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