The core of Christ’s ministry was breaking down dividing walls that obscured who belonged in his community. The outsiders were given place at the table.
The question of belonging is an ongoing struggle for many Christians of colour. Many have struggled to fit into church community in some way. Although anybody can realize they no longer fit for a variety of cultural reasons, marginalized people groups have fewer options and more hurdles to jump over.
The way I see it, Christians of colour have five options to choose from. In no particular order….
Option 1: Assimilate
The first option is assimilate into white church culture (Protestant or Catholic). I use “white” to articulate a racialized dimension that accurately describes dominant institutional church in our context. To fit in IBPOC Christians need to forgo living out their full identity (including ethnicity) and uphold key values in white Christianity such as “unity”. Unity in quotation marks because it’s not really about unity. Belonging in these contexts only comes after assimilating into dominant culture, and even then, only to a certain threshold. You must play by the unwritten cultural rules of maintaining whiteness (culture, theology, music, etc.) and not disturb status quo.
Assimilation, however, comes at a cost. Namely, giving up part of your identity. Eventually there is a “woke” or conscious moment we (IBPOC) realize whiteness is trying to dominate our existence. (That’s putting it mildly.) We can either ignore the pressure by staying in character, remain in blissful ignorance, or confront the reality. That’s not to suggest any of these options are easy. Bi-racial people who have a white parent will know the tension of “looking” brown but acting and feeling White. The racialized system in church culture is still designed to discriminate on skin colour. That means no matter how hard you try to fit in you won’t be able to make it fully. Just by having a different skin shade inherently puts part of you on the outside.
Sometimes assimilation is also pragmatic. New immigrants may seek assimilation or will have few community options around them. It may be in their best interests to aid survival. That’s partly my story. I grew up in the suburbs, and we didn’t have any other options other than the slew of white churches in our midst. Something was always a little bit weird, but there were no other choices. As I grew up in the church I slowly became alert to my existence and moved from racialized pet, upholding dominant culture, into a threat. (The threat v pet dichotomy I first heard from Soong-Chan Rah. Not sure if the idea is unique to him.)
So although assimilation can be a preference, IBPOC Christians who find themselves most at home in white churches will never fully belong.
Option 2: Ethnic Church
The second option is to stay remain within racialized or ethnic boundaries. There are pros and cons of course. First though, some history.
Minority churches are sometimes reviled by white Christians because they break the “unity” I mentioned earlier. White people have difficulty talking about race preferring to think segregation is either invisible or non-existent. Ethnic churches are a mark that there are “division”. However, minority churches exist because dominant white denominations did not permit full membership to people of color. The Black institutional church exists because white churches built their existence on white superiority, a though well-established in the church to this day.
By the way, the creation of Black institutional Christianity has produced an expression outside of white formation and colonization. The same can’t be said for other ethnic churches. I’m not including Orthodox traditions here but they also produce expressions outside of white hegemony.
Chinese churches are similar in the sense that they exist because Chinese people were not permitted full membership in the church. Albeit more recently than Black churches. Although today, at least on paper, any ethnicity or race are permitted full membership, the power holders in the institutions are overwhelmingly white. That’s the problem of #1.
So option two is to stick together with birds of a feather. Korean, Japanese, Senegalese, Chinese, Ethiopian, Etc. You retain ethnic identity without fear of both loss or reprisal. The cons include younger generations who face tension straddling two cultures. One mainstream yet doesn’t permit a full expression of identity, one ethnic that is slow to shift rigid traditions. Curiously, a number of Christians are returning back to their traditional ethnic churches for a sense of identity after they tested #1.
Option 3: Attempts to Change Culture
The third option is finding yourself in a mainstream (usually white) church and trying to change culture. It’s funny that we are conditioned to think that contemporary expressions are the big ones, and usually white ones, that count. Maybe we succumb to the consumer draw of great programs and good music/preaching. Unfortunately, once again you find yourself faced with the problem in #1. In order to fit in you have to assimilate.
But what if we try to help the church community change by integrating more people of colour? Sounds like a good plan right? Fight for better “unity”? This is the part of the story where Christians of color hope that their sweat and tears can lead to the change they so desire. Unfortunately, it’s a vain thought because somebody, somewhere, thinks they can undo centuries of institutional white supremacy through hard work and prayer. What happens instead is exhaustion and discouragement as any effort is constantly met by resistance and leads to minute incremental changes at best. Nothing changes. Instead, you get a Christian of color burnt out and dissatisfied with their experience tying to live out the fullness of their identity in a white-dominated church that claims “all are welcome” but really seeks self-preservation. So you’re right back where you started, looking for belonging. To quote a thought by Andre Henry, who blew up the Relevant Media CEO over racial prejudice,
This is the problem that King, Carmichael, and Brother Malcolm were highlighting: that if you integrate into white society, but whites maintain the same societal arrangements that preexisted integration, then racial “unity” is really just assimilation into dominant white culture. It actually maintains white supremacy.
Option 4: Leave
You’ve tried all the options and realize that you’re hurt from the pain and still longing for a belonging. Why bother? You’ve tried, you don’t fit, so you leave. You leave the church, you may even leave your faith, all because there’s simply no place for you in your own skin. Or is there?
Option 5: Start Something Fresh and New
Then then there’s the fifth option. It’s not pretty because it requires you to put yourself out there in search for healthy church community. If #2 doesn’t work, then this one is probably the best choice. You start something new.
And not just you, rather you and your crew thinking about the same things reach into one another and start something. Start the loving community that looks like the space in your dreams.
I’ve noticed that this doesn’t strike many IBPOC Christians pining for community as a viable option because, ironically, old formation tells us church only counts if it contains certain things. Stuff like a Sunday service of a particular size with sing-a-longs and preaching. Sure, the house church movement has done away with size, but as a whole I think we tend to think 8 to 12 friends sharing a meal and communion around the table doesn’t count in the same way.
I want to tell you it does.
Not only does it count, but it might be all that God it’s calling you too. IBPOC Christians need to re-orient ourselves to believe small counts in big ways. But not only that, a belief that says the callings and gifts in your community count towards the building of the Body. You with your crew have the pieces to create what you’ve been looking for.
I’m not suggesting that all the answers are found in option 5, and that somehow there won’t be problems along the way. I’m am saying that IBPOC Christians need to discard most institutional formation that designed a picture of what church ought to be–one meant to retain its power and status quo. We need more spaces for Christians of color to live out who they are made to be and right now there are few such spaces. So let’s create more. No matter the size, let’s of value smaller communities as the small slices of heaven in our midst granting us both respite, but also voice to proceed forward in chase of an unfolding Kingdom bent to rescue and redeem neighbourhood, city, and beyond.