Editor’s note: This article is the fourth and fifth part of a series describing the journey to focus on African-Americans in the Denver Church of Christ. Read Part I-Part II and Part III here. Chris Jacobs is an elder in Denver, and lived in Tokyo for many years, serving as an administrator for many of the Asian churches in our fellowship. These articles can be found on his blog.
In February of this year, 2016, we were excited to welcome Scott and Thereasa Kirkpatrick to Denver. Scott and Thereasa lead in the church in Columbia, South Carolina and are involved with racial diversity on a global level for the International Churches of Christ. Wade Cook, an evangelist, took the lead and was fully supported by our elders and evangelists. We planned a diversity weekend in honor of Black History Month. Scott and Thereasa spoke to the church on Saturday evening, teaching a Biblical and practical lesson on black relations and culture in the U.S. I invite you to listen to their message: Black History Month 2016 Devotional.
I was surprised to learn that to Scott and Thereasa’s knowledge, our diversity weekend focused on black issues was the first they had heard of in our fellowship.
On Friday evening and Saturday, Scott and Thereasa met with some of our black leaders to discuss their feelings about the DCC in relationship to racial sensitivity and understanding. I thought this would go well; we’d get a great report. I am reminded of times I’ve had myself or with others, where a husband and wife gather for a time to talk about their marriage with another couple. The couple is asked, “How are things going?” The husband eagerly answers, “Great, wonderful, excellent…” The wife begins to cry, and so begins a great opportunity for growth.
At the end of our time with the Kirkpatricks, most of the elders, evangelists and their wives met with them to receive their feedback on what we can do better to meet the needs of our flock. Although some of what they shared was difficult to hear, we determined to humbly listen and respond. A portion of the problem rose from a misunderstanding that had not been brought to our attention. This helped us to understand that we needed to be better and more eager listeners on issues of racial sensitivity. One thing is clear – our black brothers and sisters communicate with one another about racial issues. Many of us who are white don’t feel comfortable talking about it or are afraid we’ll say something that will offend blacks, so we keep silent. In Denver, we desire to create a church where blacks will not only feel comfortable talking to one another about these sensitive issues, but to the other members of their spiritual family as well.
Shortly after our diversity weekend, several elders and evangelists met with a number of our black leaders. John Lusk, our senior evangelist took the lead to both listen and create a plan to work on our unity more proactively. We decided to form a team to address the issues and the group that night selected Wade Cook, an evangelist and Chris Jacobs, an elder to co-chair the group along with others to be selected by the group. I am reminded of the approach taken to resolve a dispute that arose in Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 6,
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
The example of dispute resolution in Acts 6 included a racial/cultural element. The Hebraic Jews were not complaining – they were on their home turf in Jerusalem. The Grecian or Hellenistic Jews were being overlooked. The apostles acted quickly by appointing men full of wisdom and the spirit to resolve the problem. We are attempting to do the same.
Scott and Thereasa had encouraged us as leaders to say something publicly in response to the diversity weekend. The last Sunday of February, I delivered a communion address, which I invite you to read below:
“I love this church; so much love and faith. I love our diversity, (it is our super power and super challenge) not just because of the richness that each sub-culture brings into our midst, but for the way that I see God’s power at work in unifying us as one body. John (Lusk) is doing an outstanding job bringing this out as he’s teaching Ephesians. In Ephesians 2:15, it says, “ 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. ” Only the cross has the ability to take people of different cultures and races and make us one because the cross teaches us, “I am not better than you, my people are not better than yours”; we are all sinners in need of the forgiveness that God offers through the sacrifice of his own son.
It is my observation in America, during my lifetime, there has been no greater divider than race and especially that of black Americans from other Americans. Are there problems, divides and inequality among other ethnic groups? Of course there are, but in my estimation, none compares with the struggle of black Americans in our nation’s history. These things are difficult to discuss; my intent is to increase understanding and awareness. I don’t want anyone to feel accused. We have many beloved black Christians among us and we’re proud to call you brothers and sisters. In America, the month of February has been termed Black History Month and in the church we’ve often highlighted it in some way. Some may ask, why do we do this? Why don’t we have White History Month or Italian American History or…? And what does this have to do with church? To be honest, if you had asked me even a couple of years ago, I didn’t know. For me, it was something that seemed to especially encourage a particular part of the body and I could enjoy it because I knew it encouraged them. We do honor other groups at times such as mothers, soldiers, students, Latinos, single moms, so it is certainly not unique in that way. In the past two or three years, through conversations with many of you and things that have been taught, I think I’ve begun to understand why it is important for us, as a church, to acknowledge and honor the long-suffering struggle of this particular group of precious souls.
Last week, when Scott and Thereasa shared on Saturday evening, he recounted a meeting he and some of the black leaders had with white leaders of their church in Atlanta, a number of years ago. Scott asked the white brothers to be honest about how they felt and one of the brothers shared, “I don’t understand why you (black brothers) can’t just ‘get over it.’” Until a few years ago, I’m ashamed to say, I could relate well to that feeling. What’s the big deal, we’re all free, right? We have equal rights, don’t we? I had not really taken the time to talk to my brothers on a deep level. I had not even thought deeply about the history of the black struggle in our nation.
In our black history presentations, it’s been valuable to learn about great historical leaders, but my greater concern are for the people in God’s church. I care about Harold and Debbie; Lloyd and Nancy; Frank and Regina; Andre and Anita; Betty, and Joe and Lisa; Shaun and Kenya and so many others. How do they feel in church; what are their struggles? What is it like to live as a black American today? Last year, Alex Haley, along with others, did a heroic job trying to communicate to us to help us to understand the struggle. He did a tremendous amount of work and I can tell you this – Alex’ unequivocal goal was to bring unity. His desire was to help us to better understand a significant part of our family. And doesn’t understanding lead to unity? Not just on this issue, but in all manner of things. Alex challenged us to speak to one another about personal experiences. So I did – I’ve spoken with the Chukes, Clarkes and Haleys among others – I gotta tell you; it breaks my heart to hear their stories. I respect and admire each of these – being falsely accused and taking abuse because of the color of their skin is simply a part of their lives, something they have to live with. Alison and I spoke with Donee. For those of you who know Donee, he is a gentle, cheerful man, a Christian for almost 40 years and a long-time school teacher. We asked, surely nothing like this has ever happened to you? He shared, “One day, I’m walking to school; I enjoyed walking to school. I was about a block from the school at which I taught, and all of a sudden several police cars pull up, I’m surrounded by police officers with guns drawn, yelling at me to get on the ground. There had been a crime that had taken place about ten blocks from where I was and they thought I was responsible. A teacher, who happened to be black.” (This is not a story about police officers – they deserve and need our respect – it is a story about one of our brothers.) After that, Donee said, “I couldn’t walk to school anymore. I was too afraid.” I don’t know that I want to hear more stories – it brings tears to my eyes. I’ve heard from mothers, who fear for the lives of their law-abiding sons and husbands and this is a common theme.
As I reflect on my life, and the history of this nation, there are many things that come to mind. I recall clearly riding a bus with my mother and brothers in my home town of Miami circa 1960. In my innocence at age five or six, I asked, “Mom, why do all those people walk past us and sit at the back of the bus?” I think she just tried to hush me up. As a person of conscience, she was embarrassed by this treatment of her fellow human beings. I recall the public bathrooms and water fountains – men, women and “colored” – such an indignity. My world was white and Hispanic growing up. My father, a Cuban immigrant, owned a small grocery store in a black neighborhood in Miami, then termed “colored” town and I would go there from time to time. It was a different world. Twenty minutes from home and it was almost like going from a first world to a third world country. As I’ve studied the history, of course we all know that blacks were forcibly brought from Africa and enslaved for a period of about 250 years. During this time, the Supreme Court ruled they were not people but property. After that period, slavery was abolished in 1865; there was a short period during which there were significant advances among black Americans, but then laws were passed that were touted to be “separate but equal.” And they were separate, but far from equal. The “Jim Crow” laws were clearly an effort by those in power to withhold privileges and rights from the black minority.
In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed and at least from a legal standpoint, blacks finally had equal standing with other Americans. Have there been advances since this time? Absolutely! We have an African-American president – that was unimaginable when I was growing up. And much has changed for which I thank God and I know our brothers and sisters do as well.
But you can’t legislate attitudes. The stroke of a pen did not undo three and a half centuries of legalized oppression. It was a start, but the struggle continues. So why are we talking about this in church?
1 Cor 12:24, “But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”
One thing that I’ve come to understand is that my brothers and sisters are hurting and I want to acknowledge that. I can only imagine what it is like to know that my ancestors suffered unspeakable indignities; that for generations, my family has not been treated fairly because of the color of my skin; that even today, I know there are people who look at me with indignation, fear and distrust because of the color of my skin. Should I say, “Get over it?” I’m sorry that I’ve not been more sensitive to your pain. I think it is time for me to “Get over it.”
On behalf of the church, along with all the elders and staff, as your family, I want to say we love you! The world may tear you down, but we want the church to be a place where you heal and are honored. We respect the fact that you set an example for all of us in turning the other cheek as Jesus commanded us – that is worthy of respect; thank you for loving when you are not loved because of the cross of Jesus Christ. When I think about my black heroes; I think of Tony and Terry Chukes, who love all of our teens with the love of Jesus; Alex and Gwen Haley, who fight for unity in the body; Carlos and Dimitri Clarke, who have loved long and continue to faithfully and skillfully teach the Word of God to many; all while raising families who love God and his church. The world may or may not value you; but as your brothers and sisters, I want you to know we value all present today, we respect you, we will strive to listen and understand and sympathize with you because we are one with you.
The bread we break represents the body of Christ; we are the body of Christ. As we break this bread, let us remember that he died to bring us together; we are many parts but one body. Let us commit to suffer together and to rejoice together. The cup represents the blood that he shed for us so that my sin and your sin could be forgiven.”
The response to this short message was a bit overwhelming. Among our black brothers and sisters, tears were plentiful; gratitude was heartfelt and expressed freely. Many others were fully supportive and thankful. It saddens me a bit that there were many who said it was the first time they heard the subject addressed in church in decades of attendance. Why are we so reticent to discuss these very real issues that affect many of our lives?
As we move forward, we’ve formed a team, made up of six black women, five black men, and two white men with the goal of increasing and improving unity in the church especially as it relates to our black brothers and sisters. We’ve held our first meeting and are very much a work in progress. We ask for your prayers that God will give us direction and we’ll be humble and courageous in our response to his leading. We look forward to sharing more with any who are interested in the weeks and months that follow. Shared from the Diversity in the Denver Church blog.