I used to be an evangelical Christian. I helped lead people in worship, or “ushered them into the presence of God,” as we used to say. I traveled the world crooning out the message of the gospel at conferences hosted by my church, a mostly white evangelical megachurch in the suburbs of Chicago.
On the weekends I sang for as many as 16,000 people. It was a lofty thing to be part of, a “calling” I believed in wholeheartedly. During the years that I served in this congregation, before I walked away from the religion I’d grown up with and embraced even more intensely in college, racial reconciliation as a ministry focus became more prevalent in my church.
This term – “racial reconciliation” – may be most familiar to those in religious communities. Back then, I understood it to be a kind of evangelical model for tackling racism in the church, one that emphasized diversity, relationships, and the need to address systemic causes fueling racism in society. However, these same ideals and goals are also embodied in more widely known terms like racial justice and social justice.
When the leadership team decided to do a series of services focused on this topic, I was drafted to tell a piece of my story. As a biracial woman – and usually the only woman of color singing on stage – it seemed my time had come. I wrote a brief account, summarizing in one minute a personal experience with racism. The memory I chose to relate involved a family in that church, though I didn’t reveal that detail. I told the congregation about how a former white boyfriend’s parents, particularly his mother, persuaded him to end our relationship because they were uncomfortable with my blackness. I said the fact that they were all Christians undermined my confidence in God’s love for me; it made me wonder if He loved white Christians more than black ones. I sang a song about love and unity and building bridges.
People came up to me afterwards, some weeping, apologizing for random things. Looking for absolution that I could not give. Seeing in me – at least for a moment – the entire black community, because for better or worse, we are never singular, always plural. I soaked it up. In that era of my life, I wanted to believe I was like Esther and had been called “‘for such a time as this’ (NIV, Esther 4:14).” I was inspired and hopeful. Maybe the church could help bridge that space between black and white. Maybe because I’d come from both places, I was uniquely equipped to be part of that healing. I love my family – black and white. But there had been a rift long ago, and I’d grown up occupying the expanse between them. It was lonely and I was sick of it. I wanted healing for myself and, on a larger scale, for all of us.
That was in 2001. By the time Barack Obama was elected to his first term in 2008, I no longer wanted to be part of any church environment. Disillusionment festered over that 7 year period as I witnessed a hyper-image-conscious handling of ministries and the people in them, a theological certainty among fellow congregants I couldn’t relate to, and culminated in a manipulative and misleading interview process for a ministry job in the church.
Ultimately, the thread of racism running through my time there put me over the edge. Indeed, in the years that followed the experience with my ex’s family, I racked up more than a few racially charged confrontations with white Christian friends and acquaintances from the church. There were comments about darker black skin looking like an ape’s; there was an email I received warning me that Barack Obama was not a citizen. All these moments left me with a nagging skepticism about the efficacy of racial reconciliation as a ministry in the church. Did the white evangelicals who subscribed to it in theory really want to help? Did they really want justice? Maybe a better question is were they able to see something in themselves that needed to change to bring any of this to fruition? Or were they in denial?
The 2016 election of Donald Trump and its aftermath incited that skepticism about racial justice in me once again. In fact, on a recent Sunday, as the banal melodies of contemporary worship music wafted up through my dining room windows from a nearby nondenominational church, my thoughts began revisiting the past. I recalled that moment on stage at the megachurch, talking about my ex’s family. I thought about what it had been like for me as a biracial woman in a mostly white evangelical congregation. Why white evangelicals voted for a man like Mr. Trump and why I’d experienced the racism I did while among them seemed like twin inquiries comingling in my mind as I got my daughter’s breakfast ready that morning. Two spoonfuls of cottage cheese and one poached egg later, I puzzled over one simple fact: Trump spoke in the language of racists and xenophobes and it seemed to be of minimal concern at best or resonate with them at worst. It was certainly not enough to dissuade them from casting their votes in his favor.
Even now, it appears they continue to stand by him: even after Charlottesville; even after chastising black athletes for peaceful protests against police brutality, suggesting they are ungrateful, calling them disrespectful “sons of b*tches.” Even after Trump’s tepid response to Puerto Rico’s suffering following Hurricane Maria, his “blame the victim” stance, and his thinly veiled threats to remove aid, he is rewarded with their loyalty. In fact, it seems as if the “conversation” happening now only includes them while the rest of us watch and listen on the sidelines.
It is not my intention to paint all of evangelicalism with a broad brush. I know there is a contingency within this branch of Christianity that is sincere about racial justice. They are inspired by people like Reverend Jim Wallis and Reverend Dr. William Barber. They are comprised of mostly blacks, Hispanics, and Asian and Pacific Islanders, but also a large number of whites. They did not vote for Donald Trump. (I don’t personally see how anyone that truly cares about such things could.) But they were not – and seemingly are not – the majority. I can only speak to what I was exposed to while active in a predominantly white evangelical subculture. Perhaps all of these scenarios I’ve related were unique to the church I once attended. But I suspect it is symptomatic of a bigger problem in the church at large.
For a good portion of my life, I have been timid when faced with racist comments or behaviors demonstrated by white people. I default to the social survival instincts born out of a childhood spent in racial isolation. Giving the “benefit of the doubt” has typically been my modus operandi. It often translates to silence or the most palatable, watered-down version of what I really want to express. On those infrequent occasions when I’ve called out a white friend or family member’s propensity for racial bias and/or racist thinking, they are not able to own it for long, if at all. The deflection and defensiveness that often follows comes in various forms of “you should be grateful,” “what aboutisms,” and other false equivalences or excuses.
This was the way with my ex-boyfriend’s mother. Not long after I spoke during the racial-reconciliation-themed services at my old church, she called to apologize “for the way we treated you,” she said. There had been a pang of conscience. Maybe she’d heard me speak or someone close to her had. I could hear anxiety in her voice, a rushing through sentences and marginal regret. She couldn’t commit to it, though, and quickly began defending her actions.
She objected to us as a couple “out of concern for what her son would face.” She had students who were biracial and saw “how hard it was for them, caught in the middle.” It’s a twisted logic that masquerades as caring but seems to suggest I, and others like me, would be be better off not existing. She lectured me, a biracial woman, as if I had no clue what my hypothetical children would face. I wanted to say, “It’s people who think like you that make it difficult.” Instead, I listened and thanked her for calling. She was afraid and embraced a response to that fear which she knew was inappropriate. Nevertheless, her discomfort with interracial marriage and biracial children rated above doing the right thing. In the end, she let herself off the hook. And to my regret, so did I.
While I was part of the megachurch, I often observed this same troubling attitude around race, typically in moments when I did not strive to be palatable but was more straightforward, less “sugar coated.” It articulates itself with an air of kindly smugness, in which the righteousness of an evangelical Christian is sacrosanct. It can not be challenged with charges of racism. They have, after all, been remade in Christ’s image and imbued with the power of the Holy Spirit. How can they be guilty of racism? They don’t use the “N” word and they may even have black friends. They don’t engage in lynchings or burn crosses or march with neo Nazis and white supremacists. They denounce these things publicly, so isn’t that proof they are blameless? They are good, Christian people.
And yet, they have empowered and continue to support a man who repeatedly demonstrates that he does not value the lives of black and brown people as much as white ones. He has put me and my family in harm’s way with his inability or unwillingness to definitively and authentically disavow white supremacy. Like my ex-boyfriend’s mother, white evangelicals are so thoroughly convinced by and invested in a sense of their own righteousness and moral high ground, they have undone the work of reconciliation.
That Sunday morning in church all those years ago, I did not share what were, for me, profoundly more intense details of the relationship with my ex-boyfriend’s family. Granted, I was one of many people on the stage that day. I had to be brief. But I often wish I hadn’t tried so hard to make what I needed to say easier for the church to hear.
I still remember the shame and bewildered frustration in my ex’s voice as he repeated his mother’s words to me over the phone: “If the two of you date, that’s fine. .. but if you got married and had children. .. I’m not sure I could love them as much as I love your sister’s kids.” Such words took my breath away then and still have the power to suffocate, especially now that I do have a child who is biracial. I wish I’d told the congregation about those remarks and that they’d been made by a woman among their own ranks. As long as white evangelicals believe this mindset is only wreaking havoc in other places, they are absolved from having to address it among themselves.
Even though I no longer see myself as a part of that community, I still carry a certain amount of love for it and residual pain from it. There is some piece of me that still hopes the church has something valuable to contribute to the cause of racial justice. It’s probably why I feel the need to, in my own way, hold white evangelicals accountable. I want them to do better.
But when I consider the very real danger of war as Trump threatens North Korea, angers our allies, and alarms even those close to him enough to speak out about it, I can see that opposing ideologies and differences aside, we are all of us bound together in our shared vulnerability against a true existential crisis. This awakens my compassion, my desire to find common ground, and a willingness to have those hard conversations. My past with the evangelical church is akin to being wounded, soul-deep, by a family member or close friend: you may want to make peace with them somehow, but you do so with the knowledge that you might never be as close as you once were. A price has to be paid, and truth is the currency.