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When the Church Looks Like the Kingdom

5 years ago written by
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BY RICHARD C. HARRIS

While I was speaking on a university campus, an audience member told me: “A black family just bought a home in my neighborhood. Property values will go down, and crime will go up, and I want to know what I can do about it!”

I suggested she bake either cookies or a cake, whichever she made best, and go meet her new neighbors who sounded like they wanted a good neighborhood in which to rear their children.

A church member informed me that he wouldn’t be hosting the annual church picnic at his home anymore because blacks and Hispanics (he used other terms) were coming. After all, what would his neighbors think of him if they saw “those people” on his property? I said, “Maybe they’d mistake you for a Christian.”

My bishop assigned me to a church that was in a landlord relationship with a Haitian congregation. When I found out the Haitian pastor had no office in the church that had plenty of extra rooms, I immediately told him to pick his new office. I also saw that many in his congregation wanted to improve their English, so I suggested they attend my services as well as the Haitian services. Soon the Haitian pastor and I were co-pastoring all of the people, holding services together and becoming Christ’s church.

Then I caught a white member of the church using his cane to strike the Haitian pastor’s 8-year-old son, trying to push him out of the way. When I confronted the man, he said, “I’m tired of these Haitians (he used another term) sitting in my pews in my church. We white folk don’t want them here.”

After a book was published about my pre-Christian days as a leader in the infamous Ku Klux Klan, a leading church layman informed me that he agreed with just about 100 percent of what my book says. Then, he qualified his statement with, “Yeah, I agree with just about everything the Klan stands for.”

I wish I could tell you that these events took place 60 or 80 years ago, but I can’t. I wish I could tell you that these incidents occurred only in the Deep South, where we might expect racism to still have a hold on the culture, but I can’t. These are just small examples of the racism that still pervades the American and church culture like a curse. Yes, gone are the Jim Crow laws and the days of “separate but equal.” However, someone looking at the American church culture today would have a hard time making a case that we have come very far in integrating our houses of worship as we have integrated our schools, shops and restaurants.

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE

Sunday morning still remains the most segregated time of the week in this country. There are some multiethnic, multiracial churches, but most churches are far from integrated. However, we are uniquely poised to change the look and feel of the American church’s landscape. I started life in a segregated public school; joined and became the leader of a major white supremacist, terrorist organization; was converted to Christ; and have since fought many battles over the years to form multiethnic congregations. I truly believe this Bible verse: “From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth” (Acts 17:26a NLT).

We are all related, and Christ died for the human race, not a particular color of people.

Although embarrassed by some elements of the church’s past and annoyed by some of what I still see in the present, I’m excited for the church’s future. With new church paradigms being established, now is the time to banish the idea of black churches and white churches. Now is the time to have the church start looking and acting like the kingdom of God.
As Colossians 3:11 (NLT) states, “In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.”

WHAT MUST THE CHURCH DO?

Often when speaking around the country, I ask my audiences to raise their hands if they have friends of different races. Almost every hand immediately goes up. Then I define what I mean by “friend.”

A friend isn’t just a co-worker or someone at your school. A friend isn’t the cashier at which you smile when you go to the grocery store every week. No, a friend is someone you call up and say, “Hey, we’re having a cookout at my house this weekend. Why don’t you bring the family and come over?” Friends are people you go out to eat with, go to the movies with, and just hang out with — not because you have to, but because you want to.

After my explanation, I tell the audience, “Now, put your hands up if you have friends of other races.” The difference is shocking; it’s even more shocking when my audience is in a church or at a Christian university. It’s time to change that scenario. But how?

Multiethnic congregations are built by people who have multiethnic friendships -— a simple, yet profound truth. I have found that people like to go to church with their friends — regardless of the color of their friends’ skin.

Both people and churches need to intentionally form friendships across ethnic lines. These friendships usually don’t just happen, because they take us out of our comfort zone.

Churches become multiethnic when the pastor both models such relationships and teaches the congregation about building healthy race relations.

One evening I was in a meeting with black, white and Hispanic pastors from various denominations. We were working together to confront public officials on the need to staff health clinics in farm areas with bilingual doctors and nurses — or to at least provide translators — because the clinics were there to serve migrant workers, many of whom did not speak English. We ended the meeting by holding hands and singing “We Shall Overcome.” An older black pastor started crying uncontrollably. He explained that he never thought he would live to see the day when a whole room full of white, black and Hispanic pastors would sing that song with him and vow to stand with each other and see justice done. He summed it up beautifully when he said, “This is Christ’s kingdom.” [LLM] 0

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