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Race, Relationship, Repentance

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Andrew Foster Connors

Like most worthwhile things, the NEXT Church strategy team’s initial commitment to become 50%+ non-white in our leadership was born more out of Gospel idealism than out of competency. We believe that the “next Church” will reflect the culture in which the PC(USA) is situated, a culture that will be 50%+ non-white by 2042. God will make that a reality and the PC(USA) has an opportunity to be a part of it if we choose. I believe Paul’s words to the Galatians subordinating the divisions that we take for granted to a unity in Christ that is as clear as the color of the water in our baptisms. But as a Calvinist, I also know that racism coats everything in America. It warps the way we see each other. It’s warped the Church, too. There is no way to dismantle a sinful system that’s had generations to percolate, without a “gird up your loins” gritty commitment to abide with each other through the crap that we all swim in.

As you would expect, living into that commitment hasn’t been easy. One example of the way this came to the fore at the 2017 National Gathering was the Tuesday morning “crowd-sourced band.”  Steve Lindsley, a talented musician (and pastor, too!), had about as “nexty” an idea as you could come up with: to create a music team entirely off social media. The band would play well known “secular” music that would carry the worship service. It was risky, participatory, and agile – all values that NEXT Church has trumpeted as essential qualities for church to get beyond institutional rigidity. Steve was sensitive to a playlist that reflected diverse genres within the organizing idea. Then a member of our group raised the important question: was this going to be a bunch of white people leading “we shall overcome?” What about Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” (both on the playlist)? And could two white guys really rap “Where Is the Love?” with any kind of worship integrity? Of course, having never met each other before we had to first find out, “Are we all white?”

When we discovered that we were, in fact, all white, some uncomfortable questions arose. Should we remove “Redemption Song” and “We Shall Overcome” to avoid cultural appropriation? Should we actively seek out persons of color to make the group less white? Should we try to contextualize each piece? Should we call the whole thing off? Immediately we were face to face with the ongoing, glaring sin that we all live with in the Presbyterian Church: we are whiter than God would have us be. We solicited some second opinions and came up with a plan. We would drop the white guys rapping “Where Is the Love” in favor of a video montage. We would add some context to the “We Shall Overcome” piece. Originally we were also going to add context to “Redemption Song” and to the other pieces, but in rehearsal it started to feel stilted, even defensive. We scrapped that plan, and added a few sentences of context at the beginning.

Evaluating the worship experience later, our diverse strategy team commended the group for some of our choices, but also critiqued the decision not to add context for the Bob Marley piece. One member of the team raised a question that was completely outside of my field of vision – whether the word “band” subtly signals “white music.” Could adjusting that one word result in a musical group with more diversity? Maybe. Maybe not. As we discussed other experiences of worship beyond Tuesday morning, an African-American member of the team was almost apologetic in her response: “It pains me to share my reaction with you. I don’t often share this kind of feeling in this kind of a setting.” But this strategy team member did share that feeling. And I am grateful for it.

Two things I’ve learned over the years as a person crossing racial boundaries (and other types of boundaries, too): healing is only possible when relationships are strong enough to handle the pain that comes to the surface; AND forgiveness and repentance (not perfection) are the only foundations on which to build real relationships. We’ll never grow as a church if we’re afraid of doing things that reveal our racism. We have to build relationships that are able to handle difference and division when they arise, calling out the racism that warps us, and moving forward together with courage and deeper trust. These are some of the conversations we’re having in NEXT Church leadership. With God’s grace, we’ll keep having them, building a broader community, and the church will move a little closer toward God’s dreams for us.


Andrew Foster Connors is senior pastor of the Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD. Andrew serves as clergy co-chair of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD – www.buildiaf.org), a local affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and Maryland’s largest citizens power organization. He serves on the executive team of NEXT Church. Andrew holds degrees from Duke University and Columbia Theological Seminary, was the 2001 recipient of the David H.C. Read Preaching Award, and was named 2016 “Marylander of the Year – Runner Up” along with two other BUILD colleagues for their work negotiating the largest Community Benefits Agreement in Baltimore history. Andrew is married to the Rev. Kate Foster Connors. They live in Baltimore with their two children.