Q&A: Brenda Salter McNeil on Her Journey Into Ministry, Reconciliation Risks, and Becoming Brave Like Esther

Brenda Salter McNeil Faithfully Magazine
Brenda Salter McNeil.

The Rev. Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil serves as associate professor of Reconciliation Studies in the School of Theology at Seattle Pacific University. McNeil is also the associate pastor of Preaching & Reconciliation at Quest Church in Seattle, Washington. Her ministry, shaped by the necessity and vision of reconciliation, has led her to write several books on the topic including Roadmap to Reconciliation 2.0: Moving Communities into Unity, Wholeness and Justice. An ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church, McNeil earned degrees from Rutgers University, Fuller Theological Seminary, and Palmer Theological Seminary.

Faithfully Magazine spoke with McNeil over the phone regarding her journey into ministry, racial reconciliation, and her latest book, Becoming Brave: Finding the Courage to Pursue Racial Justice Now. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Can you tell us about your faith journey and your call to ministry?

I became a Christian when I was 19 years old at Rutgers University. Though I had been a part of a family that went to church pretty regularly, faithfully… I didn’t understand the whole notion of conversion because it seemed as if going to church as a family was what it meant to be a Christian. It wasn’t until I got to college that I met a couple people in my dormitory who lived this thing all the time, 24/7, not just on Sundays. And it captured me and showed the gap between what I understood Christianity to be and what it was that I saw them embodying.

So I became a Christian based upon their witness and visited the InterVarsity, Campus Crusade, and there was something called Chi Alpha — I think it was a part of the Assemblies of God. So I was trying to figure out how to now live into this Christian walk. But as I went to all of those groups, there were almost no people of color. None. Everything about it was foreign to me — every song they sang, the way prayers were prayed, just everything about it — I just couldn’t find my place there. And if I prayed out loud, people looked at me as if I came from another planet. So the whole thing became difficult.

Then there was a young African-American brother named Ben who came from a Bible church, and his whole thing was Bible studies. So, he started having a Bible study in his dormitory that grew so large, just African-American students gathering in his room. Then we went to the dorm lounge and that grew so large that we had to get another space to meet. Long story short, by the time we all graduated at the end of those four years, we had become the largest Christian ministry on campus, and we started meeting at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary chapel. So that’s how my journey began.

My call to ministry: I had a sense because I grew up in a Pentecostal background that there was a giftedness there for preaching. But I did not have an example of people whose full time job was ministry other than pastors or maybe a missionary. So I thought you get a job.

So I graduated as a speech pathologist, and that was my major, speech pathology, and I became a public school speech therapist. And I thought what you do is preach when you’re invited on occasion and you have a job. That’s your vocation. One of the speech therapists that I worked with was also African American. We were the only two African-American people on the speech pathology team in that particular school district, and he and his wife had a baby.

Unfortunately, the baby, though a full-term pregnancy, swallowed amniotic fluid when the baby was born, and choked. I went over there to pray for them, care for them just to be a friend. I had no intentions whatsoever of trying to evangelize anybody. But the wife, her name was Sharon, asked if I would lead her to Christ, how did I become a Christian, and she wanted to know how she could. So I sat next to her and I shared my faith and prayed with her to receive Christ. She began to cry, her husband held her close. And so, I got up and moved away to give them a moment.

As I walked away and looked out the window, I remember having been introduced to something called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And it talks about people who do things for various reasons – for safety reasons, for having physical needs met, for social self-esteem reasons. That’s why we get a job so that people are impressed with you. I was kind of at that level. But the highest level was self-actualization, and that was when people do what they do not because of the money they make or the accolades that they acquire. It’s because they simply love it. And they believe that this is what they were born to do. That night, when I looked out that window, I said to myself, ‘I love this.’ I realized that this was my calling, and not just something I just happen to be good at. And seminary came after that.

In Becoming Brave, you talk about how much of the “racial reconciliation” conversation is often from the White perspective and on White terms and this often ignores (intentionally or unintentionally) the importance of justice. How can Christians distinguish between “racial reconciliation” and “racial justice?” How is reconciliation without justice lacking?

It’s been an important thing for me to really be more clear about. And part of that is because I’ve been an advocate and called to the work of racial reconciliation since I graduated from seminary. I started working on it as a staff worker with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Occidental College, and noticed that, like when I was in college and started having Bible studies by ourselves, I wondered, when I went to be a chaplain intern at Occidental College, ‘Where are the students of color?’ I bet they’re somewhere on a college campus meeting in a dorm room somewhere, because I’m convinced that they’re on this campus seeking God, but they don’t come to this particular thing in this way. It’s foreign to them.

So I began to meet with students of color, having Bible studies with them and taking them to conferences with me for InterVarsity because there was so much that we could glean. But, I realized that everything had to be translated. And it was usually not on the terms that came generically or organically to people of color. It was generally a dominant cultural lens that we had to adapt to. And there was something to be gained from that.

Becoming Brave by Brenda Salter McNeil
Cover of Becoming Brave.

So, for some time, and you probably have heard this, what Christians began to say, me included, is that “the 11 to 12 o’clock hour on Sunday mornings is the most segregated hour in the United States of America.” True. So inadvertently, what we began to do is begin to say that in a way that suggests that if we could only not be so segregated on Sunday morning, then we would be reconciled.

So out of that came multiethnic fellowships and multiethnic churches, right? And all of those things became a part of the expression of what we thought was “racial reconciliation.” We’re reconciled because we have a diverse worship team now. We’re reconciled because we sing songs in Spanish. Yay! We’re reconciled because we have these various multiethnic expressions. But, never did we get to the point with those multiethnic expressions, to ask the questions of, ‘Where did the divisions come from? Why do these divisions exist? On whose terms are we multiethnic? Am I here because you needed a woman speaker, or an African-American person, or a Chinese person, or Native American person? Or is this my opportunity for you to see the world through the lens I bring and allow me not just to be a part of diversifying something, but to inform something… that you relinquish your control and power to literally learn from and be guided by those of us who see the world differently and ask us for our help, and help to shape the agenda and the platform and the topics that we need to be discussing?’ And that wasn’t happening. That was not happening.

In fact, I realized one day when someone said to me when I began talking more about racial justice — when I began saying that it is not true that we just need to come to the table of brotherhood, of sisterhood, and make friends with each other — that there are real lives that are being impacted, and the silence of the church is deafening. When I began to say things like this, one White man who I don’t know — social media allows people to say snarky things to you. You don’t have to know who they are. So, on my Facebook page, whoever this person was, but he was a White male, and he said, and I quote, ‘We liked you better when you just put quoted Bible verses.’

'Reconciliation is an ongoing spiritual process that involves repentance, forgiveness, and justice, that transforms broken relationships and systems to reflect God's original intention for all creation to flourish.' Click to Tweet

So, when I began talking about Black Lives Matter, or water being poisoned in Michigan and children drinking it, and years later, we’re going to find that those same children will have learning disabilities. And if you don’t say things about that, if you don’t talk about the pipeline that is bringing toxins into people’s communities, and we don’t care about the Native Americans’ struggle for their land. If we don’t say things…about Chinese people being attacked or Asian-American people being attacked because someone started naming this virus the “Chinese virus,” if we don’t care what happens to human beings, we’re not really talking about reconciliation, which is to make things right. So I had to define “reconciliation,” because I realized we were talking about it too relationally. So my definition of reconciliation is this: reconciliation is an ongoing spiritual process that involves repentance, forgiveness, and justice, that transforms broken relationships and systems to reflect God’s original intention for all creation to flourish. That’s what I believe we’re working toward.

From my experience, books on Esther or Ruth are usually framed and centered around stereotypical “women’s ministry” topics. Your book is very much a different take because you look at Esther as inspiration for what it means to become brave and courageous in the face of injustice where God has called you. How did you start thinking about Esther in this way?

Yeah, great question. I have two answers to it. One, we’ll come to a little later about why we need to see these various texts from various perspectives, because I think we each do bring a lens to the text, that whole notion of a hermeneutical perspective. That’s the beauty of the diversity of the church, that we all see through a glass dimly the Scriptures, and as a result, we need each other’s lens to see Scriptures in broader and more profoundly life changing ways. And so, I’m grateful for the lens God has given me as a Black woman. When I come to the text, I literally see things that perhaps a White male counterpart or brother in ministry might not see in the same way.

So I’ll tell you how Esther got on my radar. When I began having my own ministry after I left university and started my own ministry organization, I was living in Chicago, and I knew I was called to the work of reconciliation. I was preaching about racial reconciliation, gender, gender equality. My husband is a psychologist, and we did marriage seminars around reconciliation relationally. We talked about reconciliation and families. I would do women’s conferences and I would talk about inner healing and the need to reconcile with oneself. All of this stuff was my attempt to make reconciliation a broad umbrella that gave me various topics that I could talk about or speak on.

I hired a consultant to help me with fundraising for the nonprofit organization, and he said to me, ‘Brenda, your ministry is spread too thin.’ And he said, ‘Based upon where you spoke last, people have different understandings about what it is you do. Some people think you’re a women’s ministry. Some people think that you are a racial reconciliation ministry. Some people think you’re a student organization, a student ministry, a marriage ministry, or an evangelism organization. You don’t know what it is you do. You need to pick one thing and focus on it.” And he said, ‘Out of all of the things you speak about, is one thing that I think would be uniquely germane to who you are and I don’t know many other people who do it. I think you should put this completely and solely on racial reconciliation. That is something that you from a Christian perspective could literally really be great at if you gave yourself to it.’ And I thought to myself, There’s no way in the world I’m going to do that. It would make it seem like I had some sort of an agenda as a Black woman and I only could speak about one thing.

I talked to several of the chaplains who invited me to speak on Christian colleges across the country and asked them what they thought about it. A couple said they would really caution me not to do it. They said, ‘Hey, we don’t talk about this all year on campus. Maybe Black History Month, maybe Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday celebration, or Cinco de Mayo. But this is not a topic that we talk about all..year long. We’re gonna limit how often we get to invite you to come speak.’ And so, eek! Right? I started a nonprofit organization that’s around me speaking, and now people are telling me, ‘Don’t do it.’

Now I’m going to tell you something very, very frightening. One of my dear, dear friends, Asian-American brother in InterVarsity, Paul Tokunaga. He said to me, when I asked if he thought I should do it. He said, ‘I have two answers for you. The first is that I hope you don’t do it because every person that I know of who’s made racial reconciliation the full focus of their ministry has died. I would not want anything to happen to you.’ Now, that’s not something anybody wants to hear. It scared me.

Then he said, ‘My second answer is this. I don’t know anybody that I think is more called or qualified to do it.’ So, long story short, I went on a fast. I’ve never done a fast that long since. I had never done one for a month prior. But, for 30 days, I went on the fast and I thought about whether or not this is something I should do. My board of directors also joined me. During that time, I heard one Scripture, and it was from the book of Esther: “If I perish, I perish.” And I had a sense at that point, that Esther’s declaration that she was scared to death, but would do it anyway, was the epitome of courage. And I did then change the focus of my ministry. Racial reconciliation became my primary focus and the rest has become history.

Brenda Salter McNeil Becoming Brave
Brenda Salter McNeil.

Throughout the book, you remind the reader how Esther’s identity would have been more parallel to a marginalized person in our day and age rather than a middle class, suburban White woman. Why do you think it’s important to read Esther’s story (and the whole Bible for that matter) color consciously rather than colorblind?

I think it’s important that we read the Bible through that lens of color consciousness because it’s true that culture is infused throughout Scripture. It’s not written from a generic point of view. And I think we all have the danger of reading Scripture completely from our perspective, from our own worldview.

'The Bible is...not bland, it's not colorblind.... there were people whose culture influenced how they were treated in society... To take that out...is to minimize the potency of what the Word of God is trying to say to us.' Click to Tweet

But the truth is, Jesus was Jewish, Middle Eastern. The Bible is written in a context and it’s not bland, it’s not colorblind. There were Jews and Gentiles, there were Persians and Egyptians, there were people whose culture influenced how they were treated in society. And that is a part of the narrative. To take that out of the narrative is to minimize the potency of what the Word of God is trying to say to us.

That’s why we need the perspectives of all people, men and women from every tribe and every nation. I mean that not as a cliché. We need every person’s lens to clearly understand what the Word of God is saying to us. And I think that, as I said earlier, that’s why we have to invite everybody to the table. Because that worldview, that perspective, that lens helps us to see the multifaceted message of God and image of God. That’s what I believe. I believe that it is critical that we read the Book of Esther and the Bible totally through the lens of understanding that it is embodied. And it’s embodied through the lens of a culture, and that culture is informative to how we hear what God is saying to us today.

Similarly, you also remind the reader not to sterilize or whitewash what’s really going on in the king’s harem. The Bible is actually a lot messier than we may be comfortable with — especially toward women! Why do you think that’s helpful for us to know in light of racial justice and the role of women in reconciliation and healing?

Yeah, great question. So many ways I could take the answer for this one. I think I want to start by saying I heard a colleague — a brother in ministry — but he preached on the Book of Esther and painted her as a floozy who flaunted her “female wares” and won over the king. And I just got offended. I thought to myself, ‘This is a completely total mischaracterization of what has happened to this woman, this girl.’ He painted her as a seductress who seduced the king and was so pretty that she batted her eyelashes and her red lipstick and came on and won the king over.

And I was like, that’s just not what happened. That’s not what happened! This was a teenage girl who had no desire or interest whatsoever. She comes from a different ethnic group. She lives with a single parent and she’s had hurt and trauma in her life and she’s being raised by an uncle who has taken her in. The king makes an edict that she has no control whatsoever over, and that law impacts her life. And that law takes her out of what was normal for her — the community that loved her, the place that embraced her — and now she finds herself taken away from the only person who sheltered her and she finds herself in a harem with other girls who have been taken away from their travels.

And it made me think about those girls in Nigeria when Boko Haram took them away from school, and the mothers begged, ‘Bring back our girls!’ So, I was offended by him. I’m still offended by him. You can hear it in my voice. I did not like this notion that Esther was painted as some “chick” who came on to the king. It was worse than that. And so I felt it important to make it very, very clear.

This is back to our question before about why we have to read the text, the Bible, not through a colorblind lens, and to be color conscious, because I immediately thought about Nigeria. That man did not. I immediately thought about kids who were trafficked and taken away and you don’t know where they are. I immediately thought about kids separated from their parents at the border and they still can’t be reunited. That’s why we can’t read the Bible through colorblind lenses, because it’s still happening today. And if we don’t read the Bible as a relevant text that informs how we live today, we’ll repeat it over and over and over again.

So, Esther makes us women have to say, ‘What does this say to us? What does this say to us as women and how do we not keep drinking the kool-aid of a misperception on this characterization of who this young girl was?’ That’s why I think it’s helpful for us to know this in light of racial justice, because I believe that women have got to be in solidarity around this issue of justice.

And to be quite honest and frank — I’ve not said this before out loud — but I’m really concerned about the way White women are co-opted to try to make a choice between allyship with whiteness or allyship with women and other women of color. I think that for healing to happen, women are needing to see ourselves as collaborative in working together — not choosing patriarchy over our sense of agency — to be healers, and mothers and women who protect and birth new healing ways forward in our country and in our world. So I guess I’m saying to women, let’s look at this narrative of this brave young woman who is a model for us to know that if we dare be courageous enough, we could chart a new way forward. Because I think that there’s a collaborative energy that women might bring that is not as competitive and it might actually lead us towards wholeness. And that’s my prayer for this movement.

I see in your story of becoming brave to speak up about racial justice a call for readers and the church to speak up and follow in your footsteps. Can you speak on the importance of mentorship, discipleship, and interpersonal spiritual formation when it comes to this topic?

I’m happy that you’re asking because I do think it is an issue of discipleship. And I do think that we have to ask ourselves, all of us, ‘Who are we following? Who are we following in this quest toward the kingdom? What do we think the kingdom looks like?’ Because we can throw around words like “discipleship,” but if it’s that it means to follow, to be a person who follows Jesus and moves towards where Jesus is going, we have to ask ourselves, ‘What does Jesus do? And where is Jesus going?’ The Kingdom of God, in my opinion, is very clearly stated in Revelation. It is a place where people from every tribe and every nation, where men and women gather in front of the throne of the Lamb of God, equally thankful for the grace of God that has made us one.

And so, with that in mind, I really do believe that mentorship needs to happen, both in individual and corporate ways by people who we would like to see what they embody somehow transferred to us. I can say and I can’t speak for you, Timothy, but I found myself just figuring it out as I went along. It was not something that I had a lot of guidance about. I had to try to figure it out by trial and error.

So that’s not to say that everybody gets a personal mentor who meets them for coffee every week. Jesus said that discipleship is “Follow me.” Just go wherever I go, do whatever I’m doing. Show up. It’s going to mean that things that you might have wanted to do or prioritize, you might not be able to do. So, when the rich young ruler said, ‘Hey, I really love what you’re about, Jesus. I want to follow you.’ Jesus says, ‘Well, sell everything you’ve got and follow me.’ And the rich young ruler went, ‘Uh, well, maybe not.’

So I think it’s not this cushy kind of thing that we’ve made mentorship or discipleship be where I get this person that I look up to and he or she spends all their time helping me grow up. No, I think it’s an Elijah and Elisha kind of a model, where you from afar or near see someone whose anointing is that what you feel like represents the Kingdom of God. And you take the effort to do everything you can do to be influenced by that person through the books they write, through the podcasts they host, through going to their conference, or going to their Facebook and Twitter and Instagram pages, and soak up as much as you can. And when they say, ‘Hey, I can’t really spend time with you one on one. But I’ve got a mentoring or coaching network’ or something like that, you get in it, and you spend the money that it takes for you to invest in your own growth around reconciliation, spiritual maturity, and your own hunger to be more reflective of the Kingdom of God.

So I would say put in the work, do the work, because unfortunately, in my opinion, sometimes this word “mentorship” almost reduces itself to people wanting the people they admire to become their new best friend. And that’s not possible.

Can you provide some concrete steps or advice of how someone can mobilize his or her church to speak up about racial justice and other justice matters? In the worst case scenario, if someone’s church refuses to make steps toward justice, is this the right time to find a new church?

I’m going to start with the second one and then go on to the larger question about mobilizing the church. So, if someone’s church refuses to make steps toward justice, is this the right time to find a new church? Maybe. And I say that because it comes down to what we are able to influence.

Stephen Covey wrote a really helpful book many, many years ago on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. One of the things that was most impactful to me in that book was the clarity between one’s circle of influence and one’s circle of concern. He suggested all of us have a circle of concern — things that really bug us, concern us, keep us up, we pray about it, we’re concerned or worried about it. That circle generally is large. And we can name all kinds of things that we could write in this larger circle of concern. But he made it very clear that we don’t have influence over everything that we’re concerned about. Many people who seek to be effective in their local church or on their jobs or in their community, he said it’s because they spend too much time focused on their circle of concern and not enough time identifying what is actually in their circle of influence. What is something they could actually change, help to impact, that they know someone that knows someone that knows someone that could actually leverage something that could make a difference?

Back to the narrative [of Esther], I love the fact that though she is a person who was marginalized, she finds herself in this place of privilege. She recognizes that she has influence, not necessarily guaranteed, but she realizes she has enough proximity to power that she could say something, but she has no guarantee if it’ll work or not. But that’s what it feels like when you’re in a situation where you’re not sure if it’ll change, but you do recognize that you have some ability to influence it.

If a person is in a church in the sense that they have some impact to influence something, then maybe they should stay and try to do that influential thing. However, if this church is very, very clearly not about that, then I would say it may actually be time to find a place where one could then be discipled to become the kingdom representative that they seek to be. That would be my answer to that because it really does matter where we find ourselves in community. And if we’re always pushing uphill, if we’re always antagonistic, I’m not sure that’s a good use of our time and energy or influence.

Now about this notion of the church mobilizing a pastor or a senior leader, mobilizing your church to speak up about racial justice, and other justice matters, I want to say a couple things there. I’m going to make a shameless plug and I apologize in advance, but I was asked several years ago after a book I wrote called Roadmap to Reconciliation came out by a dear friend and colleague in New York City. I was at a conference there and he said, ‘Dr. Brenda, do you have anything that helps churches kind of operationalize the principles that you write about in this book?’ And I said, ‘Nope, I don’t.’ And he said, ‘Hey, if you had something like that, I’ve had about 100 churches that would be interested in something like that.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, right.’

Make a long story short, several other people asked me about something that would help churches actually figure out ‘how do I implement this?’ And so, I took two years with a team of pastors from the United States and two in Canada to beta test a process that I now call an implementation guide for the Roadmap to Reconciliation. So, if there is a church that is saying, ‘What do we do next?’ I could at least advise that one thing that I know of that is a possibility for how the church could mobilize moving forward. But I will give this because I’m not trying to sell anything, but if somebody’s interested, that’s how you would find it. You would just look for Roadmap to Reconciliation’s implementation strategy, and it’s online.

'Because if the senior leader does not believe that this (racial reconciliation) is a core, complete, total important value, it will never become a part of the life of the church.' Click to Tweet

But here’s what I would say, as a close. The two things I’ve come to find that have to happen is, one, the senior pastor has to be completely and totally committed to this value. They can’t be sort of kind of getting it. They can’t be wavering. It cannot be reactive to something that just happened in a crisis and now they feel like we should say something. No, the pastor, the senior pastor, the head leader has got to believe that this is a biblical value that the church must embrace. Because if the senior leader does not believe that this is a core, complete, total important value, it will never become a part of the life of the church.

Then secondly, that core leader has got to have a guiding coalition, a leadership team who is authorized to lead this initiative throughout the entire congregation. And that team, that guiding coalition, needs to be people who represent various stakeholders in the congregation — young and old, different racial and ethnic groups — so that people see someone who represents their interest and their concerns on that team. And that team has to be publicly authorized by the pastor to say, these are the people who are going to be helping us through a long, ongoing process with benchmarks to help us to figure out how we’re going to be a church that embraces and embodies this value of reconciliation for the kingdom of God. And he preaches or she preaches about that, and that team gives updates about that, and slowly but surely — I do have a word of hope — I have seen congregations literally become reconciling churches, because they’ve taken it that seriously. Amen!

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Written by Timothy I. Cho

Timothy Isaiah Cho is Associate Editor at Faithfully Magazine. Timothy’s bylines have appeared in Religion News Service and Reformed Margins, and he has been interviewed for several podcasts including Truth’s Table and Gravity Leadership Podcast. He also runs a personal blog on Medium. He received a Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary California and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from U.C. Berkeley. Email: timothy.cho (at) faithfullymagazine.com

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