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Responding to Racial Injustice

Responding to Racial Injustice (blog)

Sometimes we can’t see the way privilege biases our thinking and behavior. To combat this, we are creating a collaborative council of pastors of color to help our church see through clearer lenses as we move toward racial justice.

Dave Swaim

| June 6th, 2020

Dear Church,

After the murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice in 2014, people all over America protested and agreed that this must never happen again. But then we got distracted by the next thing in the news cycle so that nothing really changed.

After the killing of Philando Castile we mourned and agreed that this must never happen again. How many more names could I add to this list? Too many. It keeps happening again and again because we don’t actually do anything different.

Now after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd we are once again united in grief declaring “never again”. But soon our attention will be diverted… until the next immoral death of another Black American.

It Is time to do something different.

Hiring with Diversity in Mind

Many Highrockers feel called by God to act, and have concluded that the best step is for Highrock to hire a Black pastor. I affirm that impulse, but have enough experience to know why this is not as simple as most people expect, and not adequate to truly make a difference.

Obviously this is an issue that is very dear to me. I have seven Black children, and we have had multiple negative encounters with the police. So none of this feels external to me. But long before those adoptions I began studying under Black professors and reading books by challenging Black authors. Several of our pastoral staff have been doing the same. We have been deliberate about cultivating close relationships across racial lines for many years. Currently I am in a small group of Boston area pastors led by a Black pastor and consisting of mostly ethnic-minority clergy.

As a result, we already have many wise Black voices guiding us. But this has given me insight into why hiring Black pastors is so difficult for us, and too little to ask for.

It is not enough to not be consciously racist; not to commit overtly racist acts. As the Senior Pastor of this church, I have not sufficiently leveraged that privilege to be as actively anti-racist in my leadership as I should have been. I accepted limitations imposed by the status quo rather than resisting them. I was blind to the way my privilege made that tolerable for me even though it was tragic for others. I am truly sorry for that.

We have tried many times over the years to hire more Black staff members, and have been able to hire only two. The reason we do not have more is not a lack of desire or effort, but another, more complicated dynamic.

It is a very costly choice for a Black pastor to come to Highrock. Usually the kind of people we are seeking are also qualified to be senior pastors of mid-sized Black churches, which is often the more attractive choice. Senior pastors in those environments are typically paid more than Highrock pays, and are honored in a way that Highrock does not do for pastors. So by coming to work for us we are asking a Black pastor to give up both honor and income. But those two sacrifices pale in comparison to the costs they care about more.

If we ask a Black pastor to come to Highrock, the work of building cross-cultural relationships will require extra effort from me and every Highrocker. But that would not be a great burden because that effort would only be demanded in one relationship out of many hundreds… for most of us.  For that Black pastor, it will be almost all of their relationships at Highrock. That is a lot of work we are asking that person to do in order to serve us. But even that does not reflect the full cost.

Unlike other vocations, when you become a pastor you do not just get a new job, you get a new church and community. For someone like me, as well as for many Asians and Caucasians, a diverse community like Highrock requires some extra work, but not an overwhelming amount. But a Black pastor would not only need to do cross-cultural work all day at work, but also in their relationships. There can be a profound loneliness in that.

But there is more, because it also means that pastor’s family needs to do that work constantly as well. Being a pastor or pastor’s family is already lonely enough, but this would make it much more so. That is a lot to ask a pastor to give up to come serve us.  We would benefit tremendously, but at great cost to them.

So why would they come? Some people are called by God to this kind of cross-cultural ministry. And many other people feel like Highrock is a good cultural and spiritual fit regardless of their race. But I suspect that many of us have been unwittingly influenced by white supremacy to believe that a Black pastor should feel lucky to work at Highrock because we are giving them the privilege of serving us. This is subconscious, we would never admit it even to ourselves, but we think we are doing them a favor by inviting them into our circle… to serve us. Deeply ingrained assumptions about racial ranking affect us more than most of us realize.

What could it look like to be discipled out of this orientation so that we could become more like the Church Jesus came to create? Instead of requiring a person of color to do all the cross-cultural work to serve at Highrock, what if we were willing to bear some of that cost ourselves, and bear it first?

From our earliest days we have been doing this work. Pastors Peter (Highrock’s original associate pastor), and Eugene are Korean, and I am Caucasian. So we had to devote a great deal of energy to cross-cultural understanding. We had to peel back our assumptions and check our language. We had to learn from each other.  It was worth it, but it was a lot of work.

The difference is that there are many Koreans at Highrock. So while it was an adjustment to work for a Caucasian pastor, there were many other people who shared their experience and understood their cultural shorthand. Meanwhile we were in a Caucasian majority community, so it was easy for both of us to feel at home here. But taking the next step in racial reconciliation will require much more work from many more of us.

That said, we have hired 2 Black leaders in the past, so hiring another is clearly not impossible.  But given the scale of change that is needed in our church and our communities, it would not be enough. I believe we need to dream bigger.

Many Caucasian and pan-Asian churches make the mistake of hiring one Black pastor and thinking they are “done”. They can point to that pastor and declare “see, we are not racist! Look how woke we are, we have a Black pastor”. Often they are proud to have a Black face at the table, but do not allow that person to have a true voice at the table.

If they are self aware enough to recognize that more is needed, they expect that Black pastor to bear the weight of addressing the sin of racialization, and be the singular representative for all Black people, overlooking that just like within any ethnicity, Black people are incredibly diverse and do not share a unified perspective on almost anything. So even if we got one voice, and even if we were to listen well, it would not be enough.

So today Highrock is going to take a new step so that we don’t simply cry “never again” without actually making any real changes.

A Collaborative Council

Our Board of Overseers have approved the creation of a new team of preachers. There are still details to be worked out, but we will add approximately six pastors of color paid part-time to help our church hear new voices and see through new lenses as we move toward racial justice. In addition to looking for racial diversity, this faculty will include diversity in age, sex, and culture, while sharing theological unity.

Starting July 1, each of these pastors will preach a minimum of two times per year, and host at least one opportunity for congregational engagement. They will not be asked to preach on social issues directly, instead these gifted preachers will simply join our current sermon series. But the illustrations, questions, and perspectives they bring will naturally reflect their lived experiences, which will be different from mine, which will help us hear from God in new ways.

In addition they will be available for consultation with our staff and hold Highrock accountable to creating and taking concrete steps to address racial sin as individuals and as a system.  Accordingly, the “faculty chair” will attend every Overseer meeting as an official advisor to ensure that the voice of this group is heard at the highest level.

Already we have spoken to a number of outstanding candidates, all of whom have a connection to and affection for Highrock. Building (or expanding) genuine relationships between our congregation and these leaders can enable us to hear hard words when necessary, because “wounds from a friend can be trusted” (Proverbs 27:6).

This is not the final step we need to take, but it can be a solid next step. One that might hasten the day when it would be a smaller leap for Black and Brown pastors to feel at home at Highrock. In addition, we hope this helps Black and Brown Highrockers feel more welcome with their full selves in our churches. Above all, it has the potential to transform us individually and corporately so that all of us grow in faithfulness to Jesus and to justice.

Let me take this moment to thank the Board of Overseers who moved very quickly to approve this. Given the recession our mandate was to keep the budget flat, so making space for this required significant cuts to a budget that had already been drastically tightened. Many of us may feel the pinch of that this year. But the Overseers agreed that this time we don’t want to simply hear the cries of those in pain and lament, this time we want to act.

Many blessings,

Pastor Dave

Note: Suggested readings and other media, ways to get involved, supports and other resources may be found on our Racial Justice Resource List, an extensive collection of links on a wide range of topics relating to Racial Justice.