Anemia

This week’s blog is cross-posted in the Stillspeaking Weekly, a series designed with pastors, lay leaders and committees in mind, offering thoughtful and practical reflections that invite and inspire dialogue on how churches can strengthen their ministries.

As a result of a recent routine blood test, I was told by my doctor that I have anemia due to an iron deficiency. “But I eat meat!” was my simplistic, uninformed response. I couldn’t understand how this was happening, especially given my fondness for a food that is so rich in this vital nutrient.

Our society has been experiencing anemia in another way for quite some time. One of the dictionary definitions for anemia is “lacking in substance, vitality, or spirit.” In light of the struggle for justice in places such as Ferguson, Cleveland, New York City, Denver, and Phoenix, this anemia has been diagnosed as endemic within our government institutions. The lack of racial diversity in our systems of law, order, and justice is evident. And the church—our beloved church—is also severely anemic.

According to recent findings from the National Congregations Survey, 86% of American congregations—containing 80% of religious service attendees—remain overwhelmingly mono-racial, meaning that the vast majority of members in a church are of one particular race or ethnicity. Part of what keeps organizations like churches mono-racial are sets of unwritten cultural rules that undergird our interactions and activities like worship services, meetings, and mission / service efforts. Many times, these unwritten “norms” and cues, unbeknownst to the individuals who exhibit them, exclude others who are different and who operate with a completely different set of cultural cues. These rules often lead to power imbalances between groups and the systemization of oppression, as evidenced within our justice system.

“But Kristina,” people say, “there were two people of color at our meeting; so we were diverse!” Or, “We have two multiracial families in our congregation who are active and involved in church leadership. What are you complaining about?” In many ways, it’s like saying, “But I eat meat!” Unfortunately, as I’ve learned, eating meat a few times a week isn’t enough to cure my anemia.

Of course, this is about more than representation; it’s about how the way we operate may be hindering the body of Christ from being fully nourished and healthy. It’s about my own spiritual health, my own connection with Jesus as flesh in this world.

I believe there is hope. In fact, churches are becoming less anemic over time. Congregations, particularly predominantly white congregations, have become more internally diverse. The National Congregations Study reports steady increases in racial diversity within American churches in the last 15 years, despite the grim statistics reported above. The UCC has also become more diverse—a greater percentage of our congregations identified as bi-racial / multi-racial than they did a decade ago, thereby decreasing the overall percentage of predominantly white congregations. (For more information and statistics on the racial / ethnic self-identifications of UCC churches, click here.)

Our progress toward health is slow, but it is progress. Though we remain in a season of Lent, literally and figuratively, we are reminded that the time of Pentecost is coming, when the Spirit descends on all of us as it did for the early Church in Acts 2, when we are able to gather together at one table and hear and see one another as we truly are—unmasking the unwritten, “normative” rules that have kept us from one another. That is my hope and my prayer.

I guess it’s time for me to start eating some beans and spinach.

SPARKING MINISTRY CONVERSATIONS: What unwritten cultural rules or “norms” undergird your congregation’s being and doing? What does it look like for your congregation to engage in the difficult, yet holy work of intercultural community building? What is one concrete act or goal that you can make this year toward greater wholeness and representation of God’s diverse kin-dom within your church community?

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