Jesus is Not Post-Racial


Poor Gary.  I think he may have been at my church growing up...

In May 2004, I met my husband right before I left town for Memorial Day weekend.  I'd just barely survived my first year of law school and planned to spend the holiday weekend in Maryland to detox my soul.  But over a three week period, every Sunday at church a different person would come up to me, insisting that I meet this guy from church who was starting law school in the Fall.  I knew it was really serious when a friend visiting from Nashville even insisted that I meet this guy.  So one fateful Sunday, a friend finally introduced us after church. There was no love at first sight; no fireworks.  But that meeting sparked the beginning of a friendship that evolved into a romance, engagement and marriage over the next three years.
 
Most people wrongly assume that my husband and I met in law school because we're both lawyers.  It's understandable--we did attend the same law school and overlapped by one year.  In fact, most of the lawyer couples I know connected over Torts or spent long nights "studying" Constitutional Law outlines together, but alas, we don't share the typical "Barack and Michelle Obama love story."  When I tell people that we actually met at church, I find it amusing how often people are taken aback.  I'm not sure why, but I have some theories: A) They assume lawyers are angry at God for law school and conclude that "Christian lawyer" is an oxymoron and our profession is full of soul-less, religion-averse, God-haters; or B) They think that God fits so snugly under the notches of the Bible Belt that He ceases to exist North of Maryland.  And if so, then surely Massachusetts is at the cusp of eternal damnation.
 
Moving to Boston after our first year of marriage entailed lots of searching: a job for me, a place to live, somewhere to park our car, the closest L.L. Bean for winter outfitting, etc.  But searching for a church proved to be an adventure far more hilarious than we expected.  First there was the church that packed us in like sardines, featured impromptu solos from the pastors in the middle of sermons, and took time to recognize "100% tithers" (I still haven't quite figured out the math on that one--how can anything less than 10% can still be called a tithe?).  Then there was the so-seeker-friendly-that-we-don't-make-any-definitive-statements church, where the sermon began with "Well, I think maybe what Paul might probably be trying to say here could possibly be perhaps..." but we really enjoyed the free bagels and the Starbucks gift cards!  And then the suburban churches we visited left us feeling literally and figuratively out of place at their disbelief that we drove in  "all the way" from the city (a mere thirty minutes).
 
You see, neither of us really had to "look" for a church before.  Growing up, we attended the same church that our respective parents attended, and in North Carolina I attended the same church for eight years.  So we came to Boston having done very little church research, with a few half-hearted recommendations from family and friends, and  a resigned "I wish I had a church I could recommend to you in Boston, but I don't," from one of our North Carolina pastors.  As we began church shopping, we talked about what we were looking for--how we would know when it was time to stop browsing the aisles and settle into a particular congregation.  Chief among our concerns was worshipping in a place where we felt accepted and affirmed as an interracial, married couple.  And very early into our relationship, I learned that nothing to do with the demographic make-up of a church's pastoral staff or congregation.
 
When my husband and I were dating, I expected some less-than-ideal reactions from family members, but was completed blind sided by the comments I heard from members of my church (many of whom had no idea I was dating anyone, much less, a White guy).  In one instance, a friend relayed a story about a disagreement with another church leader.  To drive home his point that the other person involved was everything but a child of God, he concluded: "AND he's married to a white woman!"  (Trust me, he didn't intend it as a compliment.)  In another instance, while chatting with a fellow graduate student, I learned about some church leaders who, when talking to their child about dating, ended the conversation with, "You want to marry someone who looks like mommy don't you?"

After we got engaged and entered the realm of church-based, pre-marital counseling, I noticed that none of our assigned reading acknowledged that two people who don't look like each other might actually meet at church and consider spending the rest of their lives together.  So I asked another classmate who was also engaged and in an interracial relationship if she knew of any books that churches or pastors used in pre-marital counseling with interracial couples.  Her response: "No, because there aren't any.  And I think that silence speaks volumes about how most churches really feel about interracial marriage."

Hindsight is twenty-twenty, and I realize that my shock had more to do with my overly idealistic and unrealistic view of church that was, quite frankly, unbiblical.  There is no perfect church because at its core is a community of broken people.  So even in a faith community that holds diversity and multi-culturalism in high regard as a core value, and boasts a congregation made up from every tribe, race, nation, and tongue, Jesus does not simply become a panacea for the racist thoughts and behavior to which we are all susceptible.  It's not enough to simply be comfortable with having lots of different people in the room (but it can be a great start).  In fact, if I hear a church harping on "racial reconciliation" for more than five minutes, I start to get a little nervous. 
 
Our search for a faith community in Boston included many twists and turns, but eventually led us to settle in a Presbyterian congregation where the dominant culture is Pan-Asian.  And on the one hand, I'd like to think that I could find out what our church leaders really think about racial issues by asking: "How would you react if your son or daughter married someone that doesn't look like you?" But the truth is, racism is too pervasive to have a litmus test.  It doesn't matter how many flags from different nations are displayed around our sanctuary; how many worship songs and hymns we sing in other languages; how many AIDS orphanages we support; how many East Africans or Koreans we adopt; how many Historically Black Colleges and Universities we reach out to; how many hours we tutor and mentor children from the local housing project; how many care packets we prepare for the homeless; how many outreaches we hold for the Spanish-speaking community; how often our sermons reference  Martin Luther King, Jr.; or how often our bulletins and announcements include imagery with different colored hands, rainbows, or kaleidoscopes.  But rather, our willingness to embrace and display grace in the midst of messy lives, full of  misconceptions, mistakes, misunderstandings, and missteps around race (among other things).

19 comments:

  1. quite an interesting read. its quite surprising how we somtetimes hold on to our misconceptions despite the faith we profess.

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  2. I just wanted to say thank you for this post. I am part of interracial couple who has also had difficulty fitting into a church community. My fiance joined an all-black church upon our move and I was initially quite comfortable until a change in the church leadership. I friend linked me to this post and I have now become a follower. I am excited for other future posts.

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  3. @Rhian
    Aw, you're welcome! My pleasure. Thanks for reading.

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  4. You guys need to move to California! Actually, I can relate to this somewhat. I sometimes feel like predominantly white churches can be too socially conservative or assume too many things about their audience. An Asian-specific church is not an option for my husband (or me) due to cultural and language reasons. We are very blessed in the Bay Area to be part of an extremely ethnically diverse church...

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  5. @Grace
    Don't tempt me! I have family in the Bay Area and love it out there!

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  6. Nice article...we have sadly given up on finding a church that doesn't give us the double look when we enter and then only interact with us in awkward, semi-forced conversations. But, this inspired me to maybe try looking some more.

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  7. racism in the Church?!?! I don't believe it.

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  8. I've been living in sin for years. My boyfriend is Jewish and I'm black. Thing is, I do not believe in a sky daddy, and all the things believers believe in. But, if I were a believer and there is an afterlife, then we wouldn't end up together anyway. :-(

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  9. Hmm, do you attend Citylife?

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  10. I hope you don't mind, but I have reposted excerpts from this article, along with comments at :http://bytheirstrangefruit.blogspot.com/2011/03/interracial-relationships-in-church.html

    I will remove if you object.

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  11. After posting about this article, I received this comment that I thought I would pass along:
    "Thanks for the link!

    As a seminarian, I *have* been recommended this book about cross-racial relationships for pre-marital counseling (or just in general): "Just Don't Marry One: Interracial Dating, Marriage, and Parenting"
    amazon link: http://amzn.com/081701439X
    It's edited by George & Sherelyn Yancey. George Yancy has written several influential books on multicultural congregations, including "One Body, One Spirit" and "United by Faith."

    Not many people or churches put into practice what George Yancey preaches, but it is good to know that there are SOME (even if limited!!) resources out there!"

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  12. @DFig
    Aw. I feel you and understand the frustration that can accompany the search for a church community. But I hope (and pray) that you find a place where you both feel called, welcomed, and (fully) embraced.

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  13. @Anonymous
    Are you looking for a church in the Boston area? Feel free to email me at tinu@yesweretogether.com and I'd be happy to connect you with some of the places we've visited!

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  14. @Katelin
    No, I don't object at all. Thank you for letting me know and attributing the source. And thanks for sending the follow up comment along too.

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  15. Hi Tinu,
    Interesting article. I often raise, sneak in and impose race relations and race issues into various conversations with friends, family and at work.
    Sometime back, in a conversation with friends, one of them highlighted the dilemma of family friends, an interracial couple in what is one of the more diverse towns in my country.
    The couple is made up of a white man and black woman and they have bi-racial children. They attend the same church but on different days. Apparently the elite white folk of this church requested service at 6 am on a particular day during the week and asked that it specifically be for white folk - it was done. The husband attends this service because it's convenient for him but he can't take his wife because she'll be the only black person and the attendant consequences of that, he did try to take his wife on a few occasions but they ended up on one side of the church on their own, on all occasions. The couple resolved that; the wife attends the sunday service with the children which the husband doesn't - no explanation given. I was livid when I heard this story especially because this is a branch of my church where this is happening. In my city (the capital),my church (I use ownership loosely her) race relations are not discussed nor is segregation addressed. A large part of the Asian community prefers to attend service on a Saturday at 5 pm when very few people from the majority black population attend, the white population picked sunday 5 pm, the majority black population are glaringly absent. Some black people do attend these services but not many, it's as though there's been an unspoken agreement as to which race attends which scheduled service and no-one wnats to upset the apple cart. Enquiries have found me hitting stone walls and people tell me it's just the way it is. When I left my country to live in South Africa for a few months, I got a letter of introduction from my church, found a branch in the city I moved to and settled in - if I had thought my country was bad well South Africa was traumatizing because I had lived in a cacoon as far as race relations were concerned.
    Now I understand that racial segregation is a legacy from colonial racism but we've (i.e. my country and not South Africa) been independent for over 40 years things should not be this bad. I've wondered, what can I do? Should I do anything? I've tried boycotting my church but that made me a one woman social movement - ineffective and besides my church may have faults aplenty but it is one of the few that does allow many to come in from the cold and actually tries to help people as well and is vocal against the government and tries to hold the government accountable to the people which is hard to do in our current political but which I belive is important. These are not excuses for my church it has faults but what church doesn't after all it's ran by imperfect people. I think the answer lies with each one of us or active citizenry. I plan on writing letters and engaging the leaders of my church because change can only come from pushing for it - not sitting around saying 'this is how it is.' This is not how it is, this is how it has become and it can change, it must change.

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  16. I know this is an old post, but I just found it and still wanted to comment. I find it interesting that many people feel like being against interracial marriages isn't racist - like interracial relations is a separate issue. How can we say our races are really cool with each other if our personal lives are still "separate but equal"?

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  17. Hi @yogamama! It's never too late to comment -- thanks for reading! Very interesting point you raise.

    My short answer: I have no idea.

    My long answer: I can identify to an extent as I recall sitting in my Constitutional Law class, discussing Brown vs. Board of Education and thinking to myself: "What's really wrong with 'separate but equal'? If you literally gave racially segregated schools the EXACT same things, then how is there inequity?" But the reality is that SEPARATION is inherently, in and of itself, UNEQUAL.

    As someone who had a relative tell me days before my wedding: "I think black people should marry other black people because we need strong black families," I can respect people choose to date out of personal preference and attraction. But to castigate the marriage of two, grown adults based on your personal racial hang-ups is just beyond me.

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