I attend a congregation called, Iglesia del Barrio (IDB), which translated into English means “church of the neighborhood.” The congregation is made up of predominantly Puerto Rican folks who have lived most of their lives in Philly. After moving to Philly eleven years ago, my wife and I wanted to find a congregation that was rooted and active in the neighborhood and IDB proved to be that place.
Several years ago I was working at our after-school program when one of the kids asked if I was related to the white people standing outside in front of our church. My initial response was that just because I was white, it didn’t mean I was related to all white people J; but I thought I’d better go take a look just in case a long lost cousin or uncle decided to pay a visit. Come to find out they weren’t related at all, instead it was a youth group from Oklahoma that decided they would bring Jesus to our neighborhood through a little preaching, skits, and handing out goody bags for those who stayed around to listen.
The last blog we talked about the need to move from ignorance to awareness and one of the ways to do this was to get outside of your white enclaves and get to know people of color. In all honesty this is only the first of many steps towards racial justice, but in and of itself, it is not enough. Not only do white folks need to get out of their white enclaves, they need to get out of their white comfort zones, they need to lose power. Jesus modeled this in his life. Philippians 2:4- 8 says,
4 Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.
5 You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
6 Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
7 Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
8 he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
This group from Oklahoma may have left their white enclave but they were still in charge. They didn’t bother to ask the folks in our congregation or the neighborhood if they could set up in front of the church and do skits and hand out goody bags to the neighbors. They never asked how they could serve the real felt needs of the people, instead they perceived what the neighbors needed and they saw themselves as the Great White Hope. It was evident that they had a mission, but it did not appear that their mission was rooted in love. The next step on the road of racial reconciliation for white folks is moving from pity (charity) to empathy (justice).
The well-meaning group from Oklahoma had good intentions, perhaps they were moved by pity and they certainly had enough resources to pour out charity among the neighbors. This stage on the path of racial justice can also be called the Missionary Complex. People at this stage are full of good intentions and you can often hear them say such things as, “I feel bad for them.” “I want to help.” “They need me.” White folks at this stage may serve others in order to alleviate guilt. It is also not uncommon for white folks to see a need and then desire to help the needy person become like them. One thing that is clear with folks at this stage is that there is a “us and them” mentality.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to spend some time in Rwanda. In 1994 nearly a million people were murdered in the course of a hundred days. The deaths were brutal in nature. Many folks died as a result of being attacked my machetes. During my visit there with ALARM Ministries, we visited several genocide memorials and learned the history of the two primary tribal groups involved in the conflict, the Hutus and the Tutsis. I was shocked to learn that 97% of the nation considered themselves Christians at the onset of the genocide! Many of the Hutus and Tutsis who attended the same congregation on Sunday were killing on Monday. Celestin Musekura, the president of ALARM told us that the sin of Rwanda was tribalism. Tribalism occurred when the Hutus and Tutsis based their identities more on their tribal identities rather than the fact they were brothers and sisters in Christ, not to mention that they were all Rwandans.
Tribalism is alive and well in America. Too many times white folks insulate and isolate themselves from “other” cultures. We have created a culture of us and them and it even manifests itself in our hit-and-run mission trips. As long as we allow the sin of tribalism to occur, we otherize people, and thus it makes it difficult to truly know them and empathize with their struggle.
In the next blog we will explore how we can move forward from pity to empathy in the journey of reconciliation. It is important to remember that we are all on a journey. As we talk about the different stages of reconciliation we need to be self-reflective. Where are we at on the journey? How can we move forward? Too often we think that we are the Great White Hope, that we have the answers, and that everyone should be like us. This is a deception. We each have a gift, but we also have inadequacies, and we need others.
“What White People Can Do about Racism” is a collection of thoughts by Chris Lahr based on a white identity training taught during Mission Year. Through this blog series he hopes to touch on lessons learned from his journey of living in a small predominantly white town in Indiana to living in a city (Philadelphia) where white people are currently the minority. Check out earlier posts in this series here. Chris will be teaching the workshop, “What white people can do about racism” at the CCDA Conference in Indianapolis on October 13 and 15.
Chris Lahr is a Recruiter and the Academic Director for Mission Year. He is also a part of the Simple Way in Philadelphia. He is a writer and a speaker. For information about having Chris speak, email Jen Casselberry.