Reflections on the White American Church's Response to Racism

Pastor Chris Lenhart  |  July 14, 2020

My whole life, at every intersection where I have had the opportunity to educate myself on the race-based chattel slavery of African Americans, systemic racism, institutionalized racism, white privilege, fragility, supremacy, or superiority, I have failed. I have failed because by and large, I have only allowed myself to be educated by people who look just like me. I have failed to read well, watch well, listen well, and most egregiously, I have failed to love well. My failure ends today. It should have ended a long time ago. For my ignorance and for my inability to act, I repent and thank the Lord for the forgiveness that is offered through Jesus Christ.

I want to offer my reflections on what appears to largely be the response of the white, evangelical American church to racism. And by doing this, I know that my voice will create a wide range of emotions, feelings, and dialogue. I am inviting this dialogue as an opportunity for us to grow and learn from one another. I am not writing to invite feelings of guilt or shame, nor am I writing to promote or prompt behaviors that are disingenuous and unhelpful, like apologizing for one’s own race or culture.

I am the father of black children. Part of a bi-racial, multi-ethnic family. Race and justice are not a hobby to me; they are intrinsically part of who I am and who I will always be as a husband, father, pastor and community leader. I live in a community of people that predominantly share my skin tone, and I pastor a congregation of people who predominantly share my skin tone. I am now actively disturbed that almost every person in my life who has had a platform, microphone, or position of power has shared the same skin tone as myself. I trust that my disturbance is not too late.

Our little Haitian boys have been home with us now for almost 7 months. Their brothers will be here very soon. At that point, we will have more black children than white children living in our home. Our biological children will grow up as minorities in their own home. I rejoice in this reality. Being parents in a bi-racial home has taught us quite a bit. Almost immediately we realized that we had a problem. Less than 3 months in, we began to see how our ignorance informed our decisions as parents and caregivers to our children.

As it turns out, 4 year-old Haitian Americans are very astute. One night, as Sheila was tucking Youri into bed, he looked up at her and said, “Mama, I wish my skin was blanc (white) and not chocolate.” You see, what Youri has realized in just a few short months, living in this community, is that everyone who has a position of influence shares the same skin tone. We both mourned these comments. We awoke the next morning and our lives took a drastic turn for the better. We started to invite uncomfortable conversations into our home. Where have we gone wrong? We read; we listened a lot more than we talked. We started seeking out the wisdom of black, evangelical pastors and authors and through it all Jesus began to give us sight.

Words once filled with cloudiness and fog, ones that we could never embrace before due to our pride, prejudice, and positions, living in a predominantly white community, those words started to become much clearer. I will type those words again, because they are words that are important for the church to know and understand. White privilege, white fragility, white supremacy, white silence. The Lord woke us up, he stirred us and shook us, and he did it largely through our little 4 year-old-son.

My family had the opportunity, many generations ago, to come to America on their own terms. They wanted to be here. They packed up their belongings, bought a ticket for a boat ride, and sailed across the seas to the American shores. They had status, belongings, money for a new start, and a right to take part in a new and “free” society. Our black brothers and sisters, their families did not share in that opportunity. No, they were forcibly removed from their homes, separated from their people, brought to America with nothing, and forced into a lifetime of labor and servitude for the master (lowercase m).

Once freed from the bondage of slavery, through the Emancipation Proclamation, many walked away from their slave owners having nothing. Families had been torn apart, broken and separated by the sale of men and women as property. They had no money to start over, no opportunity, just a weak and fragile, short-lived promise of “freedom.” Imagine this for one second: black men and women were written into people’s wills and given as property to other people. But this is a reflection on the church’s participation in racism, and its continued participation. Where was the church? Silent and complicit.

It is a posture that still largely exists in the church today. Church leaders had their congregations segregated. Black codes and Jim Crow laws were active in churches long before they existed in the public square. (Google “Black Codes & Jim Crow Laws,” to learn about slavery in America after the Emancipation Proclamation). For many white congregations, blacks were allowed in the service primarily so white slave owners could keep an eye on their “property” during services on Sunday morning. A baptized black man or women was baptized only if they accepted that their freedom in Christ did not equate to freedom from their master.

Where was the outrage from pastors and church leaders? Silent. Complicit. Church finances largely governed the positions the of pastors. Were one to become too inclusive or promote equality and freedom too much, the offering plates would begin to get a little lighter on Sunday mornings. Jim Crow laws were not ended in America until 1964. This means we have only had about 60 years to recover from 250+ years of systemic racism in America. It is a recovery that has not come without plenty of relapses. Power, as it turns out, is like an addictive substance, and man’s propensity for power often outweighs his desire to love his brother or sister well.

But we live in the North! We fought against slavery. Yes, but segregation and white privilege was still a huge part of our culture, and in some ways, remains. It was not just schools, recreation facilities, and prisons in the South that were segregated; the North was segregated in these areas as well. Those realities began to change in the 1950’s with the ruling of the Supreme Court in the Brown vs. Board of Education case. Still though, it wasn’t until 1965 that black Americans in the North or South were given the right to vote. Where was the voice of the church in promoting, preaching, and proliferating a free and inclusive society, regardless of race? Largely silent, complicit.

Moving past the sixties the church adopted a position that might come to be defined as “not racist.” Largely meaning, no longer was the church actively segregating or promoting racism. However, our culture continued to perpetuate forms of systemic racism in practices such as welfare, redlining, predatory lending, property taxes, mass incarceration, hiring practices, and lack of acceptance into colleges and institutions of higher education. We do not have the time to detail how these practices perpetuated racism in our country, so at the end of these reflections, I have included links to resources regarding how these practices helped to perpetuate systemic racism in our country. Once again, the white, evangelical church found itself largely silent, complicit.

For us, it is no longer acceptable to be defined as people who are “not racist.” As followers of Jesus, children of God, we endeavor to come to be defined as children of love, with a nature of love demonstrated by our stance and position in coming to be known as a couple who is “anti-racist.” We cannot afford to raise a family that is simply “not racist.” We will call out, identify, and speak light into circumstances and situations that continue to perpetuate and promote a cycle of systemic racism in our culture, community, and world. We invite dialogue, promote dialogue, and will actively seek to love, live, and lead for God’s glory in spaces that are open and active in pursuing racial healing, unity, and reconciliation. Our vision is to grow in a greater love for God and greater love for each other, every nation, tribe, peoples & language.

In writing this piece, I recognize that my words are incomplete. This is a starting point. There are many forms of slavery that exist in our world today: forced labor, bonded labor, sex slavery, child slavery, and domestic servitude are the predominant forms ( Each form is equally egregious and should be confronted. For the glory of God, we can no longer be silent, complicit. We never know how God may endeavor to use our collective voices to help promote, facilitate, ignite, or motivate much needed change.

Resources for Further Reading and Study

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