Fathom Mag
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How to Show Up

As black Christians, showing up in a predominantly white space is a calling

Published on:
June 10, 2020
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6 min.
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The last time I regularly attended a predominantly black church, I was eight years old. Now twenty years later, and I am still figuring out how to show up authentically in the predominantly white spaces, chapels, and classrooms in which I find myself.

The church my family and I are now involved in is predominantly white. We are not. We love our church—we loved it individually as single people. We prayed and discerned it was the best place to dig in as engaged people. We are to this day tithe-paying members.

And. We hold a whole lot of hurt that is a result of this church we love. Our church is currently working its way from ignorance to ineffectiveness to hopefully a new “normal.” For which we can all thank black people (pause for applause).

Each one of them approaches that vision differently revealing how fiercely creative God is in using his people to bring about change.

See, it has been my experience that predominantly white spaces in places that are diverse are that way for one of three reasons: intention, ignorance, or ineffectiveness. The people in charge of the space intentionally made and maintained it as predominantly white. The people in charge of the space are ignorant that it is predominantly white (and that that has impact). The people in charge are ineffectively trying to remake it as not predominantly white. 

Nearly every awakening or sermon or change in how our community and church functions, I can link to the presence and voice of a black person or family. Each one of them is committed to a vision of diversity or reconciliation or racial justice. And each one of them approaches that vision differently revealing how fiercely creative God is in using his people to bring about change. 

A Spectrum of Black Involvement

There are multiple ways a black person may show up in a white space and push that space to do things differently. Each approach is needed at different times and many black people have adapted the ability to move among these approaches depending on the organization, the organization’s leaders and their own stated role. But none of them are wrong. And none of them are the only right way. 

Approach I: The Relentless Advocate

Marked by a tenacious faithfulness to justice, and an urgent, by any means possible, you’re either with me or against me mentality. These are the folks who are unsatisfied with anything less than full fruition—they can see the areas ripe for improvement in every aspect of the church—a racially homogeneous worship set, a Sunday with only one black person on stage, a sermon without the influence of black theologians or writers, etc. As a white person, it may feel like those with a tenacious faithfulness to justice always have something “negative” or “critical” to say. As a black person, it may be easy to depend on this person to speak when you don’t want to or can’t. I think of Andre Henry as an example of this approach. 

Approach II: The Prophetic Voice

Marked by prayerful protest, worshipful headshaking, truth telling to the face of the friend operating as an enemy, and fist shaking at God about those same people. These folks can be found at a sit-in on Saturday morning and leading a worship set of diverse origin to a less diverse room on Sunday. They are always returning to the Bible as the prooftext for increased actions for justice and diversity and can be found having hard conversations with people they love after spending much time in prayer. As a white person, it may feel like this person views the Bible and Jesus through a fully liberation or justice lens. As a black person, it may be healing or illuminating to be reminded of the spiritual root of the work by this person. I think of Michelle Higgins as an example of this approach. 

What’s most important about these approaches though are the threads of similarity: a consistent witness, faith-filled conviction, racial identity development, and identifying and walking firmly in their specific calling.

Approach III: The Intentional Teacher

Marked by a teacher’s heart, these people are educating and leading multiracial actions, are lamenting in affinity spaces, and are compassionate, consistently calling out in majority spaces. These folks are often elders and mentors, they suggest classes or training for leaders or members and curate experiences to increase knowledge via social media, pilgrimages, and field trips. As a white person, it may be easy to use the intentional teacher as your Google instead of pursing knowledge on your own. As a black person, you may shuffle between appreciation and frustration with this person’s goal of teaching everybody. I think of LaTasha Morrison as an example of this approach.

Approach IV: The Insider Change Agent

Marked by the spirit of the persistent widow, discerning when and where speaking has the most impact but committing to speak until justice is done. These folks may have a clear primary gifting used in the church—they lead missions work, they preach, they run production—but they are regularly asking really pointed and insightful questions about why an organization is making certain choices and are prone to pull leaders aside to communicate frustration or feedback. These folks can surprise even their longest friendships when pushing towards a more just perspective and world because they don’t always advocate loudly or all day every day. As a white person, you may feel annoyed or tempted to be offended when this person prods for change. As a black person, you may mistakenly judge they are less committed to racial justice. I think of Jackie Hill Perry as an example of this. 

Approach V: The Longsuffering Servant

Known for an unbelievable patience, a loving shepherding into the light of righteousness in multiracial and affinity spaces. These folks’ words carry weight with all people and their inclination is taking people under their wing to pray for, teach, and push them. They make their intentions clear very early and stay a long time, often making them a safe place for both white and black people to land. As a white person, it may become easy to take this person’s wisdom and time for granted. As a black person, you may highly value their hard-earned wisdom. I think of Dr. Brenda Salter-McNeil as an example of this.

I hesitate to label any of the approaches as radical or status quo. It doesn’t feel necessary or fruitful to decide which is the best or worst because they each play a vital role in creating change in the world and the church. I struggled to even decide if they need names to organize them. What’s most important about these approaches though are the threads of similarity: a consistent witness, faith-filled conviction, racial identity development, and identifying and walking firmly in their specific calling.

Lamenting the Ineffective

A nagging possibility that I have often asked myself: What if I am not any of these? What if I experience myself as one but my impact is something not at all described in those categories?

The approaches above are descriptions of effective approaches to racial justice in predominantly white church or parachurch spaces. But there are black people whose push for racial justice is ineffective and there are even black people for whom racial justice is not a priority. 

Those folks may once have been fiery, passionate truth-tellers who have gotten stuck in a cycle of feeling heard and being hurt by people with power who do a good job of pretending to care about racial reconciliation without enacting any change. They may be a person whose presence is pointed to or used as an example by white people to silence criticism about a lack of diversity but whose presence doesn’t appear to have any lasting influence. A person who is not far in their own racial identity development or recovering from racial trauma through avoidance and denial. These people can become apologists for ignorant or oppressive behavior and actively avoid race conversations saying they “don’t really see why it’s that big of a deal.” It could even be the approach of policing black people with extreme feelings of anger, frustration, or dismissal. 

These are not criticisms. If anything, they are laments. They are the naming of things that are not as they should be to remove some of their power. Showing up as your full authentic self is hard for everyone across all lines of difference. No cap. Showing up authentically as a minority is even harder. Showing up authentically as a minority in a space that shows no evidence of valuing those like you is another thing altogether.

Showing Up 

Being yourself with the possibility of oppression, erasure, physical, or emotional harm in the air is heavy, scary work. In my own experience, I have skirted conversations to keep relationships. I have ignored comments because “I know their heart.” I have stayed in racist places longer than was healthy or directed by God because I believed abusers would change. The fear that keeps black people from being ourselves—that keeps us in one of the ineffective approaches—is consequence of our not-yet church. The church which is a result of receiving the unconditional love of Jesus and in so many ways is still learning how to truly practice that love towards ourselves and all other people. 

But I have come to believe that as black Christians, showing up in a predominantly white space is a calling. It has to be. It’s the most compelling reason to continue breathing the possibly hazardous air.

In the not-yet church, showing up ourselves can be hindered by self-protective patterns or a misconstrued doctrine of what loving our enemy and neighbor looks like or some half understanding of all the different ways God can show up.

I don’t know every black person. I can’t pinpoint every reason why each shows up the way they do. But I have come to believe that as black Christians, showing up in a predominantly white space is a calling. It has to be. It’s the most compelling reason to continue breathing the possibly hazardous air. As white Christians, changing a predominantly white space is probably going to need to be a calling too. Air quality is no small shift. 

For black people, I think the challenge is discerning which of these approaches is most authentic to you and how you move towards intentionally showing up that way? For white people, the challenge is reflecting which of these approaches is hardest to hear and how do I make space in my life for all of them? For all of us, the invitation is to recognize that there are various approaches to racial justice in church spaces and many can be necessary and fruitful in bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth. 

Keonnie Igwe
Keonnie is a former Secondary English teacher, current Policy and Advocacy fellow for an educational equity non-profit and future MDiv student living with her husband in Atlanta. You can follow her work in educational equity and antiracist justice (as well as love for enneagram memes, YA fantasy fiction, clothes + coffee) at keonniejanae.com@Wayoftheigwes on Instagram and @KeonnieJanae on Twitter.

Cover image by Tim Mossholder.

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