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Institutional Racism in the Church

This is different for me, but I'm going to begin with other people's words who, this past week, have had some important things to say.

These are a just a few messages I read this week from white, well-known Christians (all women) who seem to understand the role of the church in response to racism. 

I know (because so many of you tell me privately) that as a white person, you are afraid to talk about racism publicly. You're worried about getting the language right, the tone right, the facts right. You're nervous about the inevitable backlash.

Maybe we can start here together, friends: when we see evil racism in front of us, we name it, expose it, and condemn it. We don't protect the specificity of it by brushing it under the "sin umbrella" without naming its evil roots. We would never tell a rape victim that it wasn't heinous sexual abuse that deserves addressing, but it's just an unnamed sin. Nor would we ignore the necessary justice component of that abuse with a spiritual whitewash.

So for those of you hoping to become allies to the black community, today we can declare together that Dylann Roof committed a racially-motivated mass murder, and we condemn it as the Bride of Christ.

Just that. We see it, we name it, and we condemn it. The end. And we commit to join you in the healing process.

Jen Hatmaker

Yesterday, in response to the ‪#‎CharlestonShooting‬, I posted about the importance of being still.

Last night, I lie in bed wondering how that sentiment might have been received by the black community. Right now, I said -- in the wake of the murder of nine black people, what white people should do is Be Still – “Attend a vigil. Stop with your family to pray. Light a candle at dinner. Give to Mother Emanuel. Just sit for a moment and send love. Send love.”

I wondered about that. I wondered how the message “Love Wins” might sound to the black community right now. I wondered if it was easy for me to believe that Love Wins, since the odds are forever rigged in my favor. I wondered these things for most of the night. And when I woke up, this is the hard truth I was left staring at -- this is why I wonder instead of know: because I am almost forty years old and I do not have a single black friend. Acquaintances, yes; friends, no. I do not have a single black friend whom I could call last night and say: “I’m listening. Please tell me how to support you. Tell me what to do and how to do it and how to lead. Point me towards the people who will teach me how to be an ally -- how to be a white leader who leads good people into this and through this.”

Perhaps I cannot be a friend to the black community because I am not even a friend to a black person.

How is it possible that I have arranged my life in such a way that this could be true? I don’t know. I just know that’s one of the many reasons I don’t know how to lead you. I’m sorry that I have not done the hard work that prepares a person and a leader for a moment like this.

Here a couple of things I do know today:

To those who claim, still, that this is simply about one man’s mental illness; who think the answer to this tragedy lies entirely “inside the mind of the killer” -- Let me say: No. That’s denial. Don’t look at him. Look at US. Our country’s denial of racism is -- at best -- a severe, deadly collective case of delusion. Let us not carry on with the denial that will keep us sick. Looking into our OWN collective mind is a critical part of the answer. Because at this point the denial of racism can only be racism itself.

To those who are Christians and asking me how to respond – I’ll let Amy speak, since she’s the Christian I respect the most. This morning I emailed Amy a few of the paragraphs above along with a note that said: “I’m scared. I’m so scared to talk about this. I’m so scared to say the wrong thing and hurt people. I’m so afraid I’ll get crucified.”

Amy wrote back five minutes later and said: “You might. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe sometimes we have to walk into crucifixions knowingly. We do have a model for that. “

Let us not be afraid of crucifixion. Let us be terrified of refusing to lay down our lives for our friends.

Some of you are saying: USE YOUR VOICE. I want to use my voice, but mostly I want to use this platform to lift up other voices -- voices of people who have done the work. Please link in the comments to people who are speaking up BRAVELY and KINDLY and who will help us educate ourselves and activate ourselves and unify and heal ourselves.

I would also like to ask a personal favor. I would like to be invited into the hard work. I would like to be invited to learn how to be a white leader working responsibly towards racial reconciliation. If anyone would like to invite me to a place or a church or a meeting or (I don’t know what it is) please do. I want to be invited. I want to learn from those who know.


Glennon Doyle Melton


I am afraid to talk about racism for fear of doing it wrong.

I'm afraid I'll start a conversation I'm not prepared for, afraid I'll misuse the language of privilege and oppression, afraid I'll offend someone.

But I'm not afraid I'll be murdered on the street, or shot at the park, or slaughtered in a Church for the color of my skin... So it's been easy to stay quiet.

To be honest, I still don't know what to say, but I can't keep saying nothing while my neighbor is terrorized by Hate and Violence. I was born white, but not silent.

Racism exists. I won't ignore it.

I won't ignore YOU.


Jamie the Very Worst Missionary


I have an interesting relationship with printing presses and religion and, while I wasn’t born anywhere near 1440 when Johannes Gutenberg invented the first movable type press, they’ll forever be connected for me. First, because my father was a printer when I was a kid and we girls were required to work in the shop learning the trade. There were more modern machines, naturally, and we weren’t allowed to work the really dangerous machines. Second, because my dad used the Bible as an example of something that was mass-produced thanks to the printing press.

My relationship with organized religion is strained but not uncomfortable for me. My parents come from strong Catholic families and the first 5 years were spent at Catholic school. By the time I was able to choose after we moved from Chicago, my sister and I begged not to have to go there anymore. We met evangelical people in our new home and one of them was my health teacher. He was constantly putting quotes on the blackboard with Biblical themes and telling us things he certainly shouldn’t have said in public school.

When his son manipulated our relationship enough to pressure me to have sex with him and I got pregnant, this proselytizing man packed up the family and left me to raise my baby alone. At some point, before they moved, someone went into his classroom and wrote “Clean up your own house before you try to clean up everyone else’s”. To say my formative years were fraught with messages of what loud-mouthed, objectionable, religious people were capable of when it came to differentiating between what one says and what one does is an understatement.

This isn’t an attempt to make a tenuous connection to discussing race and racism within church. They’re simply my own experiences.

My grandmother and aunt both cooked for the priests in their parishes for most of their lives. In college, I joined a Disciples of Christ church, considered converting to Judaism for a guy I dated, and watched as my mother began attending a Buddhist temple. As an adult, I made friends with some Calvinists and more than a handful of Quakers. I’ve belonged to non-denominational churches and Baptist churches. When I see a nun, I still nearly cross myself. I’ve read The Bible through twice. Three years ago I finally picked up and read The Quran for the first time. This year I’m marrying a Preacher’s Kid whose father is a retired minister from the Assembly of God church.


Of all those genres in religion, I’m probably most impressed with the Dominican Sisters I’ve recently come to know that are working with the coalition to which I belong that promotes anti-racism. (I am compelled to use the term “Sister” when addressing them, too, and can’t just use their first names. Old habits die-hard. My apologies for that unintentional pun.)

I was amused after visiting Ethiopia that they consider American missionaries laughable. The beginning of the Nile starts here. We’re Orthodox Christians. Why do they come here to convert us? Our history of Christianity is older than yours!

Attending organized religion is very different from spirituality and I’m often reminded of that when I think of what my friend Brooke says, “Since when did church need a building?” I do, however, understand the need to gather together. I do not, though, understand why many churches are elaborately looking like country clubs and museums. Both effects add to how people behave in them, I think. Maybe my bias towards old buildings and gothic churches is showing.

Which brings us to yesterday, the first Sunday since the massacre at the AME church in Charleston.

Many of my friends come from different faiths and I noticed a large number of them lamenting their disappointment in church (those of the Christian faith) ignoring the elephant in the room. It wasn’t just the massacre of Black Americans, though. It was the acknowledgment of white privilege and living in a racist society. These are 101 Racism folks, either. These aren’t people who believe in the fallacies of “colorblindness” or the Model Minority Myth or the belief in a meritocracy system with that whole “bootstraps” baloney. These are people who understand racism as the institution that it is.

I work in one. The American public school system can easily be indicted as a system that routinely practices de facto segregation all over the country whereby the struggling schools end up being all that’s offered to minority populations.

Neighborhoods that have gentrified are another institutionally racist practice that benefits those whose white privilege affords them housing that displaces the poor and minority residents.

Churches are another institution. 

If businesses and prison complex systems and industries have to address racism, so do churches.

Some were vocal about race as a factor in the murders of those in the AME church. Many of my Unitarian Universalist friends would be surprised if it weren’t mentioned in their service since they’re so heavily. This goes for the friends who attend Evangelical Lutherans. A friend in Harrisburg, PA offered this piece to read.

Another friend, Stacey, mentioned that her pastor previously visited The White House racial reconciliation prayer after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO.

Another friend, Katie, wrote about it on her own blog.

Another friend, Melissa, mentioned that her Episcopal bishop wrote a note in their bulletin, which is not a regular occurrence but that he focused mostly on gun control and not race.

Others, however, were dangerously silent on the issue of race.

Dangerously. Pathologically.

Much of my day on Monday was spent surveying those industries, many local, to see what they offered. I wanted to see if there would be a call to action as a response. I hoped that there would be an opportunity to speak about race within their buildings, their own institutions where racism has a hold.

Here’s a summary of those findings for 10 local churches:

  • Many of them focused on Father’s Day and kept that the focus of their sermon.
  • Some were in the middle of a series and didn’t pause to address racism.
  • One of them used a Jimmy Fallon type skit with the Father’s Day theme (and uses a terribly sexist punchline which demonstrates me how hard comedy really is)
  • One of them had a guest speaker who didn't address it at all nor was it mentioned by the pastor as he was introducing him.
  • Many took time to pray at the beginning of the service, read the names of the dead, and then moved on with the originally planned message, not tying them together in any way or calling out the sin of racism.

Please listen here, church leaders and friends. I promise you that condemning the white privilege you're afforded doesn't guarantee that the pulpit will burst into flames. God seems to "give a word" to people quite often and I'm left with this question: does God give you a word about the horrors of institutional racism that you ignore? 

Because we're still not hearing it from predominantly white churches or leaders. Not on a grand scale anyway. There are pockets of people who are getting it and feeling convicted (an overly used phrase in the church in my experience) enough to preach on it. Do you need a Word this morning? Listen to this from C. Andrew Doyle in Texas. It's less than 24 minutes long but dude goes in exactly when he should.

Many people I know are starting to, for the first time since I've known them, take this conversation to another level. They're recognizing what they're teaching their children in their homes, what they're allowing to be said in their presence, and they're not letting their own privileges go unchecked. It's incredibly uncomfortable work when you start and I can make you another promise here: it gets easier once you see it. You won't get to go back to a place where you can't.

That's on the personal level.

On the church level? We have some work to do.

One of the people I actually spoke with yesterday is a lead pastor of a church here in Springfield, IL. He agreed to hop on the phone with me to have a discussion and we discussed the liturgy prayer they offered. He even allowed me to push back on that.

Yes, but let me ask you a question. Did you look into the eyes of the Black members of your church and say, 'I know you're hurting. Maybe you're even scared to be here. Perhaps you feel anxiety about stepping foot in a place whose sacredness was violated this week in Charleston. We hold you, we're standing in the gap for you, we want to surround you right now with nothing but love and comfort. Did you do that? Because let me tell you something. Those people brought trauma with them into church on Sunday. If it wasn't addressed then how is that taking care of a flock?

He let me step on his toes with that. His response was that he hadn't considered it and his honesty in that moment made me not want to beat up on him. Nor is my goal to beat up on The Church as a whole. 

As a whole, The Church is an institution. One whose history is fraught with racism, the enslavement of Americans stolen from other lands, and one who has, for centuries, cherry-picked verses which served the purpose of continuing to subjugate races. 

If that institution doesn't address racism then I believe they are complicit in their silence. 


Photo courtesy of Karen Gerwin, used with permission


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Reader Comments (4)

We are taught early on in school that not standing up to bullies or not speaking out when someone breaks a rule is a kind of bad behavior. It is strange to me how easily we slough off the responsibility and expectation that we put on our youngest, whether in the church, the school, home, or simply on the street.

There is no shadow dark enough to hide a failure to do good, or try harder.

Thank you for daring the write this, Kelly. So many of us across all walks of life need to hear this deep in our bones.

June 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

Thank you for sharing these strong words. I remain awkwardly silent because I am white, very white, and live the life of white privilege. How can someone with as narrow an experience as mine even think to add to the discussion?

Keep sharing. I'll keep listening - and learning how I can contribute to destroying the systemic racism in our country.

June 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDaisy

A friend who is a ppriest in Upstate NY posted her sermon on her blog. She did address the racism and shootiings. I am prrooud of her., and wish there were more voices like hers, and yours.

Thank you.

June 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterECH

A member and retired pastor did our sermon this week. He did reshape his planned sermon entirely after the shooting in SC. He cried from the pulpit for the first time in his career. Several members joined him. We are a mostly white church in a first ring suburb of Minneapolis spending much of our time on how to stand with our neighbors in the frequent denial of safety and justice. It was a good week to attend church. So much work to be done. I appreciate your work in providing a place for people like us to learn.

June 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterShennon

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