A few years ago I went to The Gospel Coalition colloquium with a broken heart. I had spent nearly a decade pursuing racial reconciliation in Augusta, Georgia, and seeing what I thought was real progress, only to see the whole city seem to retreat to its historic entrenchments. After asking several friends on the Council for advice, Ed Copeland volunteered to come to Augusta and help me. It’s a longer story for another time, but the Lord is getting glory through our feeble efforts of putting ourselves in the way to be used by the Spirit.
Another surprising grace, however, was how quickly and deeply our friendship developed as a result of putting our shoulders together for a common task for the kingdom. Our friendship also happens to be interracial. Through this David and Jonathan experience I have learned some things about interracial relationships and how the Lord can leverage them to advance the gospel.
Our efforts must begin with prayer, and we pray with confidence in Jesus’s name because it brings him pleasure for the cross to unify the most unlikely parties. I would suggest praying at least for the following graces:
- To be wise as a serpent toward your own and others’ motives, and innocent as a dove.
- To engage in every opportunity with the mind of Christ so as to think, feel, and act like him.
- To have your “steps” (initiatives, plans, partnerships) ordered by the Spirit.
- To be courageous.
- To be creative.
- To protect the reputation of the gospel.
- To learn sensitivities, skills, and dynamics quickly.
I have a new friend named Trina who happens to be an African American. I have learned the previous points about prayer from her. After her husband died at a relatively young age, she prayerfully followed the Lord’s direction to move from the West Coast to the East Coast to be near her children. Her study of the Bible led her to seek a theological system that would make sense of her whole Bible, not just selected verses. Her connection to the Reformed world through The Gospel Coalition then led her to our church’s website.
After watching us worship online for half a year, she found herself one day shaking my hand after the service and saying, “I don’t know why I’m here. I remember waking up this morning, but I’m not sure why I decided actually to come.” But she is still checking us out. An African American who has moved across the country, changed theological systems, and now gathers in an antebellum Presbyterian church in the Deep South should be praying for the shrewdness of a serpent, the mind of Christ, and the courage of the Spirit. She is.
2. Say ‘Yes’
If you are moving into a new situation, or you are freshly convicted to pursue interracial relationships, then initially say “yes” to every invitation that doesn’t deny Christ. Those might include opportunities like social events, parades, marches, clergy associations, and public forums. You will quickly figure out which of these is worth your while to advance the kingdom, and then you can become more selective. But attendance will build credibility and provide connections to follow up. The ministry of “showing up” is underestimated by most of us, but it should not surprise us given that the incarnation makes the gospel good news. Since I have been in Augusta I have regularly attended an event I find particularly boring. It is characterized by endless self-serving speeches, but one of my friends encouraged me to keep it up because he says it gives me “street cred” with future partners for kingdom work.
3. Follow Up One-on-One
Out of these situations, follow up one-on-one with anyone with whom you feel some “gospel chemistry.” Since I am a pastor, I typically follow up with other pastors. Don’t let the denominational label repel you and pray that yours doesn’t do the same to someone else. For me, these relationships have become quite eclectic. They include Episcopal priests, PC(USA) pastors, charismatic Roman Catholics, Missionary Baptists, AME’s, CME’s, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Independent Baptists, judges, educators, police officers, tax commissioners, and politicians.
4. Look for Gospel-Centered Pastors
If you are a pastor, your best energies should probably be given to developing relationships with gospel-centered pastors. With those from a different ethnicity or denomination, I have found it helpful to meet them on neutral ground for lunch or coffee. Rather than appearing to “summon” them to your office, meet them (if they prefer) in their offices. It can be especially helpful to invite them into your home. Vulnerable hospitality breaks down barriers quickly, which we learn from the Father who “sets a table before us” (cf. Ps. 23:5).
5. Serve Political Leaders in Non-Political Ways
Particularly in mixed-race contexts, look for ways to serve leaders—especially elected officials—in non-political ways. Pray for specific needs and personally minister to politicians. They are usually not accustomed to people doing anything for them without a selfish, ulterior motive. Avoid asking for personal favors. I have seen wealthy, powerful, well-connected, intimidating men and women reduced to tears when I have showed up in their offices and said, “I only want one thing—to pray for you.”
6. Offer Resources
Few things break down boundaries among ethnically and denominationally different individuals and groups like generosity without the possibility of reciprocity. Whatever resources you have as an individual, pastor, or leader are poured into a cup that must overflow. In imitation of Christ we must pour ourselves out as a drink offering. The drink offering was poured into the sand surrounding the altar, a symbol of a lavish gift that cannot be “re-gifted.” Few initiatives have been more effective in breaking down boundaries of racism and mistrust than giving away the educational resources we have as a church. Theological education, pastors’ conferences, vocational discipleship symposiums, and practical workshops on everything from community development to art have quickly opened hearts to trust and doors to ministry partnerships that are bringing shalom to our city.
This one is not a suggestion. If you are going to build a truly egalitarian friendship with someone racially different from you, you must listen more than you talk. You are entering a cross-cultural situation that you can never perfectly or empathetically understand because you cannot change your ethnicity. Do not assume you understand anything. Take your friend at his or her word. Do not patronize or doubt his or her integrity by asking, for instance, “Tell me what you really, really think.”
8. Celebrate the Mundane
Do “normal” stuff together. Share the mundane parts of your life with your friend. Talk about your fears, illnesses, kids, and car troubles. A breakthrough to deeper intimacy came with one of my interracial friends when I described my panic attacks to him. And recently I knew that another friend of a different race had come to love and trust me when he invited me to play golf with him on his day off.
9. Take Risks
Look for opportunities to take risks that prove you are committed to the friendship. Do anything within reason that demonstrates solidarity, as long as it does not compromise the gospel. My African American friends in our particular context have suffered more ridicule for being my friend than I have for them. But every time I have responded positively to a request to advocate publicly for justice or to leverage influence among the majority culture for the benefit of a disenfranchised minority cause or individual, it has been met with surprise and gratitude.
In Nik Ripken’s book The Insanity of Obedience, he relates the story of a group of believers in a Muslim country who shared how much they appreciate when the Christian missionary who serves them borrows from them. When he needed to return home for a family funeral, he did not ask for funds from his missionary board, but from his friends in the Muslim country. They were bonded to him because he depended on them. To take risks, we must look for opportunities to depend on one another.
10. Work on Common Initiatives
To return to my initial point, one key to building friendships (especially interracial friendships) is to identify a common initiative and work on it together. After a couple of years of building trust, our church and a local African American church partnered to do an outreach event to a distressed neighborhood. Our medical students conducted a door-to-door medical survey and offered health screenings in the park. Our partner church hosted a basketball camp and three-on-three tournament with a former NBA player and prepared the food.
Formerly a football coach, the African American pastor summarized the event this way: “At a football game, the fans in the stands don’t care what is said in the huddle. They only care what happens on the field. A worship service is our ‘huddle.’ Huddles are essential. But an event like we did together in the park was on the ‘field.’ The people in the ‘stands’ finally saw us pulling off plays on the field and they were positively impressed by it.”
May the Lord give his churches grace to break out of their huddles to get out in the field with other believers.