EDITOR’S NOTE: While many white evangelicals have worried that Black Lives Matter is a subversive movement, here at Red Letter Christians we are grateful for members of our network who have been sharing the good news of the Jesus who is not white for years. Onleilove Alston is one of our great teachers who has helped us see why enfleshing the gospel in movements like Black Lives Matter is good news for all of us. We’re glad to highlight her voice today.
1) Share with us a bit of your faith background. When did you start to follow Jesus?
I wasn’t raised with any particular belief system even though my mother was an atheist and my father was in an off-shoot of the Nation of Islam.
When I was about 7, my family became homeless and my little brother and I went into kinship foster care and began living with my grandmother and my aunt. At age 10, something led me to pick up the Psalms, and I began praying morning, noon, and night. I now believe it was the Holy Spirit leading me! I did that for 4 years, and then my aunt said, “Someone needs to take that girl to church.” I began going to Greater Bright Light Missionary Baptist Church. I went up during an altar call, got baptized the next week, and began taking communion.
I also always loved to read and learn about Black history. I read Malcolm X and Dr. King, and thought all churches were involved in civil rights issues. That was my expectation.
When I was at Penn State, I joined Navigators, and began to learn about white evangelical culture. I have a lot of respect for them, and I have a lot of friends through that group. But it was at this time that I also began to see this separation between faith and justice, which was so foreign to me. When I was converted, Jesus saved my mind and my body from homelessness, from the system of foster care where I could have so easily ended up in prison. For me, faith and social action were completely tied together.
My relationship with God was so close when the Holy Spirit led me to himself. Before I got heavily involved in the church, I had a very vibrant relationship with God. But through my activity in church, I felt that people were trying to mold me into this Western white culture – even in the Black church. I almost walked away from my faith in college, but because my conversion experience was so powerful, I couldn’t do it. But there was still this tension between Western culture, biblical culture, and my culture as a person of African descent.
2) How did you resolve this tension?
At Penn State, I took an African American religious studies class where we read God of the Oppressed by James Cone. I reread it again that summer. I began to see the Bible in my reality. This made clear what I was being called to do in urban communities in general, and in East New York particularly.
This made me see my reality in the Gospel much more so than the average evangelical. I listened to Focus on the Family and Charles Stanley, but I struggled to integrate their form of Christianity into my everyday life.
3) What are you passionate about? What is your day-to-day work?
On a daily basis, I’m the Executive Director of Faith in NY, a PICO affiliate and federation of 70 congregations doing faith-based organizing to create just policies in our city while building the beloved community. I also lead a Women’s Theology of Liberation for the PICO Network where women of faith are doing the work of justice and gathering for retreats on how to organize with faith and gender at the center.
I’m the founder of Prophetic Whirlwind, an organization that provides Bible study materials and educates via social media, lectures, and workshops on the African roots of the Christian and Jewish faiths. This is a huge passion of mine.
Until 1869, Israel was connected to Egypt – connected to all of Africa. It was only when the Suez Canal was completed that Israel became separated from Africa. Even until the early 1900s, Israel was referred to as NE Africa.
The whole world opened up to me and revealed items that are important to Black Christians, and Christians in general. We have really separated Christianity from the Hebrew faith. But early believers continued to practice Passover and Sabbath. In Hebrew culture, salvation is about everyone – the entire community – not just the individual. This is the norm in African culture.
It’s important to understand that the Bible is a multi-cultural book. My work is about reconciling Jesus to his culture – his Hebrew culture. If you’re trying to understand Christianity in a Western context, you’ll be lost.
It’s so important for Christians to connect to the Hebrew roots of their faith, because otherwise out faith becomes disconnected, becomes Westernized and makes whiteness an idol.
4) You write and speak a lot about the importance of understanding the blackness of the Bible. How does this shape our theology?
In church history, the earliest believers were Hebrew people and they still observed Sabbath on Saturday and had gathering on Sundays. They didn’t see their acceptance of Yeshua as leaving their Jewish faith. Yeshua was calling his people back to a purity of the Torah.
But as more Greeks and Romans converted, and Christianity became the religion of the empire, it got watered down and separated from its Hebrew roots. For example, the term “help mate” is Ezer Kenegdo in Hebrew and means so much more than just a helper, so much more than the explanation that we’ve been given. So understanding the Jewish roots of our faith is incredibly important.
It’s even more powerful to understand the cultural roots of our Biblical mothers and fathers. Mark was the Father of the Gospel in Africa. The Last Supper and Pentecost took place at his mother’s house, and she was an African Jewish woman from Cyrene. They were refugees. Do immigrants know this today? Do Black sisters and brothers know this today? This is incredibly empowering if we know these stories.
Then there was a large reverse exodus from Israel back to Egypt in Biblical times. The two landmasses were connected, they looked the same, and had similar climates. When Mark and his mother needed to leave Israel, they went to North Africa. It was a place a lot of Jews went. Thomas Oden is a researcher from Eastern University, and his research opened my eyes. Mark was born in Africa, and died in Africa. St. Augustine was African, his mother Monica was African, and when she died, she told St. Augustine to carry her bones back to Africa.
Either we will have a Christianity that is Western or we will have a Christianity based on the truth of the Bible, one that can transcend culture. When you separate it from its roots, the whitewashed Western, and often American, version hurts everyone, including white people.
5) Tell us a bit about your work with Black groups in Israel. What should American Christians know and understand about them?
So I’ll give a bit of Bible history. There were 12 tribes of Israel, and each received prophecies from their father, Jacob. All was good for a little while, but then people started following idols. In the Old Testament, idolatry is always paired up with doing injustice. Injustice meant unjust sexual relationships and unjust economic relationships, among other things. The 10 Northern tribes went so far in idolatry that they were taken off by the Assyrians.
Levi, Judah, and Benjamin were taken into Babylonian captivity some years later, but they were able to come back and rebuild, while the other 10 tribes were not.
Fast forward to Jesus. He said early on: “I’ve only come for the lost tribes of Israel.”
This is significant as Biblical prophecy states that when these tribes begin to come back to the Torah, the Messiah will return. Many researchers, especially from the Jewish faith, travel around the world, like Indiana Jones traveling for the lost ark, looking for these tribes. And research shows that many of these tribes are in Africa.
The Igbos in Nigeria are the tribe of Gad and due to the transatlantic slave trade, 1 in 4 African-Americans have Igbo ancestry. Their oral history proves this. There are many tribes in Africa that have ancient Hebrew customs. Scholars have documented this again and again.
This isn’t just important in terms of the prophecy of Jesus’ return either. It’s important because the Bible says these tribes will be scattered to the four corners of the earth. They will look different, they will speak different languages, but they will be gathered around a common faith. In the prophecy, it says they will be the poorest, and the most downtrodden. We all know that Jesus tells us to care of the least of these.
The Hebrew story began with people coming out of slavery, and God did not give up on them. This is good news because it means God will never give up on his people; he will never give up on us.