Three Ways Your Church Can Embrace the Lessons of Ferguson

As Ferguson leaves the national limelight, here are three ways you can make sure your community does not miss its most crucial lessons.

Many of us sat before our screens unable to look away. A body was lying in the middle of the street as police officers paced by. A growing crowd gathered at the place where bloodstains soaked into the ground. Protest signs waved against a background of tank units. Gas filled the screens. As the events in Ferguson continued to unfold, we peeled back the layers of injustice. Our understanding of criminality, causality, and culpability hung in the balance.

Moved by the strength and determination of Ferguson’s community, many have asked, “What would God have me do?” It’s a noble question, though far too often it’s asked solely on an individual level. I would like to submit to you three ways the Church — even your church — might consider answering that question as a body of believers.

This is not an exhaustive list. Sadly, there is much work to be done, but I pray that this list serves as a good starting place, a match that the Holy Spirit might strike.

1. Confess the racial history of your church.

Admit it if your church body has always been largely white. Admit that it ignored racial tensions of the [insert decade here]. Admit when whiteness failed and how that effected communities of color.

That second part is really important. It’s not enough to pretend that your choices as a church existed in a vacuum. Your choices as a church affected people. Families of color didn’t feel safe coming to you. Multiracial families were isolated in your church. Your church members didn’t allow a shelter to be built. You were so busy running the food pantry that you didn’t vote for wage increases that could have helped every family who comes. Your members moved when people of color started to arrive. People of color are regularly pulled over on the way to your church because it’s so racially isolated, and your church has done nothing about it.

I don’t know your story as a church, but you should. Confess the ways your church has promoted whiteness and then move to confessing how that impacted the rest of God’s Church.

2. Discover the systems of racism that perpetuate the needs your church is meeting. 

You have homelessness ministries, food pantries, prison ministries, after-school programming, and more. Some of them you have had for decades. You consume books on how to improve the ministry, how to be better, how to stretch those dollars further, how to be of help to those who partake of the services. And yet you cannot recite one statistic on the racial injustice therein.

What is the connection between urban renewal, the displacement of African Americans, and their overrepresentation in shelters? You should know that. Why are there food deserts in black and brown neighborhoods that force folks to come to your food pantry? You should know that. How are laws constructed and enforced that allow for the gross overrepresentation of black and Latino people in the criminal justice system? You should know that. What accounts for the lack of after-school programming in under-resourced communities? You should know that.

Become an expert. Trace how these institutions, policies, and laws have changed over time and how they affect the lives of the people you serve.

It’s time to stop patting ourselves on the back for having these services; we need to start figuring out what injustice has occurred that makes them necessary in the first place.

3. Make racial reconciliation a consistent conversation.

Your church is committed to teaching the Word of God, right? Do you only do that once a year?

Your church is committed to prayer, right? Do you only pray when a tragedy happens in the congregation?

Your church is committed to families, right? Do you only talk about families once at Christmas time?

If you are only talking about racial reconciliation during MLK Day and when national tragedy strikes, your church may be interested in racial reconciliation, but it is not committed to it. Racial reconciliation must become a consistent part of your conversation as a church; otherwise it’s not going to happen.

If you need some examples for how churches are making this a sustained conversation, check out Quest Church, Church of All Nations, Willow Chicago, River City Community Church, and Bridgeway Church. I’m sure there are others; find the ones in your area for inspiration.

But don’t be afraid to carve your own way. Your next steps may be different based on your responses to #1 and #2. What I can assure you is that none of these churches sacrifice prayer, scripture, or family picnics to give space to racial justice and reconciliation. It’s just a part of who they are.

Again, this is not a complete list by any means. But I hope my point is clear. If you are tired of injustice (rather than just tired of your feelings when injustice occurs), your church can choose to be different. Your church body is absolutely capable of making the world better. But you must decide whether or not you get a small high from reciting all your service projects. You must decide whether or not you enjoy being the savior for families, or if you want them to never have to come back to your pantry ever again. You have to decide if you’re ready for confession and the repentance that confession will require. You have to decide if discussing reconciliation will be your church’s hobby or if practicing reconciliation will be your legacy.

Image courtesy of Rena Schild/Shutterstock.com.