A Reflection on Ethnic Division and Reconciliation Within the Church
I’ve witnessed racism. I’m sure of it. I’ve had in-laws drop racist jokes in my lap and been faced with the awkward scenario of whether or not to laugh. Yet if I’m honest I have to admit that I probably don’t recognize the racism I witness on a regular basis. My pastor calls this “passive racism.” I’m sure I witness it. I’m sure I’m guilty of it. And I hate it.
Racism is division. Whenever there is a racist thought or action (whether explicit or implicit) there is an implied “us” and “them.” This assumes a distance between the two. Division. When I read God’s word, it is full of division. But this was not part of God’s plan in the Genesis story. And this is not a part of God’s plan in the redemption story. We live between two bookends of perfection, and unfortunately division is part of the church. Sunday mornings truly are still one of the most segregated hours of our week. I witness it. I’m guilty of it. And I hate it.
I was raised in the university town of Davis, California. The university drove the culture of the town, and it was therefore very ethnically diverse as it drew professors and students from around the world. I experienced a wide range of diversity in the classroom all the way through school. Many years Caucasians made up less than half of my classes. Living in the midst of ethnic diversity was normative for me.
One of my first best friends in elementary school was Reza. He is from Iran. My best friend in middle school was Albert. He is from Korea. My best friend in high school was James. He is Chinese, and now lives in Taiwan. Thanks to facebook, I am still connected with Albert and James.
I began my college education in Humboldt County at College of the Redwoods. I played basketball from junior high school through community college. Many of my best friends were African American. I still have a deep connection to hip hop culture that was planted in me during these years. I finished up my undergraduate education in San Diego at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. My first roommate was Armando, a huge Mexican guy with a mean, imposing presence and a heart of gold. I learned much of Hispanic culture from him, and from the overall culture of Southern California.
After college, I got married and moved to the Bay Area. More specifically we moved to the west valley of the South Bay, which has a huge Asian population. I coached high school basketball for two years at a high school where over 50% of the students were Chinese. I was a youth pastor at the time, and our church hired a Chinese pastor with the intention of integrating our cultures. We viewed it as two congregations within the same church. There were English services, Chinese services, and joint. It was not perfect, but it was a good experience and I witnessed an authentic attempt to bridge an ethnic divide.
Meanwhile, back home in Davis, my parents’ church had closed its doors after a long run. My parents and a couple other Caucasian families chose to plug into the Chinese church in town. My dad had developed a good relationship with the pastor there, and they were struggling because they had a huge heart for evangelism and had only Chinese people coming. This caused problems. For example, their Chinese college students had a very difficult time inviting friends of other ethnicities to events or services. My dad eventually became an elder there, and helped lead various ministries. It was a beautiful picture to me. Rather than choosing affinity, my parents chose openness to how God wanted to use them.
All of that brings me to my move to Portland. This move was the biggest culture shock of my life. I remember reeling for several months, along with my wife, about how “white” Portland seemed. Was this the case? Or was it just more segregated than anywhere we had ever lived? Either way, we were uncomfortable. My wife had just finished directing a preschool in the Bay Area with at least a dozen ethnicities represented. She accepted a job in Portland and the entire class was Caucasian. I remember many talks with her as she grieved the loss of different ethnicities, and the education that multiple cultures brought to the classroom. I have to reflect long and hard and ask if I’ve been blinded to the ethnic division in Portland over the past 8 years. I’m not shocked by it anymore. I don’t find myself even noticing it much. I don’t find myself being proactive about this issue in my culture, or in my church. This has begun to mess with me.
God’s desire for the church is that there would be no division. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he prayed “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Jesus is praying for the Kingdom of God to break in. Why would he pray this unless it was possible? Why would he pray this unless it was the expectation? Part of God’s revelation to John is that every nation, tribe, and language would praise God together (Revelation 7:9). This is the final bookend. This is the Kingdom of God that Jesus prays will be ushered in on earth. Why would we not pursue this?
Heavenly Father, I confess that I have not pursued your Kingdom in its fullness in many arenas of life. Specifically, I confess that the issue of division within the church has gone largely unnoticed by me for too long. Please forgive me. I choose to repent, and make this a priority in my life. I surrender to you my time and my influence. Take all of who I am, and use them for your glory.
Heavenly Father, I don’t have the answers for such a systemic, overwhelming problem. But I believe you do. And I believe that you choose to use your people as a part of your mysterious Kingdom in-breaking. Thank you for bringing people to Imago Dei Community who care about this issue. Help me to learn from them. Thank you for burning upon their hearts to create a ministry, “Reconcile,” to address this problem. Help me to be a support to them. And thank you for your continual transformational work among all your people at Imago Dei. Help us all to desire that your kingdom come, and your will be done. Help that desire lead to decisive action so that there would be no racism among us, and therefore no division marring your bride. We need you. I need you.
Pastor of Community
Imago Dei Community, Portland, Oregon