Editor’s note: Read part one of this interview – Interview: Christina Edmondson On Reformed Christianity, Race, And ‘Truth’s Table’
Christina Edmondson is the dean for Intercultural Student Development at Calvin College. Edmondson holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Tennessee State University, an MS degree from the University of Rochester in Family Therapy, and a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Hampton University. In addition, she brings her training as a Certified Cultural Intelligence facilitator, public speaker, and mental health therapist to the popular “Truth’s Table” podcast. Edmondson is a member of New City Fellowship, a congregation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church where her husband serves as senior pastor.
This is part two of Faithfully Magazine’s interview with Dr. Edmondson, conducted by phone. It has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
You are currently the Dean for Intercultural Student Development at Calvin College. What are some of the initiatives or projects that you’re heading up?
A fair amount of my job is administrative, so I oversee several programs and offices that have an interest in the entire student population, but there are programs and offices with some very clear specificity. For example, the International Student Development Office is within my portfolio—I oversee the Assistant Dean there. The Multicultural Student Development office, which typically is working with American ethnic or racial minorities—I oversee the Assistant Dean for that program. [I oversee] the program coordinator who runs the Perkins Leadership Fellows program, which is a program named after John M. Perkins that recruits students around the idea of servant leadership and promoting justice and mercy and equity and a real ethnic reconciliation in whatever profession you might end up in.
So, we are having this conversation with students who are going to be engineers and students who are going to serve the local church. I’m very excited about that, and that program intentionally targets first generation college students within the cohorts that we form. I also oversee the mentoring office, which does its best to connect students with mentors from the church, from the business world, and retirees so we can have generational differences—people that will help these students to grow and mature and to really walk with them and serve them while they’re students here at the college.
[bs-quote quote=”We all have a story. We’re tied to something. I think it’s really important right now because there’s a sense that we’re disconnected from history and people and time, and that’s just not true.” style=”style-13″ align=”center” color=”#dd3333″ author_name=”Christina Edmondson” author_avatar=”https://faithfullymagazine.com/staging/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Dr-Christina-Edmondson-Faithfully-Magazine.jpg”][/bs-quote]
I’m working with students, but really much of my time is with faculty and staff, particularly staff that I supervise making sure they have what they need to flourish in their work. … I mean, one of my primary goals is to make sure that students—but in our case, overwhelmingly Christian students—have an understanding and appreciation for culture and cultural differences. And by “appreciation,” that’s not a moral statement. People get really tripped up right about now and this is a hot-button, anti-multiculturalism movement that’s going on in the country. “Appreciation” is not a moral statement. “Appreciation” is a statement which speaks to the fact that you can sit with something long enough so that you can be wise about discerning it before you just label it scary and different than you. That’s really what I want students to be able to do is to grow in appreciation. Before they even get to that point, before they lean into our temptation to be voyeuristic when we look at other people’s cultures, I want them to know that they are not a-cultural, that they have a culture. They have an identity. They didn’t just step out on the planet in a vacuum and a bubble.
We all have a story. We’re tied to something. I think it’s really important right now because there’s a sense that we’re disconnected from history and people and time, and that’s just not true. If there’s any group of people that should know that and understand it, it should be Christians, because we are the people who are always grappling with the consequences of our forefathers, of Adam and Eve, right? We needed redemption from something that we could say was a vacuum philosophy. “What do we have to do with that?” Oh, we had everything to do with that. So we are deeply interconnected and tied to culture and to history. I want Christian students to know that, to understand it, and to instead of being known by the reputation as the people who come to the table kind of in a judgmental way, to be the people that come to the table ready to listen because you can’t love a neighbor that you can’t listen to. That’s some of the skills, some of the philosophy, some of the outlook that we’re really trying to promote and get our students to understand.
I know that one episode early on of “Truth’s Table,” titled “Gender Apartheid,” swirled around several Christian circles as controversial.
Well, gender is… it’s interesting. When we talk about white supremacy, there are people who get fired up and you get labels like, “You are secret Marxists because I think racism is a sin?” No, no. You haven’t studied Karl Marx, so you don’t know his positions on race. It’s almost laughable, but it’s a part of what gets thrown at you really quickly. But gender is such an explosive thing, I think, because we’re talking about what happens in people’s homes. Even though we ultimately are talking as Black women with a show for Black women, I think that some of my White Reformed brothers who have lots of issues—I’m not saying that’s the only group that had it, but that’s for what I could tell was the most reactive group—I think it was saying something about the structures in which they obtain power, and in one that’s actually in their family system. It’s not just like societally when we talk about race but it’s also like at home, like, “What are you telling me about who my wife is? Of course submission looks like this.” I would say that submission doesn’t exist without agency. That would be subjugation. So, when I look back on that, I realized why that was so provocative because it also crossed over into Pass the Mic’s listenership, which is a little bit different from Truth’s Table. I don’t think that everyone on Pass the Mic’s listenership at that point were used to hearing our three voices and what they sound like and the fact that they’re like, “Well, this is what I think about it.” I just think it freaked people out for sure, which was evident by their response.
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) as a whole is still very homogeneous and White, and I’m sure you’re familiar with articles that have been published recently about Black brothers and sisters who have been going on a “quiet exodus” from predominantly White Christian spaces. I’d love to hear about your own experience in the OPC, or Reformed circles as a whole, and why you and your family remain in it. Do you hope to bring change within the denomination?
Those are great questions. I think especially for American minorities, their introduction to Reformed theology or Calvinism very consciously comes from White brothers typically. “I started listening to R.C. Sproul one day on the radio or John Piper and I like the power of his preaching” or something like that, and it can pull them in that way. But, when I think about my Reformed influences I think of Elder D.J. Ward, who was a Black man in Kentucky. I say this to say that I have a slightly different entrance point. I think the entrance point can be helpful, and I also don’t have an entrance point in which I think that “Whiter” churches are simply more orthodox because of an internalized racism. I’m not saying that every person of color lives in that, but that can very much happen because that’s one of the consequences of internalized racism, is that you can begin to think like, “Oh, this is the good orthodox thing because all the confessions just so happen to be European.” I don’t think that European culture is inferior or superior. I think the entrance point and doing the work of really examining internalized racism is helpful in this conversation, because there are people of color who find themselves in these spaces because they feel like they’re better. And that could be a problem.
That doesn’t mean that I have not been deeply hurt and saddened and frustrated by what I would say is the “golden calf” of the White American church, which is a high tolerance and an avoidance of church discipline around racist ideology and practices. It is disheartening. It’s disturbing. But I understand that—I’m not in denial—I know it’s there. So, I’m not surprised. I’m sad, but I’m not surprised.
Edmondson appeared on a panel discussion about the “State of Racial Tension in America” at the MLK50 Conference in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 2018. Watch an excerpt of her remarks on talking about race:
When I think about some of my Calvinistic or Reformed “heroes,” and I typically never use that word—people know me well, I hardly call anyone a “hero” except Jesus. The people who I look back on and say, “Wow, that’s an amazing part of their testimony,” they are gonna be people like Maria Stewart. That’s a Black woman. It’s gonna be people like Elder D.J. Ward whom I just mentioned. It’s going to be Ida B. Wells Barnett, who was in a Presbyterian church towards the end of her life who had a pretty strong handle on the general office of believer—prophet, priest, and king—and had this prophetic journalistic ministry. Those are the people who come to mind for me.
I’m not in denial—I know these are incredibly White spaces, and these are spaces that intentionally and unintentionally maintain their White space by decisions in which there is Christian liberty that they will not move on. I think that especially when you talk about the tradition of Christian liberty, I think, my husband will make a really great case, I think, about how that actually lends itself to an intercultural worship community. God is the God of the conscience and the Word is what guides us in our ministry and in our practices, so there’s actually lots of room to include the diverse people of God.
When traditions find themselves in spaces where they’re still homogeneous, they have to ask the question—but it takes courage and humility to say it—“Why is this the way it is? Why are there so few people of color in leadership? Why are there so few people of color that are worshipping with us?” Then in that moment they have to consciously choose not to blame the people of color and say, “Hmm, what is it about us? Our practices, our way that perpetuates the system. Do we like it like this? Hmm. Are we willing to pay some cost to change it?” If your system is homogeneous, then you oftentimes don’t have the voices within it to tap you on the shoulder and say, “We should ask this question.” We are there.
Also, my husband is African American. My Orthodox Presbyterian church has people of color in leadership. It is a predominantly White church and, even more specifically, Dutch American church if we talk about ethnically because I live in Grand Rapids. In some ways, that’s actually helpful because when White people begin to identify ethnically, it’s one way of acknowledging cultural impact, which is great. I long for the day when White people are like, “Why do we call ourselves ‘White?'” I long for it. That would be really helpful.
All of this matters. It is helpful to have people that I worship with that have certainly racially identified as White, but understand their ethnic identity too, and they may even have family members, grandparents who still speak a language other than English. So, I recognize I’m in an unusual Orthodox Presbyterian church. That could be one reason why I’m there, because I’m in an usual one. I’m not sure if I would be in the average Orthodox Presbyterian church, but I would acknowledge that there are brothers and sisters in Christ that are a part of this particular denomination and the broader tradition around the country who have treated me with nothing but kindness and empathy and respect. But, at the same time, I recognize that there are people who work very hard to maintain it being what it is.
[bs-quote quote=”My confidence is not in the hope of racial reconciliation. My confidence is not in whether men actually will be able to understand that women are fully human. My confidence is actually not in that. My confidence is that the Lord makes beauty from ashes. ” style=”style-13″ align=”center” color=”#dd3333″ author_name=”Christina Edmondson” author_job=””Truths’ Table” podcast co-host” author_avatar=”https://faithfullymagazine.com/staging/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Dr-Christina-Edmondson-Faithfully-Magazine.jpg”][/bs-quote]
In many ways, I think that you, Michelle, and Ekemini have been an inspiration to many people of color in Christian communities, but I think that the three of you have really struck a chord with Black sisters in Christ, and I believe that many do look up to you. What words can you say to encourage your Black sisters in Christ who are going through tough situations being Black and female in White Christian spaces?
I was just talking to a dear sister the other day who’s going through some tremendous difficulties. I was talking to her about the importance of having our eyes on the prize. We’re the children of the promise. We are people who cling to an eschatological reality that informs our here and now and that my Black sisters in Christ—and this is not an attempt to make Black women like magical because we’re normal people—we’re able to draw from an incredible stock of faithful foremothers that we can see God’s work in their life to sustain them and to enable them. I think about Harriet Tubman. She has got to be one of my favorite people from American history and from the history of the American church. And we don’t look at her that way. We don’t look at her as the best—as one of the best in the American church. But she is. I would say that we can think about the way in which God sees every tear and He makes every bit of suffering work for our good and that He allows us to be engaged. He allows for us to even experience incredibly difficult things that certainly do not feel fair and yet can work through those things. I think my confidence is in God’s ability to work through things. My confidence is not in the hope of racial reconciliation. My confidence is not in whether men actually will be able to understand that women are fully human. My confidence is actually not in that. My confidence is that the Lord makes beauty from ashes. That we’ve already been told the end of the story. The end of the story helps us to move through the here and now.
I would also encourage them to not lose their voice. I think—and this is not all Black women—but it’s not uncommon for many Black women to feel like they’re “too much.” They’ve been told they’re “too much.” Too many feelings, too many words, too much emotion. And if you were just less of who you are, you might be married by now or you would be considered the standard of femininity. This is some of the pressure that is on their shoulders, and I would say to look at our sisters in Scripture as well as around the world and draw strength from that and say, “No, no. God has called us into this general office of believer and we must with grace speak that which is true.”
Black women who are in these predominantly White spaces, I think the temptation is that they’re tired. They’re weary. They feel unseen or overseen or hyperseen. There’s a temptation to either leave the space—which they have liberty to do, I want to be clear about that. They have liberty to do that. It’s not for everybody, y’all! They have liberty to do that. But, if they stay, I want them to stay in love and I want them to stay in prophetic truth to open up their mouth and to proclaim the boundless, beautiful riches that we have in Jesus Christ. I want them to resist the temptation to silence themselves about the goodness of the Lord. Because I think that’s when we really start to die. The Holy Spirit is at work in all of the church, and I want our sisters to really embrace that and to embrace that throughout all of society.