To bring people together across racial differences not only requires sharing in God’s great love, it also necessitates the power to accomplish human community, hopefully and intentionally, despite inner turmoil or outside conflict. Love on its own does not form healthy multiracial congregations. But love and power combined gives congregations the ability to transform themselves and impact the larger community.
One of the reasons why so many attempts at multiculturalism fail is that white culture often does not recognize or strive to correct the deep power imbalance that exists in many congregations. Multiracial communities emanate from the collective concern that we are all, despite the divisions we perpetuate, part of one human community; if life is improved for one person, all benefit. Justice does not admit of partitioning. In the Jewish tradition this practice is known as tikkun olam, or the healing and repair of the world. Christians are called to live in communion with each other, to be transformed for the sake of one another and the world.
Congregations are rooted in their local contexts, and thus it is not possible to suggest a “recipe” for building multiracial congregations. Multiracial community can be found in congregations of all sizes and all economic levels; what is critical is that the congregation sees multiracial community as integral to the work of the church and in its own self-interest. However, my long-term work with multiracial congregations, and recent in-depth research with six such faith communities, has indicated that it is possible to suggest some of the characteristics of healthy multiracial congregations.
7 Characteristics of Healthy Multiracial Congregations
1. Build On Health. Overall, congregations that build multiracial community are those that strive on all levels to affirm the dignity of every person, and sustain relationships based in mutuality and respect. Although all congregations experience transitions, those that seek to build multiracial congregations should do so from the perspective of congregational health.
Though “health” is a relative term, it is clear that a congregation that is already riddled by unresolved conflicts, lacks coherent leadership, is plagued by mismanagement, fails to provide pastoral care to its members, or is avoidant or hostile to the surrounding community will not be in a good position to build healthy community across racial differences. Though congregations are always in process, health in this respect denotes a community where people interact with each other in respectful and appropriate ways; where feelings and ideas are expressed directly and openly; where the gifts of all are welcomed and utilized appropriately; where clergy and laity use power justly and constructively for the common good, and recognize the abuse of power; where there is an openness to ongoing education and issues in the community; and where the spiritual concerns and pastoral care of the members are, for the most part, addressed.
2. Know Their History. The study of history reveals both the heritage and traditions of a given congregation, and leads to further discernment of a church’s mission and ministry in the present. Successful multiracial congregations studied are not only conversant on their congregation’s history, they are willing to reinterpret that history from the perspectives of both the dominant culture and communities of color.
If a congregation is destined to be something more than a museum, the study of spiritual ancestors living in the past are a means to transform a congregation’s sense of where they have been and where they wish to go in the future. Certainly, in terms of building multiracial community, the study of history is imperative in order to understand the dynamics of institutions and who is included or excluded in the present. Otherwise, the community is built on the premise, “we want to include more people who are just like us.” Denial of the negative—and in this case, racist aspects of a congregation’s history—will not only prevent the formation of authentic community, it will serve to maintain social oppression.
Just as it is crucial for individuals engaged in anti-racism work to continue to delve into their own personal history for the sources of racist attitudes and beliefs, it is critical for congregations to undergo a similar process of investigation, interpretation, and ultimately, of renewal. Such a study of history unmasks the duality of the “American Dream” of freedom, justice, and liberty for all that excludes those who are not in the dominant cultural group. If the truth is to be told, all congregations, just as all human institutions, share a history of heroism and courage alongside a history of failure and fear.
3. Seek Committed Leadership. Leadership is a key variable for congregations concerned with building multiracial community over the long haul. Clearly, clergy and laity who understand the dynamics of power and oppression and who are committed to change are integral. Such leaders tend to view building multiracial community more in terms of long-term process rather than product or program. At the most basic level, they experience building multiracial community as a call from God. They tend to share a sense of long-term and “sacrificial commitment.” They strive to “walk the talk, knowing the risks.”
Leaders in multiracial communities come from different backgrounds, yet many share a common experience in that they express some “turning point” or “conversion” in their lives resulting from a direct and personal encounter across the boundaries of race, ethnicity, and culture. Grounded and nourished spiritually, these leaders have challenged their own racism and resistance to change, and thus are better equipped to lead a congregation through a similar process. Moreover, they understand the impact of racism and other forms of oppression on those within their communities from a pastoral perspective. On the skill level, such leaders are good listeners, knowledgeable about power dynamics, reflective preachers and teachers, effective process facilitators, experienced in community advocacy, skilled with the media, and able to communicate across cultural differences. They are willing to take risks, are open to the possibility of failure, and perhaps most importantly, they are persistent.
Because authentic multiracial community is difficult to achieve and sustain, it is crucial that leaders in these congregations are able to withstand criticism and periods of frustration and disillusionment. Obviously, change is personally painful to people in congregations, and any leader seeking multiracial community should be prepared for periods of resistance, conflict, doubt, and disillusionment. Yet, those leaders who find joy in the challenge of working for change tend also to be the type of people who cultivate support systems for themselves, and who can accept care from individuals and from the community.
4. Share a Rich Symbolic Life. Though congregations have different “entry points,” those committed to building multiracial community eventually experience change on all levels of the organization: education, worship, governance, pastoral care, outreach, etc. Part of the challenge of building multiracial community is adapting the symbolic life of the congregation in terms of worship, music, education, even architecture, to reflect various cultures. Does the worship and music of the congregation reflect racially and culturally diverse language and content? Is the multiracial character of the congregation upheld through religious education programs for all ages? Are people from different races and cultures welcomed to share in leadership? Does the congregation reserve time for cultural sharing and discovery? Does the community regularly celebrate holidays and heroes of the faith reflective of t
he racial diversity of the congregation? Does “sacred space” of the congregation—architecture, seating, windows, art—reflect a multiracial, rather than a homogeneous reality?
5. Develop Effective Programming. Though there is no one way to design structured experiences in anti-racism, effective programs tend to share a number of common elements:1
- For Christian programs, biblical and theological doctrine that names racism as a sin;
- A dual focus on teaching and experiential activities;
- Clearly stated definitions of racism as prejudice plus power, bias, discrimination, and other forms of exclusion; and discussions of culture and ethnicity;
- Activities that focus on institutional and systemic racism as well as individual racism;
- Explicit connections between racism and other forms of exclusion and oppression;
- Strategies and plans for a long-term implementation of a comprehensive anti-racism program in organizations and communities of various sizes and complexities in a variety of contexts and settings, as well as practical tools and resources for implementing this process;
- After examining racism within the church, a focus that extends beyond the organizational church to civil society; and
- An approach that fosters ecumenical and interfaith connectedness.
6. Implement an Action Plan, Monitor, and Evaluate. In any successful community-building effort, there should be a clarity of purpose and a clear plan of action. As you gauge your congregation’s needs and capacities for multiracial community, and discover what has worked for others engaged in similar efforts, you will begin to develop the strategies and tactics best suited for your context. Without ongoing evaluation, discernment, reflection, adjustments, and modifications, any action plan will soon lose its relevance, energy, or direction. As long as injustice remains, so does the need for goals and strategies, action, and analysis. Building multiracial community is a long-term commitment.
7. Cultivate Spiritual Stamina. God calls all humankind to a life of rich diversity. Our spirituality reflects the relationships we have with God, other people, and the world, and are consistent with our racial, ethnic, and cultural heritages. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus is frequently found in relationship with and in communication with persons of cultures different from his own. The process of living out multiracial community impacts our hearts and minds and lives, and brings about new attitudes and behaviors concerning God, oneself, and our larger society. Choosing to live in multiracial community is countercultural, given the monocultural bias of American culture, and requires a great deal of spiritual stamina. A disciplined life of prayer and reflection rooted in a multiracial community of faith is perhaps the greatest source of support for the challenges faced by those who choose to open up their lives in this way.
Moving Toward Wholeness
We, as the people of God, are called to respond to a world that is groaning under the weight of injustice and broken relationships. Our differences and our interdependence are intended to be a source of strength and a gift from God. As people of faith, we know that the reign of God will not ultimately be built on separatism or political arguments, but on the transformation of hearts—new life, not just reordered life. As the people of God who believe in justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation, we can resist the temptation to stop at the political, social, or even emotional level of racial awareness. Rather, through building multiracial community we can work toward being about the healing and wholeness that the world craves.
This article was adapted from A House of Prayer for All Peoples: Congregations Building Multiracial Community(AL272; $19), available from Alban in July 2003. Order online at www.alban.org or call 1-800-486-1318, ext. 244.
NOTES1. Developed by Jayne J, Oasin, Social Justice Ministries Office, Episcopal Church Center, 2002.