Communities of Reconciliation
Lessons from a "new school" of racial healing
by Rodolpho Carrasco
In Sojourners Magazine's 1998 Resource on Race
(Rodolpho Carrasco is associate director of Harambee Christian Family Center in Pasadena, Calif. and a columnist for the San Gabriel Valley Newspaper Group. Check out more articles by Rodolpho Carrasco here.)
I was at a meeting of pastors and lay Christian leaders, strategizing for community outreach, when an African American activist stood up and denounced our weak efforts at meeting the needs of the community. The activist had been invited by a pastor in the group, and I didn't know if he was a Christian, but I do know that what he said smacked of an old-school guilt politics that isn't going down anymore.
It was odd to sit with a group of pastors, most of whom are black, and hear this man give a speech right out of another decade. We need jobs! We need a voice in city hall! The politicians aren't doing anything! Racism! Discrimination! Redlining! It was practically a history course in urban politics. It also fell on deaf ears, my own included. It's not that he was saying something far out. In fact, much of what he said was true then and remains true today. But what bugged everybody was the way he said it. Our clergy group is a mixed-race gathering of people who decided that our road to racial reconciliation would pas through personal relationship first, not through common agenda.
This man's first mistake was not thinking that we already knew and agreed with the issues he was raising. His second mistake was thinking that anger and blaming politics would motivate us. What it did was turn us off.
What turned me off the most was how out of touch this guy was with the multiethnic nature of Los Angeles. He talked about blacks and white-a bold and incredulous thing to do, given the racial demographics of the city. Even those who only give lip-service to multiethnicity know that there is something beyond black and white in LA, even if they don't know what to call it. It is also well known that the solutions for Los Angeles will be the solutions that benefit Angelenos of all races.
The members of my coalition listened to this gentlemen and spoke with him about his issues over lunch. In a gentle manner, we shared with him the values of our group and explained why we believe a foundation of cross-racial, reconciled relationships is our best hope for dealing with the problems in our civic areas. We were gentle, but we were firm. When this man concluded the meeting by reiterating his stance that churches weren't really going to do anything, the members of the coalition invited him to see for himself by attending the church. We received him with open arms, and were seeking to convert him, in more ways than one.
This story is an example of the type of old-school vs. new-school thinking that is going on regarding racial reconciliation. The questions asked by the "new school" are :What is there beyond blame and guilt? What is there beyond building one-on-one relationships with people of another race? What is there beyond history lessons, visiting other culture and pulpit exchanges?
The way my coalition responded to this gentlemen made me feel hopeful about racial reconciliation and privileged to be involved with a group of black, white, and Latino pastors who are very forward thinking. They looked me as a brother in Christ and as a Latino, and they have the patience to get to know me as an individual and be concerned about the things that concern me; just as I have been making an effort to understand black and white issues. Now what I have is incredible: Pastoral colleagues who want to be reconciled to me, who want to know Latino history and culture, who are willing to let their culture be changed so that they can be united with me.
It is because of the experiences we have had forging community that I feel hopeful about racial reconciliation. Community for me takes the form of three concentric circles. The outermost circle is Harambee Christian Family Center. For 15 years, Harambee has employed a vision of racial reconciliation and community development. The next circle is Northwest Fellowship. Four years ago, a group within Harambee created a worshipping body for neighborhood people and those ministering in the neighborhood. My inmost circle is Bethel Esperanza. Three years ago, a group of four from Northwest Fellowship chose to live together as an intentional community, with a fifth person joining the following year. "Bethel Esperanza" means there is hope in the house of God.
All three groups are community-based and their members all live in the community we serve. As the racial components of all three community circles develop. it is interesting to see us enter a new round of changes together.
Harambee Christian Family Center
Historically, Harambee has been identified as an outreach program to black in our community and as a place to learn about reconciliation between blacks and whites-as were the other two ministries John Perkins started in Mississippi. In 1998, our community is half black and half Latino. But reshaping our ministry doesn't necessarily mean printing everything in Spanish and English and holding joint classes.
We have seen in many community and youth centers throughout Los Angeles that Latinos and blacks do not tend to co-exist. If one group starts attending the center, the other is likely to leave. Because of linguistic and cultural issues, there are perceptions that a center is either "black" or "Latino". Our goal is to build a center that fosters reconciled Christians who are working for the good of all races and cognizant of racial complexities.
Once, with a group of mostly African-American people from my church, I attended a service in Compton. All rap songs and videos to the contrary, the population of Compton is actually half Latino. After the service, our teen-agers were milling around the church parking lot when two Latino teen-agers across the street began cursing them and calling them the N-word. Our black youth were hurt and frustrated, but spoke little about the incident.
Two days later I talked to one black youth about what happened. I told him that since he is a Christian, I am for him and his family first, and that I would side with someone based on whether or not they are Christian, not whether or not they are Mexican. That short speech was pro-active peacemaking because of what was unsaid: The youth spoke to was known for his own subtle hostility toward Mexicans. My prayer, and my investment, is that the encouragement of one Mexican will help this young person believe that Christianity is stronger than race, and strong enough to heal with hurt and keep him from turning around in revenge and hurting others.
At Harambee, we have some basic requirements. First you will learn the Bible. We will get to know your parents. And growing as Christian means you love and build partnerships with people of other races. This strategy tends to keep our numbers down. What we have is a ministry where the participants and followers are learning from the Bible about God's heart for reconciled relationships.
Also, at Harambee we have adapted a unique type of affirmative action that draws in the friends and family members of children we serve. Even though our program is full at 85 percent black and 15 percent Latino, if a Latino child and his or her parents want to register, and they are close friends or related to an existing Harambee student, we will let them in. We do this because our influence toward reconciliation is much greater with people who are closely connected, and because it is the Latino youth who are actually doing the greatest amount of the teaching.
One of the things about our church is that despite the number of interracial marriages, a strong mix of poor and middle-class people, and the predominance of younger (Gen. X) folks-for years, I was the only Latino member. It was difficult for me, because our ministry was focused on issues between blacks and white and reaching out to the black community.
But I am not white. I am Latino, and I could see tremendous needs in our community among Latino families. Why couldn't anybody else? So many times I wanted to stand up in church and say we needed to reach Latinos. But I didn't, because I was concerned that people would reach out to Latinos only after I had made them feel guilty, not one they sensed God's spirit moving in their hearts.
This has gone on for seven years. When I first arrived at Harambee, the emphasis and historical understanding was about blacks. The consciousness of Latino needs and issues wasn't there. Some said that I was brought on as a Latino to minister to Latinos-but I reject that thought. The church is in a certain place to minister to that place. Yes, I may be equipped to reach the people in their neighborhood-not just the responsibility of "the Latino department" to reach Latinos. So I rejected the Latino ministry label, waiting for the day the entire church of Northwest Fellowship and the ministry of Harambee would have its heart turned to the entire community.
Slowly, layer by layer God has done something; not just for me, but for my various concentric circles of community. For me personally, God gave me a beautiful black wife Kafi, who is simultaneously black and burdened for Latinos-and proud of both. She understood from day one my self identity as a Christian and as a Latino, and that both were acceptable and not mutually exclusive.
It's interesting position to be in, to be concerned for blacks and also to have a strong concern for Latinos. Most whites I know have a though about how they can help the "other", which for them means black people. I see this happen in the city of Los Angeles, where the black population is one million, but the Latino population is four million. Still, I've hated to toot the horn of Latino need.
What God has done in my community is to cause people to grow in love for Latinos. I have spent a good portion of my life serving the black Christian community and black people. Perhaps in return, God is sending a wave of people who are reaching Latinos. Even more, God is sending partners who share the concern for reaching both blacks and Latinos. Now I think it's been food that I have labored in the black community. There is a foundation of trust for Mexican Americans, because I, a Mexican, have by God's spirit demonstrated love to blacks.
I have tightly bonded with four other people: my wife; Anne Berry: and Derek Perkins and Karyn Farrar-Perkins. It's something to see the heavy influx of Latinos into the area where we live. and we wonder how it is going to work out. Both Anne and I came out of college in 1990 and went to work for John Perkins, me in Pasadena, and Anne in Mississippi. We had known all along that our outreach was not just directed towards blacks, but that we are in a black cultural milieu. I rarely like to muscle in a concern or try to make people feel guilty, but I did wonder how Latino concerns would play out.
The other members of Bethel Esperanza, as my yokefellows, have decided to be concerned with the things that I am concerned about. They chose to bear my burden. There has been growth in the was they think about and support Latino ministry, and that has made me feel cared for. Together, we have grown to think about all of the issues of our community, and we have found that there is much more going on than just black and white.
1. What is your response to Carrasco's distinction between "old school vs. new school thinking" in the discourse about racism? How effective is your approach to a new conversation on race? How can we take account of the anger and frustration of the past and present while still moving forward toward solutions, forgiveness, and relationship?
2. How do you react to Carrascos's sense of limitation when pigeon-holed into working with the issues and concerns of his ethnicity? What do individuals bring to their own racial community that an "outsider" could not? What might a person offer to racial communities outside of their own?
3. Carrasco's community consists of concentric circles of growth, support, and respect for human differences. Are there comparable situations within your worship community? How have they impacted you? Spend some time brainstorming how you might implement a process of community building within your sphere of influence.
The copyright for these materials are owned by Rudy Carrasco. These materials were used with permission by TechMission