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God’s agents of reconciliation (in training): Called to pursue unity

God’s command to fill the earth resulted in difference – a diversity that was part of God’s original plan for human beings, Rev. Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil argues. Yet we cling to those who look like us and build systems that reward sameness and discriminate against difference, leading to critical social issues like racial injustice and social inequality. In her new book, Roadmap to Reconciliation, this pastor, author and speaker outlines how God curbs our empire-building tendencies and forces us to realize both our interdependence with others and our desperate need for reconciliation. 

Ron Rupke reviews McNeil’s book for CC.

Editor Angela Reitsma Bick used some of his follow-up questions in discussion with Bernadette Arthur, Race Relations Coordinator (Canada) in the Christian Reformed Church in North America and Kim Radersma, Race Relations Facilitator.

“It’s time,” McNeil says, for followers of Jesus to move beyond awareness and become “God’s agents of reconciliation.” He created us in amazing diversity and calls us to pursue unity.  

CC: Would you say that every church needs to go through a process of reconciliation? Is a reconciled congregation a better representation of the body of Christ?  

Arthur: Yes! A resounding yes. I feel that the process is really an invitation to allow the Spirit to retool and rewire us. In Romans 12 the language used is “renewing the mind.” That needs to happen because we’ve been socialized to categorize people as “other.” We see this not only in the wider world but in church communities. Is it OK to be a mono-cultural church? We can’t say that we’re part of the body if we just want to be one big ear. McNeil offers a definition of reconciliation as a restoring of what’s been broken. If there’s anywhere that should happen, it’s in the church. 

Radersma: The church as an institution is a microcosm of larger systems that we’re all functioning in – and they are very broken systems that have taught us to admire and idolize domination, control and power. Mysteriously, and surprisingly, the Holy Spirit turns that upside-down. Jesus models a better way and invites us [into] shared power and involvement. 

How far is it the work of the Holy Spirit directly to create unity (as at Pentecost), and how far is it the work of the church itself?

Arthur: I would caution against dichotomizing – that’s the work of the Spirit; that’s the work of us – because that provides space and permission for making the work of reconciliation optional. Reconciliation should be considered a vital way of being as a church community, much like confessing our faults and praying for each other. It’s our responsibility to have a posture of being open to the Spirit. How? Make sure we have spaces for People of Colour or other ethnicities to speak into what they’re experiencing in the church, not in a patronizing but in a real way. Make sure that People of Colour have access to leadership in a real way, not in a token way, to speak into decisions that are being made. Leadership and “in group” church community members should be [ready to listen] and be willing to follow up. 

Radersma: As a white, Dutch, Christian Reformed person, one phrase I heard repeatedly growing up was “If you’re not Dutch, you’re not much.” It was meant to be humourous; I wasn’t taught explicitly that white Dutch people were superior, but it was known in the ways we would treat people who would visit. We’d expect them to assimilate to the ways that we did things, and we’d dismiss or negate the ways they did things. We’ve been taught not to value other ways of knowing, other ways of experiencing God. And we’ve both lost; we’ve both missed out on a deeper sense of who God is and how he reveals himself. We live and breathe in this world that says there’s a better and a best and a not so good.

Arthur: Churches who are full of dominant culture people need to carefully consider how racism has affected them and how they have the propensity to perpetuate it. Learning from others is great, but there’s a burden that comes from that. White people need to take responsibility to think about what it means to have white privilege, to be operating in and benefitting from the white identity. There are resources to assist with that [see note at bottom]. That will begin to make those congregations safer for People of Colour to be in. 

(left to right) Bernadette Arthur, Kim Radersma and Rev. Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil.

Is the CRC’s Blanket Exercise* a useful process?

Arthur: The Blanket Exercise is an appetizer. It’s introductory. It allows the heart to stir and be moved, and for the Spirit to have access to areas that were once closed. But it’s only the appetizer. The meat and potatoes is when you begin thinking about, “Hey, I’ve grown up in a monoculture space . . . what does that mean in terms of how I relate to people of colour? How does it affect my understanding of oppression and racism?” That work needs to be done. It needs to go beyond “What does it mean for those who have been oppressed?” to “What have I lost because of this?”

Radersma: As a white person, I’ve realized in my own journey that I was taught not to see those systems, which is exactly how privilege functions unchecked. I was taught to believe that we live in an equal society, where everyone gets what they work for. If you haven’t earned this, you haven’t worked hard enough. With clear indicators that our system is not fair, we cannot believe this any longer. We all sort of like the idea of racial justice, but it’s harder to actually do the work. Understanding systematic racism is part of that work. 

Would you recommend that churches – particularly reconciled congregations – get involved in political protests and demonstrations? 

Radersma: Regardless of your political stance, the Bible is pretty clear that we should love each other well, and that we should imitate God’s mercy by using our inherited privilege on behalf of others. Right now vulnerable people groups are under attack, and absolutely churches should be asking how we can support these movements. Not how can we lead them, but how can we support people in our communities who are active in these movements? How can we show our servant nature in our support of these movements?

Arthur: When you look back in history, I think of 16th Street Baptist Church, instrumental in the Civil Rights movement. I stood in the basement of that church, which was a triage for peaceful protestors who were attacked by the police. What would the civil rights movement have been if those churches had not stepped up? I think of the Quakers – what would the Underground Railroad movement have been if they were not willing to stand and be allies? 
Don’t look for the rules of engagement; just have attentive ears, and obedient hands and feet.

Bernadette Arthur is the Office of Race Relations, Canadian Race Relations Coordinator for the Christian Reformed Church in North America. She is a facilitator, trainer and coach in the areas of anti-racism, biblical reconciliation and diversity and inclusion.

After teaching high school English for 15 years in the U.S., Kim Radersma began working on her PhD in Educational Studies. She teaches at Brock University and speaks to teachers and administrators about her research and the impact of their whiteness in a pluralistic society.

Further resources*
The CRC’s Office of Race Relations provides facilitating, training and coaching services. We host experiential learning journeys to historical sites of racism, resistance and reconciliation in Canada. Our next trip is in September 2017 and it’s a three-day cross-racial journey to historical and contemporary First Nations sites. 

We also host community conversations surrounding issues related to diversity and inclusion, and learning workshops: Widening the Circle unpacks the realities and ills of racism in Canada; the Blanket Exercise walks participants through the history between Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons in Canada.

Cracking Open White Identity Towards Transformation, from the Canadian Council of Churches, is a good small group book resource. 


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