A few days ago, I had the opportunity to catch up with my co-worker CW Allen. CW is the Director of our BridgeBuilders program and resident of the South Shore neighborhood. In our most recent blog post CW shared his reflections on the past few months which prompted us to have a follow-up conversation that dives deeper into a discussion on the response of the church during this time.
Holly: Taking into account the intense events of the last several months, how are you doing?
CW: I’m doing fine considering the current climate. I have had some good opportunities to have a lot of great conversations with folks, release my first book, and develop a new online curriculum for the BridgeBuilders program. Before COVID, I wasn’t sure what direction God was leading the BB program. In an instant COVID shut everything down! All of my community partners (gardens, churches, and schools) were closed and groups canceled their trips. I wondered how the program would move forward when we couldn’t engage people in person. After some prayer and conversations we decided the best thing to do was to transition our curriculum to an online format.
When the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd gained national attention, it caused many folks to ask deeper questions about their faith, race, and justice. It’s been a busy couple of months as we have been engaging in five week courses with five different groups of people. Despite my emotional fatigue with the whole situation I’m encouraged by the interest we’re receiving from the Christian community to dive deeper into these topics.
Holly: Let’s talk more about the role of Christians. When it comes to racial justice, historically speaking, what has the role of the church been?
CW: I feel like the Black church has been speaking out against these things all along, but they were either ignored or dismissed. I didn’t grow up in a Black church, my only introduction to it was on Easter Sunday services. Around 14 years old is when I got plugged into a local church and it was nowhere near a Black church! They practiced justice and mercy work in our diverse neighborhood but I was too young to fully comprehend it all.
It wasn’t until I came to Chicago that I really started to learn about the Black church’s connection to civil rights as an expression of their Christian DNA. As a Hip Hop artist I would travel and hear sermons that were fully Gospel and justice-oriented. It wasn’t politically charged, it was people charged. You can only imagine how discouraging it was for me to see and hear that many white churches and Christian universities were staying silent. I visited, and fellowshipped, with people who were claiming that racism doesn’t exist, and to focus on it was in opposition to “real Gospel work.”
Holly: Why do you think the white church has struggled to be actively involved in justice work?
CW: In a 2019 interview with Graham Bensinger, Reverend Jesse Jackson was asked about his struggles in seminary prior to his successful ministry and activism career.
He shared that he had just arrived in Chicago from the south. Before attending school he was participating in civil rights activities which led to him being jailed twice. One afternoon he was in the library studying and saw Dr. Martin Luther King and his comrades being beaten in Selma, Alabama.
“I couldn’t take it anymore and I told my classmates if Jesus is real then we need to be down there!”
So he and his classmates left Chicago and headed south. Studying for the work instead of doing the work caused tremendous turmoil in his soul and a lot of times that’s the difference I’ve seen. One group of believers has the privilege to study, write, and talk about God’s Word, and the other has to rely on it for survival. I know that is a broad stroke because there are believers who aren’t Black who live out justice and mercy ministry in their work. The big question I internally ask is at what point will they get tired and stop. Because if you’re white, you have the privilege to step away.
Holly: I hear a lot of white Christians express sadness, lament, and anger over the injustices they are hearing about, but feel helpless. What do you think the white church can do to respond to the injustice in our country?
CW: I was on a call with a few other pastors and faith leaders last month. One pastor told a story that really stuck with me. During the 16th and 17th centuries when Africans were being sold into slavery, some were taken to a place on the coast called Elmina Castle. Right before they boarded the boats, they had to cross an area kno
wn as the “Door of No Return.” The door was an iron gate so narrow that people passed through one by one.
Slaves were then transported by rowboats to the main ship, where they were shackled to the floor by their arms and legs. At Elmina Castle, roughly 30,000 Africans walked through that door each year.
A church sat on the top of a cliff overlooking all that was happening and watched from a distance, profiting off the sales.
His reason in sharing that story was to challenge the American church today. Will she continue to watch from a distance and profit off the inequities…or, is she willing to come off the cliff and get messy?
Holly: Tell me more about what it means for the church to get messy?
CW: That’s a great and complex question to answer. At Sunshine we teach about the concept of Shalom. Shalom is peace and all creation flourishing. Sin has assaulted Shalom, and we can either be complicit in that reality or be just and merciful as we fight against it. Believers must pay attention to what’s happening in their (and other’s) communities. There are two key questions to consider; What are the injustices and disparities you’re seeing? Is anyone in the community doing anything to address these?
Many times, there’s already indigenous leaders that have been doing the hard work for years. Join them, support them and learn from them if they are willing to teach you. We also need to discuss the concept of reparations and repair to people groups who have been disenfranchised.
Holly: Yes! I think many people hear the term “reparations” and assume that means a check should be written to all African-Americans. What does it mean to you?
CW: Haha, yes, I think a lot of people assume it’s just a check written. I think that time period is over and too messy to sort out. To me, it’s layered, but boils down to ACCESS. In an interview with The Breakfast Club the late Nipsey Hussle was asked what he meant when he said he wants to see real reparations in one of his rap songs;
“Access man, we boxed out. Like cryptocurrency and technology. We’re underrepresented in technology. I just opened a co-working space in my neighborhood called Vector 90. Look at Facebook, you look at Google, all these billion dollar tech companies and look at their demographics and 9% at Facebook was the highest for Black people.”
Throughout history, inventions, intellectual property, housing, and opportunities were stripped from the Black community. Along with this stripping were tangibly disproportionate advantages allowed to other people groups who weren’t African American. I would love to see these practices stopped and righted. We can’t keep repeating the same cycles or think that those who have been generationally affected by them will just simply recover. Some might say I’m being Marxist or worldly in my thinking but I believe the Bible also affirms my line of thought. For example, in Luke 19, Zacchaes is changed by an encounter with Jesus. “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Zacchaes didn’t create the system he benefited from, but upon his encounter with Jesus and repentance, he made a promise to make reparations and fix the injustice he engaged in.
Additionally, Acts 2:42-47 focuses on a few key events that happen after the day of Pentecost. The believers who were diverse become one group of believers who;
These are the signs of changed and revived hearts. Number four is one we struggle to do as individuals in America. Majority culture in America typically doesn’t think as a collective, but thinks as individuals.
Lastly, Jesus made reparations for us. He sacrificed himself for us to have a right relationship with the Father. His death and resurrection repaired a broken relationship that we couldn’t fix on our own. Along the way to the cross he rights injustice by turning the temple upside down. He healed, fed, and taught those who were left out and taken advantage of. Honestly, Holly, this idea might be my next book. I have so many more thoughts and examples.
Holly: CW, there’s so much more to dive into on this topic! Thank you for taking time to start this conversation with me, and I look forward to our next conversation!
In our next blog post, CW and I will continue the conversation around the church’s response to racial injustice and we’ll dive into examples from Jesus’s life and the early church. We will discuss more examples in the Bible of how Jesus and the Apostles engaged in racial justice issues and examples of how it is being practiced by believers today. Stay tuned!
If you would like to discuss more with CW, please sign up for one of our online BridgeBuilders courses by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also purchase CW’s new book Catalyst here.