One of the pastors at our church is the Reverend Doctor Brenda Salter McNeil. We all just call her Pastor Brenda, though, and when she preaches, she will often tell our congregation that she needs us to be actively engaged with her while she’s preaching. She wants to feel our energy; our involvement; our active listening.
Coming as she does from a more traditional Black church culture, she is accustomed to having her congregants vocalize during her sermons, readily saying things like, “Amen,” and “Go on,” and offering a response to what she is saying. She’ll affectionately explain this week after week and ask us to encourage her in this particular way. Our church community is a relatively diverse one, as far as churches go, but guess how most of us usually respond to Pastor Brenda’s sermons? Guess how I usually respond to Pastor Brenda’s sermons?
Conviction vs. Practice
To paint our church with a REALLY broad racial brushstroke, I would venture to guess that our congregation is made up of about 45% White folks, 45% Asian folks, maybe 10% Black? I don’t have any official numbers but that’s my best guess. When we unanimously voted Pastor Brenda in as a teaching pastor last year, I wept on the way home from our annual meeting. I was proud. I was proud to be part of a church that cares about racial justice. I was proud that as a community we are continuing on in the hard work of being a harbinger of God’s Kingdom, which includes people from every race and tribe and nation. And I was so proud that our staff was now starting to reflect that deeply held conviction of our community.
But I think our collective silence during Pastor Brenda’s sermons shows that while we are perhaps on the right trajectory, we still have some strides to make as a congregation. In some ways it feels like such a small thing and I’ve wondered if maybe I can just take a pass? After all, I’ve never been part of a church that vocalizes during the service and it is WAY out of my comfort zone to even think about speaking out during a sermon. Shouldn’t we all just do what’s personally comfortable? I don’t want to look like a poser. I’m cool with other people saying “amen” and speaking out during the sermon. No problem. I just don’t want to join in because it makes me feel so uneasy.
I don’t know what it feels like to be a minority. The closest I’ve come is traveling in non-English speaking countries. I visited Hungary several years ago and heard virtually no English during my short stay. Being a rookie traveler, I had no idea beforehand how isolated I would feel when I found myself unable to speak with anyone.
Near the end of the trip, I remember fumbling my way through a visit with a pharmacist, using rough hand gestures in an attempt to indicate my gastrointestinal distress and near tears as I tried to get her to understand my predicament. She walked away from me and retreated into the back room. I didn’t know where she was going or if she was coming back. I just sat down on one of the chairs, feeling utterly alone, bereft, vulnerable.
When she finally came back out, she had a small box and a piece of paper. She handed me the box with a sympathetic look, glanced down at the paper in her hand and read slowly, with effort, “Help…your…stomach.” I cried even harder. She understood me! And more than that, she took the time and effort to communicate with me, even though she didn’t have to and I could tell that she was unsure of her broken English. It meant so much to me in that moment that she tried; that she found a way to say I see you. In my language.
Last One in the Building
I remember chatting with a black friend a few years ago and he told me that he is always aware of when the last black person leaves the building on Sundays. I was genuinely surprised. I had never even considered such a thing. I’ve never had to. Especially not at church. But week in and week out, he is acutely aware that he is part of a small contingent of people at our church with darker skin. He feels “other” in a place where I feel completely comfortable. He feels different in a place where I feel so much the same. He also shared some of his earlier struggle in deciding whether or not to continue on with our church community; wondering if he could be himself within our congregation; if he would be seen and celebrated on his own terms by the more dominant culture already present there; if it was a safe place to offer himself and show us who he is.
So too with Pastor Brenda. When she asks us to vocalize during her sermons, she is taking a risk. Being vulnerable. She is, in essence, saying, “This is who I am. This is what resonates with me.” She is offering us herself. And I don’t think it’s enough to just give her my biggest smile. I don’t think it’s enough to nod my encouraging nod. It’s not enough because those are my terms. By saying “amen” and responding to her preaching in a way that is meaningful to her, I have the chance to say, I see you. And I celebrate YOU on YOUR terms. If we want to live into our vision for a multi-racial community, the dominant culture has to be willing to do things that stretch us beyond our current level of comfort in order that we might truly see and celebrate those around us. Starting with awkward, uncomfortable, introverted me. And there’s the rub. I’m scared and it makes me really nervous but the next time Pastor Brenda says, “Can I get an Amen?” she’s going to get one from me.