A Conversation on Race and Religion

‘We Cannot Be One If We Think We Need Not Be Part of the Conversation’

Colors burst on the screen in the Chapel at Willow Creek in South Barrington — reds and purples, blues and greens — and the audience sees with clarity Dr. Michael Emerson’s point: Race and class are inextricable.

On his map of Chicago, splayed out over the screen, the creative class, those who make the most money in the city, live in a few distinct parts. They are overwhelmingly white.

The service class, which is about double the size of the creative class because it services the needs of the Creatives, cover other parts of the map, mostly swaths of the South and West Sides. They are overwhelmingly black and Latino.

Why does this matter?

If you are white and you are poor, explains Dr. Emerson, the provost of North Park University and the author of “Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America,” about 80 percent of you live in a neighborhood that is not poor.

If you are black or Latino and poor, it is almost the exact opposite: You will almost always live in a neighborhood that is poor. The problem is areas with 40 percent or more people in poverty are “basically catastrophic” when it comes to social services and the possibility of emerging from poverty.

The disparity, he says, is growing. Whites as of five years ago, he says, have 50 percent more wealth than Asians Americas, 18 times more than Latinos and 20 times more than African Americans.

About decade ago, when Emerson started tracking these statistics, whites had 9 times more wealth than Latinos and 10 times more than African Americans. The wealth gap between races, especially when accounting for a proportional amount of education, is growing precipitously.

“There’s nothing that’s going to stop it if we don’t do some major intervention,” says Emerson, who is white, adding his biggest concern is that societies don’t exist that “have these kind of gaps and not blow up. You just can’t sustain this kind of inequality and say we’re all American.”

The underlying reason why Christians must care, says Emerson, who was speaking at Willow during Midweek on “Race and the Church,” hosted by Willow Mosaic, the church’s racial reconciliation and racial justice ministry, lies in the Gospel.

Again and again in John 17, Emerson points out, one of Jesus’s final prayers for his disciples is “they may be one so they may be brought to complete unity.”

“Of all the things he could pray for, it would be that we would be as a body, that somehow we would be one, and then he goes further: May they be in us,” Emerson says, referring to the trinity. “Why? So that the world may believe.”

A key part of becoming one, he says, is understanding the root differences between what causes us pain, and in the American context, that means chasms created by our history as a racialized society.

In “Divided By Faith,” Emerson and co-writer Christian Smith argue that often, well-intentioned people, their values and their institutions actually recreate what they oppose. By not understanding differences between how race is viewed between whites and people of color, the solutions created by majority culture can perpetuate and aggravate division.

White evangelicals, for instance, tend to attribute “the race problem” in America to individual sin, divisions between individuals and self-interested minorities; evangelicals of color attributed racial inequity to such structural issues as lack of access for specific neighborhoods and systematic discrimination.

The solutions, he says, are consistent with what each group says causes the problems. White evangelicals tend to focus on building individual relationships across racial differences while Christians who are racial minorities point to the need to overcome such persistent disparities as housing and job discrimination and access to opportunity.

Religious faith, he says, intensifies pre-existing differences. But while religion can augment these differences, but it can also be a powerful force for good.

What would help on a personal level?

Believe your brothers and sisters when they describe a different narrative.

Be prayerful: Lament brokenness and ask God for truth, unity and direction.

Be radical: Stop the segregation in our churches. 

Be active. Join Christian groups who are working toward justice.

During a question and answer session, Emerson gave real-life suggestions on how everyone can work together right-size racial and class inequities.

With regard to diversifying leadership and decision-making, Emerson put forth the example of what North Park is doing. In the past decade, the student body there has reached a point where there is no majority racial group. The people who work there, however, don’t yet match those student demographics, which can cause problems when decision-making for a diverse student body is done from a largely monocultural perspective.

In order to increase racial diversity in its staffing, North Park’s solutions have accountability attached: The faculty must be 35 percent people of color by 2025, and to help achieve that goal, the university cannot hire senior-level staffers without interviewing candidates of color.

Emerson also shared his own experience of personal transformation with regard to race. A couple of decades ago, when he was at a Promise Keepers conference, after several talks that seemingly had little connection to race, he wrote this reflection: “Race grieves me.” It was a prompting he could not shake. He bought all the books he could on race and religion, stayed up for 72 straight hours reading and shared with his wife a new conviction: They needed to experience living as racial minorities in all aspects of their lives — where they buy their house, where they worship, where they work and where their kids go to school.

A series of “Only God” moments and a lot of intentionality made that possible. They lived in a majority-black neighborhood, and like so many of their neighbors, their property values went down. What the experience taught him was this:

“There are costs to doing this, to leaving your privilege, and what I found out is that my color, and my education and everything else cannot overcome that cost, that if you violate those rules – my white privilege is I can live in a white neighborhood if I choose, but if I choose not to, than I will suffer the cost as anybody else that is not from the white neighborhood,” he says. “So it isn’t my individual race; it’s a social system that we’ve set up that I individually cannot overcome, even if I’m white.”

Ultimately, Emerson says, none of us, especially Christians of all races, can afford to disengage from working toward racial reconciliation and racial justice.

“We cannot be one if we think we need not be part of the conversation. We have removed ourselves from the possibility of realizing Jesus’s prayer for us,” he says, referring to Jesus’s prayer for oneness among his followers in John 17. “If this is Jesus’s prayer, then it has to be of utmost importance. There has to be something profound that he’s trying to communicate to us.”

Racial justice, Emerson says, “is impossible on our own. It can only happen through the power of Christ. If there’s anything I do, if I say, ‘I don’t care about that,’ I’ve already violated that. I’ve already said, ‘We’re separate,’ and I just can’t do that, no matter how much it costs me. “

Click here to download the MP3 of Dr. Emerson's talk and click here to download the presentation notes.

Erin Chan Ding is a freelance journalist who co-leads Willow Mosaic, Willow Creek’s racial reconciliation and racial justice ministry. To receive updates on Mosaic-related events, e-mail [email protected]. To find out more about Willow Mosaic and to read more on racial justice issues, visit willowcreek.org/mosaic.  

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