“There’s an African church in another part of town. Perhaps that would be better for your husband.”
That was what a lady said to me one Sunday as l was chatting with someone in the church courtyard before the morning service. She just came up to me, said those words, and then continued towards the entrance of the church.
I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. My feet moved as if on auto-pilot, and l found myself following the lady and asking her to explain herself. However, she ignored me and disappeared into the church.
Meanwhile, some church elders who had witnessed the verbal attack turned to me, briefly commented on how inappropriate the lady’s behaviour was, and then encouraged me to go in for the service. And that was it. No one asked if l was okay, or thought to offer support or help clear up the situation. They just stood back, as though expecting me to simply move on.
So, out of love for God, l went in and sat through the service, hurting in silence but trying my best to not cause a fuss and upset anybody.
No one wants to have hard conversations
In Germany, where my husband and l live, we are regularly confronted with racism. My husband is Nigerian, while I was born in England, but raised in Australia by Sri Lankan parents. For this reason, we look to the church as a safe space—not only spiritually, but socially. And after previous encounters of racism in other churches, my husband and l had hoped that this church would be different.
This hope has now died a painful death. Since that Sunday, I’ve felt hurt, enraged, and spiritually heartbroken. I even sought a meeting with one of the elders a few days after to seek an explanation and reconciliation. The elder apologised on behalf of the church and said that the pastor had been outraged when he heard what had happened. I was then told that the church was working on the situation.
However, when I returned to the church the following week, I didn’t get that impression. No one spoke to me, except the one elder l had talked to, who only engaged in small talk. The pastor walked by me without making eye contact. The one witness on that Sunday saw me sitting on my own, but didn’t approach me. I felt like l had become invisible.
The topic of racism in the church is a controversial one. No one likes to hear criticism about the body of Christ. Neither do l for that matter. Like most of you, I have been told time and again that the church is made up of broken people, and that the only perfect person to walk the earth was Jesus Christ Himself. And I agree with all of that.
However, the fact remains that racism in the church is a real social issue affecting our brothers and sisters around the world. It can be as obvious as direct verbal attacks, or more subtle, such as racial profiling, presuming someone doesn’t speak the language or is less educated. There were also times our contributions to the church family were not welcome as they don’t fit the majority culture. These can all be very hurtful and hard to endure.
Opposition to discrimination has been a major theme since the early church. Paul expressly voices his disagreement in Romans 10:12: “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him.” Paul also writes in 1 Corinthians 12:13, “For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”
Since Scripture declares us united under Christ, there should be no ground for us to let physical and cultural differences divide us. Ephesians 4:4-6 clearly lists all the things that make us “one”—one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father.
And so, with my hope and longing to see such oneness, l wish to suggest some ways for our churches to consider, so we can work towards ending racism in the church.
1. Raise awareness about racism in our midst
It’s important that we can speak openly about racism in church and educate people without fear of offending anyone. l understand that those who have never experienced racism may find it difficult to relate. However, I think it’s safe to say that most of us have experienced some form of discrimination and injustice, whether based on gender, age, faith, life choices, or even physical condition. Our encounters of injustice should give us some understanding of how hurtful and wrong such actions are.
As pastors incorporate social and cultural themes into their sermons, including topics such as Covid-19, elections, and even football, it would be helpful to also consider issues of conflict and racism. Raising awareness of racial injustice from the pulpit will help educate the congregation on what some members of their church family endure on a daily basis, and will send a message that the church promotes racial equality.
And to help prepare the next generation, the church can offer parents seminars on teaching their children about racial equality, and Sunday schools can include racial awareness in their lesson planning.
As members of the congregation, we can encourage our pastors and church leaders and work with them toward this end—perhaps to offer information sessions on racial equality and include books that promote racial awareness in the church library or book club.
2. Invite minorities in church to share their culture
From what I’ve observed, many churches usually welcome attendees from other denominations of Christianity, but they don’t have specific gestures to welcome and accommodate congregants from other cultural backgrounds. For example, of the churches I’ve attended in the past, their worship style and choice of music are generally Western-inspired. The Africans, Asians, and Indian visitors to church that l have met usually don’t return as they miss a worship experience that resembles what they have in their home country.
Incorporating other languages in the welcome speeches, adding a few worship songs from other cultures, and inviting minority members to lead intercessions will help to give everyone a sense of belonging. It would also help to have someone from your congregation talk about their experience with racism at a coffee morning or during a church service.
3. Take allegations of racism in church seriously
What saddened me when l approached an elder about the incident is that though they gave an apology, no action was taken since.
I believe that it is important that people who have been mistreated by someone in the church can approach those in authority and know they will be heard, and that actions will be taken to help those involved work toward forgiveness and reconciliation.
While these things have yet to happen, it is my hope and prayer that as we start becoming more aware and open to discussions on this topic, we can all learn to be more active in expressing compassion and extending support for each other.
For myself, I know that even in my hurts, God has continued to show me His grace and forgiveness and cover me in His abounding love. He is my Hope against hope.