multiracial churches/community

Most of what I’d like to say about Trayvon Martin has been said in one way or another on the interweb. I’m always game for real-life conversations and dialogue, even though I still fumble for words.

What I will comment on are a few observed postings on how people of faith should respond to the Martin case. Some postings have noted the role of the multiracial church (or lack thereof) in spurring interracial dialogue/understanding on the race related issues of the case / society at large. Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Ken Fong of Evergreen Baptist, and now my buddy Baylor sociologist Jerry Park have all weighed in. I’ll comment on Jerry’s post since I feel mildly responsible for it, having egged him to turn an email into a blog entry.  It’s long and nuanced, so I will try to summarize some of the points that stuck with me.

-At the end of his column, Jim Wallis notes that the multiracial church/MR faith communities are critical to remedying the lack of interracial understanding, particularly among evangelical Christians

-Jerry uses this as a jumping off point to note that while he applauds the goals and intentions of multiracial churches, multiracial composition is no guarantee for meaningful dialogue on racial inequality/race. Citing Korie Edwards’ research, MR churches can accidentally reinforce norms around colorblindness and foster limited, reductionist, and/or individualist explanations for inequality.

-Jerry (I’d call him “Park” or “JP” but then it feels like I’m referring to myself) notes that church isn’t the only place to have meaningful and nuanced conversations about the race. Very true.

–Some quotes from his blog that stuck out: “For multiracial churches to promote structural awareness, they have to raise the community’s consciousness away from the trappings of individualism both in its beliefs and in its practices as an organization. Frankly this is a very difficult road to travel and requires more commitment intellectually and relationally than most people want to give to a congregation. Churches may have the advantage of more opportunity for relationship building than the workplace, but few have the wherewithal to create real deep relationships that demand giving up “me time” for the sake of getting to know others who face struggles that are completely foreign to one’s experience.“.

–Jerry notes how there are some organizational limitations in some churches, both monoracial and multiracial–shallow relationships, lack of investment, lack of intellectual engagement, etc. These shortcomings are not conducive to deep dialogue, on race-related issues and otherwise.

–Furthermore, there are costs to meaningful, deep interracial community–religious and otherwise–that are easy to gloss over. I don’t think this is limited to evangelical Christian contexts (we need more research documenting these dynamics in other faith traditions), but to use some Christianese, evangelicals can easily fall into the trap of wanting  Resurrection Sunday without Good Friday: reaping benefits without counting the cost. Some of these costs are highlighted in my research on InterVarsity. Brad Christerson and Michael Emerson have a good article how folks shoulder different shares of the burden when it comes to diversification.

-Does this mean that MR religious communities are a futile goal? No, but perhaps diversification is too-often treated as an end (with the associated assumptions that a MR church has “made it” when it comes to race relations) versus a means to organizational goals of meaningful cross-cultural relationships/dialogue that change people’s lives. In higher ed we talk about how diversity is not just a pie-in-the-sky goal–it matters because it should make your organization/university *better.* Religious communities should consider that diversity is supposed to help them “do religion” (a coarse but succinct phrase) or “do faith” better–not because Benetton-esque pictures look good on a website, not because it helps people feel good/noble/enlightened, but because it (tackling issues of race and diversity) gives us a deeper understanding of the human condition and likewise insight into a yearning for the divine. For example, most religious traditions carry some facet or tenant about how people fall short/mess up, and what more compelling way to showcase people’s need for a higher power than recognizing the deep wounds–historic and continued–in our country and in ourselves related to race-related brokenness. It makes life (and religion) messier, but potentially more meaningful.

-Depressing as it was, Jerry’s post made me appreciate the unique potential of the university to nurture multiracial religious (and non-religious) student subcultures, as featured in ze book–mainly because organizational facets of (traditional 4-year) university life are quite conducive to the dynamics that Jerry described as pertinent to meaningful dialogue: relatively high intellectual and relational commitment. Whether it’s a classroom where you’re talking to the same set of people 3 times a week over a semester or the unplanned late night conversations that happen in a residence hall; it’s truly a special time. InterVarsity isn’t a perfect organization by any means, but sometimes I shake my head in wonder when I think about what the “California University” chapter was able to do. Life changing stuff.

-Of course, dialogue is certainly not the end all, be all solution, but not much gets done without it.

-In the appendix of the book I share some thoughts on a question I get quite frequently, some variation of “what’s better, multiethnic or ethnic-specific church/religious community?” (Other forms being, “is it okay to have an Asian church,” “why are there still Black churches” yadayada.) To which I have to say…you’ll have to go to pgs 163 and 177 for that one.

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