The Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) was founded by John and Vera Mae Perkins in 1989 and is, “a network of Christians committed to seeing people and communities wholistically restored. […] To this end, we follow Jesus’s example of reconciliation. We go where the brokenness is. […] And, in the words of the Prophet Jeremiah, “we work and pray for the well-being of our city [or neighborhood],” trusting that if the entire community does well and prospers, then we will prosper also.”
The following piece was featured in the 2015 edition of the CCDA’s Theological Journal. I finally received my copy of the journal and am deeply grateful to Chanequa Walker-Barnes for extending an opportunity for me to offer my words to the section entitled, “What Are All Those Women of Color Doing In That Room?: Reflections From the Rainbow.”
Brown Girl Worshipping
“Absolute hospitality would in no way amount to the absence of violence. To the contrary, it would enthrone violence precisely under the guise of nonviolence because it would leave the violators unchanged and the consequences of violence unremedied.” – Miroslav Volf
It’s exhausting to be the brown girl at church.
The evangelical church. The progressive church. The non-denominational church. Seemingly, any church.
I’ve spent 13 years volleying between these church traditions, bobbing and weaving but never quite being able to avoid the race-based offenses.
Each of us carries our own stories of what Protestant theologian Miroslav Volf would call “exclusion and embrace.” This includes white people and people of color alike. The commonality ends there. Our world is run by systems that sanction racism and those systems favor white people over people of color. Rather than being a prophetic voice for the redemption or dismantling of such systems, the Church is often guilty of participating in them. There are the overt acts- genocide, displacement and colonization of the “other” in Christ’s name. More common, and more insidious, are the unintentional microaggressions- the brief verbal and behavioral indignities to which marginalized people are regularly subjected. Intentional or not, they communicate the internalized biases of those in power, and Christians, including advocates for social justice, are often the perpetrators.
Since becoming a Christian, I have lived in five cities, in three different states, and worked for six Christian ministries and social justice organizations. With each has come the familiar coded language and well-meaning ignorance.
My current church is a non-denominational community that prides itself on being a multi-racial and multi-cultural space dedicated to racial reconciliation but not necessarily to racial justice. Like many well-meaning Christian entities, we often make the misstep of focusing on the cosmetic rather than the painful but necessary internal reconstruction.
My name is unique to white ears and awkward on white tongues. I get that. I know it takes a few tries before you’re going to get the pronunciation right. I know you’ll want to know the origins. But there are ways that you ask and there are ways that you don’t. When I began attending my church, the following was one of my first interactions with two White women.
Woman #1: What’s your name? Me: AnaYelsi
Woman #2: So what is that? Where are you from? Me: It’s Venezuelan Both: OMG!! Do you know [names another Venezuelan]?! She goes to our church too! Me: No Woman #1: Are you sure? She’s Venezuelan too! Me: [blank stare] Both: [speaking over one another as they attempt to share a wealth of unsolicited information about my fellow Venezuelan]
There’s no malice here. They want to connect. I’m the “other” and they want to find a way to build a bridge between us. Assuming I know every Venezuelan within a five-mile radius is probably not the ideal way to go about that. Perhaps a simple, “That’s beautiful. Were you named after someone?” This gives me the opportunity to decide if and when I want to share my story.
We rarely discuss racism in the church. It’s the sin we’re too afraid to name and are ill-equipped to face. We even go so far as to lie, seeing an environment fraught with uncontested acts of racism and naming it “peaceful.” When the acts are identified for what they are, we call those brave (often lone) voices “divisive.” We value a comfortable Sunday morning over a just one. But whose comfort are we ensuring?
I certainly wasn’t comfortable when a white Christian heard me casually slip into another vernacular while speaking on the phone to a fellow person of color and proceeded to ask me why I was “talking Black.”
I was far from comfortable when another white Christian who worked for the sheriff’s office sat in my own living room and defended racial profiling by telling me, “You have to admit, AnaYelsi, it’s people who look like you that commit most crimes anyway.”
The last thing I felt was comfortable when a White Christian and I were serving together overseas and, upon seeing my natural hair, he exclaimed, “Whoa! You look so primitive. Like one of these natives.” His observation was met with hearty laughter from our entire team.
Comfortable isn’t how I would describe the hurt of a White Christian love interest telling me, “I’ve thought about it [dating me] but I just don’t see myself with an ‘Hispanic.’” (He clarified that White-passing people were okay.)
I’m never comfortable when you ask my name and I have to deny my heritage by saying “Ana” instead of “AnaYelsi” because I’m tired of the conversation that will inevitably follow.
I’m not even comfortable as I write this. I’m worried I’ve said “white” too many times and white readers will feel attacked.
When do we [people of color] get a turn at being “comfortable?”
“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, . . . His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Eph. 2:14-16, NIV).
We need to begin having conversations in the Church that will show we value the dignity of all over the comfort of the few. Our justice-seekers and peacemakers must recognize that silence in the face of racial injustice means culpability. We must ensure that the consequences of violence are not ignored. This means challenging one another when we commit the “small” transgressions and it means being willing to be challenged. Those “small” acts don’t feel so small to the person subjected to them. Not when they are one in a sea of many. I know I’m welcome in my church and in my organization. I’m even warmly embraced, but every one of the above stories is still an act of violence. They are wounds I carry with me. The Church can and should be an instrument of reconciliation, but we risk hypocrisy if we preach that to the world and do not practice it within our walls.
The Church and Christian movements for justice cannot allow the burden to be on people of color. We’re not here to be teachers or guides. We’re not responsible for another’s awakening to the need for racial equity. A true commitment to racial justice is taking ownership of one’s own education. It’s reading the right books, finding answers to questions, and living in a posture of humility and learning. First and foremost, it is entering into a season of repentance and lament. I’m much more inclined to come alongside you in these efforts than I am to do the work of dragging you, unwillingly, behind me.