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Pitfalls White Churches Must Avoid When Pursuing Racial Unity

Lehman Bates is a black pastor of a 125-year-old traditional African-American church. My husband, Kyle, is a white pastor of a nine-year-old predominantly white church plant. Both shepherd congregations in Charlottesville, Virginia, site of the “Unite the Right” rally that left one woman dead and a city and nation deeply wounded in August. Pastor Bates and Kyle are not only Charlottesvillians and pastors; they’re also friends who have worked to bring two churches together in friendship, understanding, and service to our community long before the events of this past summer.

Pastor Bates has served at Ebenezer Baptist Church for 11 years. He sees his pastoral role as one of influencing the influencers, of being an authentic voice for God to speak truth to people in power within the community. Originally from Ohio, he moved to Charlottesville knowing he was entering a state with a unique religious and social history. He has endeavored to promote change regarding racial issues.

At the heart of these efforts, he believes, are relationships, so his focus has consistently been on establishing and cultivating relationships with others and, in turn, promoting conversation and understanding. Some of these relationships have been with fellow pastors, such as Kyle, who lead largely white churches. I recently sat down with Pastor Bates to ask about his relationship-building experiences and how he thinks white pastors can engage racial issues in helpful ways. Specifically, what pitfalls should mostly white churches avoid? Here are his thoughts.


Avoid Thinking You Always Have the Answer; You Might Not Understand the Question

Each culture has its own distinct system of beliefs and values that create the framework by which it makes assumptions. If you’re trying to relate to another group that has a different value system, you must not expect them to subscribe to or submit to the framework by which you see the world. Based on one set of standards, what we do may not make sense, but you must recognize your temptation to provide an answer based on your values and belief systems or even your preferences. Be careful not to project that your framework is superior, and don’t demand that “black” ideas, direction, and control require “white” approval, administration, or adjudication.

For example, many people enter the poorest parts of our community and promote education as the answer. But that presumes a level playing field, a structured, stable household, and even transportation. Some white folks ask me, “Why don’t more black people attend city council meetings and speak up for change?” I say, “Because they have to work two or three jobs, and they have childcare issues. They don’t have discretionary time to get involved as active citizens to seek a higher quality of community life.”

Another example is how the role of a pastor in the black community may look different from the way a white pastor views his role. Historically, the black pastor is the only one in the black community who doesn’t have to answer to a higher dominant white structure. Our people take care of us, our people put food on the table, so it gives us opportunity to speak truth to power. It’s the role of the black pastor to bring the demand for equality.

Don’t Desire ‘Quick-Fix’ Solutions, Nor Use ‘Quick-Fix’ Language

There has to be relationship. How can you say “Let’s heal” when you don’t understand the nature of the wound? How can you say “reconciliation” when we have never been friendly? How can you say “unity” when we don’t have a relationship?

In this country, we have long assigned value according to laws or class constructs. Black people didn’t have equal value, and where one group of people has diminished value, there can’t be relationship. That said, if you’re coming in and saying, “This is the problem; let’s heal,” I would say, “Okay, yes, let’s heal the cut, but putting a bandaid on it may not be the answer, since you don’t know the nature of the wound. We may need a bandage, or we may need surgery.” Be careful not to offer a one-size-fits-all cure without seeking to understand the wound. Value and show an interest in individuals, their wounds, and why you want to cure the wound in the first place. I’ve seen some motivated by self-interest, who didn’t want to cure the wounded but to feel better themselves.

Don’t Embrace Scholarship over Walking by the Spirit and by Faith

Solving racial issues in our country is not about scholarship. Here in Charlottesville, we live in the land of Thomas Jefferson. His mantra about religion was “reason”; he took the moral teachings of Jesus but neglected the miracles. Scholarship and reason can’t solve what only the Spirit can heal. As pastors and people of God, we have to walk by the Spirit and by faith. We must question above all else, “What is the Lord asking us to do?”

There is a place for scholarship: we must know our nation’s history. Here in Virginia, we must know our state’s history. We must understand race and class structures and how those have developed. However, we must not neglect the Spirit.

A pastor, either black or white, may feel as if he must have a blueprint to follow in beginning or continuing to engage racial conversations, but there isn’t a right first step or a formula. Pray to God. Demonstrate racial engagement as a priority, which makes all the difference. Ask the Spirit of God to lead you and help you cultivate relationships. He will do what you couldn’t imagine.

The scenario between our two churches is so typical of what God does: Kyle preached a sermon on the gospel and race; one of his church members (Macy) responded and asked Kyle for contacts and resources; Kyle recalled briefly meeting me; Macy looked me up; I responded to her request because of the commitment I’d made to God; Kyle and I met; and now we’ve exchanged pulpits, our people have met and prayed, and the rest is history: we now have relationships. The Spirit has done it. He is the One who unites us. We have different experiences, cultures, and skin colors, but we worship God in spirit and in truth.

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