Race and Christianity: Where do we go from here? | Reflections by Fellow, Cameron Fleming '17

It wasn’t until I started school at UVA that I realized what friendship and Christian community should look like. I started going to a fellowship in which I was one of two Black first years that joined, and although two people of color seems like a sad statistic, it was thrilling to me. I was used to being the only Black girl in the room, now I wasn’t alone.

The community I found first year with Christians and non-Christians was such a sweet gift. In addition to having a friend who looked like me and wanted to follow Jesus, I also made friends who helped me realize the diversity in Blackness. We were all so different, but also there was a deep understanding in my friendships with them that I hadn’t experienced with anyone else. It was a breath a fresh air to have close friends who didn’t ask me a million questions about my hair while simultaneously avoiding drawing attention to my Blackness as if it was a bomb in the room that would go off. I didn’t have the same kind of warm and fuzzies from my Christian fellowship, but it gave me warm and fuzzies all the same: my Christian friends loved me well, asked good questions, and pointed me Jesus. The time I spent with them was pure joy.

But then the summer of 2014 happened. When I came back to school it was if nothing had changed, but over the summer my sense of security about who I was, my role in the world, and the value of my Blackness had evaporated. Of course I had always known the world was less safe for me than it was for my White peers. But the relative safety of my neighborhood, homogeneity of my education, and support and devotion of my parents had shielded me from that reality. The Civil Rights Movement was something they had grown up with; my future was secure. But the death of Michael Brown and the national hysteria that ensued shattered any illusion I had of my safety. I had conversations with other Christians who assumed the guilt of Black men that died at the hands of police, rather than consider the possibility that their skin tone had played a role in their unjust deaths. I was shocked. I was in mission with people who I knew loved me, loved the Lord, and desired to bring His Kingdom to Earth, but they didn’t seem to see the same value in Michael Brown’s life that I saw. They wondered why “Black lives matter” needed to be said at all.

I was so angry, hurt, and confused that it was paralyzing. All I could do was sit in that anger. I knew that something constructive could and needed to be done, but I had no idea what. I knew the Lord could use my passion, but I didn’t know how. I could talk until I was blue in the face, but I couldn’t force people involved my ministry to consider or care about racial issues.  I was spending all my time with people who saw themselves as God’s hands and feet in Charlottesville, going into broken places to bring hope and healing. We were in mission together, but it was clear that racial reconciliation was not something they were interested in. (I realize now that maybe they did not intend to be apathetic, they were just uncomfortable. Even so, I had little sympathy. As a Black girl who lived in a culture that valued Whiteness above all else, I had lived my whole life uncomfortable.) Their apathy was confounding to me, and it seemed like the hits just kept coming. After Ferguson there was Baltimore. After Baltimore there was Flint. After Flint there was Martese Johnson, one of our peers at UVA. This one hit particularly close to home, literally. I realized the disillusionment of my safety had been hypothetical, far away from the bubble of my college town. But this was no longer the case.

When we discussed it, my friends again jumped to the conclusion of his guilt, rather than acknowledging the perception that all Black men are a threat. Therefore, even a license holding, of age, Black young man cannot enter a bar or have a conversation with authorities with the same confidence or safety his White peers can. Again, their hypocrisy was bewildering to me.  Did Jesus not command us to love others as ourselves (Matthew 22:39)? To seek justice (Isaiah 1:17)? To bear each other’s burdens? (Galatians 6:2)? Couldn’t they see that any of the Black kids they ministered to could easily be the next hashtag? For me, our mission to share Christ with others was not separate from racial reconciliation; it was inextricably bound to it.

By not caring about these issues, what was communicated was that my White Christian friends didn’t care about me. I didn’t hear God telling me a solution, so I stifled my anger, my hurt feelings, and my confusion at the apathy that surround me. I spent all of my second and third years of college grappling with my anger at Christian apathy in the face of racial issues. Which, now that I reflect on it, was exactly the wrong response. I let myself be silenced. I let Christians not care about the death of their Black brothers and sisters. In retrospect, I am in awe of God’s grace towards me. How silly of me to think that I am the Holy Spirit, with the ability to convict people of the peril their Black brothers and sisters live in. My friend once told me that my heart for these issues was important and didn’t go unrecognized by her, but also, if I was able to solve all the world’s problems I wouldn’t need Jesus. Sharing my experiences and perspective could help people understand, but I cannot force them to care. I cannot break their hearts for the things that break mine, nor can I change them in the ways I deem necessary. Only God can do that.

Since then I’ve learned that Jesus loves and desires justice more than I ever will, and I regret that I lived the majority of college amiss at what I should do. In the Horizons Fellows Program, I met men and women who not only affirmed my passion and rejected the passivity of their White peers, but also believed that the Lord had given me an ability to do something about it. Karen and Christy gave us a space to contemplate God’s heart for the world and what we should do in response. Along the way I have learned that God is not intimidated by my anger and doubt. He feels the same anger towards sin and injustice, that’s why Jesus went to the cross. He doesn’t love me any less for asking big questions or grappling with the concepts of justice and race in the Church. Instead, my questions have helped me better understand His heart for me, for justice, for the world.

At our last meeting of 2016, we discussed how as followers of Christ we all have a shared mission. Garrett Trent and Nathan Walton, the pastor of Vineyard Church, joined us to talk about how they have seen God’s heart for racial reconciliation in their own lives and friendship. Nathan told us that community comes from mission, not the other way around. In other words, something has to be important to everyone before they can be bonded to each other. I’d experienced this first hand: I had tried to make people care about the very particular mission of racial reconciliation that concerned me, and I was alone. The American Church has very real and deep wounds surrounding race and justice, but in order to begin to heal them, we must first recognize them. Ta-Nehisi Coates says it this way: we must be “conscious citizens of this terrible and beautiful world.” That consciousness begins with a reflection of the ways in which we have privilege, and the ways in which we are impoverished.

I am privileged in that I come from a family in which attending college is the expectation, not the exception. I am privileged in that my parents make sacrifices to give my brothers and I everything we need and most things we want. I am privileged because by God’s grace, I know that ultimately my hope is in heaven and not in anything of this world.

I am impoverished because my life experiences hinder my empathy towards Black girls raised in different circumstances than mine. I am impoverished because I am Black woman operating in educational and economic systems that weren’t created for women or people of color to succeed. I am impoverished because my blessed assurance does little to assure my safety and security in my daily life.

Christ is our greatest example of how to enter into suffering but also how overcome it. He sacrificed the perfect intimacy he had with the Trinity because he trusted that it would glorify the Father. He entered into our human suffering and went to the cross we deserved. Emulating Christ’s example, we must also have the courage to surrender our privilege to glorify our Father and the faith to wield it to benefit others.

In the wake of a divisive election season and administration that threatens the human rights of the most impoverished among us, it is more important now than ever (was it ever unimportant?!) for Christians to be witnesses of Truth, goodness, and hope to the world. The question is how, and the answer is this: talk to each other. Why? Because Christ got uncomfortable. Christ was willing to be misunderstood. Christ engaged with people who were different from him with love, mercy, and forgiveness. He calls me to do the same, and it is not audacious to expect my brothers and sisters in Christ to join me.

I am beginning to see their willingness. I am seeing hearts soften, including mine. The Lord is redeeming my community in ways I never thought possible. My temptation is to point out that there is much work to be done, but as fate would have it, redemption occurs on His timeline, not mine. But I do know that “colorblindness” is not the solution. After all, God wasn’t colorblind when he knit me together as a Black girl. The solution, if I can even call it that, is to witness. To contemplate our privilege and our poverty. To ask questions. To listen. To humbly share our perspective, our hopes, our fears and ask others to do the same, because you can’t love your neighbor if you don’t know them. 

Cameron is a Horizons Fellow, a year-long vocational discipleship program we run for a select group of 4th years.