Our Commitment to Racial Diversity

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Aram Bae

Recently a colleague asked me about the racial make-up at the church where I work. Simply put, his question was: “How many non-whites are in your congregation?” It was an easy question to answer, for I could count on one hand the folks who came to mind. While my number may be wrong in terms of actual membership, the headcount is accurate for consistent worship attendance. It’s easy to make that kind of headcount out of a sea of white faces. It, in fact, comes naturally to me; I do this wherever I am, be it at a coffee shop, on the bus, at a lecture, in a restaurant—any time and everywhere, instinctively.

Photo from First Pres Charlottesville Facebook page

The PC(USA) denomination isn’t entirely white, but we’re also not balanced in our racial make-up. According to the new PC(USA) Church Trends site, approximately 8.75% of members identified as Asian, 9.3% identified as African American, 7.69% identified as black, 4.6% identified as Hispanic, and 96.25% identified as white in 2016—just to name a few. We do, however, know when and how to showcase our commitment to diversity, especially racial diversity. It’s good for press, and we’ve got Scripture to back-up our efforts. We pat ourselves on the back for being progressive in this way, and we make efforts to keep moving forward holding hands with non-white peers. Our “progress,” however, can be felt as more of a political ploy than a commitment for partnership. Simply ask a person of color the contexts in which s/he has been invited to speak, preach, teach, keynote, or pray for the denomination on the basis of an event that is NOT about race or diversity. Yes, I’m talking about multicultural tokenism. It still exists, and we progressive Presbyterians play a role in perpetuating the diversity game—we play it when we need it; when it makes us look good.

I have mixed feelings about being a racially and ethnically diverse church. On one hand, how beautiful of an image. On the other hand, as a person of color, sometimes all I want is to be among my people and feel like a majority, even if for a few hours of one day out of a long week when I’m surrounded by anything but a sea of Asian faces. I support our denomination’s efforts in wanting to be diverse—theologically, politically, socially, and racially/ethnically. It’s biblical and right and good. But I also shed a cautionary light to those who are doing the asking. Rather than asking folks to fill a diversity need, we may want to consider asking: “What do you need from me/us?” In other words, turn the tables a bit. Give up your seat of power of doing the asking for your need to be filled, and practice some listening instead. In this way, we just might do as Paul encourages his dearest friends in Philippi: “Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” (Philippians 2:3, The Message translation). The helping hand, in this case, is to be a listening partner. Perhaps it’s time for our denomination to put the “progressive” aside a bit, and simply listen. Simply put, it’s long overdue.

Aram Bae is associate pastor for youth and mission at First Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, VA, and serves on the NEXT Church strategy team.