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Racial Healing: Need Freedom to Say Dumb Things

Ed Gilbreath

CHICAGO, IL (February 22, 2008) – Honest conversations that help Christians advance racial understanding must allow participants to "not be afraid to say some dumb things," journalist Ed Gilbreath told a forum at North Park Theological Seminary on Thursday afternoon.

Without the freedom to say dumb things, and even speak words that are rude, unkind or ignorant, true healing dialogue cannot occur because the depth of discussion needed will not occur, added Gilbreath, author of the critically acclaimed book Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity. Also needed is trust—trust that the other person genuinely wants reconciliation, he added.

Gilbreath is editor-at-large and former editor with Christianity Today as well as a former editor with Today's Christian magazine. For years he was the lone or one of only a few African-Americans on staff in either organization. He now is the editorial director for Urban Ministries.

Gilbreath spoke Thursday with the same whimsical style that led Philip Yancey to refer to him as a "gentle prophet" and led Publisher's Weekly to refer to Reconciliation Blues as "a poignant and often humorous look at the state of racial reconciliation within evangelical Christianity."

That approach was evident as he told of hearing dumb things spoken by people who did not know what they were saying. At best, the words were spoken in ignorance by well-intentioned friends, or at worst, by others stoking latent racism.

There have been times, for example, when a person didn't realize the racism in their comments when they told Gilbreath, "Ed, you're different. I don't even think of you as black."

Such remarks betray the lie that society has become colorblind. "Our 'color-blindness' has hindered us from seeing the distance we still need to travel," Gilbreath said.

The biggest obstacle to reconciliation is that "we still don't know each other," Gilbreath said. To overcome the barriers, "We must work, live and worship alongside one another to get to know one another."

By being with one another, people can move beyond the labels and stereotypes that often lay a burden on others in ways rarely recognized, Gilbreath said. He laughed at how his white colleagues at Christianity Today would always turn to him for a black person's perspective on events because he was the expert on "all things African-American."

Gilbreath said he felt the pressure of having to present that perspective although, "No one person can represent any particular race."

He quipped, however, that there were times he relished the opportunity and sometimes felt slightly threatened when another African-American was hired at the organization, especially if they had a different perspective than his own. Gilbreath laughed as he recalled thinking at the time, "These are my white people! I've worked too hard to condition them."

Gilbreath said Christians must live the call to love others as the Apostle Paul declares in 2 Corinthians 5: 16: "From now on, we regard no one from an earthly point of view." Such love will require intentionality, he added.

That intentionality must be modeled in the church if Christians are to have credibility with others, Gilbreath said. He quoted from Martin Luther King's "A Knock at Midnight" sermon in which the civil rights leader declared, "If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause men everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will."

Gilbreath said he does not believe that every church has to be multi-ethnic, but all congregations, regardless of their ethnicity, must have the heart to reach beyond themselves. The church will grow richer as a result because, "each race represents a unique side of God's image."

Despite the racial divisions that still exist, Gilbreath stated, "The divide is not too wide for the cross, the cross of Christ."

Gilbreath met Thursday afternoon with a group of leaders from North Park University and the Evangelical Covenant Church, and he spoke Thursday evening in Hamming Hall on the University’s campus. The events were sponsored by the Center for Youth Ministry Studies and Center for Justice Ministries at North Park Theological Seminary, as well as University Ministries and the Dialogue Program at North Park University.

(SF)

North Park University is an institution of the Evangelical Covenant Church.

Covenant News Service, Copyright 2008, Evangelical Covenant Church