, I’m privileged to lecture and preach throughout the country in many multi-ethnic spaces, and in spaces that aspire to be multi-ethnic. I also regularly talk to many Christians who deeply ache for a multi-ethnic church experience. Unfortunately, however, some brothers and sisters who ache for a multi-ethnic church experience live in communities where there is either virtually no or very little ethnic diversity or they attend mono-ethnic churches that are out of touch with their multi-ethnic communities.
Mono-ethnic majority communities with few or very little minorities in them will inevitably have churches with a small number or zero minority representation in the congregation. And there are also those minorities that willingly choose to place themselves in a mono-ethnic, majority-cultural church context in their communities for the purpose of helping that church go forward in the work of reconciliation.
Their commitment to the work of reconciliation will cause these minorities to lose much ethnic capital in their own ethnic communities. They also will suffer from racial reconciliation exhaustion as they seek to help the white majority culture see that racial reconciliation is a gospel issue.
A question that minorities who are partners with and members of majority white churches will have to answer at some point is: are ethnic minorities emotionally safe in ethnically majority white Christian spaces? My answer is simple: it totally depends on the white spaces.
White “Church” Privilege
Mono-ethnic white churches with very little or zero ethnic diversity will be filled with brothers and sisters who seldom think about their race. As the majority culture, white culture is often prioritized and viewed as normal in U.S. society, while non-white culture is often labeled as “ethnic” or “raced.” This normalizing of whiteness is certainly true in mono-ethnic white churches. This normalizing of whiteness can blind white brothers and sisters to their own ethnic privileges.
From the images of a white Jesus on the walls of the church and to the pictures of white disciples in the children’s curriculum, whiteness is clearly prioritized in some mono-ethnic white churches. This prioritization and normalizing of whiteness serves as a barrier for all non-white people who are members of the congregation or who visit the church. Thus, if mono-ethnic white churches are unwilling to sacrifice white church privilege for the sake of including in leadership and fellowship the cultures of non-white members, then those white churches will not be emotionally safe spaces for non-white people.
The Preacher’s Micro-Aggressive Sermons and the Members’ Micro-Aggressive Words
A micro-aggression refers to “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental, indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” Minorities are accustomed to hearing micro-aggressive speech on a daily basis. Too often, we also hear this kind of racist speech from white pulpits in majority white churches.
For example, I once heard a white pastor say to his predominately white congregation that they should eat at “ethnic” restaurants to meet “ethnic” people, as he attempted to exhort them to be involved in the work of racial reconciliation.
The above statement is fraught with problems. First, the statement assumes white people are normal, but everyone else is “ethnic.” Second, the statement suggests ethnic minorities “only” eat at “ethnic” minority restaurants. This sort of racist ignorance simply reinforces the stereotypes that certain white Christians have about minorities.
On another occasion, I heard a white Sunday school teacher jokingly sing a song during his lesson about the old racist south (“I wish I could go back to the land of cotton”), while an old African-American female saint, who lived through and experienced segregation, sat in the front row of his class and while I sat in the back. The white teacher probably did not know (at least I hope he didn’t) about the racist origins of this song and how white racists performed it during the popular blackface minstrels in the 19th century.
The above comments, and many more like these, often made in majority cultural church contexts might not seem problematic to certain folks within the majority culture who never share spaces with marginalized, minority groups. But these comments are barriers to reconciliation. If white pastors of mono-ethnic churches and white Christians regularly commit the above micro-aggressions without repentance, these predominately white spaces will not be emotionally safe spaces for ethnic minorities.
Minorities as Trespassers into White Christian Spaces
Predominately white Christians who never enter into predominately non-white spaces do NOT understand how difficult it is for minorities to enter into predominately white sacred spaces, especially churches.
As an African-American Southern Baptist with a multi-ethnic heritage and a multi-ethnic family, the chances are that whenever I visit any Southern Baptist Church to preach or teach, my family and I will be the only (or one of few) brown skinned people in the congregation, because the Southern Baptist Convention (though more diverse today than in 1845) is still a predominately white denomination. Yet, I proudly confess that I’ve seen the Lord do great things in matters of racial reconciliation in majority white Christian spaces, and especially in majority white Christian churches, in the Southern Baptist Convention and beyond.
For example, I was the first person of color to join my Southern Baptist church in 1996 in a small town in eastern Kentucky, and my uncle became the second in 1997. The Lord did great things related to racial reconciliation in that church. The Lord has used predominately white Southern Baptist Churches and institutions to care for my family spiritually, academically, and financially. The Lord is also doing a great work of racial reconciliation in the PCA, another predominately white denomination! Praise God for how far Christians have come!
But far too often, in certain predominately white Christian spaces, minorities often feel the stare and the sting of white eyes burning through their non-white skin as they enter into sacred white church space. Or there have been those awkward occasions when minorities in certain predominately white spaces have been forthrightly asked by white members “Why are you here?” Or they have been told by white members “I think you’ll feel more comfortable at the black church.”
In moments like these, minorities can begin to feel like trespassers. Predominately white churches that make minorities feel like trespassers by how they treat them, interact with them, or do not interact with them will be emotionally difficult spaces for ethnic minorities.
Are minorities emotionally safe in predominately white Christian spaces? It depends on the white Christian spaces. Churches unwilling to see their mono-cultural biases, to talk about race, and to live in reconciled community with those who do not share their cultural postures stand no chance at providing emotionally safe spaces for ethnic minorities.
But churches willing to ask questions about race, read about race, learn from minorities, listen to (and not only talk to) different ethnic groups, and churches willing to repent when they prioritize whiteness over the gospel will succeed in working toward providing emotionally safe spaces for ethnic minorities when they enter into their white Christian spaces. It is my view, however, that the more minority led, multi-ethnic churches that exist in our communities, the more emotionally safe spaces and options ethnic minorities will have in sacred, Christian spaces.