Note: 408 days have passed since we left Mill Creek Christian Assembly. Our last day as members of that community was July 26, 2020, I first wrote this post on February 7, 2021, and I am publishing it today. It grew like a balloon in my heart, swelling with time, and today is the day I set it free.
Why write about it if it ain’t pretty?
One: It’s the truth. We left in haste and without a word so as not to tarnish a fragile structure. Many wondered why, some assumed, others spread rumors, all, in ignorance, of course. The Truth sets us free and the truth with a lower case ‘t’ helps clear the air. So get your stories straight.
Two: Racism is still a big problem in the Church. Racism is still a problem at the MCCA church. If racism is not confronted and excised from a Christian community it tarnishes that community’s Christian witness. Now that the issue of racism has been raised it is my hope that this community will venture to rectify that which went wrong. Not with me but with its own history.
Three: Start more conversations about history. Not just white-washed history that you learned in grammar school but comprehensive history. Especially the history of how the Church helped destroy so much, kill so many, enslave so many more, and has now decided to remain silent about its participation in the horrors of the past. If we cannot discuss these issues with love, empathy, and lament in the church, then they will be discussed without love, empathy, and lament, outside the church.
We cherish the MCCA community. We love its youth community which we helped rebuild and reform by God’s grace. And please understand that we harbor no grudge against this community and its members; not even toward the ones whose behaviors and comments persuaded us to leave in the first place. This is why I have redacted snippets of information from this post to protect their identity and their safety.
Curiosity, Masked Suspicion, and Possible Animosity
It would be foolish to think that racism was the sole reason behind my family leaving a white church. It was a lack of compassion that led me to an irrevocable decision. A decision that brought me angst.
“We have the privilege of having a dark handsome brother with us today.”
Those were words the assistant pastor said from the pulpit my first time in attendance.
Oh my God! Did he single me out because of the color of my skin? In front of everyone?
I did what any black person in the same situation would have in a moment of unimaginable shame, I laughed it off. I mean, it’s funny to identify your visitors by the color of their skin, isn’t it? If they’re offended by this amicable jest then they’re snowflakes.
Service came to an end, we were glad to be on our way out when the same assistant pastor greeted us at the exit.
“It’s so nice to finally have some color in this church. We’re happy to have you here.”
He was so enthused by my presence that I couldn’t help but reciprocate the same energy. I’ve never met a white brother who seemed so excited to meet a black man.
What I presumed to be an anomaly turned out to be a precedent of dated buffoonery worthy of contempt. I would endure an intermittent barrage of racially insensitive comments and gestures like these for the next three and a half years.
I sparked up a conversation with a member of the praise and worship team about race, politics, and life in Canada. Here we discussed the brokenness of the world we lived in. We unraveled the polarizing effect social media has on the masses. I shared a harmful experience from my past with him. A horrible situation where a county clerk told me to return to my country. The reason for my visit to the DMV that day was to inquire about why my driver’s license was taking so long to arrive. She advised me that it was better to wait for my documents while living in the United States of America. Or I could complain from the comfort of whatever country I was from.
This gentleman’s response to this event was as ignorant as they come.
“Well, I have friends of color who haven’t experienced any form of racism in Canada.”
His deflection from the topic we were discussing was so evident I blurred out his next few sentences. It’s as if the absence of racial injustice in one part thus erases its existence elsewhere.
Lazy. Dirty. Leeches.
“They’re lazy, dirty people who love to leech off of white people.”
Those were the words out of the mouth of another brother who had returned from the Bahamas. He was none too bothered by the comment. There was an air of pride under his statement. I wanted only to greet him, ask about his trip to the tropics, and welcome him back to the fold. My curiosity about his trip was innocent and hopeful. I’ve yet to have the privilege of visiting this Caribbean paradise so I wanted to hear from him, first hand, about it.
“It was good. We got a tan. Now I almost look like you.” Nervous laughter. These belittling comments were a customary form of conversation with this particular brother. I asked him about the locals, their warm and receptive character to which he replies.
“They’re lazy, dirty people who love to leech off of white people.”
This happened right after a Sunday morning service. We were waiting in line for complimentary snacks.
George Floyd’s lynching rekindled the fight against police brutality. Later that same year, Breonna Taylor’s murder accentuated this first cause. It was impossible to avoid public demonstrations that took root around the world. Conversations about racial injustice were unavoidable. I took the initiative to share several links on my personal social media account. Links about police reform. Stories of racial profiling. Black history through the lens of black Americans. History stemming from 1619 through to 2020. These posts allowed for restorative conversations with friends across the world. We understood each other’s pain and vowed to honor this cause.
These interactions were all helpful. Refreshing. Discussing race and injustice with friends was so therapeutic. And then June 5th hit and I checked my Facebook messages.
“I’m pretty sure that black people would have treated white people the same way as white(s) treated black (people) had they been in a position to do so.” Said one church brother who I respected.
“I’ve always thought that in Canada racism is not that much of an issue.” He continued. “At least I’ve never encountered one (issue of racism) myself.”
“I’ve been enjoying your ministry in our predominantly white church.” At which point I knew where these comments had come from. “I’ve never heard once of a single issue with racism in our church in [redacted] years I’ve been there. I guess you have brought this race-based division to us now.”
Being one of two black attendees of that church I wasn’t shocked. And I was a member of this ministry whereas the other POC was comfortable as a recurring guest. The race issue had taken a backseat in monochromatic churches for centuries. For our church, it was never a topic because it hadn’t been integrated. But here we were. Two colored persons attending a “predominantly white” church and we have race-based division.
But none of this prepared me for the statement that would come next. Sentiments that brewed underneath the surface of this church community for decades went on seemingly untouched. Unmentioned. Words that I read again, again, and again with mouth agape. Unwilling to accept that I had survived so long within a body of believers that saw my people in such a dim light.
“As to [the] hair incident or other negative emotional encounters you’ve described, knowing [the] East European culture, I can hardly see them as manifestations of racism but rather a lack of manners and insensitivity. What if I walked in a predominantly black church? Wouldn’t people stare at me with curiosity, masked suspicion, and possible animosity?”
It is convenient to reduce my hurtful experiences to a lack of manners and insensitivity. To know that the elder who pawed my hair twice was being insensitive. How a brother told me that brown people migrating into Europe would be the end of European society. When asked to elaborate he walked away. How another brother told me Obama and Muslims are what’s wrong with the United States of America. When asked for his source of information he said, “Fox News, where else?” That Bahamians are lazy, dirty, and love to leech off of white people is but lack of manners?
His concluding thought was revelatory. I’ve been a member of diverse church communities for decades. Black, white, brown, yellow, and red. I’ve been a part of well-integrated communities from birth. I’ve never looked at a person from another race with ‘curiosity, masked suspicion, and possible animosity.’ I can speak for my many communities. Confidently so. His perspective of colored people was detrimental to my well-being. It shattered my peace within this community.
Another brother contacted me in hopes of broadening my perspective.
“Police have a lot less reason to profile you here [Canada] for the same reasons why police in the USA [has] a higher legitimate reason to profile you there.”
Reassuring for sure.
I watched as another brother interacted with a popular social media activist. He was responding to a public Instagram post.
“Disappointed with all the famous Christians, pastors and worship leaders who have no idea who #BlackLivesMatter is!”
And his response.
“I’ve traveled to [redacted African nation] [a] few months ago, to love, serve, help and pray for black people…. But not falling for this insanity today. Thank you for speaking up!!!”
This person was a prominent member of our church. A board member of our church. It’s sad that traveling across the world to love, serve, help, and pray for black people was enough to appease his conscience. Enough to discredit hundreds of years of injustice on a local, national, and global scale. Enough to dismiss the calls for racial equality. Enough to discredit our cause. Enough to silence the only two persons of color within his community who dared speak about racial injustice.
His response to this statement was in keeping with how our church thought. I would find this out the following week.
Board Meeting and Final Decision
Our province dealt with the Coronavirus pandemic in an adequate manner. We experienced shutdowns, closures, and canceled services like everyone else. Restrictions had prohibited indoor gatherings in March but were eased in mid-June. Our church leadership and board scheduled a meeting to discuss our safe return to church initiative. We were to discuss safety measures, attendance numbers, sanitation, and other health-related topics. I was not a member of the board but my pastor invited me to take part because I was the youth leader. Our meetings would return to normal as well so I thought it would be prudent to attend.
Our pastor began the meeting with prayer and went into his introduction.
“Brothers, thank you for being here. Before we start I want to advise our church members who are posting about Black Lives Matter on social media to desist. There are brothers complaining about it and we want to avoid unrest. Thank you. Now let’s discuss our return to church packet.”
You can imagine my shock. One of two black people in the church. The only black person in that meeting. The only person who was discussing racial justice on social media. And personally invited to take part in this board meeting. This was how the meeting began? These were the first words out of my leader’s mouth? Now?
This meeting is about how coronavirus has affected our church gatherings. It is about how we can protect our church members who opt for in-person services. A meeting to proactively protect our vulnerable and elderly members. How to best follow provincial and federal guidelines.
But the meeting becomes a point from which our church denounces Black Lives Matter. A podium from which we halt any discussion about race on our personal social media platforms. An institution that silences the only two black voices it has left. George Floyd’s death? Silence. Breonna Taylor’s murder? Silence. The cries of my fellow colored brothers and sisters? A leftist liberal plot to take over the world.
My mind was a blur for the next thirty minutes. I felt sick to my stomach. The way the meeting started to have an effect on the members of the board. Eyes hovered my way and sat over my presence. I cannot recall what was said about safety, cleaning, limited attendance, and other topics. I cannot recall what happened next. But for thirty minutes I sat and simmered.
I have to leave this place. I no longer feel welcome here. My peace is gone.
I excused myself, got up from my chair, and walked out. That day it was decided for me that I no longer belonged there. I agreed.
A month after this meeting I had the opportunity to preach, which I did, with all my heart. After service, I handed my pastor my letter of leave. I handed a similar letter to my fellow youth leaders. I hugged them goodbye and left.
My pastor then invited me for a sit-down where we discussed these interactions, private discussions, and his meeting opener. He was sad that my family decided to leave. Sad that we felt the way we did. He didn’t believe race was the issue. He even invited me to come back and hold an open forum on race which I declined.
“Pastor, the other black member of our church is a trained professional who knows how to discuss these issues professionally. Invite him to speak and teach the church.”
He shrugged. He didn’t believe the church would listen to that individual. Mind you, that individual is a university professor, holds a doctorate in sociology, and is a published author.
When I pressed him again about how our church had a race problem he again distanced himself from the idea. That the gospel should be the focus of our efforts, not social issues.
We finished our coffee. My mind was made. He again pressed for me to stay, “What about the youth?”
I knew tactics like these were used to guilt people into staying in environments where they continue to suffer abuse.
“Christ began the work. Christ will complete the work, pastor.”
I’ve witnessed four of the fifteen youth members I served walk down the waters of baptism. Two before my leave. Two after I left. Christ will guide their faith. I believe this to be so.
Once news of us leaving the church became public I received another Facebook message.
“News broke that you are leaving MCCA. I hope the reason you’re leaving is not rooted in the theme of our above conversation. Whatever it might be, it is always sad to see a member of [the] church leave, especially a valuable one. It’s been nice to have. Your ministry has been a blessing to my family and myself. May God bless you on your spiritual journey!”
This being the same brother I respect who also said:
“The biggest enemy of [the] black community is their victim mentality and bitterness, which does breed the culture of violence. […] In my opinion, the more you raise in [a] judgemental manner the topic of racism, the more ruin, and division you’ll bring to our community. It is as offensive to us, white people, to be branded racists, as for black people to be called slaves. People will go into defensive mode, they’ll become more distant and hostile. […] When you think we mistreat you in MCCA, think about the fact [of] how quickly you rose to [a] position of respect and leadership. You preach on Sundays, you lead and teach our youth, the doors of P&W [praise and worship] group are wide open to you too. Isn’t that the manifestation of the highest degree of trust and respect our predominantly white church has shown to you? Man, I’ve been in our congregation for [REDACTED] years and I haven’t achieved half of your success.”
Seven months have passed since this last meeting. My family has found a new church family that understands the wrongs of the world around it. It doesn’t distance itself from pain. It doesn’t hide behind the Bible. Behind gospel-onlyism. It confronts individual and collective sin. It loves expository preaching. It loves social efforts. It lives for Christ.
The other person of color within the church, the professor, had a conversation with the pastor. He was more than willing to start an open forum on race. He was willing to lead this restorative discussion in hopes of mending the racial gap within the church. He was then dismissed by the leadership. His efforts were not accepted. His intellectual expertise on the subject was dismissed. A professor, nonetheless, dismissed.
He phoned me after to share with me his many run-ins with members who suffer from a lack of manners and insensitivity. Members who suffer from diarrhea of the mouth. His words. We mourned. We felt ashamed. Pain. He said he would never set foot in that place again.
I don’t blame him.
“This church is struggling with a hardness [of heart] that might stem from past trauma. National trauma that was left unresolved. It has made it hard for them to empathize with our pain.”
To which I agreed, wholeheartedly. The world struggled with the coronavirus pandemic. Our church struggled with the endemic evil of racism. An evil ignored.
I feel like I can breathe, again. As if I can be myself, again. I no longer have to repress emotions because someone reaches for my hair. No one reaches for my hair anymore. We don’t have nativist sentiments. We don’t harbor a hidden hatred for immigrants. Especially those of brown skin. We don’t harbor hatred for Muslims. Or anyone of a different faith.
My wife isn’t approached by church members inquiring about when she got pregnant. When we got married. Members who are surprised that she and I share the same faith. She isn’t approached by church members who feign shock at how dark my girls look.
My wife is white. She was born in Germany. Yes, that white. My girls are mixed. To no one’s surprise wife is more comfortable in our new diverse church community than this previous one. She is a sister in Christ. Not a lab specimen. Where her private life is subject to scrutiny because she married a black man.
Here we see people. We acknowledge their trauma. We feel their pain. We walk with them to restore that which was taken. That which was lost. We are living the way Christ called us to live again. Preaching and living the gospel.
Whoever visits our new church; no matter their skin color or walk of life, will not be a victim of curiosity, masked suspicion, and possible animosity.
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6
Featured Image, mine.