EVENT REVIEW: Race & The Gospel: A student-moderated panel hosted by CFA

Photo by Valentina Paiva-Acosta

Photo by Valentina Paiva-Acosta

Audio recording of the panel available here.

On Thursday, February 5th 2015, at 8:00pm, a few students gathered outside Classroom 203 in the Math Building on Columbia’s campus, waiting for the previous class to clear out. In the next half hour, students from all over campus, students from other local campuses, and people from the local community filed into the classroom until it was entirely packed. However, this wasn’t your normal Columbia math class. Instead, the crowd gathered in anticipation of the event titled “Race & The Gospel,” a student-moderated panel discussion hosted by a campus ministry, Columbia Faith and Action. The event’s purpose was to address the question “How does the Gospel of Jesus Christ inform how we address racism and injustice in America?” Among the students packed in the classroom were Pauline and I, members of CFA as well as part of Crown & Cross. Because of the event’s impact on us, especially for Lilian as one of the organizers, we decided to share with our readers some of the thoughts, reflections and hopes for the event. We were fortunate to be able to work with notes from some of the other organizers, Jennifer Mahan and Xavier du Maine in compiling this event reflection and review.

It all began towards the end of fall semester 2014, after a flurry of events increasingly impacted and shocked the American society. Columbia’s campus was no exception. Reactions to the cases of Ferguson, Mike Brown and the murder of two NYPD officers sprung up across campus through flyers, tweets, campus protests, the “die-in” 1 at Columbia’s tree-lighting ceremony, debates on “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter,” banners of “Business as Usual” during a sit-in at Barnard’s midnight breakfast 2 to name a few ways. As our campus became more and more concerned with issues of race and justice, the community within CFA also began talking and asking questions. Jim Black, the Ministry Director of CFA, mentioned at an Illumina (CFA’s weekly large group meeting) that as Christians, we needed to care about and intentionally discuss these issues, not just stand by and ignore what our world cares about. He urged us to engage as a form of bearing witness to our world. What followed was a mixture of excitement, confusion, passion and inquisition. We all were full of questions: How should we engage? What does it mean to be both a Christian and a person of privilege? How about being a Christian and being persecuted by our society’s justice system? What language should we be using? What form should our engagement take place in: protests, debates, appeals to administration? What does it mean to bear witness amidst these confusing yet exigent discussions?

This increased interest also led many students to begin discussing with Yolanda Solomon, an African American ministry fellow at CFA, who often shared helpful resources on social media regarding racial tensions, current events and the Gospel. One of these students who reached out was Migueyli Rivera, who had started to discuss her thoughts and questions with her local pastor Kenneth Hart. From their discussions, we realised that being located in New York City and having connections to various churches and biblical scholars who cared about these issues meant that CFA could have the resources for bringing together people with different perspectives to share their insights. As more conversations took place, the Exec Team, Yolanda and Migueyli decided that CFA needed to put something together. Something that could provide a more structured opportunity to start off the conversation and would allow us to begin to find lenses and ways of discussing these issues, within the frame of the Gospel, which had not yet been made available on campus. As our team came together to plan, we immediately realised the complexity and density of the issues: there was a lot to talk about, but very little time. We understood that we could not aim to address all issues; but we were determined to create discussion and avenues where people would begin to feel comfortable as well as understand the necessity of having these discussions.

The next months were spent planning and researching: whether it be the history of racial segregation in America, the role of the Church and reasons for segregation within the Church, or questions people currently have towards the role of the Gospel in racial reconciliation or segregation. Various groups on campus such as the Black Students Organization, the African Students Association and the National Society of Black Engineers were invited to participate and join the discussion and the event was promoted on the Black History month calendar, and panelists were carefully chosen and invited. On the day however, two of our panelists were unable to attend due to health and other reasons, and instead, Pastor Joseph Tsang, senior pastor at Vision Church on the Upper West Side, graciously agreed to step in. With Pastor Tsang, alongside Pastor Kenneth Hart (Pastor of Evangelism & Community, Christ Crucified Fellowship) and Dr. Anthony Bradley (Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics, The King’s College) seated on stage, Kalu Ogbureke (president of CFA and panel moderator) began to introduce the night’s topic and the first questions. There was also a cell phone number provided at the beginning of the event for text-in questions, and although timing did not allow all of these questions to be brought forth, they allowed audience members to respond during the talk (some of these questions were brought up during the Q&A session after the structured panel).

Kalu Ogbureke began with a question that seemed obvious, but was necessary in establishing the importance and relevance of the entire event: “Are racism and injustice Gospel issues?” Pastor Kenneth Hart answered, “Anything that hinders us from achieving as a collective body is, therefore, a gospel issue.” Pastor Hart continued to explain how the issue of race is something that hinders us from growing collectively as believers in Christ and therefore hinders our ability to understand the gospel together. Pastor Joseph Tsang took another approach, explaining, “The Gospel is a race issue. We need all possible perspectives to know God.” Dr. Anthony Bradley added his input, combining both pastors’ perspectives by reminding us that as Christians, we are uniquely equipped to face these challenging issues because the Gospel forces us to “like the people we aren’t supposed to like.” Dr. Bradley suggests that because we have the strong unifying bond of Christ’s love, Christians can reach out and form meaningful relationships with people of other races, ethnicities and cultures. Though their answers were mostly geared toward gospel-driven Christian communities, it is important for any one of us, believer or nonbeliever, to acknowledge how race affects our daily lives. The question “Are racism and injustice Gospel issues?” does not make these concerns exclusively gospel issues, but rather it gives us a lens through which we can view these problems.

The next subject of the night turned toward the history of racism in the U.S. that we felt was crucial in providing perspective for understanding the current issues and explaining why the Church should be involved in this discussion. Kalu asked, “In light of past historical blind spots, how is the modern American Evangelical church equipped to address racial injustice in light of The Gospel?” Dr. Bradley responded to this question with the evangelical practice of “Kneel ins,” where small groups of blacks visited prominent white churches to challenge the notion of segregated worship, conjuring the image of civil rights era restaurant “Sit-ins” with the newly created, and recently student-led, “Die-ins.” He continued stating that “the church provides a place for painful memory to be explored through communion.” These “Kneel-ins,” like their predecessors, provide people with a sense of community during times of societal anguish and bring God to the forefront of these communities.

Continuing on how the church handles race, Kalu asked the panelists, “How do you use your pulpit to address this issue? What is the role of church leaders in activism considering the influences of social media and ‘hashtag activism’ today?” When thinking about this question it is important also to think about how often race is mentioned in a the church setting. According to a Lifeway research it has been found that 29% of American pastors polled rarely or never speak to their churches about racial reconciliation. Pastor Tsang responded by asserting that “while speaking from the pulpit is good, we really need to speak more to each other, do more, to live in community. Conversing with others and being hospitable is really what makes the difference.” He continued to speak of another racial issue in the U.S. today: how Asians do not get the chance to be seen in society, especially in conversations about race. Consequentially, it’s difficult for Asian churches to be seen, let alone have a voice in this larger conversation. This leads into uncomfortable realities of racism between Asians and other minorities, particularly African Americans. Yet, the tension between these two communities doesn’t seem to have an opportunity to be addressed anywhere, not even the church. Dr. Bradley countered pastor Tsang, saying that “Sunday is not the most segregated hour. The most segregated hour is the time we spend in our neighborhoods and with our families. It’s not Sunday that’s the problem. It’s Monday through Friday that we homogenize. Sunday is a representation of what’s going on Monday through Saturday.” Pastor Hart agreed with Dr. Bradley and added that “If your church is ethnically homogenous, it’s probably not a church. It’s a hangout spot.” The conversation turned from one of how the church should handle the issue of race, to the failures of churches in becoming clique-like hangouts for those of the same race. This statement, set off a wave of questions within many audience members’ minds, reflected through various text-in questions that were sent in as responses: questions of whether culture, language, worship-styles played a role in ethnically homogenous churches, and how to address these in light of different church missions, many of which may be catered towards a specific ethnic population. This questions were heightened by the populations of both Pastor Hart and Pastor Tsang’s churches, which both could be categorised as “ethnically homogenous.”

Quickly the topic turned to the problem of diversity in the church, and how places of worship have turned into places of racial segregation. According to polls from Lifeway Research on race dynamics in the American Church, 86% of churches in the US had one dominant racial group. Pastor Hart was the first to respond to this statistic explaining that “the church is uniquely positioned to facilitate ‘trans-cultural’ interaction.” The panel agreed that diversity goes beyond the surface. Even within Pastor Tsang’s predominantly Chinese church, there’s a diversity of age, ethnic traditions. While it is important to serve your community, it has to be done without excluding others from joining. No individual church is equipped to fulfill the entire Gospel mission, whether they are limited in translation, resources or by location. No one church can reach everybody – but the Church as a whole can. Dr. Bradley closed the conversation by explaining why he believes “Black Lives Matter” is an important movement. He said, “One of the greatest contributions that Christianity made to the world was to provide an ontological justification for human dignity and human rights.”

One of the first questions had to do with the problems of gentrification and privilege, the audience asked “How do you move to the other side of the tracks without gentrifying the community?” Pastor Tsang responded, “You have to think about your purpose in moving…you have think about your motivation and think about serving people around you…there are plenty of neighborhoods you can move into to serve without gentrifying it.” We need to be careful about our motivations for church plants and how we build church communities. If we are not rooted in Godly wisdom and motivations, it is very easy for church communities to exacerbate already existing social problems of gentrification. The panelists agreed that it is vital for people with privilege to acknowledge that they have it. Rather than be ashamed or avoid it, people should utilize it to the glory of God – use the privileges society has gifted us to access people and institutions that we would not have otherwise been able to access and share God’s light. It’s important to see one another beyond skin color and apparent privilege. American culture makes so many assumptions based on someone’s appearance and apparent privilege, regardless if they are a black woman or a white man. This is potentially detrimental, and Jesus teaches the necessity of sitting and listening to people in order to learn their stories rather than assume the narrative that society has forced on them.

As the event approached its end, Kalu asked Pastor Hart to close out with a word of prayer. However, the discussion did not end there. As some started leaving the classroom, perhaps to their dorm rooms or to commute back home, many began to cluster in little groups, and the room began to buzz with discussion. Ava Ligh, one of the ministry fellows with CFA shared with a group of students her reflections on racial issues as an Asian American, and how the talk pushed her to think more about what it means to engage in racial issues both as child of God and an Asian American. Various students approached the three panelists, asking follow-up questions and setting up methods for further contact. There were many issues that weren’t discussed in the short two hours, and although the panel had been very informative and thought-provoking, there is still much to be said. Intervarsity, another Christian ministry on campus, continued to carry this conversation into their large group event, “The Gospel’s vision of racial reconciliation,” this past Thursday, and students are talking about forming discussion groups to reflect on these issues. It is incredibly encouraging to see these conversations continuing on beyond that night. We hope that they will continue further and, as Pastor Hart said, not stop at mere discussions but transform these ideas into real actions.

Lilian Chow & Pauline Morgan (with the help of notes from Xavier du Maine and Jennifer Mahan)