One of the things that I really struggle with is that there is a block of Christians who simply deny that race struggles exist in the US. Check out the article I wrote and some of the comments.
I had a great opportunity to contribute an essay to this book which will be out October 14, 2014. Check out the link for book below, “Father Factor: American Christian Men on Fatherhood and Faith” Edited by R. Anderson Campbell.
There is a bus that channels through some of the most-important and colorful communities in Philadelphia. Starting at 23rd and Venango the 33 bus snakes it way through some bumpy urban terrain. At various locations on this transit route, you might drive under a dark regional train bridge that almost appears to be a doorway to an abandoned netherworld. I spent a lot of my childhood on the corner of 22nd and Allegheny waiting for this bus observing my surroundings–I learned early on that you could never be too careful. The bus traveled from North Philly to Center City and Penn’s Landing, but the reality is that everyone was not on the bus for a ride. The ride to work around 5th and Market was long, but it was a gateway to see how the other half of Philadelphia lived. The Lord had my back many times as I rode this bus to and from work and other spots downtown Philly. In my younger days, I frequented the Sam Eric theater located at 19th and Chestnut Street. The theater is no longer open, but back in the day it was the safest theater where many from my neighborhood would go on a Saturday or Sunday to catch flicks in the 80’s and 90’s.
Most of what was on display during the hood portion of the route was poverty and the impact of decades of neglect. The former glory of Philadelphia was unfiltered and without apology on this journey through the urban underworld. There are myriads of decaying three-story brownstones that resemble a toothless addict at the end of a brutal journey.
I was more interested in the narrative underway on the streets than the events on the bus. I would make my way to the mid section in order to look out the window at how folks lived and survived. In most cases, survival was not a word that would describe the desperate state of families and communities along the route. These families were there, but there wasn’t much that flourished. You could count the number of trash heaps, syringes, tiny zip lock bags and used condoms that littered the street. There were fields of jagged, snappy weeds that claimed public space. This place
Jesus gives a parable about loving your neighbor in Luke 10 and within a short parable He answers the question posed by this defensive expert of the Law. The question, “And, who is my neighbor?” may have sounded cute to the Bible expert, but it revealed common thinking among tribal minded people. Jesus provides the backdrop of a dangerous roadway where an injustice has taken place–a man is robbed, beaten and left for dead. In this story, Jesus makes a point about responsibility. Is it easy for people to observe the pain and suffering of others and turn a blind eye? It’s easy for church folk to ignore suffering in order to maintain their comfort. In Jesus’ narrative, a priest and Levite go down the road past a man who is half dead–they ignore him. Why did they ignore him? It could be that they imagined he was dead and avoiding being ceremonially unclean was more of a priority than helping this man. We can inquire ‘why’ all day, but the reality is that hurting people can be a distraction.
It may be easy to ignore a dying community. Many ignore communities that are in crisis with what they consider to be good theology. They quote, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me'” (Matthew 26:11) The perpetual presence of poverty relieves many of responsibility to the ‘…least of these.’ Many will avoid showing compassion to the ‘other’ within our world and misuse scripture to feel comfort in their inaction. Consumers seek to get their way, but reconcilers are focused on restoring our world. The Samaritan man observed the man who had been beaten and robbed and in response provided hope. The neighborhoods along route 33 needs ongoing, sustaining grace. Sustained grace is more than a word or full throat-ed sermonette on hell and damnation shouted through a bullhorn or even an outside worship service complete with the unintelligible rhetoric used by a dead or dying congregation. The complexity and tragedy of poverty is not washed away with afterschool programs, food bags or street preaching. While these are important, they fall short of the sacrificial and costly work of discipleship. The extent of the resurrection of Jesus Christ must be first understood and believed. I also believe that we, the church, must go a step further and introduce the full extent of what it means to live a resurrected life in the midst of the valley of dry bones.
I can remember counting the number of churches I saw on Ridge Avenue. This was the part of the route that showcased the most decay. As the 33 descended further and further into this graveyard for the living, it stumbled on a massive wall. There was the dichotomy of a walled off private school in the middle of a North Philly neighborhood. You would think that its presence would create more hope than angst, but it did not. The things that preached hope on this route were the murals displayed on the side of row homes throughout the neighborhood. Sometimes art is a signal that all is not lost and there are better days ahead. Check out the artwork below.
Back in my younger days I wondered how the other half lived. I was provided with a keyhole into that world via the 33 bus. I was very familiar with those who lived around 22nd and 19th street and below Ridge Avenue, but the folks beyond Ridge and down 19th Street will be part 2 of this blog post.
A tale of two cities. I found myself momentarily perplexed after reading two separate articles about the same city. Omaha, NE was featured in an International Business Times online newspaper as, “…The Most Dangerous Place in America To Be Black“. Wow! The article proved fascinating as author, Palash Gnosh provided this statement, “the city with the highest incidence of black murder victims might raise some eyebrows: the seemingly peaceful, farming state of Nebraska’s largest city, Omaha, a city of 420,000, located along the banks of the Missouri River.” Previously Gnosh made the obligatory references to Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans, and Oakland as hot spots for violence within depressed communities. Of course we are talking about scale here as Omaha is a city of roughly 420,000 individuals and the violence has been concentrated in the poor black communities in the north and northeastern parts of the city. Black kids and adults are dying on the streets of Omaha. In a state of 1.9 million it has a population of 88,000 African Americans but it seems that being black and Nebraskan is a risky endeavor. Interesting that north Omaha is the birth place of Malcolm Little who later became known as Malcolm X. The rest of the article is a meat and potatoes account of black despair and could be said of most big cities where violence and poverty is ignored or simply side stepped as development continues to bring into the fold the kind of residents that city administrators want.
Strangely, as I was thinking about this article my wife brought to my attention another article about Omaha, Nebraska. The following article written by David Cross of Movoto. The article is entitled, “The 10 Best Cities to Raise a Family in America“. This was going to be interesting. So this outfit surveyed 5o cities and these cities were scored according to certain criteria like; cost of living, public school rank, park space, home ownership, crimes per capita, unemployment and commute time. These seven criteria were scored and a ranking was established giving Omaha, Nebraska the top spot. Sounds like a great city. I guess my concern with this kind of contradictory articles is that it side steps a certain demographic in order to provide this very attractive ranking. I know there is an explanation–I’m sure there is one. I wonder are the individuals located in north and northeastern Omaha considered to be true Omahan? Were they considered but simply understood to be on the other side of the red line and therefore the other folk? I sometimes get irritated when some folk refers to certain neighborhoods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Bad neighborhoods are almost exclusively black and good neighborhoods are generally white. Those neighborhoods in the mid range are the hardworking ‘ethnic’ communities.
Some people are trying to get out of Omaha and some people are trying to get into Omaha. There are the ‘haves’ and there are the ‘have nots’ and the reasons for these contrasting realities is varied. I don’t know the history of Omaha but it seems that this city resembles other cities in North America. These cities tell a story about race, class, privilege and the despair of the socially non-privileged. Gnosh references blogger Adam Fletcher who provides sobering statistics related to Omaha and its African American community. He gives the following:
Omaha ranks eighth in the nation for black unemployment. Omaha ranks first among U.S. cities for the total number of African Americans who qualify as low-income. One out of three of African American families in Omaha live in poverty. Six out of 10 black children in Omaha live in poverty. More than one-third (35 percent) of black students in Omaha do not graduate from high school.
Communities like north Omaha will not disappear and articles like this one will continue to pop up ever so often. These stories seem to capture the attention of some for a little while but the reality is that cities like Omaha will still be separated by the privileged and under served. It may seem like a hopeless endeavor but I personally have hope that these places can be changed because of my faith in the transformational power of Jesus Christ. These places are not changed as a result of researching how to insulate ourselves from these ‘other’ people. Christ lived with the poor and wealthy and actually had harder things to say to those who had privilege and was noticeably more compassionate towards those who were the underclass and underrepresented. It is important to remember that there are human beings dying on the streets of mid western and east coast cities. The problem with Omaha is that both articles are true. We simply need to determine whose reality are we talking about. Omaha, Nebraska like most American cities has a questionable racial past and this may be a factor to explain why there is such a dichotomy. While writing I had to pause and pray for the people of Omaha. These are real people who dream, love and have aspirations for their children and the generations to follow.
Mother loses two sons to violence within three weeks [Please Read]
The link is to an article that I came across on The Root. These are incidents that can not be ignored as if they’ve happened far away. I ran across this article and immediately prayed for this mother because I don’t know and simply can not bear to imagine what she is going through. Two children gunned down on the streets of Oakland like cattle. The proximity of time and place was the real hook for this article. Two black boys struck down on the streets of a major American city. This kind of news doesn’t travel far. Think about it…in places like Chicago and Oakland black boys are killed all the time, lives are ended, potential unrealized, tears shed, eternity is set. The industry of death is always churning. The narrative of pain goes from one chapter to the next without a pause of break. Lee Weathersby III age 13 and his brother Lamar Broussard age 19 are gone in the span of three weeks. Mom is asking, “…why?”
The best counselor/preacher/theologian will come up short trying to answer Ms. New’s question with theologically prepared statements about tragedy and sin in our world. She needs an overabundance of love and care. She needs the presence of others as she works through raw pain. I pray that those closest to her would point her to Jesus. No doubt there will be those who will point to single motherhood and urban culture as comfort around such a tragic story. The reality is that these tragedies can strike in well manicured, homogeneous, gated communities. God knows tragedy and pain–He watched His innocent Son die for the failure of others. (John 3:16)
Ms. New’s life has been changed. The pain of losing someone never leaves, but somehow the pain of losing your sons within three weeks has to strike as something akin to a tortured existence. Tragedies like this one are waiting to be written every day and for whatever reason they don’t make it to the evening news or more importantly into our hearts. Jesus help us.
I recently sat down with a African American Christian who attends a multi-ethnic church in the Philadelphia area. The interview was prompted by earlier conversations around the topic of the African American and multi-ethnic churches. The following interview highlights positives and negatives elements of both churches. I really wanted to capture the visceral impact of silence at the Trayvon Martin trial. This interview was originally conducted around the end of the Martin, Zimmerman trial. It’s amazing how silence can prompt pain, and although oft written about and championed there is major work that multi-ethnic churches must engage in outside of creating a comfortably, color blind atmosphere. The individual requested to be kept anonymous. I would add that there is something that leaders in the African American church can learn alongside our multi-ethnic church brothers and sisters in the interview that follows.
1. Could you describe for me the breakdown of race and class within your current place of worship?
My fellowship is comprised of around 250 mostly Caucasian believers in a suburban setting. It has been established for about 5 years and was a plant from a larger, parent church plant comprised of the same demographic. There are some interracial couples that are Eastern Indian and white husband and wives. There is a small population of Africans and African Americans with even fewer Asians and Latinos. Most of the congregation is upper middle class, master degrees professionals. Most are single income families with stay at home mothers in the younger population.
2. Please tell me why you started attending a multi-ethnic church?
My experience has been Southern Baptist, rife with tradition and lacking in brevity. There had to be an diverse, urban church that was bible believing, bible teaching, loving, healthy and growing. Unfortunately, the church we sought doesn’t really exist–without sacrifice.
3. Why not attend a predominantly African American church?
As I stayed above, there is so much fluff, so much “extra” pomp and circumstance that, although comforting, is not really our “culture”. Our friendships are diverse, so why do we have to be segregated on Sunday morning? This led me to seek fellowship outside of the African American church experience.
4. Please highlight some of the positives of a multi-ethnic fellowship?
The long, “turn to your neighbor” whooping and hollering just doesn’t exist in the multi-ethnic fellowship. Some of the norms like usher’s day, auxiliary board luncheons and Sunday School don’t happen on the 7th day in the suburbs. You’re in at 10, bring your latte, swipe your debit card for tithes and missions and out the door by 11:35. I say that tongue in cheek, but societal cultural casual behaviors have seeped their way (or have they always been there?) in the multicultural church.
Another positive is that you KNOW people are praying for you. (More on that topic later.) There is an excellence in communication and organizations that can be missing in some urban churches. Funds that are necessary to get things done are readily available. This frees people who work alongside each other in the Body to simply serve. Simple is the operative word. There are not 20 meetings, 10 leaders, and 100 differing opinions about getting things done. Succinctly put, things happen. They are spirit filled, spirit led and willing to serve in any capacity without title, invitation–only expecting to be called brother or sister in Christ.
5. Many would say that multi-ethnic churches are what Christ intended. If this is the case could you describe how the multi-ethnic church in North American doesn’t live up to its ideal?
We are all one Body, many members and Jesus created each of us. There is no distinction at the foot of the cross. However, and I hesitate to say however because Christ’s words are true, we cannot ignore sin in the world. No matter how good-intentioned someone is, there is racism, discrimination, and marginalization at every hand in our culture. The African American in the multi-cultural church experience is almost a caricature, expected to be the expert on all things urban.
In addition, it seems that although some suburban churches have more resources than urban churches, those churches outside the city are much more willing to travel across the world rather than deal with the socioeconomic, social problems of those in the city. One mission trip to say, for example, Sub-Saharan Africa is approximately $4,000. If a team of 10 went consecutively every year for 10 years, can you imagine the impact of $400,000 on the widows and orphans or addicts just 10 miles away?
6. Could you highlight one such event which seems to encapsulate the deficiency of a multi-ethnic fellowship?
There are many, but the most painful had to be when the Trayvon Martin verdict was given. We, as an entire nation, should have been outraged together–as a church–stirred to action. *crickets* I went to bed angry. I fell asleep thinking about my children and if they were accused of a crime post mortem and vilified as an animal, a criminal how I would feel. I decided to attend worship and not one word was uttered. The place where we all meet–the Church–had no remedy, no comfort, no collective solution. I recall situations where more “mainstream” events were mentioned from the pulpit. Most references were either so far away geographically that no one locally could relate, or, directly involved a white person who experienced tragedy or injustice.
This highlights that multi-cultural churches really are not ready to deal with the race issue.
7. As an African American could you provide the ideal picture of a multi-ethnic fellowship? Paint a picture of real diversity
Ideal is Christ at the center. Vulnerability, humility, and the ability to make mistakes on all parts around the issues. [R]ace [is] important in the multi-ethnic church. Inclusion, not assimilation. Simplicity, not confusion.
8. How does a multi-ethnic fellowship parallel the world you exist in everyday?
In my world, things can’t get much more diverse. I have friends who are same sex, agnostic, pagan, recovering Catholics, handicapped, American, blind, Egyptian, and everything else in between. There is a respect, beyond religious affiliation, that I don’t see in the multi-ethnic church. The world is made up of so many people and if we are to ‘go ye therefore’, we have a long way to go…at least [beyond] the areas where Starbucks has a lease.
9. Is there anything else you would like to add to this conversation about being African American within a multi-ethnic worship context?
I feel alone. The only thing that keeps me there is the genuine love that I do feel from the congregation. No matter the issue, you know someone is praying and willing to meet needs. It sounds a little oxymoronic, but the trade off is get lost in the number at a large African American church, or risk being vulnerable, ignored, paraded, or even subtly stereotyped, I’ll take the latter.
After hearing these words I empathized because this account described my own journey. I rejected certain aspects of the traditional African American Church and found myself in a white church but felt like a novelty. My journey brought me back to the Black Church as a leader who is able to have some influence over what happens. I am at a different place in my ecclesiological journey. The general feeling that you don’t belong anywhere is something that plagues so many; the traditional paradigm of black church life has lost some appeal and then the ultra-bright white environment of a multi-ethnic or white church just doesn’t scratch the itch either. Both worlds have value but they also present hurdles to genuine fellowship. I do not agree with everything this individual shared but as a leader I would be negligent to dismiss her words as inconsequential.
Jesus said to the angel of the church in Philadelphia;
…These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. (Revelation 3:7-8)
The African American church represents various things to many, but one universal irrefutable common characteristic is its strength in the face of oppression. Oppression is noticeable to those familiar with its sting. Sadly, many place oppression in the same category as global warming—a negotiable reality. An inconvenient truth is that slaves walked the streets of Philadelphia. In this city former slaves Richard Allen and Absalom Jones were disrupted from prayer but responded by establishing a unique translation of the church. (Genesis 50:20) Their response came to be known as the Black church in America. This institution was a response to an oppressive system designed to distinguish Africans as individuals unworthy of real community. A door forced open became a flood gate for change. Dark skinned residents wanted to worship without restriction and so they formally set out to establish liberated space. Here is Richard Allen contemplating establishing new space for Black worshipers;
I soon saw a large field open in seeking and instruction my African brethren, who had been a long forgotten people and few of them attended public worship…I raised a society in 1786 for forty two members…We all belonged to St. George’s church….We felt ourselves much cramped;…We established prayer meetings and meetings of exhortation, and the Lord blessed our endeavors, and many souls were awakened; but the elder soon forbid us holding any such meetings; but we viewed the forlorn state of our colored brethren, and that they were destitute of a place of worship. They were considered a nuisance. 
The result of the efforts of Allen and Jones is the establishment of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1791 and The African Church established in 1792, later known as the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. Prior to the establishment of Mother Bethel, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones established the Free African Society, an organization set-up to meet some of the social needs created by dominant class suppression. Oppressed people must be creative in their endeavor to meet the needs around them. Allen and Jones were able to step in and help a city going through a deadly yellow fever crisis. In this particular context planting a new church was a necessary step towards eventually destroying the much beloved American institution of slavery.
The elites of Philadelphia wanted a pure worship experience, free of their ‘other’, ‘less human’ neighbor. These elites carried their Bibles alongside their accounting logs. These Philadelphian’s were prudent entrepreneurs who used others to accumulate and maintain wealth and status. These Quakers, Methodist and Congregationalist were all astute in their theological positions, but it must be said that they were also astute concerning their property; human and otherwise. Many of these religious explorers landed on shores desiring freedom from oppression, but once they achieved a desired order and stature they systematized a comfortable existence through the exploitation of others.
Allen and Jones seemed to recognize two key things; they could no longer acquiesce with the current church paradigm and serving their neighbor was both necessary and godly. The formal genesis of the African American church came out of protest and it just seems right that this would mark the practice of the contemporary African American church. This church was founded under the premise of ‘hearing and doing.’ Although many are convinced that the Christian life is best experienced following one’s favorite expositor or purchasing instructions to obtain the ‘anointed life’ or ‘coming up under’ a personality—in reality these preoccupations devalue the rich past that reach back to the example of both Allen and Jones. The fresh new fades that ‘chuch folk’ like to follow will not keep young black men and women from being tossed on the ash heap of urban life. Allen and Jones decided against praying in their place, far away from the ‘others’. No more balconies carefully constructed to keep sensibilities intact all while deepening self community scars. These kinds of contradictions work in the world of artistic expression where colors and hues are bounced against one another but these contradictions strike a raw nerve for those enduring inequality and hypocrisy. The St. George Methodist Episcopal Church of Allen’s day represented a kind of privilege that benefited those in the dominant class but disassociated the ‘other’.
The church needs to rediscover its past. Revisiting the early church we observe leaders willing to experience the discomfort of going where no one has gone before. Revisiting history through the experience of Richard Allen and Absalom Jones we observe real disciples willing to follow Christ into systems of injustice in order to establish ‘shalom’ where social and relational confusion shapes the ungodly narrative. These men were prophetic in their action—they recognized, like Elijah and Elisha, that working outside of the established system can be more Christ-like than the elites would have you to believe. Paradigm shifts can be beneficial.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to some church planters in Philly and burbs about their efforts and why they’ve established new works in specific neighborhoods. Those who have spent any significant time in Philly will be aware that there seems to be a church on every corner. I’m sure there are some who would suggest that more churches are unnecessary. I would have to agree—we don’t need any more buildings occupied by concert goers or preacher groupies. However, there is a real need for liberated space where those in real need can come in contact with the Savior and find freedom. Its sad that there are places in this great city where the burdens of tradition are heaped onto the backs of wearied people. Folk need freedom from sin and stale expressions of religion. What if there were ministries grounded in sound Biblical teaching, authentic community and vibrant worship of the Savior? What if there were churches not afraid to ask questions and listen in order to meet real tangible needs knowing that we must not only share good news but be good news.?Imagine a city that produced men and women who recognized the culture and demographics of neighborhoods and held a strong commitment to Christ and understood that a marked up Bible does not necessarily equal real discipleship or Christ like living but “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)
We need leaders who understand what systemic injustice looks like in all its forms and are not afraid to claim that Jesus speaks to real social issues that black people face as a perpetually marginalized people. The boldness to found the Free African Society proved instrumental in the effort to establish shalom for a broken people. Allen and Jones were the fathers of a prophetic Church. What is remarkable is that these two and those who followed their leadership did not give up on the church. They were able to establish the church as a tool for liberation rather than one of persecution and prestige.
1. Mays, B. E., & Nicholson, W. J. (2003). Origins of the Church. In C. West, & J. E. Glaude, African American Religious Thought; An Anthology (pp. 14-28). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. p.15