Podcast: A First Step toward Racial Reconciliation (Mark Vroegop)
This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
Lament as a First Step
In this episode, Mark Vroegop, author of Weep with Me: How Lament Opens the Door for Racial Reconciliation, discusses the challenge of racial reconciliation and how the biblical practice of lament offers Christians from different backgrounds a common language for productive, God-honoring conversation. He shares from his own experiences walking alongside and learning from minority culture Christians, recounts the time that God opened his eyes to his own blindness while sitting in the office of an African-American pastor, and offers a response to those who wonder if the evangelical church in America will ever make real progress on these issues.
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- Goal in Writing about Racial Reconciliation
- Personal Journey with Reconciliation
- Empathy and Lament as a Bridge
- Priorities in Racial Reconciliation
- Overcoming Fear of Being Misunderstood
- The Importance of Personal Relationships
- Civil Rights Vision Trips
- Comparing Experiences with Brothers and Sisters
- To the Person Skeptical of Progress
- Dangers and Pitfalls
- A Prayer for All Christians
Goal in Writing about Racial Reconciliation
Today we're going to talk about racial reconciliation and how the practice of lament can serve as a starting point for coming together as Christians, regardless of race or ethnicity. At the risk of stating the obvious, a thirty-minute conversation like this is not sufficient for this big, multi-faceted topic; nor is even a whole book, for that matter, but it is a start. Before getting into the details of what you're trying to do with your new book, can you spend a minute sharing about what your ultimate goal in writing was, especially in light of all the books that already exist about this issue. What are you hoping to contribute to the conversation?
Matt, that's a great introduction and in short, my hope from Weep with Me is to provide a tool for Christians that gives them a language that can help people in the midst of this conversation about racial reconciliation that, instead of tipping away from one another, can actually tip people towards one another. I don't think lament solves all the problems; but I do think it can be a helpful language that can then set the framework for additional conversations in unity in the context of the gospel.
So it's not necessarily about dictating the content of our conversations, dictating the perspective—the right opinion—to have about specific issues; you're trying to give people a tool, or a language, that helps us to then have the conversations together.
That's exactly right. I think the more that we understand the language of lament, it actually puts us in a position to understand one another, to give us a way that we can talk to God together, and in some cases, we can even get to deeper levels of honesty and transparency that we're even able to see where we see the world differently and then figure out what to do about it. I think that lament is a helpful language to help create a path for Christians to be able to walk together in a really broken world. There are few issues that reflect more brokenness of our culture than the issues connected to race.
Personal Journey with Reconciliation
I think maybe a helpful place to start—something that you lead with in your book—is recounting your own journey in reconciliation and how it started, you write, "with tears in an African-American pastor's office." So I wonder if you can walk us through what happened.
I'm happy to. It was a life-changing moment in a surprising way. For listeners who don't know me, I'm a white pastor with a Dutch heritage. My father was born in the Netherlands, and I grew up in western Michigan. In God's providence, I happened to be part of an admissions counseling team recruiting students to a Christian university, and part of my territory was Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was meeting with an African-American pastor, along with our Diversity Director, and our aim was to have a conversation about how we could recruit more students from his church into our university that was not ethnically diverse at all, but the university was taking some good steps. And so I started talking about that and this fairly well-known, leading African-American pastor listened to our pitch and I basically asked him, Why are we not able to get more of your students? And then he began to recount the various barriers that were in the way of his students even considering applying to our Christian university. And that argument triggered a familiar narrative—which all of us have, and it's not an intentional narrative for many of us—he basically recounted all of the reasons why his students couldn't apply, or wouldn't apply: generational poverty, educational disparities, etc. And that immediately created a triggered conversation where I then recounted my story of my grandfather and my father coming in the 1940s from the Netherlands—a pretty amazing American dream sort of story—and moving to western Michigan, finding employment, living the American dream. I recounted all of that and basically told him that America is filled with opportunities, and I challenged him, How can you say that your students have less opportunities than the majority of students who go to our university? And that's when he very gently, but methodically, began to dissect and help me to understand some of the flaws in that argument, and began to walk me through the ways in which my grandfather coming to United States in the 1940s as a white man had a different perspective and experience than his grandfather would have had in the 1940s. And he asked me just point blank, Do you think that your grandfather and my grandfather would have had the same opportunities? And suddenly it hit me: No. And I had never thought that. And that created a deep grief in me of how could I have never thought of that? And then the pastor said, And think what a difference that made. And for some reason—I wasn't struggling with white guilt—I just suddenly realized that I had never engaged in a conversation like this with someone who expressed it so articulately, nor had I considered all of the cultural background and dynamics that were involved. And I just began to weep. I was overcome with grief. My fellow person in the admissions department—the Diversity Director, an African American woman—looked at the pastor and said, What's happening here? And the pastor said, Our brother has just seen something he's never seen before. And he was right. And for some reason, that was a transformative moment for me that laid the foundation to be able to think through the fact that I need to really take a careful look at the historical lens of how I'm processing things, and then what does it mean to have my first step being this one of understanding and one of empathy? That set me on a journey that has always been there, and then in different contexts I've been able to explore that more deeply or differently. So that's where it all began, in God's providence.
You say that as you were sitting there talking to this African-American pastor, you began to weep. Why do you think it was that you were overcome with emotion in that moment, and why do you say it wasn't white guilt?
At that moment I suddenly realized that my quick response was based upon a limited perspective, and I grieved that I hadn't seen it from someone else's perspective. I wasn't feeling guilty because I was white, I wasn't even feeling guilty per se, I just felt terrible and was broken at my own arrogance. I was grieved, as well, at the grief that I saw in his heart as he communicated this to me, because he had obviously had lots of conversations like that before. And I was also with somebody from my university that I cared for and I realized I'm in their space having this conversation and I've not really ever thought what it's like to live in their world. That was just deeply troubling to me and sad. So I guess at one level I felt some level of repentance and remorse, not because of the color of my skin but rather because in my own sort of self-centeredness I had never really considered a more complex conversation about what's really going on here. And it really grieved me. I assumed that I knew what I knew about this topic and when I realized I didn't, the Lord just broke my heart over it. And some of it I think was just God in his providence, by the Spirit, helping me to see something that I'd never seen before.
Empathy and Lament as a Bridge
I'm struck that it sounds like what you're saying is that the grief that you experienced there was largely a result of you realizing that you lacked empathy for other people and their perspectives on that. How much empathy do you think is at the core of what you're aiming at with this idea for using lament as a bridge to reconciliation?
I think empathy is a critical piece. I don't think it's everything; but I do think that, for instance, when I'm counseling a husband who's married to a wife and she's got something traumatic in her past, his application of 1 Peter is to be sure he's living with his wife in an understanding way. He's got to understand what she's going through, and the way in which their marriage can be successful and can thrive is for a full understanding of entering into that grief along with her. And so part of my journey has been that as I started to write about lament, given our own experience, I started to see parallels between what it felt like when people were insensitive to us when our daughter died—how unprepared the church was to deal with grief in general—and when I began to become deeper unified and in relationship with minority brothers and sisters and I'd hear their pain as it relates to racial oriented issues, there was something within me that was like, I know this pain—not in this category—but I know what this is. And I began to realize there's actually some parallels here between lament and how it could be used as a tool for racial reconciliation. The other thing is I do think that where empathy falls in the order of the conversation is extremely important. If empathy is in the wrong place, it's super unhelpful and you are never able to move along in the conversation. So empathy isn't everything; but if it's not in the right place, it's really unhelpful.
What do you mean by that? Why is the order so important and what does that even mean?
Think of somebody who's dealing, just generally, with trauma or with great difficulties in terms of what their experience has been; if you hear their pain and then move to solution without really empathizing with them, you not only don't have the credibility to speak into their life but you additionally are going to give very shallow—or even unhelpful, even unbiblical advice—because you're answering the matter before you've heard the matter. And when it comes to things that are deeply troubling, part of hearing the matter is not just objectively understanding the facts. There's another layer where we actually need to see if we can't feel what they're feeling so we know how to interpret the facts. Sometimes facts alone are not the issue. Sometimes things that are scary—if you've never had a frightening experience, it makes no sense to you why they would be scared, because you've not had that experience. So objectively, it might not be scary; but for this person, because of what they've gone through, it one hundred percent certainly could be. So when I think about racial reconciliation, I think about it in a five-fold strategy: I want to look at what it means to love, to listen, to lament, to learn, and to leverage. And I think if lament isn't a part of that equation, you really don't have the ability to learn because you don't hear what you need to hear in a way that creates learning if you're not in it with the person in the midst of their grief. So in this way, it helps to tune the heart to really hear what the person is saying at a deeper level; not just objectively what's happened, but also that you're able to walk with them in the midst of their grief so you can really understand what's going on so you can walk together.
Priorities in Racial Reconciliation
So I wonder if we can take a little step back and think about the broader topic of racial reconciliation, particularly in the church and among Christians. Why should that be a priority for all Christians to not just know it's happening out there and not just, in theory, think it's a good idea; but to actively pursue in all the different ways that that might take a form in our own lives? What would be your case for why that should be a priority for each of us?
I think that gospel unity creates racial harmony. I think when you understand the gospel and understand what it does, that it should therefore, and has historically in the context of the Bible, led to racial harmony. So I think there's biblical reasons, there are historic reasons, and there are personal reasons. From a biblical standpoint, we see the end game in Revelation 7 of a vision of people from every tribe, nation, and tongue. (Rev. 7:9) So God's aim is the reconciliation not only of a people to himself but of a people collectively from all walks of life. So the beauty of the gospel is its application across ethnic, racial fault lines. We also see this in the New Testament church. Colossians 3 says, “here there is not Greek and Jew . . . slave or free but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11). And we see this in the book of Acts with the church at Antioch, which was really the first multi-cultural expression of the church. Isn't it interesting that it's in Antioch, which was a segregated city when it was built, dividing people up into various ethnicities? This is the first place that people were actually called "Christians". Part of the reason, I think, is because the world had no category for this group of people. What are they? They're not Jews and they're not Gentiles—well, they are, but they're all hanging out together, they're worshipping together. What do we call these people? They needed a new category and the reason is because the gospel creates an identity that gets underneath all other identities. And I think this then both theologically is true, but then historically and culturally creates an amazing platform for the gospel in the context of the church. As people in our culture, when this works, look at the church and ask the question, What in the world? This issue divides people all day long in our society, but here's a body of people who you actually love one another across lines that create enormous divisions in our culture. It begs the question then, Why? And the answer is, because there's an identity underneath all other identities. It's the identity of what it means to be in Christ. I think that's a really, really important position that the church needs to embrace and to platform the gospel. I also think it's important for the church and why it's a priority for Christians because, just frankly, this has not been the story of the church in the history of the United States. And so we just need to reckon with the fact that there's a lot of pain and a lot of mistakes that have been made. I think it's incumbent on those of us who are part of the majority culture to lead the way, because the black church has experienced an enormous amount of rejection from the white church. I think there's been a lack of understanding, a lack of ownership, and even silence when it comes to this issue on the part of folks who look like me historically. And so I think it's an important thing for us to step into because of both biblical, historical, and personal reasons. Gospel unity creates racial harmony, and I think it's an important thing for us to wrestle with, as painful and as hard as it is.
Overcoming Fear of Being Misunderstood
What would you say to those listening right now who are white and who maybe feel a certain amount of fear or anxiety about the idea of engaging with this, because they're afraid of maybe being misunderstood or judged or saying the wrong thing, making a mistake—what word of encouragement would you offer to that person?
I think that's a legitimate and understandable concern. I think we have to consider what particular issue that we're most concerned about. If we're worried about being misunderstood by other people who look like us, I think we just have to ask and wrestle with the question, To what extent is God calling me to enter into this conversation, even though it's maybe culturally painful in the circles that I live? Part of the reason why this conversation hasn't moved forward as it should is for that very reason—that this is an easy conversation to ignore and to write off because there are consequences connected with it. If you want to see the brokenness of the world, just start talking about this and it just comes out like crazy. If, on the other hand, it's a concern of I don't want to offend my minority brothers and sisters. I certainly appreciate that heart, and you ought to have that perspective. I have found though that our minority brothers and sisters, in the context of relationship, are really grateful that majority-culture Christians are willing to step into this space and are willing to grant forgiveness when we make mistakes; but they're weary of a guardedness, or an unwillingness, to go there. I've made so many mistakes in these conversations and I've given up inside my soul so many times because of how hard it is. And yet at the same time, I've seen the grace of what it is to—in the context of relationship, in the framework of the body of Christ, with people who both love Jesus—to say, Look, I don't understand this; but can you help me and can I ask you a really uncomfortable question? And hopefully your relationship capital is enough that you could be able to ask those questions. And I think it's worth the journey. I think it's worth the cost. I think it's an important thing for us to lean into, not lean away from, because again, the historical pattern of the church has been to lean away from this issue, not to lean into it. I think that's part of the problem.
The Importance of Personal Relationships
Hearing you talk about the the importance of the relational component and the relational capital that can help sustain these conversations and allow friendships to endure through them, it makes me think that so often it seems like these conversations are happening online or in a very public forum where we're on the sidelines watching and not participating—or if we are participating, it's devoid of relationship. Have you seen that dynamic, and does that inform how you think about this issue? Are you intentionally seeking out personal relationships and having that be the main place that you're getting your cues as to how to go about having these conversations?
The personal relationships are essential. That's sort of the base camp, if you will, of having this conversation. You can't study this at a distance and do it well; you need a friend—a brother—who, frankly, is a friend or a brother, not your diversity consultant. You need somebody who you love because you love them in Christ, and that your love for them is so great that you're actually able to have a conversation about things that you see differently, or your different experiences, and things of that sort. So the huge risk would be if somebody is not willing to invest relationally in a brother or sister who's different than them, who's felt the looming clouds of otherness, who has been in a church where they've felt like they're an outsider and an exile. Those relationships are not only essential for the conversation but they're also part of the grace of entering into this space as you're able to both learn from one another and bring some level of healing. Lament is the key language that helps to express, Brother, I love you and I'm with you. I don't understand, but I am going to grieve with you. In fact, just this morning I sent a text to an African-American brother over something that I saw on the news and I just said, Hey man, I am grieving, I am hurting, and I just want you to know I am lamenting with you over what I'm seeing. I just want him to know that this isn't just a news thing, and I don't even know all the facts; but what I know is how this is going to land on him, because I know him and I love him and all of his family. And so those relationship pieces are super critical. And then I think there's also other learning to do through reading, listening to podcasts. I'm an advocate for pilgrimages where you're actually going into the space where some of these historical events in our country have happened. But again, that relationship piece is ground zero, which is why I think the church is so important because the church is the combination of both theology and relationships—who we are in Christ and whom I related to—it's both Christ and community. What better place to try and address this issue than in the context of the body of Christ?
Civil Rights Vision Trips
I want to return to that issue of the church being the central place for racial reconciliation to actually happen, but you mentioned that you've been a part of some of these civil rights vision trips. Can explain what those are and the impact they've had on your own thinking about this issue?
A couple of years ago we took fifty leaders on a five-day trip down to Birmingham and Montgomery and Selma and Memphis. Two-thirds of the bus was white, one-third was black. Our goal was to experience this issue historically and personally. We called it a "Civil Rights Trip", but you could actually think about it as a pilgrimage. The goal was for us to be in the space where these events happened so we could understand them, so we could feel them, so we could interpret them, and so we could walk with other people together. Again, it's a beautiful relationship moment, but it's also really traumatic. When you're stepping out into a cotton field and you're looking at a field that's white, your background informs what you see in that moment. It surfaces a lot of emotions for some, and an accidental insensitivity on the part of others. You can't explain that unless you're there—you can't even experience it. We do global vision trips all the time because if people could be in the area of an unreached people group, they then would have a renewed passion because they've seen, they've experienced, it gets into their heart—it gets massaged into them. We have done two of these trips now with just about one hundred leaders and, in the context of relationship, we lament together, we have meals together, we laugh, we cry. It's just a beautiful, traumatic experience of trying to help us understand what's the background, what's the history, and then what's your experience? It changes the ability to have conversations, it informs the kind of conversations that we have on those trips and also in the weeks that follow as people come back into our church. We have found them to be super helpful and they are just one part of an overall strategy for trying to speak into this issue and to learn together.
Comparing Experiences with Brothers and Sisters
If you were to summarize your experience of those trips and the feelings that you often had, or the perspective that you often had, compared to that of a African American brother or a sister who is there with you, how would you summarize the differences that you think each of you had in terms of how you experienced that?
I'll speak for me clearly, and I'll speak tentatively for my black brothers and sisters. For me, one of the challenging pieces is just walking through that history and realizing, I didn't know this. How did I not know this? How is this not a part of my experience? And just really wrestling with Why is that the case?, and then learning various layers of pain that are there historically and culturally. And then also wrestling personally with What if I was alive during this time and era, what would my response have been? And then What's my response now, and what are the parallels between history and today? History tends to repeat itself, and so just kind of wrestling with those really big picture questions. For my black brothers and sisters in particular, the Civil Rights Trip can be very traumatic because they're rehearsing their own experience overlaid in the context of history. In one respect it can be overwhelmingly discouraging because it would feel at times as though nothing has changed. And yet the other side of the equation can be encouraging because here is this little bus with these people who they're in relationship with and they are trying—trying to work together. So it can be super hopeful, but there's a guarded hopefulness because of the extent of their historical pain. And then the more you're in relationship, the more you hear about the deeper layers of pain. That's both a good and therapeutic and spiritual experience, but it can also be really painful as you're suddenly realizing Wow. There is a lot more here than what I thought there was at first.
To the Person Skeptical of Progress
So returning to the idea of the church being this perfect place, in theory, where we can pursue racial reconciliation, Martin Luther King Jr. has this famous quote that we have probably all heard before: "The most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday." And yet you also quote from John Perkins—the well-known African American minister and Civil Rights activist—who has a famous quote about the church as well. He writes, "There is no institution more equipped and capable of bringing transformation to the cause of reconciliation than the church. But we have some hard work to do." What would you say to the person who feels pretty skeptical that the church is going to make much progress on this stuff anytime soon in light of the history that we have in front of us in America—what do you say to that person?
Well, I'm fearful they might be right, which is why I am leaning into this and why I'm writing the book because here's what human beings do—and we've always done this—we like to hang out with people who are the same as us. We tip towards homogeneous groups of people. If you want to grow a church, the fastest way to grow it is to find a particular subset of population and design everything towards what that particular group of people likes or wants. If you want to have a problem, just try and get two groups of people together who don't see eye to eye and then try and do church that way. But at the same time, that's the miracle of the gospel: it is that the thing underneath all of them is their unity and Christ, such that that they're able to think differently about their differences and they can understand how to put those in different rank order. I think that the church is the only institution, frankly, who has the greatest chance at being able to bring about reconciliation because I think the church has the most substantial identity underneath all other identities. I think our problem and the reason why the church is still the most segregated hour, at least in America and probably elsewhere, is that our value of that identity underneath all identities is not as preeminent in our minds and our affections as other identities. We have more emotional connection to musical style identity, or church style identity, or preaching style identity, or political ideology identity. Those are the tribes that we form around and as a result, the church can be fractured on so many lines. The racial one happens to be extremely painful and emotional; and yet, if the church could understand our common identity in Christ, which then results in racial harmony, I actually think some really great progress would be made. But it also means that I have to be okay with not living in a homogeneous culture. So a multi-ethnic church can't mean I can invite people of different ethnicities to come to my church but they have to get used to doing church my way—they have to assimilate into my culture. Every church has its own culture and every ethnicity has its own culture. Instead we need to realize I need to allow my dinner table, my thinking, my church, the environments that I'm in to be a welcoming place to people who don't have the same perspective and experiences I do. That's very uncomfortable.
Dangers and Pitfalls
So I wonder if you could speak to specific dangers that you have observed—whether yourself or in conversations you've had or conversations that you've been a part of—for both sides—majority and minority-culture Christians—that you think would be wise to be aware of. So maybe speak first to majority-culture Christians—what dangers, or pitfalls, should they be particularly aware of?
I think for majority-culture Christians it's the danger of not having this conversation in the context of relationship. You really can't study this issue and look at it well without having a friend, someone who you're doing life with, and someone who you're doing life with not just on this topic. So that's really important that we're having the conversation in the context of relationship and in friendship. I think the other thing is for majority culture to just realize that our bandwidth of our experience usually informs how we see things. And because of that experience it almost feels arguable. And so part of the key is to get beyond our narrower experience that we've had and to think through and learn about the experience of others. That's usually not intentional, but it's typically there. The one thing that I've seen the most from folks who look like me who get into this conversation is they just are stunned: How did I not know about this? How can I be living in this very community and I don't know that this is going on? How did that happen? I think on the minority culture—and I want to be really careful here because I don't feel like I have full credibility to give a lot of advice or input—pastorally, I think that one of the dangers is coming to the conversation with a person who maybe represents difficulties and problems and pain in the past, but they've not actually been a part of it. As a result, you come into that conversation with an additional level of not just trying to win the argument but that you have to really go after somebody in order to try and change how they're thinking. I'm not suggesting that you should placate people who have unbiblical and racist views, but I do think that historical hurts can create a bias towards immediate triggers that are hard to manage. And that's a challenge. I think lament is a helpful language for those folks in how to deal with that internal frustration that, in some cases, is very legitimate, but just needs great wisdom in how that's applied. And then also some in the minority community are trying to figure out how to endure when they just have to have conversation after conversation after conversation. In some cases brothers and sisters need more endurance. In some cases they need a little bit of a sabbath and we need to be okay with that. They need somebody else to take the mantle of this for a little bit because of how challenging and painful it has become. So again, it's just so many layers and so many difficulties. The key is, what's the gospel, who am I in relationship with, and how is this identity underneath all identities so important? Majority and minority cultures come at that very issue from different places, but realizing who I am in Christ is a foundational starting point of value, of worth, and a platform upon which we can build reconciliation conversations.
A Prayer for All Christians
Well maybe as a last couple of questions, what's your prayer for majority-culture Christians who read your book? If you had to boil it down to one hope, one prayer for them, What would it be?
I have the same prayer for both—majority and minority groups—but with a different application. My hope is that they would learn to lament—let's talk about majority-culture first—would learn to lament so that that language would be helpful for them as they engage in the conversation—and here's the difference—so that their first step would be one of empathy and understanding and one of grace. And then we can get to other points of disagreement or discussions. So that their first step will be empathy. And as it relates to minority culture, my hope is that they will learn to lament. In many cases, it's interesting, even historically the black church knows how to lament. African American Spirituals is the most well-known lament form of musical language in American history. As I've talked with my black brothers sisters about lament, they're just like Wow, this actually explains what's been going on in my life or my family background for so many years. I hope that they'll see how lament, as a historical language and a biblical language, can actually help them in this conversation so that they'll be able to talk to God about their hurts, so that they can stay in the conversation because of how hard and painful it is. So again, I'm trying to bring both groups to not solve the problem—I think it's too big of a problem to solve with something like lament—I'm just trying to give a language that helps to get people in the same room, or to tip them toward one another, so that there's a chance for reconciliation to happen.
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