A good question: What difference does my race make to my faith?
One question, four answers
‘My black skin is a gift from God to the world’
As a second-generation migrant growing up in the urban sprawl of an industrial northern city, my neighbours were from an array of ethnic backgrounds: they were African, Asian, Caribbean, eastern European, English, Irish and Jewish. Living in such a diverse community of cultures meant that life was never boring! We shared our food, learnt about each other’s festivals and faiths, told family stories and had fun, oblivious to the negative connotations of being different. Our collective experiences of daily life meant that even before I knew of phrases such as ‘cultural diversity’ and ‘racial reconciliation’ I could tell you about what it entailed in my neighbourhood.
Being a young Christian, I came to understand that somehow this diverse way of living together reflected God’s kingdom. Who I was, my faith, culture and ethnicity, the totality of everything was a part of the one new humanity in Christ.
From an early age, I had learnt that ‘I was fearfully and wonderfully made,’ a biblical truth that enabled me to develop a solid sense of identity and the resilience needed to encounter negative messages around race. The kaleidoscopic reality of my early life served to increase my awe and imagination about God through the histories, experiences, languages and cultures of my friends and neighbours from different backgrounds. However, this diverse reality and the nature of racism was never mentioned in the churches I attended. This had been compounded by the images of Christ I had come across since a child: white, blond and blue-eyed…
Sharon Prentis is Intercultural Mission Enabler and Dean of Black and Minority Ethnic Affairs for the Church of England in Birmingham
‘To be white is to not have to think about race’
This is a very interesting question for a white person to ponder. My knee jerk, unconsidered response would be: None at all, I’m human. There is only one race: the human race. Which reveals that I am as conditioned to my white privilege as any white person. To be white in the US (my first homeland) and the UK is to not have to think about my ‘race’. To be white is to think my experiences are normal – the norm for all people (this is also known as white body supremacy.) To be white is to assume that a holy book generated by people with darker skin than mine is actually about and for white people, and that those people’s experiences were not shaped in any way by race – because I assume that mine are not.
But that’s rubbish. I know that my white skin has opened doors so that I could get the basic things I needed to live. It has made it easy to rent an apartment even when I was a low-income single mother. It made me a desirable employee, a shopper who is not watched and followed around a store, a church visitor who is warmly welcomed. I know that history and literature, as taught to me, was about people who looked like me. And I know that my white skin has made it easier for me to dream big and transcend my small-town, midwestern American background…
Carla Grosch-Miller is a practical theologian, educator and poet. Her books include Psalms Redux: Poems and prayers (Canterbury Press, 2014; urcshop.co.uk) and Lifelines: Wrestling the Word, gathering up grace (Canterbury Press, 2020)
‘I hope to see these walls broken down’
I have grown up in Christian communities within South Korea for 20 years, in which I had no questions about my faith in relation to my race. Then, I came to the UK and engaged with various Christian communities for the last 20 years. And there were certain occasions that reminded me that I was here as a foreigner, of a different race.
While I was studying in theological college, I met an English guy who was very kind and helped me to settle down well into this country in various ways. I was grateful for thinking that I had a good friend. But I gradually felt that the relationship wasn’t headed towards a friendship, but rather, I felt as if he thought he was a helper. To him, I was a person from a far east country who needed his help. That was a really strange experience. I used to be among the majority in Korea but I belong to a minority in this society.
Despite his kindness, it was an uncomfortable experience to be honest. However, that actually opened my mind to see my faith journey in relation to other people, especially those who are different from me. With the concept of differences in relation to ‘race,’ it is meant to be a variety of people from different backgrounds, but we might be inclined to see a superior/inferior relationship between races, whether this is subconscious or not.
This led me to a deep reflection on how Jesus loved the sick and those who were isolated, neglected and abandoned; how Paul claimed: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek,’ and what Paul would mean by ‘no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother’ when he asked Philemon to accept his own runaway slave, Onesimus. …
Barnabas Shin is Minister of Billericay, Brentwood and Ingatestone United Reformed Churches in Essex
‘It is hard for the man who has it all to enter the kingdom’
I am writing this unexpectedly, as Reform is about to go to press. We try to ensure a broad representation of different points of view in all of the questions we cover, and, when talking about race, that is particularly important. So we would not normally allow half of a panel discussing a question of race and faith to be white, but our scheduled writer has been forced to pull out at the very last moment, so here am I.
It was through talking to Broderick Greer, a black US minister, for Reform in 2016, that I first noticed how limited my theological and spiritual education was. I had spent a fair few years studying theology, and many more being taught in church. The vast, vast majority of that had been white western men either sharing their own thoughts on God and the Bible and matters arising, or examining the writings of other white western men.
To be a white western man is to find it very easy not to notice that most of the people you listen to are speaking from the same perspective as yourself. It feels so natural and normal one doesn’t even notice it is happening until it is pointed out, by, in my case at least, someone who didn’t share the same restricted perspective…
Stephen Tomkins is Editor of Reform
These are extracts from an article published in the September 2020 edition of Reform