The following article is the fourth in a series discussing racial issues in the PCA, each one written by an African-American with pastoral experience in the denomination. The authors seek to provide a voice of experience along with wisdom and insight from a biblical perspective.
But he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command. … But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him! — Luke 15:29, 30
I live and work in an urban community undergoing gentrification. I see hallmarks of my culture being erased or pushed aside. I see black institutions, including the church, grasping for relevance in a community that is “safer and cleaner” but that has little affinity for African-American culture. Sure, there are new folks who love ethnic food or black theater productions, but in gentrifying communities nationwide, culturally specific programs, it seems, are becoming passé in the minds of “tolerant” and “open-minded” urbanites.
This post-racial (a society where racial differences have receded) sentiment values cultural homogeneity. Unconsciously, perhaps, it strives to assimilate minorities into dominant — predominantly white — culture. I’m a product of such assimilation. After teaching in the Central District of Seattle, a traditionally African-American neighborhood, my wife and I moved across the country to attend seminary. There — just as in elementary school, high school, college and graduate school — I was one of just a few African-Americans. After four years of excellent instruction and spiritual formation, I graduated in May 2009, the only black student with a Master of Divinity who was pursing ordination in the PCA.
Once my wife and I arrived back in Seattle, we found the Central District had changed. Low-income families, mostly our black and Latino neighbors, had been priced out by gentrification. Blacks, once forced to live in the Central District because of restricted covenants in other Seattle neighborhoods, had been pushed out in the name of safer streets and affordable housing. It’s no wonder that black and other ethnic institutions find themselves bitterly clinging to their cultures and jostling with one another for community impact. This includes historic inner-city churches that were once the hub of the community.
So what is a black PCA pastor to do if he hopes to minister among people of color in a rapidly changing community? My wife and I began working bi-vocationally and volunteering in organizations that served black or ethnic minorities still in the community. One responsibility I had was hosting community forums on race, class, and neighborhood issues. In one such forum, students wrote antiviolence messages on T-shirts and displayed them. While looking at a shirt, I asked a friend what color best represented death. She was undecided. But I—casually and innocently—suggested the black shirt that was hanging above us. Immediately after the discussion, a friend pulled me aside and rebuked me for using the color black in a pejorative sense; I could have used pink or white.
The comment was harmless on my part, but the experience led to a painful realization: I had subtly embraced white, middle-class values and cultural perspectives. In order to pass advanced placement courses in high school, I needed to learn about white heroes. In college I had to communicate “white” in order to become a professional. In seminary I had to pray, think, and lead “white” to get where I am today (an assistant pastor at the Crosspoint Churches in greater Seattle). This is not a smear on individuals I know and love; it is a statement about how our educational and ecclesiastical structures so quickly assimilate minorities. This phenomenon is not completely wrong, but it presents a problem for those who want to plant churches or lead ministries that are attractive to minorities, especially those who are disillusioned with the dominant cultural values of diversity in our post-racial setting.
Racial Misunderstanding and the Need for Brotherly Love
In the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, the elder brother sees his everyday world unravel. His younger, sinful brother returns home; he’s met with joy and celebration by their father while he, the elder and faithful son, is neglected. He is, of course, wrong to be bitter, and he is right to faithfully serve in his father’s house; but he is also stuck — believing that he is unappreciated.
In my community, I find Christian and non-Christian groups that are cynical about white churches, other white institutions, and even white residents. I too struggle with this as I see well-meaning white evangelicals with little empathy to the plight and mindset of black people in rapidly changing communities. It is, of course, wrong for black people to reject their white brothers and make them feel guilty; and it is commendable that ethnic institutions have faithfully cared for youth and the poor for generations. However, people of color find themselves stuck: they believe they’re unloved, unappreciated, and inferior to their white counterparts who have freedom to move and thrive in gentrifying communities.
This mindset is not just sin bred from past discrimination; it is fostered by a lack of brotherly love on the part of white evangelicals and secularists alike. Church policies and values that cause black seminarians to scorn their own culture or that fail to recognize black pastors as full partners in ministry can only produce churches in the favored mold rather than dignify other ways of thinking and doing church in the PCA. A loving posture from my white Christian brothers would be refreshing. And a willingness to explore new ways to structure education and ministry in our changing inner cities might build respect — in both directions.
After graduating from seminary, Jason Davison and his wife Foxy moved back to Seattle and now serving bi-vocationally in Central and South Seattle. Davison is an assistant pastor at Crosspoint Churches, a multi-site church-planting body. Currently, the Davisons run a Schaeffer-like ministry through a cafe that offers hospitality to the neighborhood, community dialogue, and job-training for youth.