The Racial Unity Leadership Summit

Wes Crawford, in his book Shattering the Illusion, effectively describes the problem in Churches of Christ that the Racial Unity Leadership Summit seeks to address.

From the late nineteenth century to the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, African American and white members of Churches of Christ perpetuated an illusion of racial unity by playing their long-established roles in southern society. Just as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was forcing whites and African Americans to deal with generations of racism, a pivotal event in Nashville, Tennessee, shattered the illusion of racial unity in Churches of Christ.

That pivotal event was the closing of Nashville Christian Institute (NCI) in 1967. Until then, the fact that two racially segregated fellowships existed in Churches of Christ was largely ignored or conveniently tolerated. Crawford continues:

The events surrounding the closing of the Nashville Christian Institute revealed the secret that had long remained hidden, namely that within Churches of Christ there existed two racially defined factions with their own customs, identities, and views concerning race relations. The public spectacle that ensued shattered the illusion of unity; and since that pivotal 1968 civil rights case entered the courts, the distance between the two racial factions has grown.

Almost fifty years later, the two racially defined factions in Churches of Christ have not been able to create and sustain a way to bring the fellowships together. Crawford is right to stress how the distance between these racially segregated fellowships has grown. It appears that the leaders in both groups have accepted the racial separation as a natural divide that cannot be bridged. Although this soft form of “passive segregation” is not maintained by force, many of us in Churches of Christ conveniently allow it to persist without serious challenge from either side of the racial divide. The fear of harsh consequences prevents leaders from confronting this worldly schism in the body of Jesus Christ. Addressing racial division in the church will require intense internal “soul work.”

As human beings we look at the world through the biased racial ideas inherited from our family, society and culture. Racial ideas are often based upon false beliefs that are contrary to the Gospel and must be examined and evaluated in light of truth. There can be no genuine racial unity between blacks and whites in Churches of Christ without taking into account the powerful role that these racial patterns play in race relations. It is admirable to see whites sitting beside blacks in “special occasion” worship services. Yet such an external approach to unity leaves flawed ways of thinking and acting about race completely intact.

Our historical experience of “forced desegregation” in the United States helps us see how blacks and whites can occupy the same physical space and still function under different racial paradigms that are a trillion miles apart. We have learned that it is possible to be friendly towards other racial groups while allowing the spirit of racism to remain alive in the heart. Racism operates at deep and often unperceived levels of our hearts and minds. As Christians, therefore, we must approach it as a spiritual thing. It is only when we view racism itself as a spirit that promotes division in the church that we can seek wisdom to develop a spiritual approach to addressing its evil influence among black and white Christians.

At the heart of the cure for this evil, spiritual leaders must lead believers to recover the ancient tradition of Christian spiritual practices. When blacks and whites become partners in a contemplative community, they can experience together the transformation of their conscious and subconscious minds. It is when people sit together in silence that they give their souls the opportunity to communicate with one another in a spiritual language that is not of this world. Authentic racial unity grows out of an authentic spiritual union between human souls that are jointly connected to the divine life of God. It is only when their attachment to the life of God has complete supremacy in their hearts that people find the strength to release their attachment to the color of skin.

RULSThe Racial Unity Leadership Summit (RULS) is taking just such an approach to addressing racial division in Churches of Christ. It encourages the use of the contemplative practices of fasting, silence, meditation, study, and active listening to foster an authentic spiritual and racial unity among blacks and whites in the body of Jesus Christ. As a national initiative, RULS seeks to provide spiritual inspiration, theological teachings, researched information, and practical methods as means of overcoming racial division in the church. RULS is based upon the belief that the contemplative approach is the most practical method of changing hearts in matters of race. We believe that if leaders commit to this contemplative approach todealing with racial division the outcome will be a genuine experience of racial unity at the highest levels of leadership within black and white Churches of Christ and their related schools.

The Racial Unity Leadership Summit has conducted spiritual retreats attended by Christian leaders at Lebh Shomea House of Prayer in Sarita, Texas, and at the Culver Palms Church of Christ in Culver Palms, California. It is currently planning a retreat at the Oxford Church of Christ in Oxford, Mississippi. Some might think we should be engaging in “action” instead of sitting still in contemplative meditation and solitude. We have come to discover that it is out the contemplative practices of silence and solitude that concrete “Christ Centered” plans of action emerge. It is during the stillness in prayer that we recognize how dependent we are upon the work and actions of the Holy Spirit in reaching the goal of racial unity and reconciliation in the body of Christ. Concrete plans of action that emerged from spiritual retreats have enabled us to engage in the actual implementation of recent and upcoming national and regional initiatives.

What can churches and colleges do to get involved with the work of the Racial Unity Leadership Summit? Local congregations and Christian colleges and universities can get involved in this work by sending their elders, ministers, staff, key members, college administrators, faculty, and other personnel to attend a Racial Unity Leadership Summit that is held in their area or nearby city. RULS meetings have been held in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 29, 2014 at the North Atlanta Church of Christ; in Nashville, Tennessee, on November 15, 2014 at the Hermitage Church of Christ; in Memphis, Tennessee, on January 16, 2015 at the SycamoreView Church of Christ; and in Los Angeles, California, on May 4, 2015 at the Crenshaw Church of Christ preceding the Pepperdine Bible Lectures. RULS is planning an upcoming event in Abilene, Texas, on June 1-3, 2015 just before the Christian Scholars Conference, as well as a National Racial Unity Revival to take place in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3-6, 2016.

Elderships can invite RULS to conduct spiritual racial unity retreats for elders, ministers, staff, ministry leaders and members. College administrators can invite RULS to their college campuses to conduct workshops and spiritual racial unity retreats for administrators, faculty, staff, and students.

The Racial Unity Leadership Summit has an account set up through the North Atlanta Church of Christ in Atlanta, Georgia. We welcome your financial support that will help advance this work of racial unity all across the United States.

Header image credit: Marshall Keeble, Gospel Meeting, Abilene, TX 1950s. Center for Restoration Studies, Milliken Special Collections, Abilene Christian University, Abilene, Texas.

Jerry Taylor is Associate Professor of Bible at ACU. He attended public schools in West Tennessee, graduating from Millington Central High School in 1980. He later earned his M.Div. and D.Min. from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Jerry has served as the minister of churches of Christ in Texas, North Carolina, and Georgia, and authored the book Courageous Compassion (ACU Press, 2011). He travels extensively speaking at national conferences, and is a popular lecturer at retreats and Gospel meetings. Jerry is married to Patricia (Bowden) Taylor, and they have two children, Alisha and Jeremiah. The Taylor family lives in Abilene and attends the Highland Church of Christ.

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Author:  Publish Date: June 1, 2015

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The CHARIS website hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. In partnership with the ACU Library and the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at Abilene Christian University (Abilene, TX), the website is supported and led by the Center for Heritage and Renewal in Spirituality (CHARIS) at ACU. The Center’s mission is to renew Christian spirituality through engagement of Christian heritage, at Abilene Christian University and beyond. The views expressed on the CHARIS website are those of the various authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Abilene Christian University or CHARIS at ACU. Questions or comments about the CHARIS website can be directed to charis @ acu.edu.

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