W.W.B – Worshipping While Brown

“Absolute hospitality would in no way amount to the absence of violence. To the contrary, it would enthrone violence precisely under the guise of nonviolence because it would leave the violators unchanged and the consequences of violence unremedied.” – Miroslav Volf

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It’s exhausting to be the brown girl at church.

The evangelical church.
The progressive church.
The non-denominational church.
Seemingly, any church.

I’ve spent 12 years volleying between these church traditions; bobbing and weaving but never quite being able to avoid the race-based offenses.

Each of us carries our own stories of what Miroslav Volf would call “exclusion and embrace”.  This includes white people and people of color alike. The commonality ends there though. Our world runs on a system that sanctions racism and that system favors white people over people of color. Rather than being a prophetic voice for change the Church is often guilty of reflecting this unjust system. There are the overt acts but more common, and more insidious, are the unintentional microaggressions.

I’ve recently moved to a new city and have found a new church but with that has come the same coded language and well-meaning ignorance.

My name is unique to white people. I get that. Hell, it’s even unique among people who are Venezuelan. I know it takes a few tries before you’re going to get the pronunciation right. I know you’re going to want to know the origins. But there are ways that you ask and there are ways that you don’t.

Last week at my new bible study…

White girl #1: What’s your name?
Me: AnaYelsi
White girl #2: So what is that? Where are you from?
Me: It’s Venezuelan
Both girls: OMG!! Do you know Faviana?! She goes to our church too!
Me: No
Girl #1: Are you sure? She’s Venezuelan too!
Me: [blank stare]
Both girls: [speaking over one another as they attempt to share a wealth of unsolicited information about Faviana]

As I said, I get it. There’s no malice here. You want to connect. I’m the “other” and you want to find a way to build a bridge between us. Assuming I know every Venezuelan within a 5-mile radius is probably not the ideal way to go about that. I don’t look at your blonde hair and green eyes and assume you know Sylvia (the little white girl I used to play with when I was 9). Perhaps a simple, “That’s beautiful. Were you named after someone?” This gives me the opportunity to decide if and when I want to share my story.

We rarely discuss racism in the church. It’s the sin we’re too afraid to name and are ill equipped to face. We even go so far as to lie; seeing an environment fraught with uncontested acts of racism and naming it ”peaceful”. When the acts are identified for what they are we call those brave (often lone) voices “divisive”. We value a comfortable Sunday morning over a just one. But who’s comfort are we ensuring?

I certainly wasn’t comfortable when a white friend (from church) heard me casually slip into another vernacular while speaking on the phone to a fellow PoC (person of color) and proceeded to ask me why I was talking “black”.

I was far from comfortable when another white friend (from church), who worked for the Sheriff’s office, sat in my own living room and defended racial profiling by telling me, “You have to admit AnaYelsi, it’s people who look like you that commit most crimes anyway”.

Comfortable isn’t how I would describe the hurt of a white love interest (from church) telling me, “I’ve thought about it [dating me] but I just don’t see myself with an “Hispanic” (he went on to clarify that ones who passed for white were a different story).

I’m never comfortable when you ask my name and I have to deny my heritage by saying, “Ana” instead of “AnaYelsi” because I’m tired of the conversation that will surely follow.

I’m not even comfortable as I write this. I’m worried I’ve said “white” too many times and my white (there I go again) readers will feel attacked or bullied.

When do I get a turn at being “comfortable”?

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, . . . His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Eph. 2:14-16, NIV).

We need to begin having the conversations in the Church that will show we value the dignity of all over the comfort of the few. We must ensure that the consequences of violence do not go unremedied. This means challenging one another when we commit the “small” transgressions and it means being willing to be challenged. I promise you, those “small” acts don’t feel so small to the person subjected to them. Not when they are one in a sea of many. I know I’m welcome in my church. I’m even warmly embraced but every one of the above stories is still an act of violence. They are wounds I carry with me. The Church can and should be an instrument of reconciliation but we risk hypocrisy if we preach that to the world and do not practice it within our walls.

The Church cannot allow the burden to be on people of color. We’re not here to be your teachers or your guides. We’re not spokespeople and we’re not responsible for your awakening to the need for racial equity. A true commitment to racial justice is taking ownership of your own education. It’s reading the right books, finding answers to your own questions and living in a posture of humility and learning. Most importantly, it is entering into a season of repentance and lament. I’m much more inclined to come alongside you in these efforts than I am to do the work of dragging you, unwillingly, behind me.

“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.  In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.” (Eph. 2:19-21, NIV)

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5 thoughts on “W.W.B – Worshipping While Brown

  1. This is a great post! It reminds me of my time as a student at a Christian University. I do have a question though. How do you feel about predominantly non-white churches? Would you consider attending one of those or do you feel that there are other problems that exist in those contexts?

    • Thank you for your comment, Jonathan.

      First, I would say there are problems that exists at all congregations. That’s simply part of being a human in relationship with other humans and why we’re so lucky for a little thing called grace :)

      I would certainly consider attending a predominantly none-white church. It’s simply a matter of finding the right community for me and, as a non-denominational 20-something Christian with a Methodist/evangelical background, the congregations that I am most drawn to are often predominantly (but not entirely) white. I’ve also attended ones with a greater mix in race/ethnicity and some of the above experiences still occur. It’s an unfortunate reality for a society where we do not prioritize racial reconciliation and sensitivity :/

      • I can see that. I would imagine even with some diversity there are still questions of who is in leadership, or what is the organizational culture like, or even just random instances of micro-aggressions. I think to some extent I have remained in predominantly “ethnic” churches for reasons like these.

  2. thanks for writing this AnaYelsi. I had MANY things happen to me at the conference this weekend that resonated as I was reading. Woman mistook another AA for me, and called him out on it in a strange way, refused to really acknowledge it. At a bar on sat, a white lady insisted on calling Republican black folks “uncle toms.” At the afterparty, a guest told me he would “never date an Asian, only white guys.” Even at the AA caucus some white folks made an appearance that was perplexing, and reminded me of this post by Sarah Ahmed (http://feministkilljoys.com/2013/08/30/it-can-tiring-all-that-whiteness/).

    whenever I tried to point this out, it felt like the critiques were called out as bothersome or unnecessary (thinking of a few folks here, one actually – jokingly, I’m sure – called me a b**** at one point for mentioning the color skew).

    I don’t regret a second of my experience this weekend, and the bad taste left in my mouth from a few of these things was pretty overwhelmed by the amazing conversations and meetings I had. As you said in your piece, these “acts of violence” hurt, but I know things could be a lot worse. I will always remember my time in DC as a life giving and profoundly impactful experience, one that might have changed the course of my whole life for the better. Even if I need to take a day or two and process some things.

    I’m not super bothered – these things happen at any church with majority whites I think.

    • Ugh! You may not be super bothered but I sure am!

      No, but seriously, I am so sorry for each of those moments, Ryan. It is not okay and it warrants being addressed. I’m glad you were able to have a good experience in spite of those moments but you shouldn’t have to endure them in the first place.

      Love you and so glad you were able to join us!

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