Awkwardness, Blind Spots, and Intentionality- What I Learned at an African-American Church: Katy Parker
My husband, Jesse, met the pastor of Vision Church in his first few weeks at seminary. He quickly got plugged into the life of the church, and when we got married a couple years later, I joined Vision along with him. At the time, Vision was less than a year old. It was also a predominately African-American church. When Jesse started attending, he was probably one of three white people at the church.
Before moving to North Carolina, I grew up in New Mexico and was pretty unfamiliar with race issues in the African-American community in the country. Even though New Mexico is 50% Hispanic, only 2% of the population is African American. I mean I had American history and learned about slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, but I figured, for the most part, racial problems were done with the exception of a few crazy folks. I’m not saying that there wasn’t racism, but I had come to believe that systematic racism and issues of civil rights were long over. I can still remember moving to North Carolina 10 years ago and actually feeling the racial tension. It’s not that there was hate everywhere I looked, but I could feel the prolonged hurt, distrust, and disunity.
When I first started attending Vision, I was also hyper-aware of my white-ness, and I was constantly wondering what people thought of me and what did they think that I thought about them? Will they just see my privilege? Do they think I am prejudiced? Am I acting like I am better than them? Can we find common ground? My husband had a much easier time than I did, in part because he doesn’t overthink it. But he also would push me and remind me that we can always find commonality with others, especially in the church.
As Christians, we all belong to the family of God. We share in the experience and identity as children in Christ. I may not be able to share in the same life experiences or struggles, but I know what it was like to be an enemy of God who is now redeemed as an heir.
With this in mind, I was able to push through my uncertainty and start to build relationships with intentionality. I had this misconception that crossing cultural divides would be easy. I mean if you had prejudice, you might have a problem, but otherwise, it shouldn’t be a problem, right? What I came to learn was that it takes intentionality in all relationships, but especially when you were coming from a different background. As human beings, we gravitate to people who are most like us. I’m not talking about how we look, but we are drawn to people who think, act, talk like us. This is where we feel comfortable because we don’t have to explain ourselves. Those people just understand us. If we are not intentional to build relationships with people from different backgrounds and cultures, we will likely spend our lives in our little cultural bubble.
But this is why God gave us the church, and this was His design for the church. The church should be a body of believers from different ages, backgrounds, races, and cultures. It should be made up of people who look differently, feel differently, and think differently. If we surround ourselves with people who look and think like us, we will become stagnant, and we are missing the opportunity to grow and learn in our knowledge of God. We are unaware of our blind spots, hence the term. God uses people who have different perspectives to shed light on our limitations. This is part of our sanctification that makes us more like Christ. So it takes intentionality to step out of the familiar comfort zone to build relationships with people who have different perspectives.
Overall, I think that the most important lesson I have learned, and continue to learn, is the practice of listening with the purpose of understanding. This is a humbling lesson for me. In my hubris, I have come to believe that I have so many wise and wonderful words of wisdom. Obviously, I should make sure that my opinion is heard and understood. The folly in this is that I have built a belief system based on me. Basically, I am preaching my wisdom and my experience, and I am not open to the accountability and the sanctifying work of God through others. If my goal is to be understood, I am only looking to my own interests, but when my goal is to understand, I am loving God by how I love others. I am also making myself teachable and moldable so that God can sanctify me and make me more like Him.
Over the last 8 years, I have heard numerous stories of prejudice, injustice, and hate. My brothers and sisters in Christ have shared their heartbreaking personal experiences with racism. Their stories aren’t just a headline on social media or political propaganda. They are real people experiencing real hurt. Since God brought us to Vision, He allowed us to share that burden with them. There have been times that Jesse and I have been given the opportunity to speak into areas where our brothers and sisters may be operating in their own presuppositions. However, we would be unable to do this without the relationship that is built on the foundation of genuine love and understanding.
After all these years, I am still aware of my white-ness every Sunday, but instead of worrying, I can celebrate our differences and the unique opportunities I have to learn more about God and His church. As I have interacted with people that look and think differently, I can see how my unique experience has shaped my theology, my understanding of the church, and my cultural identity.
I consider it a huge blessing that I now call this church my family. They have walked through many seasons of life with us. When my parents were on the other side of the world, this new family was loudly cheering at our graduation from seminary. They were there for us when our babies were born. I look around and see God weaving a beautiful tapestry in his church. He is intertwining different people from different backgrounds, different demographics, and different experiences to reflect the beauty and complexity of Himself. It is a misnomer to say that we should be colorblind. If we are colorblind, we are missing out on the beauty of our uniqueness. We need each other, and we need our uniqueness. God uses the differences to sanctify us and to make us more like Him.
Seeking multi-cultural diversity is not always easy and it can be uncomfortable, but it is vitality important for our sanctification and for the work of the kingdom of God.
“For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” Galatians 3:26
Katy Parker is originally from New Mexico. She came to Southeastern in 2009 to complete her MDiv in Biblical Counseling. While she was in seminary, she met and married Jesse Parker, who is now a PhD student and the Director of Student Resources and Financial Aid. Katy graduated in 2014 and recently came on staff at the seminary as the Student Life counselor for women. They have two kids, Lottie (3 years) and Logan (11 months). The Parkers are members at Vision Church in Raleigh where Jesse serves as an elder.