“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
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?
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!
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)