Ed note: I am having a revelation trying to write this blog. Why? Because it deals with race. I am trying to speak about race relations in a positive way, but I find myself starting sentences over and over, for fear of being offensive, or sounding too trendy, or desperate, or whatever. So take this for what it's worth: the language I use here is the best language I know how to use to present an insight into how race assumptions played into a church meeting I recently attended. I intend this post to be positive, amusing, and maybe even thought-provoking. I am going to just write it as it comes and stop worrying about being politically correct. (end disclaimer)
Yesterday, I presented our idea for cafe style worship to the Session at 4th United Presbyterian church in Knoxville. They had previously voted to allow our small group of worshippers to use their gathering hall for our service, and we were giving them a taste of what the service would be like: non-traditional, sitting around tables, powerpoint, interactive prayer.
It was a positive and friendly atmosphere, and an interesting group. We were 6 black people and 3 white, 4 women and 5 men. 4th United has been a predominantly black congregation, and our group of about 10 is all white.
As we talked about our plans for the church in the coming months, it came up that a young couple (white) had been attending services for several weeks. We shared our joy about that and were comparing notes to see if anyone had known them beforehand. One of their co-pastors, a black woman named Sonya, said, "Oh I just assumed they were with your group!"
Instantly my comedic self began to war with my politically correct self. It was obvious why she thought they were with our group, because they were white. But do I dare make a joke about this and risk an awkward moment? Fortunately, I know Sonya well enough to know that she has a very strong sense of humor. Comedy won: "Why did you think that Sonya? Because they're white? I don't know all the white people in Knoxville, you know!" Sonya's reply was quick, "Frankly my sister, that's exactly what I thought!" Thank the living God, everybody got it and everybody laughed.
And in that moment, I realized how very freaked out I still am, and I imagine most of us are, about race relations. After that exchange the room itself seemed to relax a little bit. I felt as if the subtext for me and Sonya in that moment was, "Hey! We're blacks and whites talking together. How strange and potentionally hilarious!" I realized in an instant that it is one thing to respect the congregation at 4th United for their dedication to God and each other; it is one thing to feel profound gratitude for their generosity with our house-church group, but it is quite another to feel free enough to laugh about racial assumptions with people of a different race.
We all say we want to be "color-blind." But I'm not sure that's the best approach. It is clear that there are black people and white people in our city, and that for the most part we live separate lives. We pass each other pleasantly enough on the street or in our work places, but as groups we circulate in cultural bubbles that rarely mix. It does us no good to dwell exclusively on our racial differences but to act like we don't notice the difference is artificial and denies us some potentially rich relationships.