What a Racist Taught Me About Community

“Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.” I used that provocative quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. as I began the Sunday school class. I was nervous. It was my first day teaching at the church as a seminary intern. I was unknown to the congregation and an untested teacher. To make matters worse, everyone in the classroom was easily twice my age. The pastor had assigned me to teach 1 Corinthians for six weeks in the “Primetimers” class—a name that probably described the group twenty years earlier.

“What kind of name is Skye?” asked a woman in a polite and inquisitive tone. I issued my standard explanation.

“Skye is a nickname. My given name is Akash. It’s a Hindi name that means sky.”

“Oh, you’re Indian,” someone concluded.

“Well, my father is from India,” I clarified, “but my mother is Anglo-American. My middle name is Charles, my maternal grandfather’s name.” A number in the class gave a polite nod.

With my genealogy unpacked, I dove into the day’s lesson. The letter of 1 Corinthians begins with Paul addressing the presence of divisions within the church. Looking for a contemporary connection, I put Martin Luther King’s quote before the group. (A quote, by the way, more accurately attributed to Billy Graham who wrote the statement in a Reader’s Digest article years before it was borrowed by his friend, Reverend King.) “’Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.’ What do you think about that statement?” I asked.

The long, awkward silence was finally broken by a man in the back row. “I think that statement is absolutely true,” he said. “I think it’s true, and I think it’s good.”

Did this guy just say racial segregation in the church is good? I froze. Every set of bifocaled eyes was starring at me. I didn’t know what to do. I scanned the room hoping someone would speak and rescue me from the spotlight. No one did. Then I remembered my training: when you don’t know what to say, delay by asking a clarifying question.

“Ok,” I said, “Can you explain what you mean?”

“Well, the way I read Scripture,” he began, “we’re all going to be separate around the throne of God in heaven—every nation, tribe, and race, right? So, why shouldn’t we all be separate down here?”

My plan had backfired. I was still speechless, and even more shocked than before. I wasn’t struck by the man’s complete misinterpretation of Revelation, or that a racist still existed 40 years after desegregation and 400 miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line. I was speechless because just two minutes earlier I had explained my own bi-racial heritage to the class. I felt a conflicting surge of fear and anger pass over me. Had the anger won I would have shot back at the man with pointed questions. Where around God’s throne will I be? What race do I belong to? Or is there a special place for people like me, an island of misfits somewhere outside the pearly gates—a purgatory for half-bloods? 

But my fear was stronger than my anger that day. I remained silent, flipped through my notes, and eventually preceded with the lesson. Later I contemplated how I might get out of teaching the Primetimers for another five weeks. On Monday I met with the pastor to explain my concerns and he empathically listened. I did not explicitly ask to be transferred to another class. I assumed after hearing my story the pastor would come to that recommendation on his own.

“You’re teaching 1 Corinthians, right?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“About unity in the church?” he asked.

“Right,” I replied.

“Well, this sounds like a wonderful opportunity for you to practice what you teach.” The pastor went on to explain the man’s background who gave the racist answer. “He grew up in a very different time than you, and in a place that doesn’t share your values. You are going to have to find a way to teach that class, challenge his ideas, and stay in community with him.”

Of course he was right. I had been so focused on retreating to a more comfortable setting that I couldn’t see the hypocrisy of my own desires. Henri Nouwen  observed that, “Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.” It occurred to me that if I left the Primetimers class to preserve my comfort, I would have no right teaching 1 Corinthians to anyone else. I was going to have to face the racist in the ring of community.

During the next five weeks I taught the class I challenged the man’s assumptions, and I did my best to hear his perspective. But I came to recognize that his ungodly values were matched by my own. Without knowing it, he helped me understand how my views about community had been shaped by my consumer expectation for comfort,  just as his views about community had been shaped by his upbringing in the Jim Crow south. We were contaminated by the same disease, we just presented different symptoms.

Writing about the nature of Christian community Nouwen says:

“Community has little to do with mutual compatibility. Similarities in educational background, psychological make-up, or social status can bring us together, but they can never be the basis for community. Community is grounded in God, who calls us together, and not in the attractiveness of people to each other. There are many groups that have been formed to protect their own interests, to defend the own status, or to promote their own causes, but none of these is a Christian community. Instead of breaking through the walls of fear and creating new space for God, they close themselves to real or imaginary intruders. The mystery of community is precisely that it embraces all people, whatever their individual differences may be, and allows them to live together as brothers and sisters of Christ and sons and daughters of his heavenly Father.”

photo credit: Foxtongue via photopin cc




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10 Comments

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  • June 27, 2014

    paulvanderklay

    I deeply appreciate this piece. Thank you.

  • June 29, 2014

    JohnD

    I truly admire your humble approach to this difficult topic. However, and this is from one who had to come out of “good church member racism”, the racism that still exists in too many church members has been reworked into a social and political philosophy that is acceptable just as long as we accept people of color as being “one with us in Christ”.

    The truth is, I know of white Christians, who if they found themselves in a gathering of Christians of color, would shake their hand, even hug them, call them brother and sister, and proclaim with gusto, “We are on in Christ!”. Yet these same church members have the belief that whites are more capable of governing and leadership, while also holding to the view that the “Master/Slave” passages in the New Testament infer that slavery is not necessarily and evil. That if a nation, either from war or other upheavals, found itself a slave holding society, that Christians could hold slaves, just as long as they follow Paul’s admonition to treat their slaves kindly. And, of course, the most outrageous position being, that African Americans were happier before the Civil Rights movement, even when they were slaves

    What I believe I see is that while these views are treated with patience in the name of unity, it actually comes down to church members, even some who call themselves progressive, accepting what they are convinced is the “lesser evil”, when having to choose between the social and political right wing and that of the left. But, the “lesser evil” has a way of slowly poisoning us while keeping us delusional and in total denial as to why we are dying.

    • June 30, 2014

      JohnD

      Please forgive the multiple posts. I did not think they were accepted. I did delete them, yet they returned as ‘Guest”.

  • June 30, 2014

    JohnD

    I do so appreciate your humility and courage. To allow ourselves to be taught by those who are so unlike us is truly dying to self.

    However, in the problem of race in the church, there seems to be the deceptive attitude that says, “As long as I accept people of color as my brothers and sisters in Christ, as long as I see us, together, as “one in Christ”, then my social and political belief that whites are more capable of governing and leadership, and my efforts to make sure that only “knowledgeable” people vote, cannot be labeled as racist”. Many of these same church members also hold to the view that the master/slave passages of the New Testament infer that slavery is not necessarily and evil. That if a nation, either through war or other upheavals, found itself a slave holding society, then Christians could hold slaves, as long as they followed Paul’s admonition to treat them kindly. And worst of all, that African Americans were happier before the Civil Rights Movement, even while they were slaves.

    What I actually find more disturbing is that there are there are Christians who may not hold to these views, yet, in their mind, in comparison to the social and political left, they feel they are the lesser evil. But it is usually the lesser evil that slowly poisons us.

    Again, I commend your courage. It may seem my patience is a bit thin. However, I am one who came out of “good church member racism”. I have heard it all, and I know it is still there.

  • June 30, 2014

    JohnD

    I do so appreciate your humility and courage. To allow ourselves to be taught by those who are so unlike us is truly dying to self.

    However, in the problem of race in the church, there seems to be the deceptive attitude that says, “As long as I accept people of color as my brothers and sisters in Christ, as long as I see us, together, as “one in Christ”, then my social and political belief that whites are more capable of governing and leadership, and my efforts to make sure that only “knowledgeable” people vote, cannot be labeled as racist”. Many of these same church members also hold to the view that the master/slave passages of the New Testament infer that slavery is not necessarily and evil. That if a nation, either through war or other upheavals, found itself a slave holding society, then Christians could hold slaves, as long as they followed Paul’s admonition to treat them kindly. And worst of all, that African Americans were happier before the Civil Rights Movement, even while they were slaves.

    What I actually find more disturbing is that there are there are Christians who may not hold to these views, yet, in their mind, in comparison to the social and political left, they feel they are the lesser evil. But it is usually the lesser evil that slowly poisons us.

    Again, I commend your courage. It may seem my patience is a bit thin. However, I am one who came out of “good church member racism”. I have heard it all, and I know it is still there.

  • July 6, 2014

    ivaro3

    I believe the author may have something to say about racism, being of mixed ethnic heritage. I realize the temptation to just say we are one in Christ, which we are, but what do those words mean for someone who is ridiculed for being who he is, that is, of East Indian and Anglo heritage? I happen to know a man who is of that same heritage and he has been made fun of and called various names, depending on which ethnic group he was seen to be part of. I hope there is a way to reconcile those two ideas, that we are one in Christ and yet be realistic and keep it real for those who have been unfairly called names, or beaten or whatever, based on ethnicity. I myself had a Christian father and a Jewish mother, and that Jewish part was hidden because of prejudice. Yes, we do need to listen to all sides and try to be inclusive as best we can, but can’t we be Christian and keep it real about what goes on in real life?

  • […] Now you have to read the rest. It is at http://skyejethani.com/what-a-racist-taught-me-about-community/ […]

  • September 24, 2014

    wiredforstereo

    “Community has little to do with mutual compatibility.” What about theological compatibility? Community is grounded in God, but what if the picture of God you hold is somewhat different from the picture of God other people hold? The nature of a community under a Calvinist God is going to be a bit different than under an open theist God. Maybe an inclusive versus an exclusive God, a literal six day creator God versus a theistic evolution God, a southern white antebellum God versus Martin Luther King Jr.’s God, Greg Boyd’s God versus Mark Driscoll’s God.

  • September 24, 2014

    jhurshman

    The quote “Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives,” seems to not have been Nouwen’s. Many people attribute it to him, and he seems to have popularized it, but this paper by Nouwen attributes it to “somebody.” http://entermission.typepad.com/my_weblog/files/moving_from_solitude_to_community_to_ministry_henri_nouwen.pdf

    This post claims it is from Parker Palmer: http://therevlife.blogspot.com/2008/12/truth-from-parker-palmer-and-henri.html