I had breakfast the other day in Chicago with a young white pastor. He had recently planted a church in an African American community in Chicago’s inner city. I was so refreshed by his sharing of personal pain, weakness and his sense of isolation in ministry—not because I want him to suffer—but because he is leaning into Christ in a profound way. God is driving him to depend on the Spirit of Jesus in a personally vulnerable ministry setting. Although he is a very secure Christian, he is in a ministry context that is beyond his comfort zone where he can minister from strength. I am confident that God will use him mightily, for God’s grace is always made manifest through our weakness and dependence on Christ (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). This is true in any ministry context, but it is all the more true in a multi-ethnic and diverse economic setting where we so often treat those different from us as “the other(s)” who need our help with no sense of our needing theirs. I would go so far as to say that one cannot minister effectively in a multi-ethnic and economically challenged context apart from a deepening sense of personal weakness and need. In what follows, I will seek to unpack this point.
One of the main reasons I believe we find it difficult to move beyond prejudice and objectification toward reconciliation with “the other” is our fear of vulnerability. The fear of losing control and of being vulnerable leads us to conceive of people who look different from us as always “them.” White Christian leaders like me often like to minister from a position of strength. No doubt, those of other complexions do as well. Flesh (as in carnality)—no matter the color of one’s skin—enjoys boasting in oneself. But what usually differentiates us is that many of us white Christian leaders have a long history of ministering from a position of supposed strength, especially when engaging those of diverse ethnicities. We often have no idea of how much power and privilege we have until they are challenged or taken away from us. Ministry undertaken from seeming strength fails to perceive one’s relational need. As a result, we fail to sense our need to lean into God, and so we minister from the flesh. The only ones we can connect with in such settings are those belonging to our homogeneous demographic groupings of whatever kind—those we naturally like and those like us.
In contrast, Jesus brought people together who previously were opposed to one another through his weakness on the cross. As a result of his crucifixion and resurrection and our participation in him, there is no longer any division between male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free (Galatians 3:28). Jesus’ greatest hour of power—the hour of glory of cross and resurrection recorded in John’s Gospel—was when he was most dependent, hanging on a cross and depending on the Father to raise him from the dead. Following from this, when Paul was weak in Christ, God’s power was manifest most profoundly through him (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Paul’s very conversion experience and early Christian life involved incredible dependence on others: Saul was led as a blind man to Ananias who laid his hands on him so that his sight could be restored; and he was given the right hand of fellowship by the Christian community through Barnabas (Acts 9:8, 17-18, 26-28). Saul experienced great suffering in ministry—beginning with dependence on others, especially dependence on the Christian community, whom he had once persecuted. How humbling that must have been for Saul who became Paul!
Without experiencing vulnerability in ministry whereby we sense our need for those who are different from us (those we would often think are in need of our help without a sense of our being in need of theirs), we will never experience the breaking down of divisions between those of diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds. Instead, we will reinforce barriers by ministering out of privilege. In fact, it is not enough to minister to others whereby we use our power for their good. We must sense our need for them and receive from them as well. Only when there is give and take, where people are interdependent, is there intimacy in relations and reconciliation. Paul could never have been the Apostle to the Gentiles had he not become so dependent on Jesus and the church whom he once had persecuted. He was enslaved to Jesus’ vulnerable love that breaks down divisions between people.
White Christian leaders like me often treat African Americans, legal and illegal immigrants from Mexico, Arabs, Jews, Muslims, and the homeless as “them” or as “those people” who need us. When this is our posture and perspective, we violate these people. What is required is that we experience vulnerability, which would involve encountering these people face to face, eye to eye, and heart to heart. While this is a common problem for the majority culture in any given society, it should not be common among God’s shepherds of his people. It is only as we experience vulnerability and spiritual vertigo whereby we find ourselves secure in the Good Shepherd’s embrace that we will be in a position to move beyond the marginalization of others toward mutuality and partnership in ministry.
The young white pastor friend to whom I referred at the outset of this piece shared with me that his spiritual director is an African American woman. I couldn’t believe it when he told me. Not that this is scandalous, but because it would often be viewed as scandalous to many white male leaders, I believe. I was so impressed, and hope that other white male pastors—and white theologians like myself—will avail ourselves of similar opportunities. My young pastor friend informed me that he recently told his spiritual director how isolated and weak he feels in ministry. He was wondering if God was no longer working in and through him. His spiritual director responded by saying something to the effect of “Don’t pull back. You are truly experiencing the fruit of the Spirit in your ministry.” And again, “Now you know how I feel every day as an African American woman.”
Now my young pastor friend is really beginning to connect with his congregation, bearing much fruit. Instead of modeling professional distance, my friend models pastoral intimacy with his ministry team at the church. His ministry team made up of people of diverse ethnicities encourages him to keep pressing on and into Christ’s vulnerable love with them.
I hold out great hope for this young pastor in the inner city of Chicago in terms of breaking down ethnic barriers. Instead of approaching people of other ethnicities from a position of presumed strength, he is approaching them from an authentic form of weakness. He senses his relational need for them, thereby moving beyond charity toward the poor and condescension toward non-whites. He is pressing into community where the Spirit’s charitable fruit breaks down divisions. The poor is no longer them. The poor is me. The poor is each one of us. You are no longer “the other.” I am in you and you are in me.