I have the great privilege to be a part of the network of churches that make up the New Orleans Baptist Association. We are so diverse from one another and yet there is such unity within our diversity. We have different traditions, ethnicities, broad soteriologies, differing worship styles, ecclesiological models, big churches, little churches, established churches and brand new church plants. Our “big church” pastors are just as involved with our association’s work as are our “small church” pastors. All these differences and yet we love one another. We have wonderful times of fellowship with one another, preach in each other’s churches and care for one another in ways I’ve never before witnessed. There is no divisive backtalk to one another in this area. Maybe it’s because of the unique spiritual darkness we battle daily that we are so keenly aware of being on the same team that we do not spend time fighting one another but rather we pull together. So healthy is our work that we recently started a medical clinic that now has spread to multiple locations serving an otherwise underserved portion of our population. Not a week goes by that I am not thankful to be a part of this work.
I am also deeply thankful for my friend Jack Hunter (the Executive Director of our work here) and the other men (Leroy and Alex) that work in our office. These guys are heroes to me. They help to coordinate and encourage us daily and spend time doing very difficult ministry that often goes unnoticed and unappreciated. Let it be known that our NOBA pastors appreciate these guys. I am thankful for their voice and I especially appreciate their heart on this particular matter. Please don’t completely write off Louisiana Baptists. There is great, cooperative, Christ-like, humble work going on in New Orleans. Please continue to pray for us. For more information on NOBA and more great articles please visit our site at www.joinnoba.com.
Is Racism Still an Issue Among Churches? A Response to MLK50 and Fallout
Is racism still an issue among churches? If not, if racism is a past offense, then the recent MLK50 conference which our NOBA staff attended was the reopening of a sealed wound, the undoing of decades of hard-fought healing. If not, Russell Moore deserves the criticism our state executive recently leveled at him, that he is “causing controversy again—remember last year?” If racism is no longer an issue among churches, then discussing and addressing racism among churches is a distraction from the true purpose of the people of God.
Is racism still an issue among churches? If so, Russell Moore has once again placed himself in danger of heavy criticism from powerful men like our state executive in order to call our churches to repentance, which is courageous. If so, then discussing and addressing racism among churches is an act of confession and repentance, as central to the purpose of the people of God as evangelism—for if our evangelism does not include a call for repentance of sin, then our evangelism is worthless, and our gospel false, straying far from the original message of “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” If racism is still an issue among our churches, then the body of Christ in America is revealed to be divided limb from limb and in desperate, deathly need of a Physician.
So is racism still an issue among churches? Most people have ready answers to the question—but those ready answers are contrary.
One of the ready answers is that racism would not be an issue if people would only stop breathing new life into the controversy. The analogy of a wound seems to fit here because wounds will heal in time if left untroubled.
Small wounds will heal, that is. Deep wounds fester. Cancers metastasize.
The history of the people of God in Scripture covers thousands of years, far longer than the two generations separating us from the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that overturned as unconstitutional racial segregation laws that had become known as “separate but equal.” We see clearly in those infallible pages, throughout those millennia, that time has never accomplished righteousness for a people; time has never accomplished repentance. The Spirit does these things, and He works in and through His people.
Unless we enter into a regular rhythm of confession and repentance surrounding issues of race in our church, these deep wounds will worsen, as the patient who stops taking antibiotics once the most apparent symptoms subside. Laws have changed and apologies have been made, but these are only the first steps of repentance, and we must continue in regular rhythms—or was your personal sanctification accomplished in a moment? No, and we must lead our churches to work out their salvation in fear and trembling corporately as well as personally.
Are we surprised or offended that we, too, might be sinful, we who lead churches and determine the courses of denominations? Have we forgotten that “when our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance?” Repent then, or what Jesus said of religious leaders in his day will be true of us, that “for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God…this people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
Another ready answer to the question of whether racism is still an issue among churches is that racism is an issue, but not a primary issue, and focusing on it will distract us from our primary purpose as the people of God. This is the position of the Levite who passes on the other side of the road when he sees his brother lying broken. It is good that you spend your time and church resources on worship and evangelism, but only if you have also cared for your brother. The Levite is not at fault for what he does, for he does good things, but he falters on one thing that is primary. Love of neighbor has always been a primary issue for the church: “if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”
We are willing, and rightly so, to decry abortion as a primary issue for our churches—and this is needed, especially since the number of abortions for people of color is disproportionately high—but don’t allow your compassion to falter after the birth of a child. Does your compassion follow that child home, where nearly half of all black children in New Orleans live in poverty, without stable food or housing? Or do you give dispassionate reasons why black households here earned 63% less than white households, and why the employment rate for black men was at a mere 52%. As that child grows, does your compassion walk alongside him into his re-segregated public school? Would you still have compassion if he were arrested? What if he were convicted, and detained in the Orleans Parish Prison, where black people comprise a hugely disproportionate number of those incarcerated?*
Why are we so ready to admit our part in nailing Christ to his cross nearly two thousand years ago in a nation and among people not our own, but we cannot admit that we may have some part in the sins of fifty years ago, and we are offended when someone suggests that those sins may still linger? Repentance is the first step in evangelism: “repent and believe.” Every church with a desire for evangelism must also have a desire to confess our part in these disparities, even if our part is indifference, like the Levite. We must repent, cross the road (or the tracks) and spend our money to restore our neighbors back to wellness, as the Samaritan told the innkeeper, “whatever the cost.”
One of the ready answers to the question of whether or not racism is still an issue among churches is that racism is one of the most significant sins of American Evangelical churches. This is our answer and the answer of many in our city and region. To this ready answer, a caution: alongside this answer, be equally ready with love for those who have sinned against you, because the sins against a person are able to consume him as wholly as those he commits. Do not grow weary with forgiveness, as the apostles did when they limited their forgiveness to seven times, but seek the heart of Christ who forgave seventy times seven times, even as the people he would gather “as a hen her children” failed to offer him food and a place to stay, even as they jailed him, even as they hung him on a tree.
I write knowing this article will seem to many as “causing controversy again,” but that is only true if sin is not present among us in this area. The closer I draw to our Lord, the more I see the immense depth and breadth of my sin—alongside the immensity of His grace which covers it. I pray the Lord would continue to convict me so that, in knowing the enormity of my sin, I might know his grace abounding all the more and be more fully conformed to the likeness of Christ. I pray the same for us all.
Jack Hunter, Executive Director, NOBA
Leroy Fountain, Church Health Strategist, NOBA
Alex Brian, Neighborhood Ministries Coordinator, NOBA