As a professor of theology and ethics at a divinity school as well as a layperson with experience in African American churches, Nigerian immigrant churches and predominantly white churches over the course of my life, I know this much to be true: there are numerous Christianities in the world that, despite their diversity, are intricately intertwined.
Those of us who are products and members of the Christian church are not as disconnected as some may think. In fact, suffice to say, church history is not necessarily about grasping doctrinal beginnings and parsing theological foundations but mainly about recognizing where people and their beliefs come from.
History is integral to a perceived Christian togetherness. Consistently recognizing the details of such history, especially the forgotten or forgettable ones, is what etches itself into a healthy church’s ecclesial memory and function.
Within the United States, a common detail many do not know what to do with, or would rather not truly grapple with, is race. Where does race fit into a church’s history, and what needs to be recognized and named for it to be accounted for properly?
Racism in U.S. churches is a problem created by whiteness. Are white churches ready to recognize and do something about this?
What is white people’s responsibility if their Christianity, knowingly or unknowingly, takes its cues from whiteness? What is their responsibility if the veins of their ecclesial rhythms are historically connected to a heart intent on doing good in the world that has instead cauterized the lifeblood of God’s creative diversity?
Only time will tell — and in this short life, the only thing we have time for is the truth.
Whiteness, the superiority complex attached to having white skin or white European ancestry, has done a fantastic job of making itself appear to be a theological category.
Whiteness has tricked too many people into mistaking white people for purity, white cultural Christianity for righteousness, a European interpretation of piety for goodness. Whiteness overvalues European-based ideology and anoints it as holy, then goes on a crusade to convince the world, through violence and force, that clinging to rigid Europeanness signals the right way of living.
Black culture knows about white ethnocentric rules: anyone who does not agree with these rules is under threat. White Christianity becomes “right Christianity.”
It is the responsibility of white Christians to stop the oppressive piety, to stop the spiritual bullying, the shutting off of their ears to “others,” or worse, the appreciation of “others” and their practices as distant ideas that have nothing to do with their white community.
Historical examination and acknowledgment are a start to taking responsibility.
White Christian churches, their leaders and parishioners, their individuals and families, their theologically progressive, moderate, and conservative minds, must never stop learning about the history of the United States from minoritized perspectives, because history is still happening!
History must become like liturgy. It must be given a permanent space in the rituals of white ecclesiology.
And it must become so because it is a burden. It is already a burden for Black and other minoritized communities to bear what white parishioners and pastors and their ancestors have historically been involved in, advocated for, benefited from or remained silent about.
It is time for white churches to carry, for the remainder of their lives, the burden they have created for others, even those whose families never owned slaves, even those who are aware of their privilege and are already doing the best they can.
Whiteness has bestowed on all white people a gift — the gift of being perceived as pure, fundamentally correct and morally right-standing. This gift that was given to a blossoming whiteness established centuries ago continues to work hard to blanket the world in the same false perceptions today.
Taking on the burden of not turning away from or denying whiteness’s historical actions forces white Christians to choose: acknowledge history and walk in truth (one completely unsteadying to what they may “know”) or downplay history as a weapon minoritized communities or political pundits wield to make white people feel bad.
Remembering this truth, all of it, incites affect, feeling. White Christianity is grounded in a foundation of positive feeling — about one’s understanding of spiritual wellness and right living in the world. If it does not feel good, white Christians are convinced it isn’t God.
Upend feeling good with a dose of historical truth, and white Christianity becomes unrecognizable and — dare I say it — unwanted. But if white Christians pay attention to the messages of how one group should live well or rightly with another in Scripture, it hardly feels good.
It feels hard. And for many, it is difficult to equate “hard” with “right.”
The call to adjust and learn a wider way of being in the world is constant throughout the scriptural text. Hardly anyone lands on feeling good; they do, however, land on learning God.
Concretizing the hard truths of history permanently into the rhythm of the white church is a critical responsibility for white churches.
They will soon learn that being changed by the truth in this way will provide enlightenment about what must come next — whether it be dismantling denominational loyalties, revising practices of ecclesial and social community, talking about the immorality of land ownership, or insisting that the undoing of whiteness requires the building up of all minoritized communities historically affected by whiteness.
White churches serious about being Christian will begin to see what whiteness has done for and meant to them and will, hopefully, be horrified into leading a different type of existence.
How do white Christians jar themselves loose from a stagnant posture and live in the uneasiness?
They concede decision making and control over their churches, their land, their money, their social ideals, their government and their schools to imaginative, forward-thinking, liberation-minded and willing Black or other minoritized women and persons. They grant them power over white spaces and, in this, gladly welcome the erosion of such spaces. White churches must be OK with, even excited about, their disintegration.
It sounds drastic because it is. Whiteness has ensured that any equitable world sounds like an impossibility.
For those of you I may have lost with my words, I invite you back in. And I invite you to dig in to what is being offered here: there is no easy way to bring in a new world if the old one stubbornly insists on the benevolent parts of itself.
Loosening the grip on “how we’ve always done it” is the best place to start.
Truth and history must make their way into the lifeblood of a church. In liturgy, litanies of truth telling and repentance can become a common practice. In a church’s financial life, permanently supporting minoritized communities on whose land and in whose lives the church’s presence has trespassed — in ways that the minoritized communities themselves designate — is a risk worth taking.
In everyday life, outside of the sacred meetings together on Sundays or Wednesdays, every soul of the church should ask: “What hard and risky action am I taking today to make right the complicated history within me?”
Then, even if it is painful, they should make that shift.
For those of you I may have lost with my words, I invite you back in.
My recent book, “Becoming the Baptized Body,” owes its origin to a rather unexpected place: the waiting room of a multidisciplinary pediatric clinic. In this waiting room, where I’ve met countless families as an occupational therapist over the past decade, I encountered a preteen named Hallie and her mother, Heather (whose names have been changed for their anonymity and whose story is being shared with their permission). Engaging in some introductory small talk, I mentioned to Heather that in addition to my clinical work, I studied and taught theology at Duke Divinity School.
With this revelation of my bi-vocation, something shifted within Heather. Her eyes lit up intensely, and she began to lament her and Hallie’s experiences in the church. Hallie loves loud gospel music and being around people. She also uses a wheelchair and has an intellectual disability. Though Hallie is nonspeaking, she communicates her needs and emotions in a rich diversity of ways.
Heather longed for Hallie to be baptized. She recounted to me their family’s story of traveling from church to church, seeking a community of belonging. But Hallie and Heather couldn’t find this kind of church. Pastors and lay members of congregations told Heather that Hallie’s vocalizations were too disruptive during their services. In many churches, Heather recalled, Hallie couldn’t access Sunday school or the sanctuary in her wheelchair. And in one conversation Heather had with a pastor, she was told that it wouldn’t matter if her daughter were baptized, because Hallie couldn’t understand what was happening.
Hallie and Heather’s story of seeking a community of baptismal belonging is one among many stories, wounds and questions that disabled Christians in my life have recounted to me over the years. Their stories have shaped me into the kind of theologian I am today — a partner alongside Christians with intellectual disabilities, seeking to uncover how we might grow in love of God and love of neighbor more faithfully.
Over the past several decades, various theologians and Christian leaders have contributed to the field of disability theology. However, in this body of theological literature, perspectives from people with intellectual disabilities are few and far between. As I sat with the pain of Hallie and Heather’s story, along with other experiences of rejection from churches among my friends with intellectual disabilities, I resolved to prioritize the perspectives of disabled Christians in my own theological work on disability and the church. I committed to theology done in partnership.
With this commitment, I spent a year visiting Christians with intellectual disabilities around the state of North Carolina. We had meals together, worshipped together, sat in silence together and shared stories together. In short, we did theology together.
My partners included Christians like James, who watches a recording of his baptism on a weekly basis and, with this constant reminder of his baptismal identity, beautifully lives into his life as “God’s beloved son.”
My partners included Christians like Al, who repeatedly said to me that in baptism, he has truly become “who I am.”
And my partners included Christians like Ava, who witnessed to me that the practice of baptism serves for her as a gentle but steady assurance of “knowing who you are, where you belong with Christ.”
These partners in doing theology together have transformed my imagination about my own identity as a Christian disciple. Whenever I hear the story of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, I think of James’ insistence that he, like Jesus, was named as God’s beloved in his baptism. And in these moments, I give thanks to James for his witness to me that I, too, am a beloved child of God — a reality that I too often forget.
When people ask me to describe who I am or what I do, I often think of Al’s insistence that baptism is the act where God reveals to us who we truly are — people welcomed into God’s covenant and equipped by the Holy Spirit with unique gifts for ministry. And when I feel isolated or despairing, I recall Ava’s assurance to me that remembering my baptism affirms my belonging with Christ.
Five years later, the fruit of our doing theology together is out in the world in the form of a book: “Becoming the Baptized Body: Disability and the Practice of Christian Community.” The book, dedicated to all those like Hallie and Heather who are still seeking a community of belonging, stresses the importance of thinking about how core practices of the Christian faith — prayer, Holy Communion and, most centrally, baptism — are sites where God’s action challenges us to take seriously the gifts of all Christians, disabled or nondisabled.
In close conversation with the stories and experiences of my research partners, the book explores disabled perspectives on baptismal practices, disabled interpretations of Scripture on Christian identity, disabled critiques of baptismal liturgies, and the rich possibilities for practicing baptismal preparation, testimony and reaffirmation that emerge from the witness of disabled Christians.
Though the formal work of this theological research has concluded, I remain committed to the work of doing theology together. My co-researchers and I share in decision making about where the royalties from the book will be donated. And as my partners read or listen to the book and offer me their thoughts, I commit to not only following up personally but responding in my ongoing scholarship.
When I speak in academic settings about this work of doing theology together, colleagues often comment on my work with “unlikely” theological partners — Christians with intellectual disabilities. I find myself somewhat puzzled by this characterization of who exactly constitutes an unlikely partner. After all, in my explorations of the intersections of baptismal identity and intellectual disability, I, a person without an experience of intellectual disability, am the unlikely partner in learning and transformation!
I wonder how in our own work we might find ourselves positioned as unlikely partners. I invite you to ponder how developing new ways of being together might expand your perspective, your wonder, and your learnings about love of God and love of neighbor.
Expanding our perspectives can begin as a small practice of asking a new question or seeking out someone we might not initially consider an expert. Becoming an unlikely partner might require us to reflect on the stories and wounds that others have shared with us — stories like that of Hallie and Heather. Reframing our work in the world as something we must do together might be energized by participating in a new kind of gathering, such as an event with L’Arche North Carolina, where people with and without intellectual disabilities flourish together.
May we be open to the transformation that comes in and through unexpected partners in a commitment to doing work, ministry and worship together.
I was sitting in McDonald’s with my first Bible-study leader when I told her I didn’t want Jesus in my heart. I was in my first year at the University of Pittsburgh and she, her last. She was gorgeous to me, even exposed to the fluorescent light rattling around us, but she spoke like the incarnation of a Hallmark card, which both aggravated and saddened me. I told her I wanted God out there doing something, nodding to the street beyond the glass window. Why confined to a heart? She tried to defuse a look on her face by sipping on coffee that tasted like ash. I, embarrassed (whether on my behalf or hers, I did not know), began alternating peeling my bare legs off of the plastic booth to fill in the silence between us. Until finally she said, That’s where you’re changed, pointing to her heart not mine. And I didn’t have the courage to say, I like my heart just fine. She motioned toward our fluorescent canopy and back to her chest. For eternal life, God looks to the heart, she said. And I couldn’t tell her I had no desire to live forever.
As someone who is made of more doubt than faith, I find that Christians tend to want to talk to me about salvation. They seem quite concerned with the future of my faith, but they make the mistake of showing little interest in my present conditions. If asked to choose, I want a God who is someplace. Not just in “the heart,” but God standing on Fifth and Lothrop — God beyond the glass. I don’t just want to be rescued; I want to be taken someplace safe and good.
I think of Abraham’s descendants leaving the promised land and being forced into bondage. God didn’t raise up Moses just to free them from Pharaoh. They were liberated to somewhere. They left their chains and began making their way back home. What healing can manifest when place is restored, when those once dislocated from their home are delivered into it once again. It seems to me God’s promise was always a place. A liberation born of location.
And such a freedom does not unfold in a vacuum but stretches out through those who have known a place before us.
This is what they don’t tell you. You might think Abraham’s promise from God begins with him, but before Abram, there lived a man named Terah. Terah took his family and set out toward Canaan, but for reasons unknown to us, he settled somewhere along the way and never saw the end of his journey. Yet, years later, his son Abram would, by the mouth of God, set out on a journey to a promised land, a land we now know as Canaan. Abram’s promise did not occur in a vacuum. Whether he knew it or not, it remained connected to his father’s journey. Our question is not only What is this place to me? but also What has this place been to those before me and those who made me?
I do not know from where my ancestors were abducted. I cannot tell you what the air smells like there. I don’t know what sound the waves and soil speak. These things were stolen from me as they were from them. I think it is one of the deepest evils to become a thief of place, to make someone a stranger to their home, and then mark their relationship to the land by bondage instead of love. To steal place has less to do with power than with hatred. How much must one hate oneself and one’s life and one’s own land to run around chasing everyone else’s? I used to think colonization was about ego, and maybe it is. But maybe it’s not that the oppressors think they’re worthy of more but that they believe their present self is, in fact, worthless. It’s the work of people incapable of perceiving their dignity without attempting to diminish someone else’s. It is no surprise to me then that these same powers, in the end, care so little for the land they are desperate to conquer. It was never about love or curiosity or care but a violent act of self-soothing.
I am mystified when I read stories of enslaved people who liberated themselves with the hope of owning and caring for their own land someday. Didn’t they hate the cotton that pricked their bloodied fingers raw? Wouldn’t they have cursed the sugarcane as they sliced through it again and again, feeling their lower backs gnarl? They gave their bodies for a place that didn’t belong to them and to which they did not belong. I could understand if their bondage and demonic tethering to such land would drive them to a hatred of it. In mystery, it seems many found glimpses of freedom in it. Love, maybe. I am learning from this.
I hope God really is preparing a place for us. When God talks about getting her house ready, is she expecting us all at once? Does she have a gate, and if so, does she keep it open all through the night? Maybe there she will tell me the secrets of where I come from. She’ll pull me into the kitchen just before grace and whisper all the secret things once stolen from me. All the places that I’m made of and don’t yet know it. There I will learn the site of my soul. And we’ll saunter back to the banquet fuller and more whole than I’ve known.
From “This Here Flesh,” by Cole Arthur Riley. Copyright © 2022 by Cole Arthur Riley. Excerpted by permission of Convergent Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Waiting is just the worst.
Whether it’s with joy (anticipating a vacation, an out-of-town guest, a new job), fear (a test result, a jury verdict, a conflict with a loved one) or aggravation (a delayed flight, a trip to the DMV, a parent-teacher conference), waiting robs us of being present. We miss what is happening in our lives right now while we’re busy making to-do lists or fretting or simmering.
It can be exhausting.
And yet here we are.
We are in the midst of our second pandemic Advent, and who wants to spend more time in intentional waiting? We are over it, as Episcopal priest Elizabeth Felicetti writes in The Atlantic — not just individually but collectively.
We’ve been waiting for the end of masks, the arrival of vaccines and the opportunity to sing. We’ve been waiting for the return of people to the pews, money to the offering plate and parties to the fellowship hall.
We’ve been waiting for the end of arguments about precautions, empty Sunday school classrooms and drive-thru celebrations. We’ve been waiting to move past the need to pivot with each new variant or surge.
We have been waiting to get back to normal.
“Back to normal” might be familiar — but that doesn’t make it faithful. The waiting posture robs us of hope, curiosity and imagination. It is a privileged position that suggests that what we found comfortable was loving enough, liberating enough, just enough, healing enough for all of God’s people.
The Faith Communities Today report released this fall, “Twenty Years of Congregational Change,” summarizing findings from the largest-ever survey of U.S. congregations, makes plain that our churches were not universally thriving before the pandemic: “Overall, the portrait shows a majority of congregations are growing older, smaller, and, by many measures, less vital.”
Among the key findings: most churches are small, but most people are in larger congregations; attendance at most churches has declined rapidly in the past 20 years; and most congregations skew older than the national average, with aging participants and leadership.
Last month, the Hartford Institute for Religion Research released a report offering an early picture of how churches are navigating the pandemic. It suggests, from surveys this summer, that the pandemic is “exacerbating and accelerating” the declines detailed in the Faith Communities Today report. It also notes that the overall picture is “turbulent and chaotic,” though “not all churches are experiencing the pandemic equally.”
“Normal” before the pandemic wasn’t so great.
Maybe we need this Advent after all.
Advent is not a season for waiting to usher back in the old or get through with gritted teeth. It is an invitation to wonder about and actively work for transformation: What new creation are we invited to participate in birthing? As the Faith Communities Today report notes: “A time of challenge and upheaval can also be a moment of opportunity and revitalization.”
That is not to say that this work is easy or to suggest that we forget the trauma our people and our churches have endured for almost two years. We are called to what Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis terms a “chastened hope,” a hope that keenly understands our current suffering and dependence on God.
Choctaw elder Steven Charleston in “Ladder to the Light” offers a mantra for faithful activism: “Don’t look down, don’t look back, don’t look away.”
He goes on to urge: “Look up and be confident. Look forward and learn from the past. Look at life as it is, without editing it to look better. See what is really there.”
That practice, he says, allows us to “recognize darkness but trust in light.” Charleston urges us all to choose each day to believe and to hope. By doing so, he writes, “we turn what we believe into what we see.” That is fitting for the season of preparation we are in and the seasons of incarnation and revelation we are anticipating.
How might we unlock creativity in this season, grieving what has been lost while also holding some hopeful curiosity about the future? We begin with practices of rest, lament and remembering, alone and in community.
In “God and the Pandemic,” N.T. Wright writes that “fresh action” must follow our lament, that God’s kingdom is emerging through the “creative, healing, restorative work” of humankind.
“He sends in the poor in Spirit, the meek, the mourners, the peacemakers, the hungry-for-justice people. They are the way God wants to act in his world.”
Wright goes on to suggest three questions these Jesus followers will answer: “What needs to be done here? Who is most at risk? How can we help?”
These seem like good questions for church leaders to ponder in their contexts, as a way to stay true to who and where they are while also waiting for an uncertain future with energy and wonder.
They also gesture toward some of the characteristics researchers with Faith Communities Today have seen consistently in “spiritually vital and growing communities” — strong leadership, a clear mission, a spirit of innovation and openness to change, active engagement in the local community, significant lay involvement.
“In the midst of all the unsettledness,” the author writes, “now is the ideal moment to sustain the efforts toward innovation.”
Which got me thinking about Mary and her bold “yes” to a transforming and uncertain future. As pastor Isaac S. Villegas writes in The Other Journal, we are all like Mary: “Mary surrenders control; she welcomes the mysterious workings of God. She embraces God’s plan for the world, even though she doesn’t know how it will turn out. It’s a risk. And she says yes to God.”
We don’t have to know what the future of the church will hold. We don’t have to like waiting or uncertainty or change. We can be tired and annoyed about it.
But Jesus is coming anyway. Something new is birthing in the church.
It will be worth the wait.