Dear Church, We are called to be reconcilers

Dear Church,

You don’t have to do racial reconciliation alone. There’s a whole community ready, willing, and waiting for you to lead us through healing from the deep wounds we all have from institutionalized and systemic inequity. As co-leaders for National Community Church’s Racial Reconciliation small group, we have seen the power of a Christ-centered racial reconciliation process. We follow Latasha Morrison’s Be The Bridge curriculum, and the way God has moved through the group to create healing has been heartbreakingly beautiful. We wanted to take this opportunity to talk more about why we have a heart for racial reconciliation, the challenges for having racial reconciliation conversations in the Church, why Be The Bridge was the solution for us, and what people can learn from our small group. 

First, a little more about us. Jahera Otieno grew up in Boston and moved to Washington, D.C. to start her career in international development. Maria Crossman moved from Washington state to Washington, D.C. to go to grad school and is currently transitioning her career to diversity, equity, and inclusion opportunities. 

We first met in a women’s leadership small group. As an icebreaker, Jahera was asked to share who was a leader she looked up to and why. In response, Jahera shared Latasha Morrison’s leadership story and mission focused on racial reconciliation. Maria was immediately interested in learning more about Latasha’s work and by the end of the small group, several months later, asked Jahera if she would be interested in co-leading a Be The Bridge group together. Jahera initially said, “No,” but after a few weeks reached out to Maria with a “Yes.” We spent the next 6 months building our relationship and praying and preparing for leading this group. We wanted to be very intentional about how we stepped into this space which required us to be thoughtful about how we would lead with truth and grace.

Question: Why racial reconciliation?

Scriptures say in 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”

Proverbs 21:15 says, “When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers.”

Jahera: I was drawn into this space after first hearing Latasha Morrison, founder of Be the Bridge, speak.  Hearing her heart for this work broke mine. For most of my life, I have been in spaces where I am often the only person of color and her words pushed me to acknowledge and allowed me to start processing what that has meant, felt, and done to me. I desire to be my truest self in spaces of faith, and I don’t know if I’ve always been able to do that.  My own faith journey has been one where I have never felt truly comfortable in the black church. While I find connection to God in white faith communities, I’m often one of a few persons of color in the congregation, leaving me feeling isolated and uncomfortable. I remember when I first moved to DC, I visited a church that was recommended by two close friends from college.  I walked in and immediately noticed there were no black people. While I enjoyed the sermon, I just felt alone. I don’t think I was really able to acknowledge this hurt and pain until I heard Latasha’s words. When hearing her talk, there is such truth when she speaks about racial reconciliation that it always breaks my heart. There really is a need for some deep healing around this, starting with me. “Why is the church so segregated? Why is it that if I don’t want to go to a traditional black church, I’m not accepted? Why is it that if I go to a white church, I’m not accepted? Why do I never feel like I belong?” are all questions I’ve wrestled with by myself.  

Maria: I mean, why not racial reconciliation!? From a young age, I have noticed how my heart bleeds for justice. I was often the kid sticking up for the person being bullied or took notice when someone was being treated differently for any reason. Of course, at that time I didn’t understand how racial inequity was institutionalized into our systems, policies, behaviors, and biases. I was often the most heartbroken when I saw this behavior coming from the Church. In my youth, I would ask if perhaps some of the church communities I was surrounded by had the same version of the Bible. I could not grasp how a community of faith could treat an individual or group so poorly based on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or sexuality. It led me to leave the Church, but not the Lord, for over a decade. As I have gotten older, my heart for justice hasn’t changed much, but my understanding that reconciliation is a key part of it has. As a white woman, I have learned over time how institutionalized discrimination has become part of and how white supremacy has embedded itself into our culture. Discovering that because of my own biases and ignorance of the structures meant to keep inequity in place I would be part of the problem, I started to do the work of learning how to change the systems rather than uphold them. 

Question: Why is it a challenge having conversations about reconciliation in the Church?

JAMES 4:8–10 says, “Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty, is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor.”

Maria: I don’t think there is any one answer to this question, but part of the difficulty of having these conversations around reconciliation in the Church is because there is a genuine fear around it.  People, mostly white people, are afraid of saying, doing, or thinking the wrong thing and that fear keeps us from even wanting to engage in the conversation. If you follow social media, you get the sense there’s no room for mistakes in these conversations. For the majority white community I grew up in, similar to most white communities and some communities of color, we never had a conversation about race. In fact, we were taught not to talk about it because it was impolite. So we grew up without the ability to even have a conversation, let alone really understand the complexities of the conversation. I also think there’s a fear of change, uncovering our own unconscious biases, and how these biases define our self-worth and identity. If the perception I have of myself is wrapped up in being unbiased or not racist, these conversations have the potential to shake my identity. Being part of racial reconciliation requires a lot of hard work, humility, and willingness to change. I also think sometimes there’s this perception that the healing is strictly for communities of color, but this healing is for everyone. 

Jahera: Conversations about race, equity and inclusion are hard, period. They make us uncomfortable and feel isolated and wrong and unheard. I also think that when having conversations like this, faith complicates it. For myself, as a person of color, entering into these conversations is often scary and unwelcoming because my voice is of opposition and challenge. My voice and story may not always be heard and that is hard and frustrating. I have to lead by example and stand in those spaces of discomfort and judgement alone.  Of course, if you love Jesus, you’re not racist. But that isn’t always true. It says in Romans 12,“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.” We are called to love each other and that is hard. The Church has the opportunity to create safe spaces for us to listen and hear and to love. It is time for us to speak truthfully and allow healing to happen. People and communities of faith should lead these conversations.  

Question: Why was the Be The Bridge curriculum the right answer for you?

Jahera: It’s a practical and approachable way to have these conversations. It has allowed our group to find healing both in our conversations around race and outside conversations around race. We carry so much hurt that is unspoken, that tears us down, and this group has helped to create a space for us to seek healing. The curriculum has beautifully allowed us to pour in these women (and them into us) and have conversations around race(but also centered around other parts of our lives). How we think about forgiveness. How we experience race and find truth. And, most importantly, how we find healing there. I have found this group to be a beautiful reflection of Christ. There’s such honesty in the group that is precious.  We all put in the work equally and are cared for with love.  

Maria: Jahera talked about this, but I really love Latasha’s approach and how she frames racial reconciliation.  She provides practical reconciliation tools and steps that are Christ-centered. Having it being faith-centered is really important to me.  I also appreciate that her curriculum comes from a woman of color who has also been in church leadership and has experienced first hand how the Church can hinder or help racial reconciliation. Latasha has a lot of great experience serving in churches and seeing how churches have great intentions but don’t know how to get there. She saw that there was a need for churches to fill a gap in how they could be serving their congregations and communities better. Latasha does racial reconciliation in such a loving way. She asks you to come in with a heart for change while also being your authentic self.  

Question: What do you think the Church can learn from our group?

Maria: If the Church can figure out how to heal this hurt around race, discrimination, and equity, the amount of healing the Church can offer communities is endless. I don’t know if it takes as much as people are afraid of it taking.  I think people, specifically white people, feel like they need to be overly prepared to participate in these conversations. But there is a lot to be said if you come into the space and take a posture of humility and a true desire for healing.  If that is the center of these conversations, people are really open to having them. We found that we were able to create connections and vulnerability very early on in the small group. People are aching for a safe space to have these conversations.  The Church can and really should be that place for everyone. It just takes commitment to keep showing up and doing the work. 

Jahera: I think the Church needs to acknowledge these conversations are necessary and important.  Even though we all love christ, how that looks is different for each of us. How we interact with faith is different based on our race, gender, etc. The Church can learn to celebrate communities of color. The church can lead with empathy and create an environment where all people feel welcomed and included. 

Our Call to Action

Found in 2 Corinthians 5:14–21, “Either way, Christ’s love controls us. Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life. He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them.

So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! 

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.”

Because Christ died, we are reconciled to God. He loved us so much, desired to be in community with us that he sent his Son. We are called to be reconcilers. We are called to show and share His love to all of His creation. I hope that our hearts have spoken to yours.  

In Community,

Jahera and Maria

Jahera Otieno and Maria Crossman co-lead National Community Church’s Racial Reconciliation Small Group. Maria grew up on Spokane, WA and spent 10 years in Seattle before moving to DC 9 years ago where she has spent 8 years of that time doing international development.  Jahera, originally from Boston moved to DC in 2009 and works in global health. Jahera and Maria are bridge builders in their personal, church, and work communities. Above all, they are reconcilers.