No one likes to think of themselves as racist or prejudiced. Even the KKK denies being a racist organization. Which for some people just affirms the deeply held idea that there’s something wrong with people of color. If there wasn’t something wrong with them, people of color wouldn’t have so many problems now that racism isn’t a problem. How can racism be to blame when there are no more racists among us?
Of course, racism and the residual effects of centuries of being raped, robbed and pillaged continue to be an issue. If we’d ever like to get to the day when there really are no racists among us, we need white people to be a lot less clueless. Like, for example, we need for this to become unthinkable, particularly for Christians:
When I asked the white pastor of a large suburban multi-campus church to . . . reflect on whether he has earned the right to do ministry among the oppressed, he responded by saying, “Obviously, the pastors [of color] that are already in the community aren’t more qualified to minister in that neighborhood than I am. If they were, they’d have made a bigger impact by now. They’ve had their chance. Now it’s mine.”
One older African-American pastor said he’s heard chilling reports of meetings, in which representatives from many of the suburban churches have gathered around a map of the city and marked each church’s “territory,” as if Buffalo was theirs to divvy up. The indigenous leaders were not invited to these meetings, nor have they been contacted by these churches. It’s as if they don’t exist, their churches don’t exist, and their expertise doesn’t exist.
Those quotes come from a really excellent article by Christina Cleveland called “Urban Church Planting Plantations” which ought to be required reading for every suburban pastor. And for you too. It’s super good.
I had heard talk of urban church planting and knew that most such church plants fail miserably. Often they become money holes for the church supporting them. Even relatively successful ones find that instead of ministering directly to poor, struggling communities, they are attracting a crowd that doesn’t actually live in the area the church is supposed to be ministering to.
In fact, the last church our family was seriously involved in was an urban church plant supported by a large, predominantly white denomination. They had a long history of working for racial reconciliation and so did better than most. They hired African American pastors and ministers who were at least somewhat familiar with the community. They were even paying for additional education and training to bring the pastors up to the denomination’s standards. But at the same time, we were driving 40 minutes each way to get there. Urban ministry is much harder than Pastor “It’s my turn” thinks.
Among white people who are interested in these things, this lack of success in ministering to the poor and disenfranchised is something of a mystery and a source of frustration. Which just highlights how perilous it can be to walk through life thinking that you have all the answers for what ails those who aren’t like you. Perhaps if we were listening to the voices of the people already working in urban communities, urban missions/ministries wouldn’t be a synonym for “trendy failure” in white church circles.
One of the hallmarks of unrecognized white cluelessness is an assumption that people of color, perhaps because they are less “successful”, need our help, but we do not need theirs. Unless they are helping by allowing us to serve them. Because that’s the reason we have the poor; so we will be able to become more like Jesus by serving them. (That last sentence was deep sarcasm. In case it wasn’t clear.)
White cluelessness means being unaware of or even contemptuous of the unique expertise that non white people have. To refuse to consider that the experience of being a minority will teach you things that you don’t learn when you are part of the dominant group. Other than how to be promiscuous, dishonest, greedy and untrustworthy. Because everyone knows that unlike white dominated Wall Street and Congress, places where minorities live are dominated by a culture of immorality. (Again, sarcasm.)
Of course, this sort of cluelessness is not often the result of active hostility towards people of color. It’s just how we’ve been taught to see the world and unless we are in active, intimate relationships with people of color, we may never think to question it.
It gives me some hope to see these conversations and challenges taking place within the church, even if it’s from far away rather than between individuals. And given the church’s current desperation to avoid fading into oblivion, perhaps more clueless white male pastors will be desperate enough to actually start listening.
If we can get the people with power and money to learn what the poor and oppressed already know, that could change everything.
BTW, white people often ask what they can do about racism. I think it’s particularly important to help minority voices be heard outside of their own communities. I would love for white Christians who care about racial reconciliation to find a few non white voices and publications to check in on regularly. And then pass on what is particularly good via social media, email, etc. If it’s not normal for us to seek out and listen to non white voices, how are we ever going to learn what we need to learn from each other? (And for the record, everyone already knows what we white people know. We’re really loud that way. It’s OK if we just shut up and listen for a while. I promise.)