White Evangelicals’ Candid Talk About Race: 6 Takeaways
by Megan Lietz
[Last month I posted A Word to White Evangelicals: Now Is The Time To Engage Issues of Race, a call to action for beginning a journey toward respectful and responsible engagement with issues of race. As an action step, I invited white evangelicals to join me for small group conversation on race. The gathering took place April 1, 2017 at EGC. Here’s what we learned together from the experience.]
With little more than a few key questions and a spark of hope, I wasn’t sure how this first conversation would go. Under a surprise April snowstorm, I wasn’t even sure who would show up. But I sensed that God was in this. Having done my part, I was trusting God to do his.
One by one, eight white evangelical Christians filtered in. Men and women of different ages, life experiences, and church backgrounds came to the table with varied levels of awareness about race-related concerns. Against cultural headwinds of complacency and fear, these six were ready for an open conversation about race.
Stepping Into the River
To frame our time together, I invited each person in the group to use the image of a river to depict their journey toward racial reconciliation. It was my hope that by recalling our experiences together, we could help one another imagine pathways ahead and find the support to move forward.
As people shared parts of their journey, we heard six unique stories. One man’s engagement with race issues began in the 1960s through his observation of racial discrimination at his university and his subsequent positive reaction toward the leadership of the Black Power movement. This got him thinking and eventually led him to visit a black church. One woman began to seriously think about race only weeks before our gathering because of an eye-opening grad school course.
We then used our river-journeys to reflect together on three simple questions: With regard to our engagement in issues of race...
Where are we?
Where do we want to be?
What can we do to move forward?
As group members began to share their experiences wrestling with issues of race and culture, they did so with relief at the opportunity to speak openly. With a life-giving mix of humility and excitement, the group gave voice to the following shared insights.
1. We Remember A Time Before We Were Aware
Each white evangelical in the room remembered a time in their life before they were aware of the magnitude and significance of racial disparities today. As one participant put it, “I didn’t realize there was an issue. It is hard to know there are racial problems when living in racially homogeneous communities.”
Confronting basic, hard realities shifted their perspective, evidenced by comments such as these from various participants:
People of color are not treated the same as white people.
Ethnic injustice was an issue even in biblical times.
People make assumptions about people’s experiences and needs based on the color of their skin.
When people just go with the flow, they are unconsciously agreeing with what is going on.
2. We Have Personal Work To Do
The group broadly agreed on the need for white people to engage in personal learning and engage issues of race more effectively. One participant shared, “There are racist systems (that need to be addressed), but I also need to do a lot of [self-]work.”
Another, who became aware of the profound impact race has on people’s lives more recently, added, “Lack of knowledge keeps me from entering the conversation. I’m still learning, so I’m insecure.” A third participant asserted that white people need to do their learning and self-work both before and during their engagement across racial lines.
3. Story Sharing is Key
Many insights affirmed the power of story sharing to bring awareness and practical guidance. It is a helpful step for us to reflect on our own stories and be willing to be honest and vulnerable. It is essential to become good listeners, giving careful attention to the stories of our brothers and sisters of color. Some of our comments were:
White evangelicals have many things to learn from communities who look different from them.
We should share our own stories about our journey toward racial justice with our fellow white evangelicals.
We should take the posture not of “rescuers,” but of mutual learners.
Sharing our own story can impact others.
Engaging with white people and people of color who are both ahead of and behind us in the journey can be useful in understanding the self-work we need to do.
4. We Need More Skills to Do Hard Conversations Well
The group identified an obstacle in their work around race: limited skill for hard conversations. They attributed the problem to a lack of good models, especially within the white evangelical community, for listening, dialogue, and engaging conflict.
One participant said that white evangelicals are not good at engaging conflict. He went on to explain that, in his experience, people often announce their opinions in ways that shut down conversations rather than invite genuine dialogue. “When people are not listening and are argumentative, it’s difficult to have the conversations that propel people forward in their journey [toward racial reconciliation].”
5. We Need Brave Spaces
When discussing what these leaders would look for in a healthy conversation, they used words like “open,” “humble,” “honest” and “authentic.”
One participant observed, “Lack of [such spaces] keeps us locked in coasting mode or in the status quo.” Brave spaces to engage in uncomfortable conversation are needed for growth.
6. Growth Requires Ongoing Community
These white evangelicals were seeking brave spaces not just for conversation, but to walk with one another in community. One participant declared his need for a “community of inquirers… that address the current social tensions.”
Another added that single events, while helpful in sparking interest and fostering growth, are less effective in supporting lasting transformation. “We need continuity…There needs to be a group who is doing this work over a length of time.”
With a shared longing to experience new ways of listening, dialoguing, and learning in community, the group committed to experiment together as a cohort for a time. The group agreed to use two upcoming meetings to discuss Debby Irving’s book Waking Up White. We will also attend a lecture with the author.
Through this pilot cohort in EGC’s new Race & Christian Community initiative, we aim to:
Create a space where the group can try, fail, learn, and grow.
Practice dialogue that nurtures respectful and responsible engagement around issues of race.
Are you a white evangelical Christian interested in a similar, future cohort?
Do you have advice or resources that could help our cohort function more effectively?
Do you want to speak into the development of the Race & Christian Community initiative at EGC?
Please connect with us! We invite the insights of the community and are excited to see where the Lord may lead.
Megan Lietz, M.Div., STM, helps white evangelicals engage respectfully and responsibly with issues of race. She is a Research Associate with EGC's Race & Christian Communities ministry.