Friday, May 25, 2007

Rules of Engagement

One of the first things that has to be learned by white folks who are engaging in racial reconciliation is that they can walk away from the process at any point and never be bothered by it again. They can leave the diverse situation with all of its flare-ups and discomforts and messiness and envelop themselves in the culture and comfort of other white folks.

African americans and other people of color can't do that. They are always surrounded by culture and power structures that are not their own. They must always feel that tension. They must always decided whether they will assimilate, resist or reconcile.

Pastor Daniel jokes fairly regularly about a Chicago church full of earnest, mostly young white people. He says that every once in awhile some of them or a couple will get the racial reconciliation bug and want to start attending our church. They sit down with their pastor to talk about it and when they leave his office, their pastor calls Pastor Daniel and they make bets on how long it will take those folks to go back to their original church, where things aren't so uncomfortable.

When I was up at the CCDA seminar at Mars Hill a few weekends ago, a young woman named Faith asked a question of Noel Castellanos. It turns out that she had earlier asked the same question of Pastor Daniel. She asked how one keeps from being one of those white people who flees from the messiness of racial reconciliation.

Mars Hill is a white church full of eager, mostly young people. I noticed a disconnect throughout the seminar because our speakers spoke from the perspective of relocation. It is one of the 3 keys tenets of CCDA that you cannot achieve true restoration of people in need unless you become their physical neighbor and make their problems your own. The disconnect throughout the seminar took two forms.

One was that most folks didn't want to hear that message. They kept asking amongst themselves and through their pastor in the follow-up Q&A, "What can we do if we're not able to leave the suburbs? What can we do if the security risk is too great to invite homeless people into our homes?" The only answer to that question is "Give money," but that's an unsatisfying answer. What CCDA folks say is that you will find joy you never expected when you move into the city. You will find community that you never had in your drive-through suburban life. You will find yourself closer to God in your confusion and fear and discomfort than you ever felt in your ergonomic plastic chairs, singing songs while looking up to the jumbo-tron with your right hand raised in witness. Interestingly, in a recent Sunday service that included an interview session with Rob Bell, he revealed very emotionally that his family has relocated to the city for just this reason. This might make for a very different session if CCDA ever goes back.

The second disconnect is that the CCDA presenters only heard questions through the filter of being folks that live in the city. They couldn't put themselves in the shoes of these suburban folks to answer the questions below the actual questions being asked. They have been in the city too long, away from the consumer-driven American Dream. It like they don't really believe that people actually live that way anymore. They're not dismissive or insulting; they're just thinking about other things.

So, when Faith asked about stamina for racial reconciliation, Noel gave her information about a side topic. We all do this: answer the question that we would have asked in the same situation. He talked about the reconciliation fatigue that people of color feel. Ed Gilbreath reminds us that for people of color to be bridge-builders means that they will get stepped on. They have to reach out to us and forgive our insensitivities and careless remarks and total lack of experience or knowledge about them again and again and again. We white folks are an offensive people in our solipsism.

What Noel had to say was important and interesting, especially to those of us that are in the middle of racial reconciliation. However, for someone just thinking about sticking her toes into the water to see if it was cold, it wasn't particularly helpful. I went to speak to her after the session. This is when I learned that she had asked the same question earlier of Pastor Daniel.

So, I thought I'd share with you what advice Pastor Daniel and I gave her about how to tough it out when the going gets tough as a white person engaged in racial reconciliation.

1. Pray. Normally, I do not like this answer to tough questions about how to do things because it's such a Sunday School cop-out. But I told Faith that you have to be able to sit cross-legged with your eyes closed and your face pointing upwards and just bask in God's presence feeling the thoughts, "God, I'm not doing this right." The anguish of being wrong dissolves each time and clears the heart to take the next step. You have to lather-rinse-repeat this one a lot.

2. You must detach your identity from race and attach it to Christ. In other words, be a Christian first and a white person second. It is so much easier to take correction when you view it as bringing you closer to God's plan for the world rather than as an attack on who you have been so far. Then, you won't get quite so offended and want to take your toys and go home. (This is Daniel's response.)

3. Find one safe relationship to focus on. (This is one of Noel's responses.) I would add that this means you have to be where people of color are. You might not have friend chemistry with the first black person to start talking to at church. You must treat each other first as friends and not simply as a means to a spiritual formation end. Like all social interactions, the odds make finding someone compatible somewhat tricky. Increasing your casual exposure to people of color makes hitting those odds more likely.

4. Be part of a community of people that are all doing racial reconciliation. You can all support each other. Be cautious of factions, though.

5. Find joy in the culture of your friend. When you are on the outs with one another, the over-arcing delight that you have in pinatas or dim sum or the dynamic of women braiding each other's hair on the front stoop will help pull you through.

6. Research the experience of your friend in literature, magazine articles, documentaries. (This is Noel's other response.) Research will provide all sorts of options to fulfill #5.

People of color have every right to distrust white folks wanting to be friends. Like any person that has been burned by love, they will be tentative in allowing us into their lives, waiting to be sure that we aren't just looking to exploit them further to relieve our white guilt. Lots of promises have been made and broken about reconciliation. The only solution for this is to build up trust and affection over time. Only when everyone is fairly certain that the lighter half of the pair will suffer just as much at the loss of the friendship if she bails and runs home to homogeny can either of you really accomplish reconciliation. But this world needs that reconciliation - two people at a time - if we're ever going to live "on earth as it is in Heaven." It's worth the time you put into it.

Is there anyone else out there who has advice to add or disagreements with what I've said? I'd love to hear it in the comments.


Anonymous said...

Hi Rebecca,
In this post I found an interesting parallel with something I'm working on these days. I am co-coordinating a delegation of volunteer election monitors to East Timor. I spent the weekend in NY at a training for Americans who will go at the invitation of a consortium of Timorese (not western, not white) grassroots NGO people. One of the project's objectives is to build solidarity among the East Timorese and the volunteers. The same issues have and will come up - leaving comfort zones and entering onto that messy, muddy and hopefully fertile ground for growing transformational relationships. (No, I'm not going, but really wish I could afford it.)

PrincessMax said...

Hi Christy,

It's interesting that I have had a pattern of conversations lately about how this urban community development stuff that I keep learning seems to be applicable to international issues and vice-versa. It makes me a little more excited (rather than nervous) for my trip to Africa.