How the Black Church Shaped this Jewish Christian

February 8th, 2022

“You should come visit our church some Sunday,” Mary said on her way out the door with the rest of the choir. It was Martin Luther King Jr Day, and the choir of Scott United Methodist Church had come to the Iliff School of Theology to host a worship service for the students and staff. I was a thirty-year old student there, and a Jewish-Christian. “Thank you. I believe I will,” I responded, thrilled with the invite. I had always wanted to attend a Black church service, even as a kid. From the outside looking in, it seemed so lively, so interesting, so passionate. Little did I know how the Black church would shape this Jewish-Christian.

I was born and raised Jewish. Before I came to know Jesus at the age of twenty-eight, my grandmother took me on a college graduation trip to Israel. For the first time, at the age of twenty-four, I finally experienced the carefree feeling of being in the majority. Surrounded by other Jews in Israel, fear and guardedness fell away, shrugged off like a coat in warm weather—simply unnecessary. With a sigh of relief, I melted into the multihued, multilingual, diverse society I found there. To be sure, there are distinctions in Israeli society based on one’s degree of religiosity. The size and shape of male head coverings carries a whole calculus of meaning. Round fur hats, small knit yarmulkes, and 1940s style hats each carry a coded message about the kind of Jew who wears it and the norms of their religious observance. I think I was too relieved to notice any of that at the time. I simply drank in the fact that being Jewish was acceptable.

I sensed a similar ease when I first walked into Scott United Methodist Church, a week after Mary’s invitation to me. I joined the well-dressed stream of African Americans who entered the church for Sunday morning worship. Although I wasn’t Black, I got what it was to move from minority to majority status simply by walking into a building. It was a move from “other” to “us,” from being an object of suspicion to being an honored individual, from feeling guarded to breathing easily. Personally, it was an interesting juxtaposition to be in the minority among minorities. Somehow it increased my sense of safety.

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After that first Sunday, I trooped off to Scott UMC for the following five Sundays. The people were warm and welcoming. The music was inspiring. The choir was fabulous. The preacher was enthusiastic and kind. The congregation was responsive: “Amen!” and “Preach it!” could be heard throughout the sanctuary. On the sixth Sunday, I joined the church. Six months later, I started my Advanced Field Education placement there, and was invited to be the Associate Pastor.

When I first moved into a leadership position at Scott United Methodist Church, I was the first non-African American pastor in the church’s history. It caused some waves. At first, I thought they were ripples. That was due only to the politeness of the people; they were protecting me from what must have felt like internal storm surges.

One African American seminary professor who also worshipped at Scott UMC called me in to her office at the seminary and asked, “What are you doing at this church, really?” She wanted to make sure I understood the white privilege I carried, even as a Jewish-Christian, and the delicate balances of power it affected; it had taken African Americans a long time to get to where they were. Much as I didn’t see myself as White, I understood the privilege she spoke of. In applying privilege to my own religious experience, I could imagine how the Jewish community would feel about a Gentile stepping into a leadership role: unsure, ill at ease, suspicious at the very least. But what drew me in to Scott UMC wasn’t a desire to usurp power; it was a desire to share it. At the same time I joined Scott UMC, I was taking seriously the call I heard again and again during my seminary coursework: step over the lines that fear has drawn. Be open, in the spirit of Jesus, to radical love of the other.

Some people threatened to leave the church if I stayed; a few actually did. Many more embraced me. The Black pastor who had invited me to be his associate pastor stood toe-to-toe with the concerns being expressed. His courageous stand made a space for all of us to work through our differences. In the beginning, none of us would have said, out loud anyway, that we were prejudiced or racist. Or that we saw ourselves as better or worse than the other. But we all, I suspect, had hidden layers of fear, mistrust, anger, and stereotypes to come to terms with. In the end love prevailed, buoyed by prayer and many a long talk. When I left that church five years later to go to my next appointment, it was as an honored member of the family.

Excitement and engagement brought me to the church. Welcome and gracious hospitality kept me there. During my five years there, we overturned idols together, wrestled through stereotypes, and named fears. In the beginning, none of us knew how it would turn out. It might have led to a church split. Or worse. But, when we gave ourselves the space to engage our hidden fears, we were instead blessed. I have carried that blessing with me, as a treasure, into the rest of my life and ministry.

Recently a Black friend confessed to me that she had first mistaken me for a “Karen,” an entitled white woman who is passive-aggressive toward Blacks, someone not to be trusted. As she got to know me, she came to realize I was cool, not a threat. Our conversation was warm, vulnerable, revelatory. It reminded me that the work of getting to know each other as people, of moving beyond stereotypes, is never done.

In the US, we are born into inherited assumptions about race, color, ethnicity, and identity.  It is our work to notice and name the assumptions, then move beyond them, to create something brand new. To find and carry the treasure of blessing that comes from truly breaking through fear into God’s kingdom of love.

If your congregation is stuck in their assumptions, I invite you to join me for my upcoming workshop, Jesus-Sized Dreams for Small-Sized Churches, where you’ll learn how to create and live out your Jesus-sized dreams.

Excerpted and adapted from The Jew Named Jesus: Discover the Man and His Message (Abingdon Press, 2013.)

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