A couple of years ago, Samuel L. Jackson was interviewed by an Entertainment Reporter from a local news affiliate about his previous and pending movie roles. Jackson was asked about his character in Marvel superhero films, the at the time upcoming Robocop reboot, and his car commercial featured in the SuperBowl.
Only Samuel L. Jackson wasn’t in a SuperBowl car commercial. Laurence Fishburne was. What proceeded was an equally hilarious and very painful lambasting of the Entertainment Reporter by Sam. The reporter tried to move on and pretend like his epic misidentification didn’t happen, but Sam pressed him for several minutes. Was Sam over the top? Maybe, maybe not. He, a prominent Black actor, was confused for another prominent Black actor in Hollywood, who he looks nothing like—and what is worse is that he was misidentified by someone who was supposed to be an expert in the field of entertainment.
There aren’t a lot of “Sam’s” in white evangelical circles. In moments when there are cross-cultural mistakes, whether by leaders or ground staff, there are little to no places to do what Sam did. I’m not advocating for exploding as Sam did, but I am advocating for space to debrief, be angry, and call people to repentance. Sam didn’t apologize for the other person’s mistake—as people of color are often expected to do when themselves are the ones who have been offended—nor did Sam let the reporter get away with it. As painful as it was, there is a guarantee that reporter will never confuse Samuel L. Jackson and Laurence Fishburne ever again. Yet in white evangelical circles, we continue to make the same cross-cultural mistakes—and the truth-tellers are often pushed back to the margins they are trying to advocate for.
There is something terrifying about a Christian who is a person of color but is not assimilated to white evangelical culture. We all have adapted to it in some way, but there is a difference between adapting and adopting. Not all of us “drink the cool-aid.” Far too often, Western evangelical circles remain mostly white in their leadership and leadership structures, and most of the people of color who are promoted are those who demonstrate they have assimilated and/or are moderately unaware of issues affecting the communities they are appointed to represent. Again, not always, but far too often. They are used as symbols of false progress. In the 30 for 30 documentary, OJ Made in America, we see the beginning of the story of a prominent Black male athlete that wanted shun his race and ignore current events happening in the country. His assimilation, unawareness, and ethnic and cultural apathy was what led to him being accepted in white circles (and what made the focus of race during his trial so shocking for everyone). In short, when it comes to examples of diversity in the Western evangelical world, most of the people of color who are hired, promoted, allowed to sing or speak, and invited to speak again, are people of color who white people feel are “safe.” They won’t say anything to dominant group disagrees with, raise any issues held by people of color at the margins, or seek to change any systemic structures that benefit one group and hinder another.
This is not what I saw at CCDA.
Can I be honest? My few hours there after meeting five people, I felt what I can only describe as “a holy depression.” The first groups of people I met were ethnically diverse and they all were discussing how they had seen systems and structures change in the parts of the country, how their white friends owned the individual and social responsibility, and how their communities were working together to bring about legitimate change—rather than being parked at raising awareness for the issues. I felt completely overwhelmed…and I had just gotten off the plane. Most of the people there had moved past theory, raising awareness, and had stopped working with theological or practical frameworks that called for reconciliation without asking what caused the division. In other words, the gospel they proclaimed and were living out didn’t ignore the context of the places God called them to go.
If I thought the people were encouraging, the platform speakers exceeded my highest expectations—which I did not bring with me (I’d been to too many conferences where I was told we were going to work on diversity issues, only to discover we meant we were going to raise awareness). Every person of color on that stage, as Peter Chin remarked, walked the delicate balance of being both prophet and shepherd. Topics like reparations, collaboration and funding-raising outside of white communities, racial reconciliation paradigms beyond Black and White, inviting Indigenous Peoples to invite you to the city before you plan your conference—all of this said from up front from many of the ethnically diverse speakers. Even the White people were “woke” (more on that later). Erna Stubblefield-Hackett, who led worship at Urbana 15, served as the emcee for CCDA this year. Of everything that was said and done, it was one of Erna’s fleeting comments that has stayed with me. After one of the speakers finished, Erna remarked, “Alright, we have heard a lot. Let’s take some time to process. For some of us, you’ll need to take in the information that was shared as this may be brand new for you. Let me suggest a resource…For others, more than what they said, it is what they embodied. What did you see in the people presenting that you need to take away from this?”
I’ve lost part of my ethnicity and culture in the midst of drowning in this sea of Western white evangelicalism. I don’t think I ever had the fire that Sam had in that video, but I did have the confidence to challenge assumptions about Black people, to advocate for the unheard, and to protect the core of who God made me to be. (Part of my blog writing is an attempt to rediscover what I lost.) I come from a “call and response” culture, which means I believe talking about verbally to the person speaking up front. We stand in affirmation of what is proclaimed—when it is gospel-centered. I like gospel music. I like to iron my clothes. I am direct and come from direct people. To a certain degree, these are all things I have had to either let go of, hide, or diminish to private settings so I am perceived as a “safe” Black man. Publicly, we are asked to affirm present broken models and applaud progress while keeping silent on the issues right in front of us.
At CCDA, I saw a group of men and women of color who walked fully and unapologetically in their ethnic culture. They were offensive, as prophets have to be, but they were also humble and graceful shepherds, who pointed people back to Jesus. It was a breath of fresh air to see Asian, Latino and Black people (people commented on not having First Nations representation) not apologize for who they are or what they had to say. That level of cultural boldness, leadership, and prophetic voice invites people into deeper community and at times gives clarity to what the Lord is saying.
There’s nothing wrong with any person of color who has assimilated to the dominant culture. However, when assimilated leaders are asked to represent and lead the entire group, trust will inevitably be broken. We need Latino, Asian, Black, and White “Sam’s” who will affirm our wise choices, painfully rebuke as the level that causes us to not repeat the same mistakes, and will walk with us until we enter Jesus’ kingdom.
Making It Practical
- Books to check out: The Next Evangelicalism by Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, Right Color, Wrong Culture by Bryan Loritts, Roadmap to Reconciliation by Dr. Brenda Salter-McNeil, any and all books written by James Cone (right or wrong, he’s pretty unapologetic).
- Check out the messages from the CCDA 2016 conference.
- Find mentors of color who, as CS Lewis remarked, “is not safe, but is good” who will be honest with you about life, ministry, and biblical justice in our country.