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How Bethel Church Continues to Hinder Black Salvation

How Bethel Church Continues to Hinder Black Salvation 1096 478 Corey Leak

*Editors note: After the publishing of this piece, it has come to light that the event in the youtube clip below was not at Bethel Church, but at a conference where Bill Johnson (Bethel’s lead pastor) was speaking.

Evangelicalism is the tip of white supremacy’s sword. It has other functions, such as proselytizing the world and telling the story of Jesus. However, its most profound impact in America has been thwarting Black people’s attempt to break free from racial tyranny.

In recent years no white evangelical church has been more problematic to Black people than Bethel Church, an Evangelical Mega-Church best known for their contemporary Christian music and unmitigated support for Donald Trump.

Bethel has been guilty of more than a few transgressions to the black community dating back to 2018 when Brian Johnson, one of their senior leaders, posted a noose in an Instagram post insinuating that planned parenthood was more dangerous to Black lives than the KKK.

After Brian received backlash for the post, Bill Johnson – the lead pastor of Bethel and Ben’s dad, doubled down by reposting the image and caption followed by claiming the post was ok because a black man created it. To be fair, Bethel did ultimately issue an apology for the post.

A Bethel worship leader, Sean Feucht led a band of white evangelical worship leaders to evangelize the mourners and demonstrators at a George Floyd rally in Minnesota shortly after Floyd’s lynching.

Sean followed that up by leading a mass gathering on the shores of Huntington Beach, where he professed that the event symbolized a resurgence of the “Jesus People Movement.”

And, a week ago, a black “prophetess,” on Bethel’s stage declared that God told her she could eradicate racism by enacting a ceremony borrowed from Gandalf the grey.

While posting images of nooses and referencing the KKK is obviously harmful to black people and shows at minimum a lack of cultural humility, the other incidents I mention may need a little unpacking for some.

Let’s begin with the white Saviour trip to the site of George Floyd’s lynching. In the wake of George Floyd’s brutal lynching, advocates for black lives took to the streets to cry out for justice. They were grieving. They were lamenting injustice.

At the height of their grieving and crying out, Sean showed up with his guitar and band of merry worshippers to evangelize the crowd with bright smiling faces and contemporary worship music.

Not only did Sean not join what was already happening in Minnesota, but he tried to interrupt black lament and grief. White Saviours don’t allow space for Black people and our allies to mourn injustice. There is always an attempt to refocus our attention on something else.

In showing up in Minnesota the way he did, Sean Fuecht showed his commitment to the white evangelical brand of squelching Black agency and Black resistance of racial injustice.

Now to Sean’s subtle erasure of Black history on the beautiful Huntington Beach shoreline. Sean references the “revival” he witnessed on the beach as a second coming of the Jesus People Movement of the 1960s.

Why wouldn’t a “revival” taking place in California be reminiscent of an older revival that took place 45 years earlier than the Jesus People? That revival was Azuza street, and it was lead by a black preacher by the name of William Seymour.

The “spirit-filled,” pentecostal way Bethel and other charismatic churches practice worship has its roots in the Azuza Street Revival movement. And while failing to mention Reverend Seymour may seem like an innocent omission, it’s consistent with Sean and Bethel’s disregard for Black culture.

Lastly, the Gandalf incident… (Below for anyone who hasn’t seen it)

In the past, I’ve written about how many white evangelical leaders rely on trite, symbolic gesturing as their only answer to racism. Unfortunately, Black people who have received the baptism into a faith tradition rooted in white supremacy participate in these shenanigans all too often.

Symbolic gestures hold substantive change to racial hierarchies at bay. They keep people of faith who long for a racist free society from asking their leaders the tough questions about power and agency.

By standing on stage and declaring that racism was over because they chanted Gandolf’s words from Lord of the Rings, Bethel once again proved what we should’ve already known. They are an evangelical three-ring circus incapable of helping society move toward salvation.

Bethel’s leaders seem to believe that we find salvation in irrational belief, cultish practices, and mystical rhetoric. None of those help to protect future black people from suffering violence at the hands of white supremacy. Any salvation that doesn’t defend Black futures is no salvation at all.

Bethel’s black prophetess believed she was doing the work of God, and Bethel was all too happy to have a black shield to hide behind again. This moment during a church service is not just cannon fodder for memes, gifs, and remix videos. The moment is also indicative of a culture that ignores, opposes, and trivializes Black America.

3 Things You Should Ask Your Church To Find Out How Committed They Are To Anti-Racism

3 Things You Should Ask Your Church To Find Out How Committed They Are To Anti-Racism 6000 4000 Corey Leak

Chances are your church is on week two or three of a brand new series on racism. Some of you have seen more black faces speaking at your church over the last few weeks than you’d seen in the previous three years. 

Perhaps you’re on this journey with your church with guarded optimism – hoping that you and your church will find yourselves on the right side of history.

Or maybe you’re expecting all this race talk in the church will be over soon, and you can get back to listening to expository sermons on the book of Acts. 

No matter what your disposition is on the stance your church has taken lately, there are three ways to know that your church plans on committing to anti-racism for the long haul. 

Ask someone in senior leadership about President Trump.

Churches and Christian leaders tend to take apolitical stances. It’s one of the reasons so many churches are only recently engaging in extensive content on the subject of race and racism. Race talk has a name – “identity politics.”

It may be challenging to get a direct answer from someone in senior leadership at your church about their personal feelings on the president. Try anyway.

Men and women of the cloth shouldn’t tell you who to vote for, but they should be able to articulate the moral ineptitude of the president with great clarity. 

A church committed to anti-racism will have leaders who can recognize the racist statements and policies this president has put forth over the last four years and the overt racism that plagued his business affairs from years before he became president. 

Certainly, no church committed to becoming anti-racist would ever endorse this president to their congregants. That should go without saying, but you never know. 

Ask about church oversight and leadership.

The pastoral staff and board leadership lead churches.  *Dr. James Cone said: “there is no justice without power, and there is no power with one, two, or three tokens.” Email your church and find out who makes decisions.

If your church is going to be about racial justice, then there should be black people and other non-white leaders at both the board and directional leadership tables. 

There can be no serious progress toward anti-racism if there is no such leadership in place and no clearly articulated plans to place voices of color in leadership roles.

Don’t settle for a picture or a list of names. If you’re committed to investing your time and resources into a church, find out what influence Black people an non-black people of color have at your church. 

Ask about the plan for creating an anti-racist culture beyond Sunday. 

The music, preaching, announcements, and kid’s programs are all part of the Sunday morning experience churches provide, but they are not the totality of what makes a church function. 

Every church has an organizational culture. They have values, language, and expectations for what behaviors will receive rewards and which behaviors cause them to part ways with employees. 

Ask your church what actions they are taking to address the climate of their work culture. Ask them if their staff is going through any implicit bias training or any other practices to ensure an anti-racist work environment. 

How your church responds to these three questions should give you a glimpse into how committed they are to anti-racism. 

The work is a marathon, but it’s reasonable to expect your church leadership has considered these questions before presenting racial justice talks if they are serious about long-term sustainable change. 

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

*The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone 

A Prayer for the Holidays

A Prayer for the Holidays 318 159 Corey Leak

The Christmas season can be a mixed bag of cheer, sadness, joy, and anxiety. Some of us love this season, and some of us find it a depressing and lonely time of year. Whatever your relationship to this time of year, I wrote a prayer that I believe can help you find peace and center your soul during this holiday season.

Below is a prayer you can pray daily or when you feel you need it during the Christmas season. I hope you find it helpful.

God, I pray that you would help me experience your peace during this season.
In the midst of all of the noise and bustle of this time of year, keep my soul and mind at rest.
Help me to recognize that your presence is within me and all around me.
In everyone and everything I see, there are gentle reminders of your goodness and your undeserved love and grace.
Help me learn to accept gifts from you – your love, grace, and mercy. Help me understand that I was created to give and receive love freely – without merit and without discrimination.
Remind me this season again and again that Jesus came to us as a gift freely given. There was nothing we human beings could’ve done to earn the gift you gave us in Jesus.
Grant me the strength to love those around me as you have loved humankind. Show me how to grieve with those who mourn and celebrate with those who are rejoicing.
When I am tempted to settle into anxiety, stress, or loneliness, prompt me to breathe deeply as a reminder that life is your gift. With each inhale I receive the gift and with each exhale, I give that gift back.
May your presence fill all in all this season and fill the whole earth with your grace. Amen

Why I Can’t Stop Talking About Race

Why I Can’t Stop Talking About Race 849 557 Corey Leak

No one in the history of humankind was born to be a person who speaks out about race. I’ve never heard a first grader say that they want to be an activist when they grow up. People admire revolutionaries like Dr. King, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Malcolm X, but no one wants to BE them.

When I was in elementary school I wanted to be a doctor, and by the time I got to high school, I just wanted to grow up and be rich. As a junior in High School I knew that I was supposed to be a public servant of some sort. In my Christian tradition we would say I got the “call” to ministry. I knew I was destined to share good news with the world about the benevolent nature of Divinity, but I also didn’t want to be poor. Little did I know that some day clergy would be some of the richest people in the world. Go figure.

Even though I knew I was uniquely wired for being a religious leader, I would never have imagined that I would be in reality or perception – an activist.

I’m not sure there is a day that goes by that I don’t have at least one conversation about race or racism, and I wouldn’t say that’s an enjoyable place to be. Perhaps you’re thinking: “Why don’t you just stop talking about it?” That seems simple enough. I could choose to not bring up race at all in conversation, in my podcasts, or in my writings, and that would….

Wait… what would that do? Would it eliminate race from being a topic of discussion for me? Let’s see… If I stopped talking about race today…

I would still have people asking me about race and racism. I would still have friends, family, or otherwise cracking jokes about me being the “radical race guy.” I would still have black children who come home and share their exhaustion with being black in the suburbs. Lastly, I myself would still be a black man in America. The luxury of being insulated from race conversation is simply not afforded to me.

Talk to any activist, civil rights leader, or clergy person of color about why they are outspoken about race, and they will tell you that they have no other choice. The bell can’t be un-rung. What has been seen cannot be unseen. Racism/Injustice is a menace to society. We who recognize it as such know that it is not only an existential threat to us people of color, but it is a threat to all human beings – privileged or not.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. – Dr King

There are lots of reasons I started and continue to talk about race and racial injustice. Here are three of them.

  • We still live on unjust soil.

If I were to sneak into your house in the middle of the night, take the only pictures you have of your parents off your walls, eat all your food, and dump all the medicine in your medicine cabinets in the toilet – leaving you sick and one of your children dead, how often would you talk about that? How often would your surviving children? How would you feel when you saw me or my children healthy and thriving out and about?

America’s most vile racist acts of injustice are not in the ancient past. People who are alive today witnessed and experienced lynchings, segregation, and state-sanctioned assassinations of Black leaders. These actions happened here on American soil, on the streets we live on, in the hallways of the schools our children attend, and at the hands of people still alive today.

  • Society screams “White Power”

I’ve talked with several black people who work in corporate America. Every one of them has told me that they are the only black person in the room over 90 percent of the time that they are in high level leadership meetings. Each of them face micro-aggressions. Each of them have felt that they had to work twice as hard due to being black. Each has been passed over for promotions by less qualified white people with lesser performance ratings.

Think about the wealthiest, most influential, and powerful people in the world. Are most of the names you’re thinking: Bob, Bill, Mike, Chris, Steve, Rich, Don, Frank…? Why is that? Do you believe that is coincidence? Is it a benign happenstance of natural selection?

I would argue it’s the result of an intentional strategy that has been successfully doing its thing for generations. And, as long as we have the construct of white power, none of us will live in a just society.

  • The source material for my faith is justice themed.

Evangelical churches don’t talk about race that often. You might be hard pressed to find an evangelical church that talks about justice. I sat in, volunteered in and worked for many an evangelical church not realizing that justice was the central theme of the Bible. I thought that when the church talked about a social issue like race, even tho I am in fact black, the church was diverting from the Bible to talk about society.

It wasn’t until I went on about a 3-year journey into the context and history of Biblical texts and narratives that I began to realize how central justice is to the ideas, poetry, stories, and principles of Biblical literature.

After realizing that the Bible has a historical context and that that context has strong political, social, and ethnic implications, I began to feel like I had Divine backing to engage in social conversations. And not only did I have backing – I had a moral obligation to use my platforms to lift up the plight of the marginalized in society.

I guess you could say I’m fulfilling my “calling” after all. It is exhausting to talk about race and racism. It is not fun. It does not often feel very rewarding, but those of us who talk about it know that if we stop, future generations will suffer for it.

I wish we lived in a world where racism wasn’t a systemic issue that plagues the primary structures of our communities. I would love to live to see a time where no one talks about it because there is no need, and I’m doing my part to get us there – one conversation at a time.

My Tension With Kanye West’s Sunday Service

My Tension With Kanye West’s Sunday Service 1100 618 Corey Leak

“He’s fashionable, he’s reaching a lot of people who weren’t going to church and he sits with people who have diverse opinions.”

I’ve heard a wide range of thoughts about Kanye West’s latest artistic project – Sunday Service. Some people love it, and some people believe it’s heresy. I’ve been asked more than a few times over the last week about what I thought, so I decided to process those thoughts with you.

I’ve refrained from writing or talking publicly about the “revival” Kanye is leading because I have had conflicting ideas about the movement.

When I first heard about Kanye doing a Sunday morning service, my response was similar to my reaction when I heard that he said slavery was a choice.

I initially felt like this was a stunt “Yeezus” was using to center himself, and therefore I was extremely cynical. But, when I looked deeper within myself, I found that part of me was jealous that Kanye was creating the kind of faith communities I long to organize myself.

All that being said, here are my musings about Kanye West’s Sunday Service movement. They are in no particular order, and as I already said, some of them are probably contradictory. I feel tension within myself about it.

I don’t trust him.

I would personally never ask Kanye West for spiritual advice, and I imagine based on everything I’ve seen about what he’s up to these days, that he wouldn’t give it to me if I asked. He doesn’t seem to want the title or responsibilty of spiritual advisor.

My belief about spiritual leadership, which he is now positioned as whether he wanted it or not, is that the people we look to for spiritual leadership should be trustworthy in matters pertaining to Divinity. Which also carries with it the expectation of high moral character.

He’s by all accounts genuine.

I believe the countenance of those closest to us reveal our character. Kanye’s wife has been quoted as saying Kanye has had a genuine experience with God, and that is enough for me to at least look at what he is doing with less skeptisim.

People who have been in the space where Kanye has led Sunday services have said they believed the worship environment was authentically spiritual. I’m reluctant to dismiss the experiences of so many people who claim to have been touched by what they heard and saw.

I’m afraid.

If God uses Kanye West, who I have been angry with over claiming to be “Jesus” and cooning for Trump, then what does that mean for the faith I’ve grown up believing? My Christian roots, which I have am in almost daily conflict with, are unsettled by the idea that someone as weird as Kanye would be God’s agent of evangelism.

I am confronted with the idea that God can and does use people I don’t like or would not choose all the time. This movement Kanye has started has me looking at the man in the mirror, revealing that God does indeed use “undeserving people” every day.

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His celebrity drives his influence.

It’s been over a decade now since he first time I was in a large audience listening to a prominent Christian speaker. I remember when she took the stage and a friend we attended the gathering with started crying. The speaker hadn’t said a word yet, but her mere presence moved my friend to tears.

I also remember that she opened her message by showing a video of a debt being canceled. The entire room exploded into cheering and clapping. I can’t remember anything about the content of what she shared about God or humanity, but I remember what if felt like to be in the room.

Her personality and fame gave her content more juice than it would have possessed had it been presented by someone with less cache.

Kanye is the natural progression of celebrity church culture.

Over the last 20 years or so with the emergence of Christian television and social media, we have seen a rise in pastors and preachers who are every bit as rich, powerful, and famous as any other celebrity. TMZ is as likely to stop them in the airport as they are Justin Bieber. (Often because they have been seen out with Bieber or another celebrity)

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This is a pedestal we’ve created makes us believe that these men and women are more qualified to be God’s agents than the people who preach at and pastor small faith communities in urban and rural contexts all over the world.

The celebrity culture isn’t evil. It is a reality of the era we live in. The pastors featured by “Preachers N Sneakers” aren’t phonies or false prophets. They are the human bi-products of our desire for larger than life figures to point us toward God.

They say things in a way and with a style that moves us. We believe that swag invites “outsiders” to see what God and faith are all about, so we are happy to point our friends to the latest videos and tweets of famous preachers saying ordinary things in creative and flashy ways.

How is he different?

I bet you thought the first quote in this piece was about Kanye West. It wasn’t. It was how a friend of mine articulated why I should be careful in my criticism of what I perceived as a well known pastor’s lack of theological framework.

Those are my thoughts. Share yours in the comments here or on FB, Twitter or Instagram.

A Black Man’s Response to Four FAQs From White People Waking Up to Racism

A Black Man’s Response to Four FAQs From White People Waking Up to Racism 760 400 Corey Leak

Here is a list of questions I’m frequently asked about race and racism by white people who are waking up to the realities of racism in America.

“Is ______ Racist?”

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Racism is not easily defined, and it can often be even harder to identify in real time. Is it in the eye of the beholder? If a black person feels like an interaction is racist, does that automatically make it so? I think we can all agree that human beings are capable of misinterpreting situations, but that’s not a license to gaslight black people when they share their stories. The safest way to understand what racism looks like in our daily interactions is to trust POC to identify it.

Usually, when someone asks me if something is racist, it’s because someone accused them of saying or doing something racist. My first question to them is, “who accused you of racism?”. I ask that because I have almost zero interest in what white people consider racist, and I want to make sure that the person who called foul was credible. Part of our healing as a Nation is for white people to position themselves as the pupils of POC, educating them about racism.

If you enter into a conversation or action that makes you feel like you could be wandering into racist territory, chances are, you are wandering into racist territory. You should stop and run to the nearest black friend you have and have a conversation. If you don’t have any close black friends you can have that conversation with…

Maybe start by fixing that.

No ethnicity can claim to be the experts on racism. However, the voices of people who have felt the sting of racism are far more valid than those who have cracked the whip of it. If you want to know if something is racist, ask a close friend and listen to them carefully.

 

“How can we get more diversity at our church?”

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I was having a conversation with a good friend today who told me about a church conference that featured a worship team with all black BGVs and a white worship leader who lead all the songs. I laughed. I don’t know the leaders of the church putting that conference on, but I can infer from what I heard from my friend that this church wanted to appear like diversity was a value to their audience. I’ve had countless conversations with church leaders who want to show the world that they are a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-race rainbow of color.

When a church leader asks me how a church can grow more diverse, I encourage them emphatically NOT to do what the leaders putting on that men’s conference did. Unfortunately, a lot of churches unwilling to do the actual work of deconstructing racism, take the short cut of pandering to look like advocates of racial justice. Church leadership has to be willing to put the work in and commit to a long, messy, arduous process. This dirty work requires level five security clearance within the organization, so I inevitably wind up asking a question at the start of the conversation.

“Is the lead pastor committed to change, or is there a sub-committee in charge of helping the church become more diverse?” If the answer is “sub-committee,” I tell them to stop immediately. This project will go nowhere, and if the chair of the committee is deeply passionate about diversity, they should update their resume. Frustrating days are ahead.

The reason for the “abandon ship” advise is not because I’m a pessimist. I’m not. I’m a 7 on the Enneagram, which is The Enthusiast. I believed the Warriors would still find a way to come back and win the championship even after KD and Klay Thompson went down last week. The reason I encourage a shut down of the operation is that unless the leader of any organization is personally passionate about deconstructing racism within their church or business, it will never happen. It’s especially true in a church context. The lead pastor is the primary communicator in 99 percent of church organizations and sets the course for the vision.

To become a diverse church, churches need diverse leadership. For there to be diverse leadership, the white male leader of the church has to be willing to listen to diverse voices and subject himself to hearing prospectives he hasn’t previously given an audience to theologically, philosophically, or practically. I’ve already written pretty extensively in previous blog posts about how frequently white pastors and leaders surround themselves with white male voices. In that echo chamber, how could authentic diversity ever immerge?

If a church is genuinely interested in being diverse, let black singers sing gospel music in a style that resonates with black people. Celebrate Juneteenth (google it), Black History Month, and MLK weekend in significant ways. Hire black leaders and support their leadership by providing the clarity and autonomy that helps them flourish. Make heroes out of black people in history and within the church. DO AWAY WITH DRAMATIC GESTURES. Using black people as props to show the world how anti-racist you are, only makes you look good, and does nothing to tear down the racist structures built up in your church over years of white Jesus taking center stage. Who is centered in the titles “Pastor fights racism by washing black man’s feet” or “White Pastor fights racism by hugging a black man in front of his congregation? Who are the main characters in those stories?

 

“How do I raise my black child as a white parent in a way that safeguards their dignity?”

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White people be adopting black kids!!!

Every parent I know who has adopted black kids or married a POC and had bi-racial children of their own is a wonderful parent, and almost all of them are advocates for racial justice. They have allowed themselves to see the world through the eyes of their children, and it seems to have genuinely changed them. That alone is part of the answer to the question. Listen to your black son tell you how they felt in the grocery store, at church, at school, and on their sports team.  Feel the pain of your black daughter asking you why her hair isn’t like her friends in class, or why none one at school expresses romantic interest in her.

You’re raising black children in environments where they are “the other” EVERYWHERE, including at home.  My wife and I raise our girls in a predominantly white area of the country. It’s difficult, but at least they come home to an environment that celebrates their rich heritage, and we can speak to what they feel from intimate knowledge and experience. Your kids don’t have anywhere they can be free of the emotional toll of being the one person who looks like them in the room unless you’re intentional about surrounding them with other black bodies.

To put it plainly, put your kids in sports that black kids play. Take them to black barbershops and beauty shops. Educate yourself on how to style your black daughter’s hair. Find out what products to use and which ones to avoid. Don’t do it yourself if yourself without educating yourself first. Make sure they learn about Malcolm X, Dr. King, James Baldwin, Rosa Parks, and Sojourner Truth. Let them know that they come from a rich heritage. If at all possible, expose them to any of their blood relatives you can find. They need to see who they are through a black lens.

Thank you for loving black babies, and wanting to provide a great life for them. Remember, they are not white. See their color and raise them to see and appreciate it too.

 

“What can I, as a white person do?”

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Share this blog. Read Andre Henry’s work. Follow Andre Henry, Bree Newsome, Angela Rye, Michael McBride, Ben McBride, Christina Cleveland, and myself on social media. Listen before you speak. Don’t argue with black people about their experiences. Speak up when you see or hear something racist happened even when black people aren’t around to applaud you for it. Be our advocates once you’ve done your work to learn history. Be willing to attend a church lead by black people or work for a black boss. Do these things, and I think you’re off to a good start.

Three of Racism’s Most Dangerous Covert Allies

Three of Racism’s Most Dangerous Covert Allies 730 486 Corey Leak

I think it’s safe to say that most people in today’s society try and avoid blatantly racist behavior. Of course, there are examples of blatant racism all around us. We see videos of people using racial slurs toward black and brown people all the time. People still say ignorant things to non-whites like “This is America” or “Go back to your own country.” Underdeveloped (Unconcious) humans like that are not the majority. Most people are sensible enough not to exhibit overt racism in public.

When we talk about racism being an issue in America, we’re usually talking about systemic racism. That’s the kind of racism that no one needs to activate. It was activated the moment the first slaves stepped foot on American soil. Dismantling racism is not about getting rid of ideology alone or waiting for old, white, racist southerners to die off. It’s about much more than that. It’s about naming it when we see it in any form so that we can go about the business of deconstructing the systems that support it.

Almost everyone can recognize outright racism when they see it, but what’s harder to see is how well-meaning and some not so well-meaning people enable racism. Here are three of the most dangerous secret allies of systemic racism.

Sincere Justifications

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I’ve learned that it’s essential for POC to trust their instincts when it comes to racism. If something happens and it doesn’t feel right, 90 percent of the time it’s because it ain’t right. That store clerk didn’t just happen to start stocking the shelves in an empty beauty supply store right as you came in. Yes, that woman was following your family around the Louis Vuitton store until you left. No, it’s not a coincidence that you were passed over for a promotion after you decided to wear your hair natural. Your first instinct was correct. These things were racially motivated.

If you’ve experienced any instances like these and told people about it, there is a decent chance that someone said something like:

“They would have probably done that to anyone in the beauty supply store.”

“I bet they watch everyone at  Louis V. Its probably just standard protocol.”

“Maybe that promotion just wasn’t for you, or maybe the white guy they hired was better suited for the role.”

Statements like these are sincere justifications. Often people offer up alternative possibilities upon hearing of racist interactions as an opioid for the discomfort of racism. However, whose suffering is the opioid for? I would argue it’s more for their pain than for yours. It’s easier to downplay racism than it is to take on the harrowing process of dismantling it.

Justification is always shrouded in good intentions. We tend to use it to give ourselves a pass for missing the mark in one way or another in our own lives. It often makes us feel better about something we shouldn’t be comfortable with.

That’s why justification is such a powerful ally for racism. As long as we can give reasonable explanations for racist behaviors, we can deceive ourselves into believing we’re making more progress than we are. Joining POC in naming and condemning discriminatory practices and racist acts is a step toward deconstruction.

The Black Smuggler

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As you know, whiteness is a construct, not a race. People with black skin are just as capable of participating in anti-black sentiment as people with white skin. Black people aren’t immune to participating in their own oppression, and there may be no more dangerous ally to racism than the black smuggler.

They create a sense of comfort for people who hold racist beliefs. Black smugglers say what white people would say if they weren’t afraid of being called a racist for saying it. The irony is that using black carriers to deliver your racist thoughts is no less racist than saying it yourself.

I cringe every time I see a video of someone black being used to propagate sentiments that keep the racist power structure in place.  What is a more perfect ally for systemic racism than black bodies to express racist philosophy?

When we think about slavery, we think about the racism of the slave owner, but we don’t often bear in mind the aid they received from the house negro. The house negro felt just as much obligation to keep the slaves in line as the master did. A command from “massuh” was just as oppressive and racist in the house negro’s mouth as it was in the slave master’s.

As long as black people are willing to cooperate with racist agenda and propaganda, racism will have an ally that makes racial hierarchy seem legitimate. These outliers from the black community willing to stand in for white people and share their thoughts are a distraction from the work of dismantling cultural structures of racial inequity.

The White Evangelical Church

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This one is tough for me. I’m a pastor. I have worked at several churches and remain committed to the church right now, but the truth is the American church has been one of racisms chief allies for hundreds of years now.

Of course, we all know about how religious people, including clergy, justified, and even advocated for slavery. Dr. King wrote a letter to white clergy from a Birmingham jail cell, calling them out for their apathy toward racism during the civil rights movement. Has the white evangelical church come that far from those days?

As recently as this week, there was a panel of all white male clergy assembled to distance the gospel from social justice, and while there are plenty of white clergymen who would denounce the group as heretical, there are also plenty who do very little to dismantle racism within their churches.

Several churches have done sermons and series on racism, but fail to wrestle with the deep-rooted power dynamics at play within their organizations that keep racism intact within their churches.

This failure to do the deep work required gives churchgoers the false notion that their church is battling racism. When, in fact, their church is not. Paritioners are given little to no tools to recognize racism when they see it in public or within themselves, and as a result, many of them remain racist – bosses, parents, law enforcement officers, teachers, and spouses. The failure of the church to adequately address racism when they are the most equipped morally and theologically to do so is tantamount to standing hand in hand with David Duke, which unfortunately many clergymen throughout history have literally done.

All three of these allies take on the form of well-intentioned attempts at racial reconciliation from time to time. None of the three are evil by themselves, but without the proper examination of what lies beneath their primary motivations, all three are dangerous co-conspirators with racism – masquerading as champions of peace and unity.

Still Hovering

Still Hovering 1500 900 Corey Leak

By now it’s no secret that I believe institutional racism is a thing. I’ve lost friends over my beliefs that whiteness is the root cause of that racism, and I’m honestly unbothered by the loss. All of the people I admire most throughout history lost friends, followers, and associates over their convictions. I will never have the impact of Jesus, Paul, or Dr. King, but I feel allied with them whenever another person decides that my beliefs about a racially just society are too far gone for them to continue to journey with me.

Like many of my friends who write, organize, create art, or speak out about racial equality and justice, I started out believing my voice was moderate. I never thought anything I was saying was radical or polarizing. Everyone I know using their influence to bring about change in the area of race is stating the truth about their own experiences and the facts about America’s history of racism. That’s why people’s reactions to the truth are often puzzling to me. Mostly I’m taken aback because very frequently the dissenters, detractors, and critics of racial justice work are Christians.

I’m not the only one disturbed by that. People have asked me on a few different occasions about how I can keep a faith associated with chaos like…

  • Slave owners removing pages from the Bible to ensure that their black slaves wouldn’t get any ideas about how God feels about liberation.
  • American Nationalism leading to phrases like

“I kneel for the cross, but I stand for the flag”   

  • White Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr, Franklin Graham, Paula White, and Jon MacArthur making it demonstratively clear that racism is not an issue that Christians should concern themselves with. It’s a distraction from the real issues that Christians should be concerned about like abortion and human sexuality.

There is no sugar coating that the above list is ugly. There is also no denying that people believing themselves to be agents of God have been behind some of the most egregious human rights abuses throughout history. Evil has dressed up as good. Racism has hidden behind a cross draped in an American flag. Christianity has come dangerously close to being the religion of white men – white men who build their churches to pander to white women and leave a few pews open for POC so that no one can claim their churches aren’t diverse.

I still believe in the God of the Bible. In large part because of one of the opening lines of the most famous poem ever written.

After the Hebrew people’s liberation from slavery, they would need to establish their own identity which in antiquity meant telling the story of how the world and man came to be. Ancient tribes told stories of how the world was made. They would share these stories around campfires and teach them to their children. Origin stories were popular. In some ways, it helped tribes define their identity and define the character of whatever god (s) they worshiped. The Hebrew creation story is not so much about the exact details of how God made the world, but about how ancient Hebrews viewed God and human beings relationship to that God.

Scholars believe that the authors of the book we call Genesis (aka B’resheet) wrote it after God rescued the Hebrew people from Egyptian oppression. The poem explaining “the beginning” in Genesis 1 2, and 3 is primarily influenced by what they experienced during their liberation from slavery. It’s no wonder Genesis 2 describes a Divine Being hovering over a chaotic mess from the start of the story. The Hebrew people introduce their God alongside chaos, and that God is not chased off by it. The Hebrew Deity speaks into it.

Perhaps it’s that image of God that keeps me believing despite the messiness of the Christian faith over the years. A story inspired by 400 years of slavery gave us our first glimpse of God. Black people in America should all be able to shout a resounding amen to a story like that!

I believe God is always working, always speaking, and still hovering near chaos. I no longer expect that God eliminates all of life’s messiness. I think Divinity and chaos are found together throughout human history. That’s probably what the liberated, no longer enslaved, Hebrew people saw, understood, and experienced. Throughout their writings of history, poetry, and law they were in and out of exile – always facing turmoil and pain. Many times they blamed God in their books and many times they wrote that God blamed them, but through it all, they continued to believe in the God they saw present next to and inside all of the chaos. I choose to believe in the same God.

America is a strange place for black people. Often church can be even more bizarre. My faith doesn’t rest in America becoming more racially just. I do hope, pray, and work alongside many great activists and leaders for it to be. I don’t believe white evangelical pastors across America will all in unison turn from all forms of white supremacy and racism. I hope and pray that I’m wrong. Even if I’m not, I find myself able to smile at the beauty of a God hovering near the chaos getting ready to speak. Somehow that brings me great comfort and helps me look past the ugliness to trust God’s plan.

 

Dear Corey (An Open Letter to My Former Self)

Dear Corey (An Open Letter to My Former Self) 6000 4000 Corey Leak

Dear Former Self,

Your non-threatening demeanor and disposition created great opportunities for you in White Evangelical churches. They loved that you could sing and play guitar with just enough soul to give them credit for hiring a POC, but not so much that it was uncomfortable for the majority white audience that sat in the seats. You learned so much as a man and a leader because of the spaces you led in.

When you worked at churches, you and the white folks that hired you, celebrated what it meant to have a black man leading within the church. You thought that the optics were important. After all, diversity is the buzzword of the modern church. They all knew that black skin added value to the church daily requiring zero effort. You are black, and every day you went to work, you were doing a huge part of your job. Up top! That’s a hustle! It opened the door for you to work for churches and provide a decent living for the family. You did what you had to do.

Everything was great! You laughed at the same cliche black jokes. “You’re the token black.” “We figured you’d be late.” “Is that your girl’s real hair?” All cannon fodder for humor that the white folks and you thought would help you relate to each other. You even initiated some of the fun to try and amuse your colleagues with your wit and self-deprecation. You kind of thought you were subtly reinforcing the authentic biases that lied beneath the surface of that humor, but also thought they were just jokes. You thought laughing and making those jokes helped you fit in, and for some of them, I agreed. For others, I believed you were complicit in the defamation of our blackness. I felt like our ancestors were somehow disrespected, but you never wanted to think about that too much. You didn’t feel like we could object without becoming a problem for our white partners in ministry. I wasn’t sure, but I went along with the plan. However, humor wasn’t the only area where you didn’t feel we could object.

I remember how many times they used you to do their dirty work. You were asked to have tough conversations with black volunteers or board members about things the white leaders you worked for were too scared to talk about themselves. You found a way to justify their neocolonialism and jumped into a fight that didn’t belong to you to keep your job. Once I started to come alive, I felt uneasy with a lot of what was said and done, but you never wanted anyone to know I was at work with you. You felt like I was the angry side that no one needed to see. How about the time the pastor snapped at you in a room full of people with a tone only your mom and dad had used towards you? I was ready to educate him, but you held me back. You tried to convince me that there was a greater good in being quiet. You felt like you needed to keep a good relationship with the white men who lead you. You believed that your black skin with a leaders salary and title was a giant step for them, and neither of us wanted to put the wife and kids in jeopardy. As examples of racism in culture became more vivid, I could no longer hold my peace, but you still had a job. We agreed I’d be quiet work as long as I got to speak my mind in public through social media and other public forums.

I think we both recognized that what happened to Alton Sterling and Philando Castille was heartbreaking. I don’t remember which one of us wept most about what happened, but I do remember it was becoming harder and harder to not see privilege, systemic racism, and bias all around us. But, again, we still had to feed the family. It was emotionally taxing for both of us to suppress feelings of anxiety, anger, disappointment, and frustration for fear of playing the “black card.” Maybe that anxiety is why it was so important that I find an outlet for my truth.

I started to speak up about injustice. I used #blacklivesmatter on social media. Then I realized just how many people had never met me before. How many “I didn’t know you were so black” comments did you get? You laughed. I snarled. You didn’t want to be labeled, miss out on opportunities, or lose your job. I wanted to tell the truth, and I was growing more and more dissatisfied with holding my tongue in the face of systemic racist structures.  You believed there was no place for a “pro-black” message within the gospel. I wasn’t sure either. After all, neither of us had heard very many sermons about racial justice. We had only heard that we are all one race, and encouraged not to see color.

Even in the absence of theology, I felt I had to speak up. Eventually, we found common ground in theology, and everything changed.

You were no longer the godly version and I the angry black version. We found that the New Testament is full of language that encourages diversity and unity. Jesus and Paul both warned about supremacy. Injustice has always been something God opposes, and it’s always been an evil that humans shouldn’t tolerate. Justice is not a curse word, but a word that can just as easily be substituted for righteousness.  In our theological wrestling, we found our voice. The duplicity we thought we needed to keep the peace is now a burden to us. It was cumbersome to try and be two different people. You had to learn to accept me and trust that I wasn’t an evil to despise, but truth to embrace. The world needed me to speak out about injustices as much as it needed you to sing Well Done.

I wish I could tell you that you were wrong about the white folks you were afraid would reject you if they ever met me. You weren’t. Many of those people you were worried about have bailed. You have lost some friends, and some people who once seemed to be fond of you don’t reach out anymore, but life is lived better from a sense of genuine self than from a safe place of oppressed apprehension.

I use my voice freely now.  I write about justice, faith, and culture, and I bear witness to the black experience. I’m contending for a better world, and there are quite a few white leaders who have embraced the message and me. There is opposition and people mislabeling this gospel as political rhetoric, but I live in the peace that comes from knowing that God is with me.

 

4 Reasons Your Church Should Acknowledge MLK Day

4 Reasons Your Church Should Acknowledge MLK Day 1280 720 Corey Leak

MLK Day is a federal holiday. It is a day set aside to remember the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. It’s a day that has been met with resistance since it was proposed as a holiday in 1968. It took until 2000 for the holiday to be recognized as a federal holiday by every state in America. Utah is the last state to accept it.

Churches have been even slower to acknowledge MLK Day as a holiday worth mentioning during Sunday gatherings. Many churches in America that recognize Independence Day, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, Valentines Day and Halloween have failed to recognize this federal holiday that was established to help us remember that all men are created equal. Perhaps many clergies don’t recognize the opportunity MLK weekend creates for sharing the gospel or perhaps it’s deemed a holiday for only black churches to celebrate. Whatever the reason, not taking time out to significantly honor the memory of Dr. King is a missed opportunity. Here are 4 reasons clergy should make significant space in the weekend programming for remembering Dr. King.

1. Dr. King was a pastor. 

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MLK Day is a federal holiday that pauses the Nation to remember a man of the cloth and the work he did. People of all ethnicities, creeds, religions, and beliefs remember a Christian pastor’s message to America that all human beings are God’s children and equal. Every year black and non-black clergy have the opportunity to reaffirm that message and the pastor who preached it. Dr. King is in the great cloud of witnesses watching us who are still here carrying the message of liberation and freedom forward. He is a brother to ever faith leader who sacrifices, leads and gives of themselves for their congregants.

2. It deeply matters to the black people attending your church.

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I recently heard a story from a friend who took over a church a few years ago. In the first year of being a lead pastor, they asked the production team to make sure there was a moment in service to acknowledge Dr. King. The church had never done it before. After the first weekend service where they did it, a black woman came up to my friend with tears in her eyes and said: “For the first time in ten years this feels like my church.”

In multi-cultural or predominantly white congregations black people are often sacrificing the cultural experiences of their communities in order to belong to such churches. There are a number of reasons black folks chose not to attend a “black church” such as proximity, relationships, seeking more structured programming or teaching style. Whatever the reason they chose to attend churches where they are the minority, they are still aware each and every week that they are the minority. Hearing the lead pastor affirm the importance of equality from the stage can go a long way toward making black folks feel like they belong.

3. The work is not done.

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I don’t think I need to tell anyone reading this that reconciliation is an ongoing issue. There is still so much work to be done for us to truly be reconciled to one another. Racism is pervasive and difficult to recognize because of its pervasiveness. The more we take time as communities of faith to wrestle with principles of inclusion and unity, the more we will see areas we need to repent, change and grow. Serious work takes serious time to do. MLK Day is a natural opportunity to stand on the shoulders of people who have gone before us in that work. We can take a fresh look at the sermons preached by Dr. King and evaluate ourselves to see how well we’re doing at loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

4. Jesus preached the same message.

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If you read about Jesus from the gospel writer Luke’s perspective you will find a significant emphasis put on the liberation of the poor and oppressed people of the world. From Mary’s Song, Jesus reading of Isaiah in Luke 4, to the Sermon on the Mount, you find a message of good news to the poor and oppressed. The work of the Messiah was to liberate the people of Israel from the things that held them captive. We tend to reduce this message to merely spiritual concerns in our Western reading of scripture, but for the people living during the time of Jesus and the people reading his story in the first century, the expectation was that there would be physical liberation as well. Luke records Jesus saying “blessed are the hungry for they will be filled”. Luke doesn’t write “Hunger and thirst for righteousness” as Matthew does. He also doesn’t record Jesus saying “in spirit” after Jesus says “blessed are the poor”.

Jesus was concerned with social issues that affected human beings on earth not just in heaven. It’s that message that Dr. King picked up and preached to us over 50 years ago. When a preacher examines the words of Dr. King and shares them with their congregation, they are not sharing a message that is other than the gospel but announcing that the Kingdom of God is indeed here and now.

 

For some of you that have done videos, slides, or special songs in the past, I’d challenge you to consider taking a step further and devoting all or part of your sermon to sharing something significant about Dr. King.

Having worked for several larger churches I know that most times teaching calendars and sermon series are planned months in advance. If you’re a part of a church leadership team that hasn’t planned for MLK weekend, I understand it can be difficult to pivot last minute. To those of you wrestling with that tension after reading this, I’ll offer two suggestions.

  1. Plan for it next year. Add MLK Day to your teaching calendar so that you don’t miss the opportunity again.
  2. Consider pivoting this week. Chances are you’ve pivoted before with less notice. Your team survived and you likely didn’t regret making the last minute change.

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