RED, BROWN, YELLOW, BLACK, WHITE WHO'S MORE PRECIOUS IN GOD'S SIGHT?: A call for diversity in Christian missions and ministry. By Leroy Barber with Velma Maia Thomas. New York: Jericho Books, 2014. Xiv + 206 pages.
The election of Barack Obama as President gave, for a moment, the illusion that America was now a post-racial society. It was time to celebrate the fact that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream had been fulfilled. Yes, we had reached the goal where people are now judged not by the “color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” If only this were true. While many White Americans are convinced that President Obama’s election heralded a new day in America, facts on the ground should have disabused us of that notion. Yes, we elected a Black President, but many of the problems facing people of color, which the Civil Rights Movement hoped to deal with, remain with us. So, is it really time to move on to other things, having checked this issue off the list?
Although great strides have been made over the past fifty years, eleven o’clock on Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of the week. The power structures in the religious world remain largely in the hands of the White majority, who largely control the purse strings of our religious institutions.
One who has experienced the realities of the continued need to control the religious institutions on the part of White Christians, especially in the Evangelical community, is Leroy Barber. Barber is an African American evangelical urban missions leader. He has devoted his life to evangelical missions, especially in urban settings. He’s served in a variety of agencies, mostly para-church. He’s risen to leadership positions, but the pathway has been difficult. He currently serves as Executive Director of Word Made Flesh Ministries and is board chair of the Christian Community Development Association. Because the leadership of these organizations and the funding sources has been predominantly white, he has had to deal with stereotypes and a lack of trust in his ability to lead.
With regard to urban missions, which often minister to/with persons of color, many of these efforts are run by White Christians wishing to retain control over the missions venture, using their financial support as the reason for their need to control. Even though the ministries largely work with people of color, he found an unwillingness to entrust leadership to persons of color. Indeed he discovered that when he rose to positions of leadership, financial support among White supporters decreased or ended altogether. What he discovered was that many of these organizations paternalistic, and even harbors neo-colonialist attitudes. It is these kinds of realities that get narrated in this book. He raises important questions about power. There is disappointment in how Christians treat one another. There is, both anger and grief present in the story.
The book begins by laying out the Missio Dei and its history. He shares how Christianity has been used in colonialist ways to “civilize” those deemed inferior in religion and culture. He then speaks of his own sense of the Missio Dei. His mission work began as he volunteered at Billy Graham rallies, included experiences with Promise Keepers. Later he found himself involved in leadership positions in mission enterprises, but he continued to butt his head against a glass ceiling. Despite being more experienced than White’s promoted to higher leadership, he was deemed unqualified. Finally he encountered a mission work that embraced diversity – but this was more the exception than the rule. What he wishes to do with this book is encourage ministries to diversify. Boards and ministry teams should look like the communities they serve. If there is not a ready pool of leadership, then work needs to be done to raise them up. Indeed, he suggests that organizations make it a policy to have a diverse board. He calls for new ways of making funds available. He reminds us that in evangelical missions, most are self-funded through personal fundraising. Since many persons of color feeling this call do not have access to the kinds of support networks they are often left out of the mission work in their own communities. As he writes this book, he expresses both a sense of hurt and a sense of hope.
As a White pastor who is invested in creating an urban missions project in Detroit, which my own congregation helped launch and helps to fund, this book does speak to my own situation. Our work, to this point, is largely overseen, led, and funded by White Christians, while those being served are largely African-American. I hear the call to broaden our leadership structures. In theory we are trying to avoid a paternalistic vision, but it’s easy to fall into such a trap.
Barber speaks to an evangelical context that is largely defined by parachurch ministries. These are often entrepreneurial and lack any denominational connections. The ministries of Mainline churches, in theory, should be able to avoid some of the traps he describes. My own denomination – Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – seeks to be an “anti-racist, pro-reconciling” church. Clergy in my region are being asked to go through anti-racism training. A concerted effort is made to have diversity of ethnicities, genders, and clergy/laity on boards and positions of leadership. Missionaries do not raise their own support by are paid salaries, so economic background is not a deterrent.
All of this may be true, but as a white Christian I find myself needing to hear this word as a prophetic one -- a call to do better. Denominational ministries might be better at this than parachurch ones, especially since those called to these ministries are supported by the denomination as a whole and not through individual fund-raising. But, I sense that all is not perfect in my ecclesial community either.
The book is relatively fast read. It is directed at a broad audience. It is definitely challenging, however, and at points I wanted to say -- enough already, I get it. But did I really get it? Or do I need continued prodding? As part of his effort to prod us to a new understanding, Barber included the complete text of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The time for patience has come to an end. Now is the time to act.
My sense is that if you're concerned about matters of mission, ministry, and ethnicity -- take and read! This is especially true of anyone venturing into urban ministries, for paternalism is a dangerous luxury!