In an earlier pastorate where I served a wonderfully mature congregation in Montgomery, Alabama, I still remember the night when a spiritual breakthrough came. Several leaders in our church were moved to initiate a sister relationship with one of the leading black churches in town. We approached the pastor of the Beulah Baptist Church with love and good faith, hoping that he would agree to partner with us in encouraging mutual times of sharing and fellowship between our congregations.
Let me reiterate: this happened in the Heart of Dixie, home of the famous bus boycott, several important marches, and the pivotal early ministry of Martin Luther King Jr. that blossomed into a national crusade for equality and freedoms for all peoples, regardless of their skin color. At the time we initiated this bold move, racial tensions were still as fierce and troublesome in many ways as they are now across our country.
We were greatly encouraged when Beulah’s pastor, the Rev. Osby, received our initiative with genuine optimism and heartfelt hope. Over the course of several months, pastor Osby and I along with four lay leaders from each church met monthly for dinner at each other’s campuses. Both groups agreed that the only agenda for the first three months was fellowship, listening to one another, prayer, and Christian bonding. After these initial months where we broke bread, prayed, and dialogued with one another intently, both parties desired to share this experience on a broader scale with our congregations.
Beulah hosted the first congregational breakfast between both churches in their facilities, and more than 200 people filled their fellowship hall, half from their church and half from our church. Many of our people stayed at Beulah for their morning worship service, and several told me afterward how inspiring and moving it was to worship with a different group of believers and to hear the preaching of God’s Word from a fresh perspective.
When we hosted the next congregational breakfast, a large crowd from Beulah joined us for fellowship and worship on one of the coldest December days in Alabama history. Several of my parishioners did not miss the opportunity to remark with appropriate insight that the frozen tundra conditions that everyone felt that morning was due to the reality that “hell was freezing over” at the site of this wonderful phenomenon!
By the fifth or sixth leader’s dinner, everyone shared a deeper unity, bondedness, and genuine respect for one another. This led to a mutual desire to discuss the pertinent issues in our city, to see how we could partner to engage some of those challenges and problems from a wholistic approach. As this was happening over the course of two months, I noticed particularly one of my leaders and his wife initiating relationships outside of our monthly dinner with one of Beulah’s lay leaders and his wife. I remember seeing them with their families in the food court at the local mall one Friday night, enjoying one another’s company immensely. I knew then that something good was sure to happen in this relationship.
These positive results surfaced at the next monthly leader’s dinner when the Holy Spirit broke through our conversation to impress upon us an important lesson about the gospel and skin color. Pivoting off this bonded relationship and trust with the Beulah lay leader, our lay leader looked across the table and asked a super-sensitive question.
“You know, brother, we’ve fellowshiped with one another for several months. Our families have spent time with each other, and we are all the better for it.”
“I agree,” he said.
“Well, there is something that is bothering me, and, in fact, I’ll admit that it has gnawed at me for quite a while.”
“What is it?”
“We know and trust one another, so I am not going to mince words. Out of respect for you, I would like to know what you want to be called.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, do you want to be called ‘African American,’ or ‘Black,’ or ‘Negro,’ or something else? All I want is to call you respectfully what you want to be called.”
Without hesitation, the Beulah lay leader (a junior high history teacher in a local public school) said with passion: “I’d like to be called Henry.” At first, you could have heard a pin drop on the floor, but then everyone felt a tidal wave of grace sweep over us. The Holy Spirit visited us that night with a cleansing reminder about how the gospel views and responds to skin color.
Gospel Lessons Learned
Years later, I continue to reflect and learn from this experience. Here are three primary lessons:
- The gospel enables us to look beyond the skin surface to see the human heart and the common spiritual and life issues that every person faces. Because of Christ’s life and work, bigoted barriers projected from skin color, economics, heritage, education, and culture are exposed, and people can see others for who they really are: individuals created wonderfully by God with brilliant colors, textures, and fibers that the Holy Spirit can weave into a powerful redemptive community that boasts its identity and quilted-ness in the saving grace of God.
- The gospel enables us to view other people not simply as those different from us, but as those who are unique with qualities, experiences, and values that can enrich and bring beneficial perspective to our understanding of the world. Redemption helps us appreciate another person’s one-of-a-kindness and the quality of dialogue that he or she can bring to the table of understanding.
- Most importantly, the gospel enables us to see diversity of many kinds (color, social stature, gender, education, economics, and so on) as a reflection of our Creator-Redeemer God’s image upon creation. When Christians from numerous backgrounds choose to engage life and culture with a gospel-centric paradigm, the world at large sees the image of God in more brilliant ways and understands the heart of the gospel in clearer forms.
Today, I rejoice to know that the gospel can empower us to look at others as a “Henry” or a “Henrietta,” not simply as tokens of cultural classification or orientation.