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Presbyterian polity and white privilege: A denomination out of order


In the fall of 2003, I was called to serve as pastor of Ravenswood Presbyterian Church in Chicago, a bilingual and bicultural congregation that had been the church of my youth and young adult years, the womb that had nurtured my faith and sent me off to seminary in 1986. I had not been involved in the life of the congregation since the end of my seminary days in 1990, so one of the first things that surprised me upon my arrival was discovering that the Spanish-language hymnals had finally been moved from a bench in the narthex to the pew rack, along with their English-language counterparts and a bilingual Bible.

To a visitor or a newcomer, this might have seemed logical, but for someone like me who knew the history of the congregation, this was a huge shift! I knew it had taken over 30 years for the Spanish-language hymnals to find their proper place inside the sanctuary. I knew that since October 1968 — when what was then an Anglo congregation welcomed into full membership almost 100 first-generation immigrants from Latin America, led by their Spanish-speaking pastor — the Spanish hymnals had sat outside the worship space as a visual reminder that this other language was not the official one, and the people who spoke it were guests in this house. Velocity is not necessarily an attribute of Presbyterian polity, but moving at the speed of a snail — especially on justice issues — is an embarrassment.

But lest you get the wrong impression, Ravenswood Presbyterian Church has plenty of reasons to be proud of its early tinkering with interculturalism as a way of life and ministry. The placement — or rather the displacement — of the Spanish-language hymnals was as much a byproduct of internalized colonialism on the part of the immigrant community as a sign of the culture of white privilege that permeated congregational life. Still, imperfect as this experiment might have been, what Ravenswood risked doing at the height of the Civil Rights Movement was, and continues to be, a prophetic action: embracing the other — the dark-skinned, foreign-language speaking, immigrant other — as their brothers and sisters in Christ.

From day one, these two ethnic groups agreed to be one congregation – with unified governing bodies and committees and frequent bilingual services, but with gracious room for monolingual and monocultural activities to coexist side by side. It was a deliberate attempt to embrace a sancocho (stew) style of ministry, where the ingredients mix and produce new, unexpected flavors while retaining their original qualities, rather than a melting pot, where ingredients are expected and pressured to give up their distinctiveness for the sake of a traditional, dominant flavor. And over the years Ravenswood found plenty of inspiration for its diversified life in the early days of the church, as we read about in the book of Acts and the New Testament letters.

Unfortunately, the Presbyterian family (along with other Protestant churches) has been slow — and mostly reluctant — to embrace diversity, let alone the sancocho model of ministry. It is no secret that the makeup of our denomination continues to be overwhelmingly white (over 90 percent). And in my years as a Presbyterian and now as a pastor, my experience has been that even in large urban areas where people of color and immigrants have been a growing and thriving presence for decades, white congregations are fearful of opening their doors to new neighbors, and are much quicker to offer financial support or in-kind assistance than a welcoming embrace, thus perpetuating the old, imperial missionary patterns. And when the door is finally opened to strangers, it seems more common to find nesting arrangements, where the new immigrant congregations either share or rent space from the mother church, while each group goes about its life independently of the other. They may agree to an occasional dinner or cultural festivity, but real engagement — and thus mutual transformation — is not given a chance.

And yet, the biblical mandate to embrace the alien, the other and even the enemy is crystal clear:

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. (John 13:34)

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

Our denominational creeds, as reflected in the Book of Confessions, call us to resist the evil of discrimination and to embrace the ministry of reconciliation:

God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, he overcomes the barriers between brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all men to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize their fellowmen, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.
(Confession of 1967, 9.44a)

“We trust in God the Holy Spirit,
everywhere the giver and renewer of life.
The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith,
sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor,
and binds us together with all believers
in the one body of Christ, the Church. …

In a broken and fearful world
the Spirit gives us courage
to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
(A Brief Statement of Faith, 10.4)

We believe

That Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another; 

That unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain; 

That this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted. (Confession of Belhar, Section 2)

And our denominational polity, as reflected in the Book of Order, calls us to resist the evil of separation and to embrace the ministry of unity in diversity:

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male
and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you
are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:27–29)

The unity of believers in Christ is reflected in the rich diversity of the Church’s
membership. In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God unites persons through baptism
regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sex, disability, geography, or theological conviction.
There is therefore no place in the life of the Church for discrimination against any person.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) shall guarantee full participation and representation in
its worship, governance, and emerging life to all persons or groups within its membership. No member shall be denied participation or representation for any reason other than those stated in this Constitution.”
(Book of Order, The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, F-1.0403)

Given the biblical vision, our creeds, our polity and the state of our denomination, I think it’s clear that we have some urgent — and extensive — work to do in order to become a more faithful church. And we must begin by recognizing, naming and dismantling the culture of white privilege that in essence nullifies and overpowers all good intentions expressed in our written documents, and in practice renders us a denomination out of order with the will of God.

What are some corrective steps that we might take in order to bring us closer to the biblical mandate and our denominational standards? I offer three suggestions for individuals and congregations, which are in no way a definitive list, but simply a starting point.

Exposure and immersion: Take concrete steps to end denominational segregation and transform church culture. Make connections with new neighbors, people outside your circle and congregations in another region, especially those from a different racial group and economic class. Immerse yourself in a community and culture completely different from your own, and learn about its history and values. Experience what it’s like to be an outsider and to be in the minority.

Deep listening and dialogue: Use tools for building understanding and a truly inclusive church, such as mutual invitation (to ensure that all who wish to speak have the opportunity to do so), consensus building and cultural sensitivity training. Resist the urge to dominate the conversation, to play the expert (even when asked), to impose your cultural views and ways and to offer quick solutions. Remember that you are part of the whole and that you are there to learn and to participate, not to lead or to save.

Partnership and equality: Cultivate relationships and styles of ministry that promote partnership and equality, remembering that we are members of the same body, that we have much to learn from each other and that everyone has something to contribute. Commit to assessing and valuing intangibles as much as other assets. Invest in leadership development, empowerment of minorities and burnout prevention. Be guided by “the spirit of the law” rather than imprisoned by “the letter of the law.”

Last December The New York Times published a video titled “The Power of Outsiders,” which explores how one person — an outsider — transformed the global economy. It’s the story of Malcolm McLean, a transport entrepreneur who developed the modern intermodal shipping container, and thus revolutionized transport and international trade in the second half of the 20th century. At a time when all the shippers thought that the only way to improve the moving of cargo across the oceans was to build faster boats, McLean asserted that the key was to build faster docks. The video concludes with the narrator asserting this: “And the lesson here is that outsiders often see solutions that insiders, the so called experts, miss. Studies show that we can all train ourselves to think like outsiders. We can all see the big dumb idea that everyone else misses. The secret is to listen to unexpected sources of information, like an unknown trucker, and to teach ourselves to question what everyone else already knows is true.” And so I wonder, what are the lessons that we as a denomination are missing out on for failing to listen to the outsiders in our midst? And what are the gains that we are bypassing for failing to embrace the outsiders in our midst?

Jesus urged us to love God and neighbor. And another great sage, the 13th century Persian poet, theologian and mystic Rumi, said: “Speaking the same language is not as powerful as speaking the language of the heart.” On World Communion Sunday in 1968, when Ravenswood Presbyterian Church welcomed into its life the first Hispanic members, the Anglo membership did not speak a word of Spanish, but they were willing to speak the language of the heart. I hope and pray that we as Presbyterians may indeed learn to speak the language of the heart with our new, God-given neighbors from other races, cultures and shores.

Magdalena I. García is a pastor and a hospice chaplain for Vitas Healthcare in Chicago. A native of Cuba and lifetime Presbyterian, she is a recipient of the 2008 PC(USA) Women of Faith Award.