Time Magazine recently did a piece on evangelicals bridging the racial divide. It describes the work that Willow Creek founder Bill Hybels and his colleague Alvin Bibbs (men that I know personally and respect greatly) are doing to make 11 o’clock on Sunday morning a vision of the American ideal of racial harmony instead of — as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said — “the most segregated hour the week.” It involves everything from growing minority membership to including references and worship styles from the African American tradition into services. Like any big change, this has involved sacrifice. When Hybels had his ‘conversion experience’ about America’s race problem (after reading a book that Alvin Bibbs, an African-American, passed on to him), he committed to making Willow a model of the solution. Going against the 24-year history of Willow Creek, Hybels started preaching about the importance of engaging race as a justice issue. A few years later, he threw down the gauntlet: bridging the racial divide is “part of who we are, and if it can’t be part of who you are, you probably need to find a church that doesn’t talk about this issue.” He lost members, but living more deeply into his faith made the sacrifice worth it.
This is what I love about evangelicals, about religious people period, actually. Their willingness to follow a cosmic sense of what’s right, even if there are earthly sacrifices to be made.
I believe evangelicals are the most powerful culture-shaping force in America. Hollywood has reach and glamor, Harvard has intellectual muscle, but both are tainted by charges (some true, some unfair) of elitism. Evangelical Christianity is a middle America movement with huge numbers, loud microphones and an ethos that huge swaths of this country – whether they sing praise songs in church or not – identifies with. Take my mother, an Indian Muslim woman who lives in suburban Chicago and teaches accounting at a community college. Imagine my surprise when I walked into her home the other week and she was listening to Christian radio! “What’s this about?” I asked. “I like the soothing voice and the music. It’s always positive and never dirty.”
Most importantly, when evangelicals engage cultural issues, those issues turn. That’s why so many people were excited when Rich Cizik, then VP of the National Association of Evangelicals, put his stake in the ground around the environment. The best example of this may be AIDS. In 1985, the image of AIDS was a gay bath house in San Francisco that the culture should curse. In 2005, the image of AIDS was an orphan in Africa that the world should help. Evangelicals helped create the first image, and then after many had real-world experiences of the devastation in Africa, tore that image down and erected the second one. That is astounding cultural power.
And now some evangelicals are taking on the issue of the faith divide. A few years ago I had the great honor of speaking at the Q Conference, a gathering that explores new issues relevant to the evangelical community. I’ve written about how Rick Warren and Jim Wallis have increasingly reached out to Muslims and how Skye Jethani, an important young preacher and writer, has been eloquent on this issue . My colleague and friend on Obama’s Faith Council, Pastor Joel Hunter, had the youth group at his Northland Church participate in an interfaith service week with a Muslim-Christian Service project.
Pastor Bob Roberts has just put out an excellent book on this topic, Real-Time Connections. It describes Bob’s travels in Vietnam and the Muslim world, his friendships with non Christians, and his commitment to serving others of all faiths not primarily to make them Christian but to make himself more Christian.
It is a beautiful, brave book. And it gives me a ton of hope. Notre Dame political scientist David Campbell says that evangelical churches taking on race can be the final step in America’s transcending our original sin. I believe if evangelicals bridge the faith divide, we could make the 21st century one characterized by interfaith cooperation rather than religious conflict.