Why I'm Not Cool With My 96% White Church

women and men singing in a church choir
women and men singing in a church choir

After three months of driving around town with a burned-out left tail light on my mini-van, I finally got it repaired. I don't know what took me so long. It was just one thing after another - the holidays, soccer games and choir rehearsal and "Mom, I'm out of clean clothes" again. No excuses really. It's not safe to drive around with a broken tail light. I know this. But I did it anyway.

There's a reason I'm telling you about my broken tail light. A few weeks ago my friend Shannon mentioned something in a blog post that caught my eye. Turns out, her son had been driving around with a burned-out tail light too. The difference was, his tail light was broken for less than 36 hours before he got it fixed, but in those 36 hours, he was pulled over by the local police four times. The fourth time ended with him sitting on the curb while the officers searched his car for drugs, of which there were none.

"It doesn't matter that he's never had a drug charge," Shannon wrote. "What matters is that he's black. He's young. He has 'that look.'"

That declaration stopped me in my tracks. Suddenly I understood, in a real, in-my-face kind of way, what white privilege is and exactly how I benefit from it. That young black man and I committed the exact same infraction.

The only difference is that I drove my car for three months with a broken tail light, and I was not stopped once. I had the luxury of taking my sweet time getting it fixed. That's called white privilege.

My friend's black son drove his car with a broken tail light for 36 hours and was pulled over four times. He couldn't wait until it was convenient for him to get his car fixed. He had to do it immediately, for fear of getting pulled over a fifth time. That's called racism.

And for those of us who are churchy, religious types, it's also called a sin. Racism is a sin.

We don't think of racism as a sin. We think of racism as wrong, and bad, and something in which other, "bad people" participate. But most of us white people don't think racism has really much to do with us. We don't think of racism as a sin because that would implicate us. Defining racism as a sin suggests that we might play a role in racism too.

Reverend Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the ELCA, my denomination) recently broadcast the second live webcast in a "Confronting Racism" series.

I'm glad the ELCA is taking steps to confront racism and our role in it. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center report, my denomination, which is comprised of nearly four million people, is 96% white. Racism and white privilege and what we can or should do about either isn't exactly on our radar. But it should be and it needs to be, because of this:

"You are the body of Christ, and each of you is a part of it...If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it." (1 Corinthians 12:27 & 26).

What Paul declared 2,000 years ago is still true today. We are all part of one body, the Body of Christ, and when one part of that body suffers, we all suffer.

Part of the Body of Christ is suffering badly and has been suffering badly for hundreds of years. Our black sisters and brothers are suffering terribly, and we are looking the other way. We are doing nothing. We don't even notice what's happening because we don't have to -- we have the privilege of not noticing.

Case in point:

My church recently broadcast the "Confronting Racism" live webcast. It was advertised in the worship bulletin for our three services the Sunday before and on the church website, and members were invited to attend a viewing of the webcast and then stay for a brief discussion afterwards.

Out of the more than 4,000 members of my church, 11 people attended the live webcast; 9 stayed for the discussion.

For the record, my church has a highly active membership. More than 600 people regularly participate in adult education opportunities such as small groups and classes. More than 650 people are actively involved in mission work in Honduras, Tanzania, and the local community.

The garden on our church grounds that is planted and maintained by church volunteers provides more than five tons of food annually to the local Food Bank. Twenty-five percent of all financial giving by members to my church supports local and global ministries. I could go on.

What I'm saying is that these people are faithful, loving, obedient servants of Christ. They do good work. They help lots of people. They make a huge impact on those in need, both in our community and beyond. They love God, and they love their neighbors.

And yet clearly, the problem of racism is simply not registering. Racism in America may be seen as a problem generally...but it's not seen as a problem for us -- for upper-middle class white people attending a white church and, for the most part, living in white suburbia.

Two years ago, I would not have been among the 11 people who attended the "Confronting Racism" webcast. I probably would have noticed the announcement in the bulletin, but I would have dismissed it as irrelevant to my world, to my family, to my personal spiritual growth. I would not have given the idea of attending that racism webcast a second thought.

So what changed?

Several factors have contributed, but one factor stands out in particular: I became good friends with a black woman. We've been friends for six years, but only in the last two years or so have I begun to see the world through her eyes. I've seen how I benefit from the color of my skin and how she is inhibited by others because of the color of hers. I've listened to her and heard her. I've begun to recognize some of my own mistakes, prejudices, and biases. I've begun to see not only that racism exists, but that I play a role in its existence as well.

You might be rolling your eyes at me, and I don't blame you. I have one black friend, and here I am, ranting and raving and all in your grill on the subject of racism. It's a little know-it-allish, I realize.

But I'm not going to apologize or feel ashamed about the fact that one friendship with one person of color has impacted me and changed me so dramatically. Because the truth is, that's what love does. When you love someone, you want that person to have all the good things in life that you have too. I love my friend, and I want to help make the world a better place alongside her. It really is that simple.

The truth is, the problem of racism isn't all wrapped up, not by a long shot. I'm not cool with my 96% white church. I'm not cool with 11 people out of 4,000 attending a discussion about racism. I'm not cool with a young black man getting pulled over four times in 36 hours for a broken tail light. Most of all, I'm not cool with my own complacency anymore.