One morning six black women dared to travel across town to join a Bible study of white Christians. For some of the white women who met them that day, the Bible changed forever. As did their minds.
Before that encounter, the white group’s teacher, Sue Edwards, never taught that the Good Samaritan’s story was a parable about race or culture. Like some other Christians in her church, she more or less assumed that most believers belonged to the Republican Party.
And an idea she now subscribes to - that many African-American Christians have a stronger faith than many white Christians - had not entered her mind.
Much of the new hope for racial reconciliation sweeping American Christianity is pinned on the Sue Edwardses of the church. Much of the talk going on among Christians sidesteps hot political issues such as welfare reform in favor of the idea that evangelism and personal relationships will be enough to bring about a new era of love and support among the races and economic classes.
Reconciliation is a hot topic among the races, but many people are focusing on black-white relations because they believe that is where the most mending needs to be done.
Some Christians question whether evangelical efforts, divorced from social action, will be enough, especially in the inner city.
“What do you mean, ‘Evangelize the poor?”’ asked the Rev. Larry James, a Church of Christ preacher who gave up his prosperous suburban pulpit to work in East Dallas. “The poor got Jesus Christ. That’s all they have got. Jesus never left the inner city. The church did.”
Even so, focusing on the nonthreatening idea of what Christians have in common, as many prosperous churches are now doing, can bear fruit.
Last summer, when a white man at Edwards’ church, Prestonwood Baptist, objected to an apology for racism from the Southern Baptist Convention, saying he had nothing to apologize for, the white Bible teacher didn’t stay quiet. She gave him a sweet-tempered but firm little lecture about how white people have benefited from economics and discrimination in America.
When black pastor Carey Dowl preached a poolside sermon not long ago, a young white man followed him to his car to say he was sorry for his own part in racism. Dowl appreciated the sentiment but told the young man, who had been inspired by the evangelical men’s movement Promise Keepers, that he needed to act on his words by making real friendships with people of color.
Dowl supports Promise Keepers’ emphasis on bringing Christian men of all races together but wonders if the commitment will go all the way to true Christian brotherhood.
“It’s fine if you’re going to give me your card and tell me to call you, but I don’t need your business card where I have to go through 15 people to get to you. I need your number at the house,” said Dowl, pastor of the inner-city, multiracial Central Dallas Church of Christ and someone who often takes into his home people who need help.
Richard Land, a prime force behind the Southern Baptist Convention’s apology last summer, is among those who believe Christian conversion will alter hearts and habits of blacks and whites in a way that could change even economics.
When a deacon from Dallas’ First Baptist called Land recently to ask for racial reconciliation advice, the executive director of the Christian Life Commission told him to make friends with deacons and pastors at black churches. Then a black pastor would be able to call the deacon when he had a promising young man, and the deacon could show his commitment by giving the young man a job, Land said.
Unlike conservative Christians who support racial reconciliation alongside cutbacks in government aid to the poor, the Rev. John Thornburg sees the two aims as uneasy allies.
Many Christians believe the biblical vision they advocate implies a higher calling than mere integration or equality. Some suggest that Christian reconciliation will require at least the following: Listen to each other’s feelings, said Dowl, because people have to be heard before they can begin to heal.
“One of the most difficult things to do is to listen to someone express pain and anger. … It is going to take a special effort from white individuals…,” he said.
Strive toward common goals, said Kathy Dudley, founder of West Dallas’ Voice of Hope and now president of a new Christian group, the Dallas Leadership Foundation.
“We need to work together more than we need to talk. Out of joint projects, reconciliation will come,” she said. To avoid paternalism, people need to balance the power, she said. For instance, when two churches work together, if one church has more resources or money, the other church may need to set the agenda because that will equalize the partnership, she said.
Embrace diversity, said the Rev. Tony Matthews, senior minister at the multiracial Victory Baptist Church in suburban Garland, Texas.
“That is one of the keys to unlocking this great treasure of knowing each other,” said Matthews.
Don’t try to be colorblind, he said. “Let’s not sweep something under the rug that God has seen fit to create,” he said.
“Risk,” said Janet Morrison, food pantry director at Central Dallas Ministries. Soon after Morrison came to Central Dallas, she moved to an inner-city apartment complex where she is the only white person. The 23-year-old believed God was directing her.
“Step out of your comfort zone,” said James, director of Central Dallas Ministries.
Dowl said whites who want racial reconciliation must stop locking their car doors when they pull up next to a black man on the street. Morrison said white women must stop clutching their purses when they walk past black people.
“You’ll get burned,” Morrison said. “I’ve had my stereo system stolen from the office. I’ve had my purse stolen. You’ve got to be resilient.”
Don’t let conflict stop you, wrote Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice, authors of “More than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel,” a book about their experience in an integrated Mississippi church.
“Four hundred years of slavery, forced segregation and discrimination have left a stubborn residue within us all,” they wrote. “For blacks, the residue is anger, bitterness and blame. For whites, the residue is racial blinders.”
“What is deeply, undeniably true is that we have very different views of reality,” said Thornburg. “That’s what the Simpson verdict showed. We must delve into those views of reality.”