McCormick’s tagline, “Cross-Cultural, Urban, Reformed, Ecumenical,” was incredibly compelling to me as I was discerning my own call to ministry. Rooted in the Reformed tradition, in a small denomination with a specific ethnic heritage, I desired a theological education that would equip me with skills for improving Cross-Cultural, Urban and Ecumenical work within that denomination.
Leadership Across Difference is a new required course being taught at McCormick this spring that I anticipated would be the training ground especially for the former two of these values. Pilgrimage in Faithfulness, this course’s prerequisite, had done a great job of helping us engage with ecumenism, and McCormick’s Presbyterian roots mark its Reformed-ness.
Before coming to McCormick I had been working hard in predominantly white institutions to make them more safe and inclusive for people of color. This work was spurred on by the writing of folks like John Perkins, Shane Claiborne, and Christena Cleveland–and of course the vision of Martin Luther King Jr. for an integrated society and church.
I’d just received a copy of Jennifer Harvey’s “Dear White Christians,” bought Willie Jennings’ “The Christian Imagination,” and read Mark Charles’ thoughts on a new paradigm of “Racial Conciliation,” as I began my coursework at McCormick. These challenged the framework of reconciliation and integration that I had been basing my work upon. Not that this vision is wrong-headed, just that the methods we’ve been employing to date in hopes of achieving it have been like beating our heads against the wall.
So, I came into McCormick wondering, What can I say or do as a white, male, Christian to make a difference in the church on the issue of racism? How can I leverage my privilege to affect change that unseats white dominance and dignifies the contributions of people of color?
My sense thus far has been that my calling is to return to my work in predominantly white institutions and apply what I’ve learned in making them spaces that are inclusive and just for people of color. But, some of our work together in Leadership Across Difference has challenged me to reconsider, or at least refine that vocational goal.
One of our course readings quotes Chris Lahr: “Lots of white folks want their church to become more diverse, which usually means, keep the same structures and wish that people of color will come and join them. But most people of color don’t want to go where whites are in charge. If you want to be part of a diverse congregation, go to an African American congregation or a Hispanic congregation, lay down your power, and learn from them.” I was struck by this challenge and was able to engage it briefly through our assignment to attend and observe a congregation representing a cultural tradition other than my own.
I attended Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church several times over the course of this semester. The experience of attending the first organized black congregation in the city of Chicago, usually as the only white person in the room, had a strong impact on me. It was clear that the cultural practices of worship, church polity, and preaching were different from those in spaces I’m more familiar with. Yet, I was welcomed warmly, sincerely encouraged to return, and blessed with a moving worship experience each time.
Setting aside the privilege associated with being in the dominant cultural group is an experience of vulnerability and openness. My time at Quinn, and the subsequent reflection on that experience has convinced me of the importance of the black church as a unique and separate cultural institution. Their purpose is not to recruit white members in hopes of becoming a multi-racial church.
The work of deconstructing systems of racism falls primarily to white folks. This work can’t be done until after being quiet, listening to and learning from people of color. I’m hoping to continue to find myself in spaces where the white dominant culture is not the primary mode of operation, so that I can continue to learn other ways of doing church.
As I continue my studies at McCormick, my question will remain: How can God use me as an agent for racial justice? Am I being equipped to return to predominantly white institutions with skills for making them more inclusive? And to what dimension does faithfulness to my call involve work, worship, and service in institutions created by and for people of color? I am exceedingly grateful that the McCormick community will be supporting me in this discernment.