By Natasha Sistrunk Robinson
In recent months, diverse groups of Christian leaders have spoken up against injustices against people of color and other oppressed people within our society.
Beth Moore shared an open letter about the importance of women leaders and the misogyny and racism within American Evangelicalism. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, also joined the great cloud of witnesses by taking a stand against President Donald Trump’s incitement of racism and his unjust, unethical, and immoral practices in his personal, public, and political life. When Beth Moore speaks, her posts go viral. When Russell Moore speaks, he gets featured on CNN. While I deeply appreciate when sisters and brothers like these use their platforms to influence and speak as the Holy Spirit pricks their hearts, I want us to also ask why the voices of the people of color who have been fighting the good fight and speaking against these same injustices for years, some for decades, go unheard?
White allies and sisters and brothers must acknowledge that when things are bad for White women in society and in the church, they are far worse for women of color. Allies, in their confessions and laments, must also use their platforms as an opportunity to elevate, sponsor, and share space with people of color who have been consistent in their witness and faithful in their work and convictions for years. Whenever the words “race” or “reconciliation” are mentioned within the Christian framework, I need the names and contributions of those like the Rev. Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, professor Drew G.I. Hart, Edward Gilbreath, LaTasha Morrison, and the Rev. Efrem Smith elevated.
Furthermore, people of color, and Black people in particular, want to talk about and have so much more to contribute beyond the race conversation. While those who identify as White cannot fully live our lives as people of color—even if they marry a person of color or adopt children of color—they can invest in their own learning and education just like the rest of us, without depending on people of color to do the hard work for them. This is what Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has done with his life, ministry, and recent book, Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion.
Here is the reality: in the same way that our country has been morally bankrupt from the beginning when settlers murdered and stripped the indigenous people from their land, the American church has also been complicit in white supremacy and racist practices. Many denominations have split over slavery, and even today, White men continue to dominate every field of American Christendom from the seminary classroom to nonprofits, from publishing to the pulpit (even in the multiethnic church movement), and from Christian media to conference lineups.
The time is past due for people of color to decide how they are called to respond to the presence of white supremacy in our country and in the American Church, and whether or not they will intentionally invest in dismantling old, broken systems and make the long-term commitments to build new redemptive frameworks.
Brief Look at the Black Church
The traditional Black Church’s origins of song, dance, sharing of Scripture, and storytelling are tied to the slave plantation. On occasion, enslaved and free Blacks would attend worship services with their masters or employers, but were forbidden from sitting with them and, in some cases, even praying with them. What we today call “the Black church” was a result of White men rejecting Black people from their churches.
When we think about the Black church and its relation to the global or universal church, we must consider the historical contributions Black people have made to the redemptive work God has been and still is doing in the world. In his book, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity, Thomas C. Oden makes a bold attempt to educate and reconcile the truth of the contributions of those from the African continent to the early church.
Throughout American history, the Black church has been a pillar for the Black community. It was the Black church that provided the moral compass for cultivating one’s faith and family. It was the Black church that shaped the culture and community. It was the Black church that provided meals and shelter for the poor. It was the Black church that registered people to vote. From the very foundation of our faith, Black people understood the significance of Christ on our minds, bodies, and souls. As a community, by and large, we have never separated our faith from social action because we understand the power of the vote, and how politics and the abuse of power directly impacts our lives and not just our pocketbooks. We have never separated our faith from our bodies because we know the body produces beauty and goodness in all of its forms. We also know and understand all too well that it is a sacred abuse when our bodies are violated.
What the Black Church Teaches Us
For centuries, the Black church and Black people have taught us important lessons that we need to recall in these days of darkness.
First, we need to remember that, perhaps more than any other people group in America, the Black church has intentionally taught generations of people how to faithfully persevere in the faith amid persecution and oppression. When we sing song lyrics like “I’m so glad troubles don’t last always” or “weeping may endure for night / keep the faith, it will be alright,” we mean it! We know it’s true because our ancestors have done it and because we have seen it with our own eyes. We know that in the same way they overcame, we too, shall overcome. Knowing that we are not at the end and that Jesus still reigns as the ultimate victor gives us hope for the future.
Second, we need men and women at work. From the time that we set foot on American soil, we have been an egalitarian people in our lives and in our work practices. While men and women might have had complementary, differing roles and responsibilities, by and large, our ancestors were Black men and women who understood marriage as a partnership, and who understood that both men and women were necessary to lead and preserve community and culture.
Then, there is the hospitality of the front porch: Black people are a hospitable people. We do not invite people into our homes without preparing for them, setting the table, or offering a drink. We enjoy table fellowship that includes storytelling, good eats, a whole lot of laughter, and maybe even some songs.
The hospitality of the Black community—whether at the kitchen table, in the backyard, or on the front porch—was the way that we knew we were known, loved, and seen. It is how we learn and affirm our identity. It is the places where we are invited to make the history and culture our own. Black hospitality is a place of safety and vulnerability because the invitation alone means that we are now family.
Finally, we can’t forget about the generations. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob reveals Himself as the God of generations. Remembering, partnering together, and extending hospitality is how Black people have continued to share the gospel across generations. It’s grandma’s hands, and the generations singing the truths of God from the mass choir, the corner store run and “real man” talks with an uncle, the corrections of auntie, and the child’s play with cousins that inform and shape us. We need all of it. With the technological improvements of televisions, mobile phones, and social media, we have lost some of these intimate connections across generations and we need to get them back.
The Call and Response Conference
Taking its name and inspiration from the Black preaching tradition in which the pastor and congregation joined together in the effective proclamation of the gospel, the Call and Response Conference: The Past, Present, and Future of Black Christians in America (callandresponseconference.com) pulls together church folks, marketplace and nonprofit leaders, pastors, practitioners, artists, and activists from across generations to respond faithfully to the challenges and opportunities of the present moment in America. We seek to offer a prophetic witness to the church and the nation while remaining biblically-grounded in a holistic gospel that has the power to transform lives and communities.
Founded by myself, the Rev. Santes Beatty (Wesleyan), and Dr. Esau McCaulley (Anglican), the Call and Response Conference is a FUBU (For Us, By Us) gathering centering on the Black church and its history and voice. Our desire for the conference is to: (1) seek diverse representation while centering on Black voices and experiences; (2) foster intergenerational dialogue; encourage deep theological thought and intentional action; (3 )and create a safe, encouraging, edifying, and hopeful space to persevere in the faith. We will accomplish these goals by inviting a diverse group of men and women from the African diaspora to contribute to this communal space. Conference contributors will come from evangelical and mainline denominations.
Practical workshops will be presented on publishing, seminary, pastoral/preaching, justice, health and wellness, and business/entrepreneurship. In addition, there will be music, art, and entertainment to honor the past, present, and future of the Black church.
In the spirit of hospitality mentioned previously, all are invited to this table fellowship. However, it is important to understand that regardless of your ethnic background, heritage, or experience, you are being invited as a guest. Those who are setting the table have determined that a space is needed where the Black voice, history, and experience is centered and celebrated. That is what will happen at the Call and Response Conference. We pray that you will join us and bring your family and friends.
Natasha Sistrunk Robinson is an international speaker, leadership consultant, and mentoring coach. She is the author of A Sojourner’s Truth, Mentor for Life, and the Hope for Us Bible study. Connect: natashaSrobinson.com.