Been There Done That
By Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner
© 1996 The Reconciler. This is a reprint of an article originally featured in The Reconciler. The Reconciler is published quarterly by URBAN FAMILY Magazine, Jackson, MS. It is made available through this site solely as a research tool and not for purchase.
An old Negro Spiritual says, “Everybody talking about Heaven ain’t going there.” Well, everybody talking about racial reconciliation today is not doing it. In fact, many African American Christians today have a “been there, done that” attitude every time the subject is raised. When asked about racial reconciliation, they quickly say, “Don’t even go there.”
The clear but unspoken message from black Christians is, “It’s too painful, too much hassle, and I don’t plan to be the sacrificial lamb for somebody’s We Are the World, multicultural, diversity, African American celebration week, quick-fix project.”
These days, white Christians getting inspired to do reconciliation often wonder, “How come black folks aren’t showing up?” I believe there are four main reasons why many African American Christians don’t get excited about racial reconciliation today. And while there are no excuses for any Christian, black or white, to ignore God’s call to reconciliation, there are real obstacles. If true, biblical reconciliation is going to happen, both Blacks and Whites are going to have to understand these obstacles and work to overcome them.
REASON #1 Although there is much talk about diversity, multiculturalism and racial reconciliation, actual understanding between the races is at an all time low. Polarized views of Blacks and Whites about the O.J. Simpson verdict were the latest and clearest symbol of a growing antagonism between the races.
African Americans look out at a society that seems resigned to seeing twice as many black males end up in prison (800,000) than enrolled in college. To them, it is no coincidence that while the prison industry explodes, affirmative action, which most Blacks believe has helped many reach the middle class while hindering very few Whites, is being rolled back. The vast majority of black Christians who identify themselves as Democrats watch as millions of white Christian activists drive their Republican bandwagon head‑on against homosexuality and abortion, but jump into reverse when it comes to fighting poverty or racism.
All of this appears as solid proof that the white community—including white Christians—really does not care about the plight of the black community. White Americans look like a single sea of unfriendly faces who would prefer that Blacks were not around. Many have even concluded that a truly reconciled America is Martin Luther King’s “never to be fulfilled” pipe dream.
REASON #2 Racial reconciliation sounds a lot like the failed integration of the 60’s. For too many African American Christians over age 40, racial reconciliation brings to mind the worst aspects of integration. Under integration, African Americans were required to give up too much of what is rich and beautiful about their own African-American culture, while Whites did not give up anything.
Many Blacks were taught that getting the right education, speaking properly, and mastering all aspects of white American culture would make them more accepted by Whites. They “Europeanized” themselves only to discover a painful reality.
They could change from a super charismatic Pentecostal to a more sedate Presbyterian; from Negro spirituals to Euro American religious anthems; from soul food to artichokes, quiche and asparagus; from Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin to Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand; and even from an Afro to the straight look hair style. But in the end they were no more socially acceptable to white Americans, and were left alienated from many in the African American community. Blacks have grown tired of always being the ones who have to do the changing in order to make peace, and even then, meeting opposition.
REASON #3 Blacks fear losing the last truly African American institution—their churches. The black Church is one of the few institutions totally owned and controlled by African Americans. An estimated 65,000 churches, reaching 16 million people each week, are some of the few places African Americans can witness strong and dynamic black leadership at all levels, build social and leadership skills, advance their political and public policy interests, improve their communities, and reach inner-city youth and those needing financial help to attend college. At the same time, like nowhere else, they receive spiritual encouragement for the struggles of life. Indeed, the Church is our last and most important refuge of empowerment.
In the face of the serious moral crisis of black family break down, drugs, and crime, “reconciliation” seems like a strange diversion of precious energy and resources to a cause with little chance of success.
Surely reconciliation is a higher calling than separation, but not if that definition of reconciliation sacrifices the empowerment of African Americans. In the name of integration, Blacks lost many of the institutions that addressed their needs: businesses, self-help organizations, and schools. Can they trust the new form of “reconciliation” to address their needs and give room for black leadership? Past experience answers a resounding “NO.”
REASON #4 There is as much racial separation inside as outside the church. The black Church that we know today is a result of racism. The phenomenon of Christian racial separation was initiated by Whites during slavery, and continued after slavery when white religious bodies excluded African Americans or, with a few exceptions treated them as second class members. Today, even with the end of “Jim Crow” segregation, and with no legal barriers to working, living, worshipping, or playing together, African Americans and Whites operate in two almost totally and voluntarily separate worlds.
It is as though we worship two different Gods one black and one white, in totally separate worship environments. While Blacks feel they tried the racial harmony game, Whites have not demonstrated a willingness to come onto Blacks’ turf. We rarely get to know one another in our family and social settings. Only a handful of the more than 300,000 white American ministers can count a friend among the 65,000 African American ministers. Truly integrated churches, with different races sharing the leadership, worshipping, singing, studying God’s Word and praying together, are still a rarity.
In addition, many white Christians believe that a lack of personal prejudice is sufficient for reconciliation. They are unwilling or unmotivated to join with their black brothers and sisters in the fight against institutionalized racism. By remaining silent, they allow injustices in the social, political, economic and criminal justice realms in America to continue.
DESPITE THE OBSTACLES, THERE, IS A NEW BREED OF CHRIST-CENTERED RECONCILERS. It is tempting for Blacks to turn these sentiments into an obstacle course for Whites to pass through before joining them on the road to reconciliation. But understanding why we are not excited about reconciliation should not become the same as excusing our lack of involvement.
Despite the obstacles, there is a new breed of African American reconcilers who have not forgotten that God doesn’t say “Obey me, but only if white folks change first.” In fact, God’s word demands much more. He says, “If you love me, then keep my commandments.”
These African American reconcilers are more Christ-centered than Christian. They understand that reconciliation begins with sinful men and women being brought into right relationship with God, and then moves to reconciliation with one another. They reject integration based on the world’s standards, but embrace biblical reconciliation based on the Word of God. They recognize the importance of partnering not only with Whites, but also with Latino and Asian believers to build up the body of Christ.
This new breed of Christ-centered African American reconcilers includes men like the late John Staggers, Samuel Hines and Tom Skinner. It includes men like Dr. E. V. Hill, John and Spencer Perkins, Raleigh Washington and Carey Casey. It includes women like Kay James and Dalenita “Vickie” Hines. These Christ-centered African American reconcilers continue to give their lives in building the Acts 4 body of Christ, made up of persons who “break bread, pray and spend time together, have everything in common where no one has a lack.”
In addition to this new breed of African American reconcilers, there is a growing new breed of white followers of Jesus Christ. They are partnering with African American brothers and sisters, building covenant relationships, living and working together in urban communities. They include men and women like Wayne Gordon and Glen Kehrein of Chicago; Chris Rice and Lee Paris of Jackson, MS; Patrick Morley of Orlando and Art Erickson of Minneapolis, MN; Bill McCartney of Promise Keepers; Louis and Colleen Evans and ex-Klansman Tom Tarrants of Washington, DC, Dee Dee Rivers of Annapolis, MD; and Rosemary Trible, my white, politically conservative, southern Republican covenant sister and friend.
These sisters and brothers and many others around the country understand that many white Christians have fallen short and many black Christians have a “been there, done that” attitude toward racial reconciliation. However, biblical reconciliation can begin between separated people who are willing to repent and practice true community.
© 1996 The Reconciler. This is a reprint of an article originally featured in The Reconciler. The Reconciler is published quarterly by URBAN FAMILY Magazine, Jackson, MS.