As a white pastor, I submitted to black leadership
“What will racial reconciliation look like in the church in the United States?
The questioner was a student at Duke Divinity School circa 2005. The stage was a large auditorium-style classroom, and the class was Preaching, a staple of the MDiv program I was in at the time. The teacher at the front was William “Bill” Turner, a black Baptist pastor-theologian. He was loved by the many mainline students who discovered him at Duke almost as much as by the Black Baptists who came to school in part because he was there.
In response to the question, Turner looked the student straight in the eye and said, “One thing it will look like is white people ready to sit under black preaching. You don’t see that very often.
His response, etched in my mind, has challenged and spurred my wife and me over the years. The invitation to submission is compelling to white Christians like me. I have to ask myself, Would I sit and learn the Word of God under the authority of a black pastor?
Of course I wouldthe answer arises in me. After all, I’m not racist.
I suspect that kind of response is one shared by many other white Christians. But my question is not abstract or “in principle”. As Dostoyevsky writes in The Karamazov brotherslove in dreams is easy compared to love in reality.
If I ask the question much more concretely, then, I must ask, Would I find myself listening to black people preach most Sundays for any appreciable amount of time?
Even after leaving Duke Divinity, my own answer to that question would most often have been no. But a few years ago, that changed.
My family and I had recently moved to Austin and moved into an east side neighborhood full of historic black churches. In this space, my wife and I felt the tug of Turner’s words. But we were not quick to submit to black preaching. My wife is Anglican so we had decided to contact the local Anglican congregation first which we had previously attended when we were in town for the holidays.
Yet we have talked a lot about the testimony of Turner and the black churches near us. And then one Sunday morning, after the Spirit moved my wife, she and I with our three children attended worship at Simpson United Methodist Church, a black congregation founded in 1880.
With Simpson, love is not abstract or principled. Anyone who walks through the front doors will hear the phrase “I love you for real!” – a refrain modeled by Pastor Robert Waddle. When we arrived they greeted us and brought us to their midst. We got up and sang. We sat on the love-worn wooden pews and listened to a sermon by Waddle, a wise, generous and larger-than-life man energetic to share the gospel.
After our first visit, we started going once a month. I preached here and there and met individually with Waddle, then a few months later he invited me to join the staff as a part-time pastor.
I never anticipated the chance to serve a black congregation. I needed to pray, I told him. I needed to reflect on my important apprehensions. What business had I, a white man with many privileges in his life, to have a place of authority in a black congregation?
White Christians in America have always been very happy to preach to Negroes and exercise all kinds of authority over them. No, Turner had said that racial reconciliation involved white people being willing to submit to black authority. I heard his words echo in my head, I felt the Holy Spirit pull me forward, and I knew this was my chance to do just that.
While serving under Waddle at Simpson, I came to two important beliefs. First, for too long I had ignored a community living alongside me in my hometown.
In his book The Christian Imaginary: Theology and Origins of Race, Willie James Jennings tells the story of his childhood encounter with two white missionaries. They came from the white congregation a few hundred yards down the street, entered the garden where Jennings was playing, then introduced themselves to his mother. One then went on to explain at length his church, his programs for children, and the good things he wanted to do for the neighborhood.
“My mom finally interrupted this future neighborhood missionary’s speech with the words, ‘I’m already a Christian, I believe in Jesus, and I attend New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, where Reverend JV Williams is the pastor,'” writes Jennings.
The author goes on to say, “Experiences like these fueled a question that took on a hermeneutical force for me: why didn’t they know us? They should have known us very well.
During my time at Simpson’s, those two lines were reversed: “Why didn’t I know them?” I should have known them very well. I started to know people I should have known already. After all, I had grown up in The United Methodist Church in Austin, and my first pastoral appointment was at a white church on the same street as Simpson (yet miles away in spirit). A woman at church was even in my high school class.
In a sense, I was submitting not only to a black pastor, but also to a whole community and a stream of my own tradition that I had mostly ignored until then. I will always consider it a great grace to have been able to experience how different the same church calendar and the same scriptures seem to those of the Black Methodist tradition.
For example, and to state the obvious, the Exodus story matters differently – and, I dare say, more – in the American black church than in the white church. The late Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson identified God thus: “God is he who raised Jesus from the dead, having previously raised Israel out of Egypt. Jenson grasped how this parallel of liberation is absolutely essential to our recognition of the God revealed by the gospel.
The people of Simpson, then, by patiently teaching me to worship, pray and preach in their midst, showed me a dimension of our salvation in Christ that I doubt I could have otherwise appreciated. I will be eternally grateful to them.
Second, I was able to understand, in a limited but consistent way, the radical affirmation of our faith that all enmity is finally overcome in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2; Col. 1).
Even if it were possible, it would be undesirable to forget the wounds and the legacy of American racism. But at Simpson, I got a taste of how the death and resurrection of Christ makes a difference in the present. We don’t need to ignore the racism that still shapes our society to have hope or to come together in church. We can worship with those from whom we have historically been estranged because of sin. We can be a body—and still remember our worst sins—in the context of the Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection. And we can do this “until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26).
In the past, I had seen this truth in the abstract. I had believed the testimonies of others. But Simpson invited me to join the choir: God’s love in Jesus Christ is real.
Not everyone can do what I was lucky enough to do at Simpsons. But the takeaways are similar. Today, the task of predominantly white churches is to humbly begin (or continue) to know people and congregations we should already know well. For some, that means getting to know a nearby black or non-white congregation. For others, it may involve regularly going to a local black church and sitting down to preach.
The grace of God makes the church possible. Even now, in this “present evil age” (Gal. 1:4), or what Augustine called “the land of unlikeness,” Christ is resurrected. His resurrection promises that death has been destroyed and “that God be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).
Racial reconciliation imposes itself on us because, in the end, it is assured.
Clifton Stringer is a pastor and theologian in central Texas. Learn more about his writings at cliftonstringer.com.
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