The Road to True Fellowship
by Melanie Taylor and Pastor Russ Pflasterer
Church was tough this past Sunday. It was tough for everybody.
I’m not sure how other churches dealt with the events that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia this past Saturday. But our desire at City Fellowship has always been to deal with issues of race in a truthful way. Whenever Neo-Nazis and KKK groups are involved with racialized incidents, an easy bad-guy is made available to us. We can all denounce their racist rhetoric, and feel good about being right… But have we been truthful??
Dr. Cornel West is a Christian thinker and activist that has been dealing with issues of racial injustice longer than I have been alive. His “subversive joy” has always been an inspiration to me, and he has a saying that has always stuck with me, “the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.”
"The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak."
-Dr. Cornel West
What Dr. West is saying, is that if you want to deal with any human situation truthfully you have to hear more than just the facts. You have to hear the pain. For Dr. West, the origin of this line of thinking comes from no other place than the cross of Jesus Christ. He says that folks don’t want to hear about the cross, because it tells the truth about sin. Sin inflicts real pain, and the cross gives voice to that pain. It puts the pain of sin on display. As fallen human beings we want to avert our eyes from such suffering and act as if it doesn’t exist. But if we are willing to look upon that pain, to hear the cries of anguish… that is an indication that we are ready to deal with our own sinful condition truthfully.
Sin never happens in a vacuum, it has real consequences for real relationships. Our sin isn’t just a transgression against a holy God, it also causes Him great pain. It was our sin that nailed Jesus to the cross, disrupting the oneness of the Trinity. We don’t want to look upon Jesus bleeding and naked because we know that we put Him there! It’s hard enough seeing the effects of our sin in our personal lives, but it’s almost unbearable to see our sin injure the people we love or people we don’t even know.
White supremacy is sin with real consequences for real relationships. We don’t want to look upon the white supremacists' rallies, listen to the racist rhetoric, or see the pain of people of color. But just as the Lord invites us to look upon the violence of the cross in order to receive healing and restoration, we also must look upon the violence of racism so that we might be restored to right relationships with God, with ourselves, and with one other.
"I asked Alma Hernandez and Pastor Matthew Marshall to speak to us truthfully on Sunday about what they FEEL when they see incidents like Charlottesville take place."
I asked Alma Hernandez and Pastor Matthew Marshall to speak to us truthfully on Sunday about what they FEEL when they see incidents like Charlottesville take place. I did not ask them what they would be speaking about, or try to edit them in any way. I did not ask them to provide us with action steps, or practical application. Just how it makes them FEEL. You might question the wisdom of that, but I can tell you that my desire was to allow pain to speak honestly so that we might deal with the evil of white supremacy truthfully… Not academically. Not “out there” in Charlottesville, but “in here” at City Fellowship.
The ugliest truth about white supremacy is that it has been systematically built into the nervous system of the American experience. It is so deeply engrained that merely pointing out the facts about how it is operating in our lives rarely moves us to action. But when we come face to face with the real-life pain that it inflicts… especially on people we care about… we can have a shot at dealing with the evil of white supremacy in a truthful way.
"It may seem counterintuitive, but the kind of vulnerability we experienced on Sunday was an invitation to fellowship."
Pastor and theologian Howard Thurman coined a phrase that describes the condition I often feel in multiethnic spaces, “contact without fellowship.” Contact without fellowship is apparent when my joy is welcome in a space but not my pain. I need to know that I can enter my church heavy-laden the day after an event like what happened in Charlottesville, and not bear the added burden of reassuring my brothers and sisters that they’re “good white people.” Because ultimately their justification, like mine, can only come from resting in the finished work of Christ.
Pastor Matt and Alma’s words may have been shocking because in the moment you realized you didn’t know your fellow church members as well as you thought you did. I know that’s what I thought when I realized I’ve known Alma for years but have never asked her to share her story. Or, how I often look to Pastor Matt to encourage me in times like these but I rarely take the initiative to check on him and just ask how he’s doing. But I couldn’t allow the shame I felt to stop me from receiving what they had to say! It may seem counterintuitive, but the kind of vulnerability we experienced on Sunday was an invitation to fellowship. You can’t really know someone until you’ve entered into their pain. Pastor Matt and Alma took great risks in sharing what they did, the way they did, because they want to be known in truth by us!
"I believe that we are standing on the threshold of a decision, City:
Are we going to be satisfied with mere contact or are we going to do what it takes to walk the road toward becoming a true fellowship?"
I believe that we are standing on the threshold of a decision, City: Are we going to be satisfied with mere contact or are we going to do what it takes to walk the road toward becoming a true fellowship? The apostle Paul closes his second letter to the Corinthians (a contentious, multi-ethnic church) with this admonition:
“Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
True fellowship is possible in the Spirit! If we are willing to do the work of restoration and live together in peace, then the God of Peace WILL BE WITH US! But we need to understand that restoration can only happen in an environment of truth. Real peace can only exist in an environment of truth. We can’t be a comfort to one another until we truly know what is causing our brother or sister to suffer.
To that end, let us offer some practical steps you can take today, to move beyond contact and toward fellowship:
For white people
Be intentional about creating spaces where you are seeking to understand rather than seeking to be understood.
1. Reach out to people of color that you have a relationship with (inside and outside the church) and ask them how events like Charlottesville make them FEEL. Respect their boundaries, and don’t go with a sense of entitlement. But if they agree to talk, take that as an invitation… And discipline yourself to seek to understand their perspective, regardless of your own. I think you will be surprised how many people of color have never been asked by a white person how they FEEL about these incidents. As a dear friend once told me, “White people always ask me WHY there is a riot, but they rarely ask me if I’m okay after one happens”. This discipline will develop the habit of deep, true listening which is an essential skill for anyone seeking fellowship in the Spirit with brothers and sisters in Christ.
2. Be sensitive to the fact that though church was tough for all of us this past Sunday, it is very often tough for our brothers and sisters of color. There are deep sacrifices being made every week that many of us are unaware of. Painful sacrifices.
3. Come to LDR Weekend… If you can’t come yourself then invite somebody over that was able to go, feed them dinner, and ask them what they thought!
For people of color
Practice the spiritual discipline of self-care. It’s not your responsibility to educate our white brothers and sisters or be their sounding board for all race-related dilemmas. (Google is their friend!) Christ did not meet every request for healing with a yes during His earthly ministry, though He had unlimited capacity to do so! He addressed the masses but Peter, James and John experienced greater intimacy with Him than even the other disciples. As Pastor Russ said in Sunday’s sermon, the Lord works first then He rests but we have to rest in Him before we can work. Agree with God by embracing your limits, and ask Him to sustain you for the long journey.
Here are some practical steps to take in self-care:
- Spend more time alone with the Lord than you do in conversations on race
- Pray for discernment in determining when and with whom you are most vulnerable
- Limit time on social media
- Come to LDR Weekend, and be refreshed
Years ago when we started the church we used to talk about how, if we were really going to do this kind of ministry, we were going to have to become, “comfortable with being uncomfortable”. I don’t think we had any idea how right we were… and right now is where the rubber meets the road. We have an opportunity RIGHT NOW to push on through the false comfort of “contact” and step onto the road toward REAL fellowship in the Spirit! That road is one that must be walked truthfully… That is the only way it can be walked. But if we are willing to walk it, the Apostle assures us that the God of love and peace will be with us!
BUILDING A MULTIETHNIC FAMILY OF FAITH ON MISSION WITH KING JESUS