In March, a group of students from the University of Oklahoma chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity (OU SAE) was caught on video celebrating with a racist chant. The OU SAE video went viral, making sure racism remained prominent in the non-stop news cycle. It was an appalling moment representing an appalling history. It was also a reminder of why pastors and churches must engage the issues surrounding racial reconciliation and justice.
For me, this hit close to home. After seminary, I served as a pastor on a church staff in North Dallas near the homes of the two college students in the OU SAE video. Now, I pastor a church in Oklahoma, not far from where this video was recorded. The proximity was hard to overlook. I do not know these young men or their personal stories, but it is not hard to imagine they might have been in our church building a time or two. Maybe they had even attended an event for students somewhere along the way. They almost certainly would have known people who attended our church. These realities serve as a reminder of the great responsibility and the great opportunity for churches to bring about real change. People all around us need the gospel, and our cities need the gospel to be lived on her streets and in her living rooms.
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I find that many pastors increasingly feel a need to do something about racism but are uncertain about how to proceed. To be honest, that’s how I have felt much of the time. Over the last few years, I have been trying to engage in the conversation knowing that I will likely make some mistakes. Its seems better to speak poorly (and learn from it) than to remain silent. We can not do everything, but we must do something. You may not have an international platform or have all the answers to end systemic injustice, but you can take some first steps to engage in the conversation.
1. Be Quick to Hear, Slow to Speak
In this conversation, listen more and talk less. White evangelicals especially need to heed this warning. This command from James 1:19 means more than patiently waiting your turn to talk. This is a two-part command. The first is as important as the second, for it is grounded in our love for others. We need to purpose to listen—really listen—to our friends. Not listening for the sake of politeness or argument, but for love’s sake. Lean in. Listen up. Love the person in front of you. Then, when we speak, let us do so with wisdom and much grace.
2. Build Real Relationships
The most significant aspect of my journey has been the real relationships I have with African American friends. Understanding increases more from twelve real conversations than from reading twelve-hundred tweets. When I am in a friend’s home, sharing meals, and watching our kids play together, things change. I hear about in-laws who refused to attend the wedding for their interracial marriage. I hear about the time they were handcuffed face-down in the street for no reason. I hear about the insults cops made to their spouse on a routine speeding violation. They loan me their book on lynching. I feel their longing for the shalom of God to break into our world. Then, their struggle has a chance to become my struggle.
3. Invite Diversity into Your Church
Find ways to bring diversity to your church, even if it’s a short-term connection. When we need a guest preacher or guest worship leader, consider bringing in a guest that would add to the diversity of your room. The same might be done with special events, retreat speakers, or curriculum choices. Over time, we ought to consider how to grow our diversity throughout our church, but we can immediately take a first step with the guests we invite to serve our body.
4. Follow Key Influencers
In the digital age, it is easier than ever to connect with a broad collection of people. Find out who the influencers are on this topic. Read their blogs. Follow them on social media. You don’t have to read everything, and you certainly do not have to agree with it all. Even occasional reading will raise your awareness about how others are thinking. It will show you which landlines you should avoid and point you to common ground you may share. Missionaries are students of culture.
5. Research Local History
Find out about your city’s racial history. When I pastored in North Carolina, people said there was no racial tension, in spite of the fact that we were situated on Tobacco Road and the town square bore a statue to the Confederate soldier. However, when the county courthouse later burned down in a fire, one black friend told me he wasn’t sad to see it go because of the number of people he knew who had been hurt by the injustice that took place there.
In my current city of Edmond, Oklahoma, I was able to connect with a professor of African American Studies who shared with me his research, including some advertisements giving clear evidence of racism in our local history. It’s easy to see how religious people in past decades missed the mark. These serve as a warning to our churches about our need for the gospel and it’s implications. We would be foolish to think that these histories do not extend into our congregations and our cities.
6. Preach the Word
Racial reconciliation is not the gospel, but the gospel results in the reconciliation of diverse people. The implications are evident throughout the Bible, and these need to be brought to bear on our lives and the lives of those in our churches. Our people need to see “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). When you craft your sermons, allow racial reconciliation to become an illustration for how the gospel works itself out in life. When appropriate, allow reconciling with others to be an application point. Consider adding a sermon or short series on race to your preaching calendar. God’s love for all people is clear: Jesus’ blood “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). May our preaching nurture a godly love for others and a passionate longing for the day when all people will stand shoulder-to-shoulder as brothers under God’s reign.
7. Make Disciples
When I wrestle with a problem as big as racism, I can become overwhelmed or discouraged. When global solutions seem hard to find, I find it helpful to focus on first steps. So, let me encourage you: start with the people in your room. Disciples are people. They are not a theoretical group, but a collection of individuals in need of gospel transformation. These individuals have their own stories and struggles. They need help applying the gospel to their life situations. If we are going to sever the real roots of racism in our world, it will be through the application of gospel truth to the sin in our hearts.
When I consider the two young men from the OU SAE video, I know we have work to do. This is not a problem with a quick fix. This conversation will continue, and our call as the people of God is to be a voice of reconciliation and hope for all people that speaks loudest in the gospel of Jesus.
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