Thursday, December 8, 2011

We Are Gulnare Free Will Baptist

By Katelin Hansen
Originally posted 12/4/11 at By Their Strange Fruit

When Stella Harville recently returned from college to visit her hometown church, Gulnare Free Will Baptist (GFWB), she brought her future husband, Ticha Chikuni with her. Shortly thereafter, the congregation voted to prevent the couple from ever becoming members of the church. The resolution states that interracial couples "will not be received as members, nor will they be used in worship services or other church functions." 

It's tempting to shake our heads and dismiss this situation as an extreme exception to Christian love. After all, only 15 people even participated in the vote out of a congregation of ~40 people. In total, it was nine people that voted to pass the resolution. Surely nine crazy folks can just be dismissed as terribly misguided...

But we have to remember that we are One Body, and we are responsible for the actions of our sisters and brothers in Christ. As representatives of Christ, if we claim His name, while allowing disenfranchisement of His children under that same name, we blasphemy the Good News. 

Notice Harville's reaction to the resolution: "Whether they keep the vote or overturn it, it's going to be hard for me go back there." This is about more than the actions of nine people. This is about the image of Christ. 

We know Americans aren't so good at distinguishing a religion from its extremists members. Alvin Sanders at Reconciliation 101 recognizes that "this is the type of thing that shames the whole Body of Christ, as many unbelievers lump us all together regardless of denominational affiliation." No matter how hard we try to distance ourselves from GFWB (as the pastor and national leadership of the church have tried to do), Christ and Christains are already inextricably caught up in it as far as the World is concerned.

So what if, rather than trying to distance ourselves, we instead took responsibility? What if we as Christ-followers owned up to the fact that we have done a poor job of acting for justice and reconciliation, and that as a result, the Church has once again been a source of pain for those seeking fellowship? 

Where were we during the spiritual education of our siblings in Christ? How is it that our stance for justice is meek enough that this incident is even possible? How is it that GFWB's actions actually confirm unbelievers' suspicions, rather than serving as an exception to our undeniable steadfastness for others?

The truth is, GFWB simply put into writing what many other communities still believe in practice. We are all subject to the same set of prejudgments that converged to create this particular situation. The rest of us are not necessarily any more enlightened than GFWB, we are just more careful about which prejudices we hold, and how we express them.  Ask any multiracial family searching for a church home, it doesn't take long to discern the true unwritten racial policy of a given congregation (see previous post: Interracial Relationships in the Church). 

So rather than waving our hands and sucking our teeth, let's own the responsibility for our sisters and brothers in Christ. Let us take this incident as a reminder that there is much work yet to be done. Let us begin with a careful examination of our own prejudices and sticking points. Can you honestly say, 'all are welcome here?'
  • Who might have trouble gaining acceptance in your own church? How would a pregnant teen be welcomed? A youth in baggy jeans? Someone off the street? 
  • If these folks make it though the lobby, what does your body language tell them about your hospitality? 
  • What if Spanish were incorporated into your weekly worship? What about hip-hop, or a black gospel choir? What would your congregation's unspoken reaction be?
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Katelin Hansen (@strngefruit) is the editor of By Their Strange Fruit (BTSF), an online forum to facilitate justice and understanding across racial divides. BTSF explores how Christianity's often-bungled relationship with race and racism affects modern ministry and justice. Recognizing that racial brokenness hinders our witness to the world, BTSF strives to increase the visibly of healthy and holy racial discussion by approaching justice and reconciliation from a Christ-minded perspective.

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