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Losing Races: A Dream Deferred

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“What happens to a dream deferred?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?”

– Langston Hughes

I had a dream this past July.

A major evangelical ministry invited me to a conference at a four star hotel, all expenses paid. The setting: a luxury resort high atop a rocky cliff, overlooking silky sand beaches, pacific coast sunsets, fine dining, and accommodations that make inner city missionaries blush.

Gladly I accepted. Interesting topics and a free first class vacation for my family … Why not?

I found myself surrounded by wonderful people who loved the Lord and were passionate about evangelism. By their presence, that much was clear. But what was even clearer, overwhelming even, was the jarring facade of the ministry. Call it a complexion condition or pigmentation problem, whatever.

The bottom line: two black faces, two Latino surnames, and maybe two handfuls of women in a crowd of 150. Like me, all were attending on someone else’s dime, to learn about bringing the Gospel to the public square.

Black people care about that. So do browns and yellows, and most evangelicals of every race, gender, and ethnicity. But judging from who comprised the audience, you would think it mattered only to suburban white guys.

Then I woke up and realized it hadn’t been a dream. It was real; in 2003 mind you, not 1803 or 1903.

Forty years ago, a prophet issued a clarion call to the nation. Decades later, his dream that one day we would be judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character, was deferred for all but two African Americans, two Hispanics, and several women at the gathering of evangelical leaders. It is similarly deferred every day in the boardrooms and executive offices of many national ministries, and on the airwaves of top-rated evangelical media. Some of the most prominent evangelicals fail to engage in subjects of race, economic, social justice, and such related issues.

Then they wonder why “colored folk” (a phrase not often uttered, but a lingering attitude frequently communicated) don’t attend their events or embrace their causes.

Last month, we remembered the prophet, Martin Luther King, Jr. (at least we got a vacation day), whose dream continues to inspire. This month, we celebrate Black History (at least on paper). It’s an appropriate time to consider how far evangelicals have come towards realizing the dream of racial justice, according to Galatian’s standard of “one[ness] in Christ”.

The head of the ministry that sponsored me in July presents an interesting case study, and frankly leaves me conflicted. Widely embraced by evangelical America, he presides over an annual budget of hundreds of millions of dollars, employs thousands around the globe, and critiques dozens of socio-political issues. Hundreds of thousands of people listen to his radio program daily; his books rest on my shelves and his ministry has directly enhanced my life.

Yet of the hundreds of interviews I’ve heard him conduct, I can think of only three black guests and no Latinos. Of all the social commentaries I’ve heard him give, none were about racism, immigration, improving the quality of public education, or poverty. When the subject of poverty did arise at the conference, it was in a lecture about abortion.

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I had the opportunity to discuss my conflict – on the one hand, personally benefiting from the conference, but on the other, discomfort with the lily-whiteness of it all – with the ministry’s vice president. He acknowledged the racial imbalance by blame shifting: blacks and Latinos don’t respond when invited. My discomfort, he attributed to being from New York. Does that mean that attendees from the Bible-Belt were fine with it?

For literally hundreds of years in this country, appeals for justice, compassion, and racial equality under the law, fell on deaf ears. As recently as forty years ago, when the Civil Rights movement systematically dismantled Jim Crow apartheid, white evangelicals largely ignored the issue, and in certain regions actively opposed it, leaving the black community and their church leaders to fight on their own. While the NAACP and other historically black institutions list prominent Jews and political liberals among their founders and earliest supporters, white evangelicals stayed away in droves. As recently as today, they continue to avoid issues that matter to minorities, mainly because they don’t matter to them, despite rhetorical commitments to so-called “racial reconciliation” throughout the 1990s.

It’s time to renew the dialogue about racism in the Church. Centuries of betrayal and injustice have bred distrust, which token relationships, courtesy invites, and a few high-profile gatherings cannot alleviate. Repairing the breach in hopes to nurture real and meaningful relationships requires the initiative of the offenders, not just the offended. Not just a tearful foot washing ceremony or an ethnic face on the cover of an annual report, but in listening, empathizing, repenting (i.e. changing behaviors), and learning to relate on unfamiliar terms.

We must remember that Jesus dwelt among the people he hoped to serve (not just save) for thirty years before trying to teach anybody anything.

It’s time to get up off the pavement in a race we’ve been losing for years.

[Jeremy R. Del Rio, Esq., is the co-founder and executive director of Generation X-cel™ and the youth pastor of Abounding Grace Ministries. See www.GenerationXcel.com for more]

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