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Why we need to talk about race

Ben Lindsay is a black pastor of a white majority church, who has written a new book exploring race. He explains why a push for diverse congregations isn’t enough.

My earliest memory of racism was at the age of seven. My family had just moved to our new house in Charlton, south-east London. One evening, we were returning home from my grandmother’s house and, as we entered our gate, we noticed shattered glass on our driveway. Someone had thrown a brick through our window. Over the subsequent weeks there was racist graffiti on our home and dog excrement left on our doorstep. Not long after those incidents, my mum realised that members of the far right and fascist political party the National Front lived on our street. Monkey noises and shouts of “nigger” became a regular occurrence.

My second memory of racism is when my white neighbour’s daughter offered me a mouthful of her milk, but not before asking me “not to leave any black on the bottle”. Similar racist incidents continued during my youth, varying from the petty to the life-threatening, but this didn’t stop me from making a diverse group of friends. To my mum’s credit, she welcomed all races into our home. The main reason for this was her unwavering faith in Jesus. If Jesus welcomed all, so would we. My mum truly demonstrated that Jesus is for everyone through her hospitality.

Jesus always played an integral part in our lives. My grandmother was a Christian too and went to a local Baptist church in Woolwich, south-east London. My mum and I went to a different Baptist church in the same area. This was the 1980s.The area was deprived and council blocks surrounded the church. The congregation was predominantly made up of white working-class families. People were friendly and very welcoming, but I was the only black person in my friendship group. I remember when I was three years old, I returned home from church, looked in the mirror and realised that I was not white, that I was not like all the other children at church. On another occasion, I recall an interaction with a parent of one of the children I was friends with at church who was Scottish. I was ten and he took great pleasure in telling me that my surname – Lindsay (a Scottish name)– was not my own; it had been ‘given’ to me. Although I did not realise what this older white male was saying at the time, my mum explained that he was informing me my last name would have belonged to my ancestor’s slave master. My friend’s father had made the point loud and clear – I was not to associate my black self with his proud Scottish heritage. I did not appreciate the history lesson.

Diversity vs inclusion 

There is a huge difference between churches being diverse and churches being inclusive. Attracting black people to church isn’t difficult. Form any of us, as black people, church is a major part of our life and heritage. Creating inclusive communities, however, where black people feel that they are a valued part of the culture, not just observers, is more complicated. Sadly, the racism we see in society we also face in the Church, through a combination of ignorance, naivety and white privilege.

I remember an occasion in the 1980s when my mum had come home from her midweek prayer meeting. There had been a discussion about Nelson Mandela, who at the time was serving life in prison, accused of conspiring to overthrow South Africa’s apartheid rule (the system of institutionalised racial segregation and discrimination in South Africa between 1948 and 1991). That evening, a white church member had described Nelson Mandela as a terrorist and said he deserved to be locked up. That was a view shared by the then UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher. My mum, being the dignified woman she is, refused to be drawn into an argument with the white church member and let the comment slide. But I could tell she was deeply hurt.

These kinds of experiences are exasperating and painful for black people. The quest for racial diversity cannot just be a value on your church website; it must be at the heart of all you do and be something you suffer for. But to pursue racial diversity without inclusivity isn’t enough for the following reasons.

First, it can cause resentment, frustration and isolation for black church members who feel marginalised and misunderstood. Second, racial diversity without inclusivity can lead to passivity, disinterest, integration fatigue or a mentality of fight or flight from the black church member. Third, it can stunt spiritual maturity in black people and limit growth of the church corporately, ultimately becoming a barrier for other black people who may be seeking to join the church. In different ways, over time, I’ve seen all three of these problems play out in my church life. I have seen black people not being integrated into their churches, not being heard, being marginalised, being made to feel like the ‘other’. It’s worth mentioning that what I mean by integration is not assimilation, where people leave their culture behind to be accepted into another. Integration means being included in, and creating and contributing to, church culture.

Damaging stereotypes

It’s especially easy for black people to feel ‘othered’ in a white majority culture. I have been in church contexts where my clothes, physical appearance and music tastes have been highlighted and white people have set the tone of exclusion, making their norms the benchmark against which everyone else is judged. Sometimes I’m ‘othered’ in words, sometimes in tone. Black people can be made to feel the odd ones out, not belonging to the ‘in crowd’. I was recently at a barbeque where the majority of the guests were white and a black couple turned up late. Not only were they jibed with the stereotypical “black people are always late” joke (even though I was there on time) but there was also an expectation that they would bring a stereotypically black dish...chicken! Sly jokes were also made about the black man’s muscular appearance that, although I’m sure unintentional, played into a stereotype of black male physicality and black body politics, whether or not the black couple were aware they were being ‘othered’. How do black people respond to this? As the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates states, we learn to “code switch and become bilingual”. We save our Nike Air Max and name brand clothes – which some may see as symbols of black urbanity– for when we’re out with our black brothers or sisters, and reserve our comedy and black conscious talk for people who look like us. A case of black skin, white masks.

For example, when a white person sees a black man driving an expensive car, like a BMW or a Range Rover, they may assume that he is a drug dealer. A white man with the same car would be unlikely to face the same scrutiny. I don’t have an expensive car but, as a black man, I often feel that I am fending off negative assumptions about myself before I’ve even opened my mouth. The sports clothes I wear for my morning run seem to associate me with criminality, creating a sense of fear for some white people (I often notice white people crossing the road or holding tightly to their bags as I approach). A black friend, who is a GP, tells me that she is often mistaken for the cleaner or is asked if she knows when the doctor will arrive. These three examples position black people as the criminal, the threat and not worthy of having a top profession. Society projects these stereotype sand limitations onto black people but, in church, where God shows no partiality, we should be able to expect better.

The danger in disregarding difference is that we risk creating a dominant, generic Christian monoculture, a one-size-fits-all model, while ignoring the complex tapestry of the community surrounding our local churches. There shouldn’t be a prevailing Christian culture dictating church life in diverse environments. Christianity no more equates to whiteness than being British should just be associated with being middle class. The uniqueness of both Christianity’s cultural universality and variety is something black theologian Dr Carl Ellis acknowledges in his book Free at Last: The gospel in the African-American experience: “Biblical Christianity is, by God’s plan, universal in nature; it can take on itself the identity of any culture. We see this universality of the gospel in the book of Acts. The day of Pentecost, when the gospel was preached in every language of the world is clear proof that the Christian gospel is not locked into a particular culture or language. The call of the church was to penetrate every nation, every culture, with the message of salvation that all peoples might submit to God in their ethnicity. So in Christianity, if I do not worship God in my own culture, I am being inconsistent with my faith.”

True racial integration in the UK Church will require white church members to become better listeners to the experiences of black people. Black people are experts in distinguishing between sincerity and artificiality on the topic of race. The important thing for white people here is not to take things personally. If I disclose a racist experience to a white person, that doesn’t mean I’m connecting that experience to the white person I’m talking to. Alternatively, some comments from white people will trigger memories of previous racist experiences so, as a black person, I need to decide whether the white person is coming from a place of malice or ignorance. Some conversations might be clunky and awkward at first, but it is important to remember that not all comments are intended to be racist. Some white people are trying to connect or find common ground and do not realise how their attempts to relate come across (I have lost track of the number of times I have been greeted in church with an awkward “Yo” or an elaborate handshake, first bump, high-five combination by a white person attempting to be ‘down’ with black culture).

Reconciliation and healing

On the launch day of Emmanuel New Cross, a church plant in south London where I am one of the leaders, Samantha (pseudonym), a young black woman, came to the service looking very nervous. The church was primed to be welcoming and hospitable. She shuffled into the building and sat at the back of the room. Being our launch Sunday, the church was packed and I preached from my heart the vision I felt God had given me for the area. At the end of the service, I went and found Samantha and spoke to her. What she said shocked me.

Samantha: “I was very nervous about walking into your church.”

Me: “Why?

Samantha: “There are too many white people here and I have a problem with white people. I have had bad experiences, specifically with white people in a church context.”

Me: “I’m sorry to hear that. How did you find the service?”

Samantha: “Before I answer that, due to the number of white people here and because I heard you were married to a white woman, I guessed that you would have no idea about black issues and there was no way I could relate to you.”

Me: “Right...well...erm...how did you find the service?”

Samantha: “I was blown away by the welcome and your sermon was on point. It actually made me realise that I have prejudices against white people. Will you help me?”

I was undone. In one conversation I saw what our church could be and how far we were from achieving it. Samantha had reminded me about reconciliation. In my mind, there was a combination of what it says in Romans about us being reconciled to God through Jesus (Romans 5:1–11) and in Matthew about being reconciled to one another where there is conflict (Matthew 18:15). It was at that point I knew the type of church God wanted us to become: a racially diverse, integrated church that is not afraid to discuss issues that have the potential to expose racial disharmony and concerns that may have become barriers for people of colour experiencing Jesus and flourishing in church life.

Not long after my conversation with Samantha, I was reminded again of the necessity for our church to be open about issues of race at a leader’s meeting. As people began to arrive for the meeting, I noticed a white woman greeting a black woman by complimenting her hair. The white woman then proceeded to touch her hair. In my experience, this is a cultural misstep as historically the touching o fa black person’s hair, particularly by a white person, is seen as invasive, patronising and rude. The black woman and I caught each other’s eyes in a way that only black people would understand. I could tell the black woman was upset (even though she continued to act normally). The next day, I texted her and encouraged her to talk it through with the white woman so that no resentment would fester and the white woman could benefit from a cultural lesson. The white woman did indeed gain cultural insight and apologised, and the black woman felt heard and empowered.

What could the landscape of UK churches look like if white majority churches became more empathetic to issues of race, taking swift and deliberate action to reconcile cultural misunderstanding? To quote Jay-Z: “Nobody wins when the family feuds.”

To hear our Profile interview with Ben Lindsay listen to Premier Christian Radio at 4pm on Saturday 13 July, or download The Profile podcast

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