Jesus is Not Post-Racial

By Guest Contributor Atinke Diver, cross-posted from Yes, We’re Together

In May 2004, I met my husband right before I left town for Memorial Day weekend.  I’d just barely survived my first year of law school and planned to spend the holiday weekend in Maryland to detox my soul.  But over a three week period, every Sunday at church a different person would come up to me, insisting that I meet this guy from church who was starting law school in the Fall.  I knew it was really serious when a friend visiting from Nashville even insisted that I meet this guy.  So one fateful Sunday, a friend finally introduced us after church. There was no love at first sight; no fireworks.  But that meeting sparked the beginning of a friendship that evolved into a romance, engagement and marriage over the next three years.

Most people wrongly assume that my husband and I met in law school because we’re both lawyers.  It’s understandable–we did attend the same law school and overlapped by one year.  In fact, most of the lawyer couples I know connected over Torts or spent long nights “studying” Constitutional Law outlines together, but alas, we don’t share the typical “Barack and Michelle Obama love story.”  When I tell people that we actually met at church, I find it amusing how often people are taken aback.  I’m not sure why, but I have some theories: A) They assume lawyers are angry at God for law school and conclude that “Christian lawyer” is an oxymoron and our profession is full of soul-less, religion-averse, God-haters; or B) They think that God fits so snugly under the notches of the Bible Belt that He ceases to exist North of Maryland.  And if so, then surely Massachusetts is at the cusp of eternal damnation.

Moving to Boston after our first year of marriage entailed lots of searching: a job for me, a place to live, somewhere to park our car, the closest L.L. Bean for winter outfitting, etc.  But searching for a church proved to be an adventure far more hilarious than we expected.  First there was the church that packed us in like sardines, featured impromptu solos from the pastors in the middle of sermons, and took time to recognize “100% tithers” (I still haven’t quite figured out the math on that one–how can anything less than 10% can still be called a tithe?).  Then there was the so-seeker-friendly-that-we-don’t-make-any-definitive-statements church, where the sermon began with “Well, I think maybe what Paul might probably be trying to say here could possibly be perhaps…” but we really enjoyed the free bagels and the Starbucks gift cards!  And then the suburban churches we visited left us feeling literally and figuratively out of place at their disbelief that we drove in  “all the way” from the city (a mere thirty minutes).

You see, neither of us really had to “look” for a church before.  Growing up, we attended the same church that our respective parents attended, and in North Carolina I attended the same church for eight years.  So we came to Boston having done very little church research, with a few half-hearted recommendations from family and friends, and  a resigned “I wish I had a church I could recommend to you in Boston, but I don’t,” from one of our North Carolina pastors.  As we began church shopping, we talked about what we were looking for–how we would know when it was time to stop browsing the aisles and settle into a particular congregation.  Chief among our concerns was worshipping in a place where we felt accepted and affirmed as an interracial, married couple.  And very early into our relationship, I learned that nothing to do with the demographic make-up of a church’s pastoral staff or congregation.

When my husband and I were dating, I expected some less-than-ideal reactions from family members, but was completed blind sided by the comments I heard from members of my church (many of whom had no idea I was dating anyone, much less, a White guy).  In one instance, a friend relayed a story about a disagreement with another church leader.  To drive home his point that the other person involved was everything but a child of God, he concluded: “AND he’s married to a white woman!”  (Trust me, he didn’t intend it as a compliment.)  In another instance, while chatting with a fellow graduate student, I learned about some church leaders who, when talking to their child about dating, ended the conversation with, “You want to marry someone who looks like mommy don’t you?”

After we got engaged and entered the realm of church-based, pre-marital counseling, I noticed that none of our assigned reading acknowledged that two people who don’t look like each other might actually meet at church and consider spending the rest of their lives together.  So I asked another classmate who was also engaged and in an interracial relationship if she knew of any books that churches or pastors used in pre-marital counseling with interracial couples.  Her response: “No, because there aren’t any.  And I think that silence speaks volumes about how most churches really feel about interracial marriage.”

Hindsight is twenty-twenty, and I realize that my shock had more to do with my overly idealistic and unrealistic view of church that was, quite frankly, unbiblical.  There is no perfect church because at its core is a community of broken people.  So even in a faith community that holds diversity and multi-culturalism in high regard as a core value, and boasts a congregation made up from every tribe, race, nation, and tongue, Jesus does not simply become a panacea for the racist thoughts and behavior to which we are all susceptible.  It’s not enough to simply be comfortable with having lots of different people in the room (but it can be a great start).  In fact, if I hear a church harping on “racial reconciliation” for more than five minutes, I start to get a little nervous.

Our search for a faith community in Boston included many twists and turns, but eventually led us to settle in a Presbyterian congregation where the dominant culture is Pan-Asian.  And on the one hand, I’d like to think that I could find out what our church leaders really think about racial issues by asking: “How would you react if your son or daughter married someone that doesn’t look like you?” But the truth is, racism is too pervasive to have a litmus test.  It doesn’t matter how many flags from different nations are displayed around our sanctuary; how many worship songs and hymns we sing in other languages; how many AIDS orphanages we support; how many East Africans or Koreans we adopt; how many Historically Black Colleges and Universities we reach out to; how many hours we tutor and mentor children from the local housing project; how many care packets we prepare for the homeless; how many outreaches we hold for the Spanish-speaking community; how often our sermons reference  Martin Luther King, Jr.; or how often our bulletins and announcements include imagery with different colored hands, rainbows, or kaleidoscopes.  But rather, our willingness to embrace and display grace in the midst of messy lives, full of  misconceptions, mistakes, misunderstandings, and missteps around race (among other things).

  • http://bytheirstrangefruit.blogspot.com Katelin108

    After posting about this article, I received this comment that I thought I would pass along:
    “Thanks for the link!

    As a seminarian, I *have* been recommended this book about cross-racial relationships for pre-marital counseling (or just in general): “Just Don’t Marry One: Interracial Dating, Marriage, and Parenting”
    amazon link: http://amzn.com/081701439X
    It’s edited by George & Sherelyn Yancey. George Yancy has written several influential books on multicultural congregations, including “One Body, One Spirit” and “United by Faith.”

    Not many people or churches put into practice what George Yancey preaches, but it is good to know that there are SOME (even if limited!!) resources out there!”

  • http://peregrinaje.wordpress.com La Peregrina

    I have not read this book (yet) because I am not in a cross-racial relationship, but I will vouch that as a (white) seminarian, this book, “Just Don’t Marry One: Interracial Dating, Marriage, and Parenting” (amazon link: http://amzn.com/081701439X, edited by George & Sherelyn Yancey) was recommended to us. George Yancy has written several influential books on multicultural congregations, including “One Body, One Spirit” and “United by Faith.” Not many people or churches put into practice what George Yancey preaches, but it is good to know that there are SOME (even if limited!!) resources out there!

  • http://bytheirstrangefruit.blogspot.com Katelin108

    I hope you don’t mind, but I have reposted excerpts from this article, along with comments at :http://bytheirstrangefruit.blogspot.com/2011/03/interracial-relationships-in-church.html

    I will remove if you object.

  • Anonymous

    “It’s not enough to simply be comfortable with having lots of different people in the room.”

    I agree. You can have every race, culture, etc. in the same room (or neighborhood), but it doesn’t matter if these various groups still remain segregated in the “melting pot”. I hear some people who think they are racially enlightened because they get along with their coworkers who are people of color (if they are white) or of a different race than them, but do these people come to their houses? Do their kids play together? Do they have real friends and date people of other races and cultures? The answer is often no. There is no such thing as “post-racial” if people of different races can’t date and marry, and even go to church together without making others uncomfortable. I’ve even gotten stares when hanging out with friends of different races–same sex and opposite sex–but that’s another story.

  • http://twitter.com/kristenhowerton Kristen Howerton

    Thank you for this – I agree that unfortunately church is often a reflection of broken people instead of Jesus. We initially had a hard time finding an African American church that was accepting of our transracial family. We attended one church where the pastor scolded his congregants for interracial dating from the pulpit – and this was the largest AA church in our county. There was an overt “stick to your own kind” message. It was very uncomfortable for us. We did find a smaller church where the pastor is very affirming of interracial families and multiculturalism in general, but it is a sad truth that there is still racial animosity in churches (of all races).

  • Guest 47

    Thank you. … As someone who was in a decade-long relationship with someone with darker skin tone than myself, this column is a bittersweet reminder of how racism can horribly skew something decent and good. Sometimes the negative reactions come from within the person who has already suffered a long battle with her cultural identity, to be projected on those who *do* support and love her.

  • thesciencegirl

    Frankly, the most startling thing about this story to me is that multiple people saw a possible match between you and your future husband, despite your being of different races. I find that it usually doesn’t occur to people to match-make across races.

    • http://twitter.com/yesweretogether Yes, We’re Together

      (sadly) I agree with you. When folks at church were introducing me to my husband, I think it was more on a “connecting two law students who go to the same church” level than a “ya’ll should hook up” level.

  • http://bytheirstrangefruit.blogspot.com/ Katelin108

    Funny video!
    It always frustrates me that the church lags so far behind on issues of race. It could be such a force for change. How is it that the IRS and P&G are more integrated than God’s house is? But more than that, I particularly appreciate what you say: “It’s not enough to simply be comfortable with having lots of different people in the room.” Too often, churches get complacent and satisfied because of their token diversity. But have hearts and minds really been examined, changed, and scrubbed clean? It can be a gross thing to encounter our brokenness in a deep and honest way, but it is sooo important that we do so. The Church could be such a great venue for this, because there we are accustomed to talking about our sins and know that we need a lot of fixing….why not make racial brokenness a part of that regimen? The Church is missing a huge opportunity.

    • http://twitter.com/yesweretogether Yes, We’re Together

      LOL.
      Yes, Gary Owen is a trip.
      Really good questions, and you make an excellent point. If there is anyplace where one should feel safe to confront racial brokeness I would hope the Church would be one of those places.

  • http://jasminllenadegracia.blogspot.com Jasmin

    This is an interesting post. If I went back to my hometown (Chicago), I’m pretty sure the church my parents go to wouldn’t flinch at me and my boyfriend showing up together–there are a good number of interracial couples who attend, and both of the (White) head pastor’s kids are married to non-White people (and I think both kids met their spouses on mission trips, natch). My boyfriend is Jewish, so I’m more curious to see what happens when we show up at Temple, but I just moved to San Francisco a few months ago and I haven’t found a church I like yet.

    Interestingly, even when I’ve been at all-Black churches (including Trinity UCC), when I’ve seen an interracial couple it’s always been a Black woman with a White man. I’ve never seen a Black man with a White woman in an all-Black church. Hmmm…

    • http://twitter.com/yesweretogether Yes, We’re Together

      Interesting observation re Black man and White woman in an all-Black church. I’m thinking of a friend who is currently in that scenario (a White woman engaged to a Black man in a pre-dominantly Black church) and in her case, it’s a church she and her family have belonged to for quite some time.

    • http://twitter.com/DYomoah Doreen Yomoah

      That is an interesting point…do you think that’s because when it comes church, the man for some reason is more likely to go to the woman’s church after they get together? I mean, the idea of a black man in a predominately white church with his white female partner is hardly inconceivable or rare, there were a few at my church.

      • http://jasminllenadegracia.blogspot.com Jasmin

        That’s what I’m thinking. Haven’t there been studies on differences in religiosity (measured in church attendance) between gender?

    • Anonymous

      My parents (black man/white woman) went to Black churches frequently when I was growing up. Oddly enough, they both changed their membership to the same black church when they got divorced. Guess it just depends where you are – what you see.

  • Anonymous

    I am so happy to read this. Being a mixed girl who grew up in the church, I’ve heard much of the same stuff I’m sure you’ve heard. I’ve actually only experienced feeling completely (racially)* welcomed by congregations in Hawaii and NYC. Not that congregations there would necessarily always be accepting, but that’s just been my experience. But I’m just happy to see a discussion of the race issues that may arise in a diverse (or maybe not so diverse) church setting.

    My antennae go up when people start talking about race in church because I’ve never seen a church get it right. Unless it’s a Black History program in a Black church. Otherwise…not so good. And yeah – it’s pretty impossible to have a litmus test. There’s no universal, even when you’re just dealing with a binary black/white issue. Forget adding in Asian/Native/Latin or other cultural differences/-isms.

    *racially welcomed meaning that I and my sister don’t have people talking crap about white or black people to us because they think we are one or the other. Or that folks don’t hang with our family cuz my parents were “unequally yoked”. Etc. (Oh, the stories I could tell.)

    • http://twitter.com/yesweretogether Yes, We’re Together

      Glad you enjoyed. Thanks for reading.

  • Personwhothinks

    I think most people assume that lawyers aren’t Christian because they assume that lawyers are hell bound tools. As someone currently at law school in Massachusetts, I believe that if hell didn’t exist it would have to be invented for these arrogant self absorbed douchebags. (sorry!)

    I also this post lacks context. I had to go to your website because as someone (Nigerian) living in Cambridge who goes to church in Boston, your experiences made no sense to me. It only made sense once I realized that you were also black. Asian-white relationships are the norm in Cambridge. They are as common as white-white relationships. I think this is less about interracial relationships and more about black-other relationships and I think it’s worth noting that specifically. This is really about how black is always visible whereas other people can be invisible.

    • http://twitter.com/yesweretogether Yes, We’re Together

      Just a point of clarification, most of this piece actually takes place in North Carolina, not Boston.