This month Soma Church will be joining our African-American brothers and sisters in celebrating Black History Month. During the next several weeks, we’ll highlight biographies of significant historical black leaders in Indianapolis, hear stories from black leaders in our church, and intentionally incorporate music & liturgy from black church history into our Sunday gatherings.
Black History Month traces its genesis back to 1926, where it was first introduced as a week-long event by black historiographer Dr. Carter G. Woodson. He selected the second week of February because it was couched between the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. In 1976, President Gerald Ford expanded the week to the full month of February, citing the need to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
As I talk to white Christians about issues surrounding racial reconciliation, people often ask the question, “Why do we need to keep bringing up the past? Why can’t we just move on and fight for justice in the present? Rather than healing racial wounds, doesn’t drawing attention to something like Black History Month just further aggravate racial tensions? Doesn't it just tie us to a past that many of us didn’t participate in and can do nothing to change?”
In response to these kinds of questions, I wanted to put forward several important reasons that our elders chose to joyfully participate in Black History Month.
1. To identify with our brothers and sisters
I was born in 1980 into a white, lower-middle-class family on the Kentucky-Ohio borderline. When I was two years old, my parents relocated us to a predominately white, blue-collar, inner-ring suburb of Louisville, Kentucky. I remember the first time I encountered an African-American peer, a boy nicknamed “Juice,” through our local sports league. Each week, my dad and I would drop Juice off at his family’s apartment in the government-subsidized housing projects just a few miles from our neighborhood. Over the years, as I went on to play high school and collegiate basketball, I shared a locker room with a number of African-American teammates; but (much to my chagrin) we rarely shared a meal, swapped family stories, or discussed our hopes and dreams for the future.
Sadly, throughout the rest of my undergraduate and post-graduate educational pursuits, my exposure to African-American history and culture continued to be limited. During my tenure as a master’s and doctoral student at a flagship white evangelical seminary (150+ hours), I wasn’t required to read one book or journal article by an African-American theologian or historian, nor was I taught by an African-American professor. While I thoroughly enjoyed and still appreciate the rigor of my studies and the relationships I formed at that institution, I had no idea how my life experiences and education would culminate in some serious cultural blind spots and a reduced imagination for the gospel and the kingdom of God.
As we prayerfully and intentionally pursue racial reconciliation at Soma Church, we believe it's critically important that we seek to identify with our African-American brothers and sisters by posturing ourselves as learners. If we’re going to press into the kind of authentic, heartfelt unity-within-diversity described in the New Testament, we must come to grips with both historical and contemporary narratives, wounds, sorrows, accomplishments, and leaders that have significantly shaped the collective and individual experiences of African-Americans in this cultural moment.
In doing so, our goal is not merely an academic pursuit of facts or statistics, but to holistically enter into our common humanity and to understand that in Jesus, our individual stories merge into a shared history and destiny. We need to listen and learn from our brothers and sisters because “their story” is really “our story.” Only once we embrace this reality we can truly bear one another’s burdens and love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39; Galatians 6:2).
2. To deepen our understanding of the gospel
Many Christians carry a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the gospel. While it’s true that God saves sinners regardless of their race, class, or ethnicity, that’s not the full scope of God’s intent in the gospel. The life-altering good news of the gospel is that, through his death on the cross, Jesus killed the hostility and alienation that divides people of different races, classes, and ethnic backgrounds. He forges them together into a new humanity called the church. This isn't a mere implication or application of the gospel, as if it’s a secondary priority to be pursued when it’s convenient or hip. No, reconciliation and the visible unity of the church are at the very heart of what Paul calls the “gospel” in his letters to the Ephesians and Galatians.
Understanding racial reconciliation as a core gospel issue transforms our perspective and empowers us to live into the unity that has already been created for us by the Spirit of God. We cannot fully understand ourselves, God, the church, or the beauty of grace apart from our African-American brothers and sisters in Christ. We need their voice, perspective, wisdom, pain, longings, relationship, and leadership to encourage, challenge, and deepen our underdeveloped vision of the gospel.
Further, unless we see racial reconciliation as a gospel issue, we won't fight against racial injustice, discrimination, or oppression with the same intensity as we do other gospel issues. Over the last century, Christians have labored vociferously for religious liberties, biblical inerrancy, and pro-life causes. Will we channel that same kind of energy and vitality into seeing true racial unity happen in our churches and communities? I believe it can only happen if it’s fueled by a steely gospel resolve.
3. To stir our imagination for a better future
Black History Month is personal for me. My youngest daughter is African-American. As our country becomes increasingly diverse and seemingly more polarized, how will the church equip her to make sense of her story and live into her destiny?
Our current generation suffers from a profound lack of racial imagination. Mired in cynicism and hopelessness on the one hand, or a naïve optimism that settles for superficial unity on the other hand, many people feel overwhelmed and uncertain about the possibilities for a better racial future together.
History has much to teach us when it comes to expanding our racial imagination. Looking to the past, our hearts can be stirred and our hands empowered by the stories of prophetic courage, creativity, and faithfulness exemplified by abolitionists and civil rights pioneers. We need to expand our horizons when it comes to the people we look to as heroes and mentors in church history.
Our ultimate hope is that Black History Month isn’t just something that happens every February. Rather, we pray that it serves as a catalyst for growing deeper in our awareness, relationships, and oneness throughout the other eleven months of the year and beyond. But we have to start somewhere, and so we invite you to join us in celebrating this important month with our brothers and sisters.
Image: "Frederick Douglass Appeals to Lincoln," by William Edouard Scott