We are blessed in our church to have leaders on staff and godly lay-leaders of impeccable integrity. Our church in Orange Park, Florida (First Baptist Church - FBCOP, near Jacksonville) is a predominantly white, Anglo one. We have existed in this community for over ninety-nine years. In that time, there are undoubtedly chapters in our history that are well left in our rear-view mirror. Yet, for every challenge and soiled chapter, God's grace has proven sufficient. For his glory alone, his church in Orange Park remains. I pray that as we look to celebrate our one-hundred year anniversary next spring, we will trust God for the days ahead so that those who are yet to be part of our fellowship will follow God wholeheartedly, lead selflessly, and impact our community and world missionally.
Every generation of believers in our church has been faced with challenges and difficulties. Some are negative and sinful issues developed outside the church walls that sadly crept within. Others were of our own making. The sinful nature of those in the building sometimes superseded the calling and ministry of God's church. I addressed one such scar and evil era in a post last year. You can read it here.
Racism Within the Church
Much has been said recently regarding racial issues in our nation. Sadly, some of my older pastor friends state that it feels like they're living through the late 1960s all over again. I lament that it seems we should be further along than we actually are.
When it comes to what is termed systemic racism, there are many "hot takes" on the subject. Many of these are shared on social media and sent via email or text to friends and acquaintances. Some would say that even speaking on the subject of social justice would categorize an individual as a Marxist, and therefore in the current "cancel culture" lead to an elimination of any dialogue.
This is not only outside the church, but within evangelical (and especially Southern Baptist) corners.
Racial Diversity Within the Church
I celebrate the reality that our church is no longer homogenous when it comes to race. It hasn't been since years prior to my arrival in 1994, but this church existed for decades when segregation was the law, so I'm sure there are stories - sad, embarrassing, sinful stories. Nevertheless, the reality is that we are, in the words of a dear friend, still "very white." I'm not apologizing for that fact because those who call our church home have been called by God to join and are covenant members. However, I do recognize God's calling to be missional and strategic in actually reaching those who live in our neighborhood and community (not just those who lived here thirty years ago.) Over the past few decades our community has shifted demographically and while some churches such as ours would seek to relocate to a newer community (basically a version of church-based "white flight") I am actually seeking God's lead in reaching our neighbors of diverse ethnic backgrounds where we live while simultaneously starting new churches in numerous other areas at the same time.
This means our church demography will change. Our leadership makeup will change. To be a multi-ethnic church (or as I like to call it, a biblical church) we must recognize that simply left to our own comfort levels and historical methods, we will never be the church God has been and continues to call us to be.
Addressing Systemic Racism Within the Church
Now, for the part of the article that will either gain me more followers and friends or lead me to be blocked online by others...
I do not back down when it comes to calling out racism. I never have. Yet, in this case, I believe it best to hear from someone else–from a friend, a sister in Christ, and a Christian leader.
Selena and Patrick Hayle have been members of FBCOP since 1997. I began serving on pastoral staff as youth pastor in 1994, later as Lead Pastor in 2005.
Patrick currently serves as the Executive Director and CEO of Mercy Support Services, a non-profit focused on helping offer a hand up to the unemployed, homeless, and downtrodden in our community. Patrick also serves as our Pastor of Mercy Ministries here at the church.
Selena Hayle has served for years in various rescue missions and other ministries. She currently serves as the Southeast Regional Coordinator for the Citygate Network which exists to to provide the envisioning, education, training, resources, guidance, representation, and nexus for missions and kindred ministries that are striving to move people in destitute conditions or desperate situations from human suffering to human flourishing through the process of gospel-powered life transformation.
Recently, John Ashmen, President of Citygate, asked black members of the Citygate Network staff to respond to questions that white people often ask as it relates to racism and other issues. Ashmen presented these questions and responses in an email to supporters and I received permission from Selena Hayle to share her portion.
"What does systemic racism look like, and specifically, how are you affected by it during a normal day in 2020?"
ANSWER BY SELENA HAYLE:
One of the things that God has done is to use my husband and me to integrate white churches in the South. After we encountered many episodes of racism in New York, we moved to Atlanta in 1991 and continued to share our lives with blacks and whites there. In many cases, we were the only blacks at events we attended, the communities we lived in, and in the places we dined. Some of the racism we experienced looks the same today as it did decades ago: Christians in the churches would sit on the opposite side of where we sat. People would be very sweet and appear welcoming at church but would ignore us in the supermarket or in the post office the following week.
Systemic racism means that people will look at your résumé and see your experience and call you, excited to schedule an interview. But when you get there and they see your skin color, the job is suddenly no longer available, or the process is explained to be longer and more complex than you were originally led to believe.
As a black CEO, systemic racism means that some white people will pass you in the office and ask the first white person they see to direct them to the CEO—whom they expected to be white. Systemic racism also suggests that as a black CEO you should make less than your white peers simply because of the color of your skin.
Having survived 37 years in America as a born-again believer, I must say that things for me have changed. I don’t judge people’s racist behavior anymore, but I continue to have open discussions with both blacks and whites, even when I notice evidence or even hints of racism. I continue to share with my bi-racial grandchildren that not everyone sees their blended cultures as a positive thing. When I’m out with my white relatives and friends, we sometimes have a wakeup call that we’re not all equal in the eyes of our neighbors.
My black family and friends have to face the racist ordeals when they come to visit. But I’ve learned that the only way to love my neighbor as myself is to love God first! We need to be focused on who we are in Christ and making sure that the world sees who we are now, rather than who we used to be.
Listen. Learn. Then, Do Something.
I am thankful God has placed Patrick and Selena Hayle and their family in my life. I am blessed to be their friend and pastor. In Selena's concise response presented in this post, I am also educated in ways that I otherwise would not be.
As the church (not just our local expression of church) moves through these days, we must be more than open to listen. In fact, there are times when things within the church must shut down so that vital issues may be addressed. With COVID-19, we have not had to plan a shut down. It has been planned for us (and I'm not speaking of the government doing this, but God doing this.)
In the New Testament, there are two times when the church leaders said "Stop! We need to address this issue right now. Everything is on pause until this is addressed. We cannot just keep going and hope this works itself out." (Okay - that's my paraphrase, but you get the point.) The two times are in Acts 6 and Acts 15 and both cases are about ethnic tension.
So...racial reconciliation and racial unity are not outliers, but part of what it means to be one as believers.
Conversations among image-bearers on differing viewpoints of racial issues cannot be done if everyone conversing is of the same race and cultural background. Therefore, we must continue having conversations, but also must begin (or continue) breaking down whatever has been built that, even unintentionally, elevates one image-bearer over another or denigrates one under another simply due to skin color, heart language, or cultural heritage.
We are one in the bond of love and that love is the unconditional love found only in Christ.