Thursday, August 27, 2009

Oreos Aren’t for Everyone

The story you are about to read is true. The names have been changed to protect…me.

When I was a younger man, I worked for three years as the part-time Jr. High minister of a large church in a major city of the American Southeast. The church buildings were in the inner city, but the congregation outgrew that property and began to hold its Sunday services across town at a school that accommodated more people. The church was predominantly white; if memory serves, I was the only black person in any kind of leadership. But they were vocal about their desire for racial integration and what they called in those days “racial reconciliation.”

I had been in my position for about eighteen months when the senior pastor suddenly (and I mean suddenly) hired a youth pastor to be my supervisor. Stan Olivier was a tall white man with short cropped curly, almost kinky hair. He and I met weekly on Wednesday afternoons. From my perspective, he seemed to have no sense of what teenagers were like, but he had a clear idea of what he thought Christian teenagers should be like. As we met weekly, we were learning to tolerate one another.

Stan had been on staff a few months when we were both called into an all-staff meeting, which followed one of our Wednesday meetings. The elders of the church were committed to serving their community, so they found a way to return home and build a larger facility. Staff members were brought together to discuss temporary use of facilities. Toward the end of the meeting, Ruby Smith, the white woman who directed the extensive ministry to the poorer, predominantly black residents of the community, made a comment. “You know when we get the building built, there will be a lot of people from the neighborhood joining us. We need to educate our teachers for a few weeks to prepare them for it.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but they will need more than a few weeks. We will have to continually educate because we’re gonna have a clash of cultures. We’ll have to learn from each other.” To which Stan responded, “I’m ready; I have the hair for it already!”—trying to be funny. I don’t remember if anyone laughed. I said nothing.

That night at youth group Stan began to impress upon the youth the importance of evangelism, bringing their non-Christian friends to church. In the midst of the predominantly white suburban group were three black inner city kids Oscar, Tykesha, and Maria —kids from the neighborhood who were part of the youth group since before I started eighteen months prior. Stan went on to say “It’s great that the Jr. High kids have brought these three kids from the inner city here. Now high school people, you need to start bringing your non-Christian friends too.

There were SO MANY things wrong with that verbal display. But let’s begin with only three. Stan assumed
1) that Oscar, Tykesha, and Maria were brought to the church by white kids (which means they are not “our” kids),

2) that they were not Christians, and

3) that they would not mind hearing themselves referred to as these second-class citizens.

He made several other unwise comments about younger adolescents in general, but those comments don’t fit this discussion.

By the end of the meeting, I was furious, too angry to think of anything constructive to say. I spent the week talking through things with friends and decided to wait until our next one-on-one meeting to address the issues with Stan. And so I began:

“Stan, last week you said a few things that bothered me. I know that they offended some other people and I just want to point them out to you to warn you of the possibility of offending more people with similar comments.” I started with the comment about his hair. I said. “Not only did you totally invalidate what Ruby and I were saying, and not only did you apparently miss the point, but it made me wonder what kind of experience you have had with black people.”

He responded boldly, “Extensive, I’ve had extensive experience with black people! I’ve told that joke about my hair many times to black people and they think it’s funny. You are an overly sensitive person, and that is sin. That comment doesn’t offend most black people. But you are not the typical black person. You are what they call an Oreo, black on the outside white on the inside. I know how to deal with black people. I don’t know how to deal with you.”

There was no way to respond. I took a deep breath and said, “Stan, there’s another reason I wonder about your relationships with black people.” I referred him to his comment in front of the youth about Oscar, Tykesha, and Maria. His response “You are reading something in that I didn’t intend. You’re being over sensitive again.”

I said, “What bothers me is that you assumed these kids are not Christians when they are.” Wrong thing to say.

“Oh they are Christians, huh?” he said. “Have they been baptized?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re their youth minister, and you don’t know if they’ve been baptized?! Don’t you think baptism is essential to salvation?”

“I guess not. I think it’s important. I think Christians should be baptized, but I guess I don’t think it’s essential.”

And so began the examination of my beliefs. “I’m concerned,” he said. “Do you believe that the Bible is the inspired, infallible word of God? What about abortion? What about homosexuality?”

At the end of it all, Stan said, “You and I are very different. We have some different beliefs, but we also have different approaches to ministry. I am bold and say what I think. You are sensitive and deliberate. Of all the people on staff it is people like you that I have the hardest time dealing with.”

Okay, people, where to begin? Let’s start with this. One barrier to race relationships in the church is the racial assumptions we hang onto. The beauty of Stan is that in his boldness he says out loud what some others only think and others still can’t even bring to their own consciousness. I don’t mean to assume that racial assumptions only go in one direction. They go in all manner of directions. This is why talking openly with good will can help us all. And for the mission of the Christian church it’s the sacrifice we must make to be truer to the Good News of Jesus.

So I addressed three specific assumptions above. Are you aware of others that become barriers to our bridging races and classes? How do we move forward?

No comments: