Racial reconciliation in the church is a tough business.
It is natural to look for role models that can help us thread
our way through this difficult terrain.
One such role model is Mark Vroegop, pastor of College Park Church
in Indianapolis, and author of Weep With Me.
Repeatedly throughout this book, Vroegop testifies how he has seen
racial reconcilation—or at least, some important first steps
toward racial reconciliation—happen in Christian communities
that he has led or been a part of.
What is his secret?
The secret, Vroegop says, is lament. He begins Chapter 1 with a personal account of a life-changing encounter he had when he was a young man. At the time, he was an admissions counselor for a Christian university. He was asking an African-American pastor why more of his students did not apply to his university. In the back of Vroegop’s mind was the story of how his own grandfather immigrated from the Netherlands and achieved the American dream of working his way up from poverty by dint of hard work.
His statement “My kids simply do not have the same opportunities
as the students who attend your university” struck a nerve.
I pushed back with an oft rehearsed narrative: “Pastor, with
all due respect, I don’t understand why you would say kids in
your church lack opportunity. This nation is filled with opportunities.”
I recounted the story of my grandfather.
The pastor paused. I actually thought I had convinced him. This narrative, after all, was inarguable. But my perspective was about to be challenged.
I didn’t see it coming.
He leaned toward me, speaking graciously and slowly. It seemed like he’d had this conversation before. “I’m sure your grandfather worked hard. But here’s the thing: your grandfather was able to get a job in the 1940s. The color of his skin didn’t create any barriers. Do you think my black grandfather could have been hired for the same job as your white grandfather in the 1940s?” He paused, waiting for my answer.
My mind quickly ran through the history of my hometown. I knew the division. I heard the jokes. I knew the mantra, “If you’re not Dutch, you’re not much.”
The answer was obvious.
“No, sir, he would not,“ I quietly replied.
The pastor now made his point clear: “Mark, think of the difference that made. Ask yourself how much of your life is connected to the simple fact that your grandfather came to the United States as a white man.”
Suddenly, I saw the world through a different lens. It grieved me. Why didn’t I see it before?
That’s when the tears started.
Overcome with surprising sorrow, I sat in the chair quietly weeping. I was ashamed of my arrogance, and overwhelmed with the pain I saw in the pastor’s eyes. Stunned by the implications of what I heard, I couldn’t speak.
My reaction startled my colleague from the university. She asked, “Pastor, what’s happening right now?“
He said, “Sister, our brother has just seen something he’s never seen before.”
He was right.
While laws and cultural norms had changed since the 1940s, I never fully considered the present implications of the past, or the existing hurdles and barriers that minorities might face. My family story made it easy for me to ignore the experiences of others. I had never engaged—face-to-face—with someone struggling with a different context than mine. To be clear: I wasn’t wrestling with “white guilt.” My eyes were opened to the narrowness of my cultural narrative, but also to my lack of compassion. That’s what hit me. And it grieved me—deeply.
I left with a changed heart. The meeting in the pastor’s office became a defining moment. My first lament about race came unexpectedly. It felt like a conversion.
It was the beginning of a lifelong journey.
If you are a minority Christian, I want to plead with you to help your majority brothers and sisters understand your sense of “exile.” I can only imagine how hard it is to persevere and how tempting it might be to give up. But there’s an opportunity for God to use the heartfelt communication of your exile to create change in the church. What’s more, I think you might be surprised at how instructive it is for majority Christians as they witness your Christlike response.What Vroegop is encouraging minority Christians to do is to avoid succumbing to the temptation to despair, to bury their pain, and to turn away from God. The biblical model of lament points to an alternative path. By acknowledging one’s pain and complaining to God, yet trusting in God anyway, one is able to find hope in the midst of darkness.
In a sermon on racial harmony, I tested my congregation’s empathy
by sharing part of a lecture given by Mika Edmondson, an African American
pastor from Grand Rapids, Michigan. I’d like to challenge you to
take the same test.
Dr. Edmondson delivered a lecture titled, “Is Black Lives Matter the Next Civil Rights Movement” to the Council of the Gospel Coalition. After providing a thorough and careful examination of the strengths and weaknesses of Black Lives Matter and its differences from the civil rights movement, Edmondson issued a passionate, pastoral plea:
My wife has to beg me (a grown 37-year-old man) not to go out to Walmart at night, not because she’s afraid of the criminal element, but because she’s afraid of the police element. Because she knows that when the police see me, they aren’t going to see Mika Edmondson, pastor of New City Fellowship Presbyterian church. When they see me, they aren’t going to see Mika Edmondson, PhD in systematic theology. When they see me, all they’re going to see is a black man out late at night. And she knows we’re getting stopped at 10-times the rate of everybody else, arrested at 26-times the rate of everybody else, and killed at 5-times the rate of everybody else. Black Lives Matter can see the injustice in those statistics. How can Black Lives Matter see the value of a black life better than we can? Why does Black Lives Matter care more about the value of my life than you do?
I then asked my congregation some questions. I’m inviting you to answer them as well.
When you read this quote, where did your heart go first? Did you gravitate toward the statistics? did you think, Where did he get those? Did you hear his reference to Black Lives Matter and begin to offer your argument about that movement? Did you hear his comment about being afraid of the police and think that’s ridiculous?
Or were you able to weep with an African American pastor whose wife is afraid for him to visit Walmart late at night because of how he might be perceived? Does our brother’s statement cause you to want to understand him and hear why he feels that way? Or do you immediately want to argue with him? While curiosity about statistics may be a habit of thoughtful people, do you find yourself minimizing the concern of the pastor and his wife? Is their concern also your concern for them? Discussions about statistics, social movements like Black Lives Matter, or policing aren’t off the table. But part of the problem is that we often come to the topic of race without empathy. And that’s not just a racial problem. That’s a human problem.
For many in my mostly white church, the quote and questions revealed a knee-jerk, emotional reaction. The example surfaced a bias toward arguing and self-justification—not empathy. As one white brother told me: “You nailed me. I was arguing, not weeping in my mind.”
On a cold day in January with heavy snowflakes falling, we walked together
along the winding path to the memorial. After pausing to quietly consider
the powerful images of King and Kennedy, our church staff gathered in a
circle. I read from Colossians 3—the vision that “Christ is
all and in all”—and we prayed for greater unity, love, and
diversity in our church. We asked God to make us more considerate of
one another and for reconciliation in our church. It was a moving experience.
There were tears and hugs, especially for the minority brothers and sisters
who traveled with us.
One of our African American sisters, named Yolanda, walked with me back to the bus. As we followed the footprints on the snow-covered path, she opened up. Yolanda told me her father had been involved in the civil rights movement in Marks, Mississippi. Martin Luther King stayed in their home. I was stunned. She wasn’t trying to impress me. The intimacy and tenderness of the visit to the memorial opened the door.
Yolanda and her husband, Keith, had joined our church about five years earlier. They graciously navigated the uncomfortable waters of being a minority in a mostly white suburban church. I had no idea about Yolanda’s personal connection to the civil rights movement. I asked her to share her story with our staff.
Yolanda took the microphone on the bus. She described her life in Marks, Mississippi, sharing about her experience with a father who pastored a local church and served as a leader in the civil rights movement. She told our staff about Dr. King’s visit to her home, as well as the Poor People’s March and the Mule Train, an idea conceived when King visited Marks in March 1968.
Yolanda’s story was impactful.
I stood behind her as she shared. No one moved. Our staff marveled not only at what we were hearing but also that this story was coming from one of our own church members. Behind the Yolanda that we all knew was a beautiful and painful story—one she just allowed us to see.
During a meeting in my small group, a minority brother made a pointed
and painful observation: “A month ago, I asked all of you what
you thought about the diversity discussion at our church. None of you
have answered. I’m struggling with not being hurt over your lack
of response.” A tense and honest conversation followed that only
served to illustrate the painful problem of silence. Our minority
brother desperately wanted to know if we were walking with him. What
were his white brothers and sisters thinking? Did we really care? We
certainly did. As we processed the conflict, it became evident that
most of our white brothers and sisters didn’t know what to say.
Others had questions that they didn’t know how to ask. They
were afraid—really fearful—of saying the wrong thing.
No one wanted to send a hurtful message.
But the silence itself was deeply hurtful. … This is where lament helps us.
Lament is the prayer language when God’s people encounter the brokenness of the world. It’s the biblical way to express sorrow when we don’t know what to say. Lament vocalizes concern when life is hard and uncertain. This minor-key prayer keeps us talking to God and one another when pain and fear invade our lives. Instead of allowing silence to deepen the divisions, we can join together in lament.
As we talked, I discovered Aaron grew up as a white minority. In his neighborhood and high school, he was regularly singled out, mocked, and even assaulted because he was white. He felt the sting of prejudicial injustice in his most formative years. As he shared his experience, I tried to listen and empathize with his struggle. We discussed a wide range of topics. I attempted to reassure him that our church’s emphasis on racial harmony was rooted in the gospel and the Great Commission. I wasn’t sure Aaron was interested in understanding. He was mad. He was hurt.Vroegop challenged Aaron to attend a Diversity Discipleship Discussion Group (3DG). To Vroegop’s surprise, Aaron complied. Aaron shared his experiences with the group and expected to be rejected, as he had in the past. It could have ended badly, but one of the minority leaders empathized with Aaron and asked if they could pray for him. Here is how Aaron described the result.
I cannot describe the change that one interaction brought about in my heart, or how healing it was to have my African American brothers and sisters praying over me. God used those relationships to both expose the raw pain and emotions that I had buried for decades and to replace those pains with love and contentment. Those relationships have made the conversations about “racial harmony” or “ethnic reconciliation” not only safe, but positive. I’ve grown to truly empathize with the pain my minority brothers and sisters feel, because they in turn have recognized and empathized with mine. Because of what has happened through both the 3DG group and my relationships outside of it, my mind and heart have totally changed.Implicitly, I think Vroegop is saying that lament and empathy is not necessarily a one-way street, and that traffic can flow in both directions. At the same time, it is clear that Vroegop believes that it is the responsibility of majority Christians to shoulder the primary burden of empathizing with the pain of minority Christians, and not the other way around.
O Father—our Father—so many of your children see
racial strife. We hear it. We suffer under it. And yet, Lord, too
many of your children don’t acknowledge the reality of ethnic
partiality. And still we perpetuate it.
God, how can this be? How can so many of our churches and lives be willfully segregated? How can a callous individualism mark a people who are supposed to be one in Christ?
God, we thank you for the racial progress that has been made. But sometimes it seems your gospel conquers everything but race. That can’t be, O Lord!
And yet, Father, it often seems like we’re far from that Revelation vision where every tribe is united around your throne. Instead, it feels like we’re at Babel: we’re together, but we’re fighting; we’re talking, but we’re speaking different languages past another. O Lord, with the frustration among us, it seems your churches are under your judgment still.
But, Lord, we now look away from the division behind us and in front of us. We turn to you with our grief by your grace. O God, would you give us grace to cherish Christ more deeply, and to remember how your judgment has fallen on him instead of us! Help us to sincerely live as what you’ve made us in Christ: one new man—a chosen race—that the world may believe you sent your Son.
Until Babel is completely undone, we beg for your help in Jesus’ name, amen.