Change begins with listening. Listening can be uncomfortable. It may be easier to avoid discomfort by disengaging, but then we risk missing out on necessary changes to which God may be calling us. As more people discuss racial inequality following the death of George Floyd, this issue has become harder to avoid. But what about in Christian communities? After attending university in the United Kingdom, Bandile*, a student from South Africa, wants to challenge Christians to be better listeners to believers from all different backgrounds.
Before Bandile moved to the United Kingdom, he was nervous that he would feel like an outsider. However, he was pleased to find that the international nature of the university prevented him from feeling this way. That is, until he became involved with a church.
“As an international BAME student, the first thing I began to notice was differences between myself and other members. I felt compelled to mirror the behavior of the dominant demographic (white Christians) in order to be accepted by them.”
Bandile found himself changing his behavior to fit in. He would alter his speech patterns, his expressions, even his tone of voice. He says that this is a common occurrence among BAME (Black, Asian, Minority ethnic) students entering a majority white context.
When it came to church culture, Bandile noticed many differences between the UK and South Africa, especially in terms of worship and discipleship. In South Africa, people were very expressive with worship and discipleship occurred organically in a multitude of settings. In the UK, church services were structured, and leaders carried out discipleship through one-to-one meetings, with a heavy emphasis on theology. Bandile greatly appreciated the new perspective from the UK, but also felt that his South African Christianity presented valuable qualities that were not always recognized.
One Sunday, Bandile’s pastor invited him to share a spoken word in a worship service. He recited Ephesians chapter two with a few minor expressive adjustments at key points. Afterwards, several church members approached Bandile and admonished him for trying too hard to liven up the service. He was confused. He was expressing worship in a way that was normal for him. Bandile realized that by being black, he was commonly stereotyped, consciously or not, as being “trendy,” “cool,” or “funny.” People were too distracted by these labels to recognize that what he was sharing was genuine. For this same reason, Bandile says he wasn’t always sure if people wanted to be his friend for authentic reasons or just because he was black.
“People assume a lot. They will look at you and will have pre-supposed ideas of you. They could definitely be good, or they could be bad. But it makes the African doubt the authenticity of the friendship or relationship. In the UK, to be black is the in-thing. Its trendy because of the music or pop culture. And it is conditioned in people’s heads that black is cool. So, I’ve found that very difficult to discern in relationships.”
Making Space to Listen
Without pursuing authentic relationships with BAME students, it will be impossible to know how to best make space for them within a group. Other BAME students may also feel less inclined to join when they see that there is no one else like them. For example, Bandile invited several of his black friends to help with his church’s missions week and immediately noticed more BAME students joining in.
“Because of their presence, more black people actually came to the event. They were looking inside the venue and saw more black faces, which meant they saw more familiarity and they were more comfortable.”
So, what will it take for churches and student ministries to make space for BAME members? Listening.
While Bandile knew his church genuinely loved him, he does not feel that they tried to understand him. He thinks that this is because they were afraid to say the wrong thing. He wished that the church had been more willing to acknowledge and discuss their racial differences. Bandile says that the worst thing people in Christian communities can say is that they do not see color. While the idea may be well-intentioned, it is dishonoring to a BAME person’s identity. Bandile says,
“We want to be seen completely for who we are, and our culture and heritage and skin tone are all part of that. Therefore, when you say ‘I don’t see color’ you dismiss and ignore that part of who they are.”
Finding Unity in Diversity
However, Bandile makes it clear that his race does not encompass his entire identity.
“While race is important and a core part of one’s identity, it is just a component of one’s being. It doesn’t make you who you are. Christ makes you who you are. Hence, I would call myself a Christian before I call myself black, African, or South African.”
The point of having conversations about race is not to place racial identity above the gospel, rather to see a more vivid picture of God. Bandile says that although he struggled to connect with his church, he felt unified with his diverse Christian union. Instead of holding tightly to their own traditions, the group was more concerned with the core truths of the gospel and used their differences to learn from each other.
Bandile recognizes that starting conversations about race and ethnicity can be intimidating. Yet, in his view, stumbling over your words is better than being silent.
“The ignorance that evolves from not acknowledging race is a problem that will perpetuate unless conversation around race is normalized. What inhibits people from having genuine discussion on this topic is fear – fear of the unknown, fear of conflict, fear of offense, fear of straying from political correctness. However, the worst response to that fear is silence.”
Bandile says that avoiding uncomfortable conversations prevents Christian communities from flourishing because they are never challenged to view their faith differently. It also prevents them from being leaders for justice. If we are not listening to those within our own church who are marginalized in society, how can we be a voice for those outside of our church?
Although engaging these questions with BAME friends can be difficult, Bandile challenges that Christianity was never meant to be easy. He encourages students to liken these conversations to approaching a friend about the gospel. In the beginning it will feel awkward, but eventually it will become more natural.
Listening to those in our churches or student ministries who come from different backgrounds is one of the first steps Christians can take to leading their societies towards racial and ethnic reconciliation. Diversity is an edifying gift that pushes us to better understand God’s heart. To trade it for uniformity is to sorely miss out on the beauty of Christ’s church. What are you doing to understand those who are different than you? How can you make room for those who come from another background?