WORDS // Mark Vroegop – Article originally posted on 9marks.org on 11.22.18
Biblical unity in diversity is a core value at the church where I serve.
By God’s grace, over the last five years, we’ve witnessed a beautiful growth in our ethnic diversity. Of course, our journey is far from over. We’ve not arrived, as if a church ever can. But we see God at work—uniting our church across racial lines as we learn to live out in new ways the perfect unity that Christ has already won for all his people at the cross.
WHAT WE DID
A few weeks ago, I led a group of 50 leaders on what we called a Civil Rights Vision Trip. It was a pilgrimage with intentional, spiritual objectives. Our journey included:
- Birmingham, AL: 16th Street Baptist Church, the Civil Rights Institute, and a lecture from Collin Hansen on the history of the city
- Montgomery, AL: The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (known as the “Lynching Museum”)
- Selma, AL: Walk the Edmund Pettus Bridge
- Clarksdale, MS: Coahoma Community College (One of the Historic Black Colleges and Universities)
- Greenwood, MS: Worship at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church
- Memphis, TN: National Civil Rights Museum and Lorraine Motel
We toured multiple museums, picked cotton on the side of the road, and visited with one of our church member’s family. The places we visited were inspiring and troubling, informative and thought-provoking.
The goals of the trip were simple: to love one another; to learn from each other and from the history of the Civil Rights Movement; to lament together; and to leverage the lessons from the trip to increase our church’s understanding of biblical unity in diversity.
All in all, the trip was transformative. It’s taken me a few weeks to process the experience, and I’m still thinking through the implications of what I heard, saw and learned. But with some time to reflect, here are five lessons.
WHAT WE LEARNED
1. Relationships are foundational.
The discussion about diversity at College Park Church wouldn’t have happened without the commitment of a multi-ethnic group that began meeting three years ago. They built deep friendships and welcomed others into their life-on-life conversations. That group grew into a monthly gathering on Sundays, which eventually led to a Sunday Evening Forum on racial reconciliation and diversity. Conversations about biblical unity in diversity grew out of the soil of relationships.
Our five-day trip built on these friendships and made new ones through traveling, eating, talking and laughing together. Our journey created opportunities to comfort one another, to listen more deeply and to ask uncomfortable questions. This was only possible because of the level of trust between us. A grace-filled context for love and understanding was foundational.
2. History has hidden layers.
I wrestled with two emotions during the trip: shame and anger. I was ashamed about how little I knew about the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Every site and every museum introduced me to a painful barrage of facts, names and events that I’d previously not understood or, in some cases, even known anything about. For example, I knew little about the connection between Jim Crow laws and lynchings, and I had no idea about the mass migration of African-Americans in the late 19th Century. I didn’t fully comprehend the scope and depth of systemic injustice connected to racism.
That led me to a righteous anger, asking myself “Why did I not know about this?” I found myself frustrated with the new information I kept learning. I wondered and feared how many more layers there were to learn.
3. Racial issues are deeply personal—even now.
This should be obvious, but it took on new meaning during the trip. Our bus rides allowed time for our African-American brothers and sisters to share about their experiences.
A father wept as he recounted talking to his son about how to behave when pulled over. Another shared his fears about his son dating a white girl; he worried about how her family will receive him. A man shared about the experience of having a gun pointed at his head during a routine traffic stop. A woman told us about her deceased husband who was the second African-American student admitted to a Southern university; the university “gave” him an entire dorm to himself. One man told me how he’d traced his family lineage and learned that his great-great-great-grandfather and grandmother were slaves. They were separated for years after one of them was sold to another plantation.
While visiting the museum at the Loraine Motel (where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated), a woman found a picture of a Civil Rights Rally in the 1960s that included her mother and father.
This trip helped me to realize that the personal connections and deep wounds related to race aren’t merely historical. I watched as painful emotions surfaced quickly on the faces of people I love. And in the process, their grief became my own.
4. Redemptive moments must be grounded in the gospel.
This trip allowed us as fellow church members and fellow Christians to live out the reality of our spiritual union with Jesus together, to remember our shared redemption that triumphs over our deepest divisions and darkest pain. This shared commitment to the gospel—as well as our regular gathering as the church—served as the basis for what we experienced. In other words, the redemption of Jesus allowed for redemptive moments.
For example, one of our white brothers expressed deep sorrow for “going along” with the biased culture in which he was raised. His heartfelt confession was met with “We forgive you, brother!” and “I love you, brother,” from the African-American brothers and sisters on the trip.
Here’s another example: as we visited the Lynching Museum, a harrowing display of the murder of over 4,000 African-Americans, I marveled at the hugs and the conversations as fellow brothers and sisters walked together, arms around each other. The gospel of Jesus Christ can unite people together like this.
Thankfully, there were also celebratory moments. We shared a BBQ meal together in Selma after welcoming one another through a human tunnel fit for a homecoming football game. We laughed until our faces hurt. We enjoyed each other’s company. We made new friends.
Ultimately, we tasted the unity and fellowship that will mark eternity in the new heavens and the new earth. We lived out our spiritual oneness in Christ.
5. Lament builds a bridge.
We took a bus, and so our travel afforded lots of time together. Nearly every morning we studied a lament psalm. I taught material from my upcoming book and shared about the progression of lament: turning to God, bringing our complaints to him, asking boldly of him, and choosing to trust him. After examining a lament psalm, we wrote our own lament prayers as we talked to God about our sorrow and welcomed each other into our journeys.
This daily rhythm led to sacred moments of sharing what we were learning. It allowed us to listen to the painful experiences of our African-American brothers and sisters. It provided a language for white brothers and sisters to express empathy and remorse. Our bus rides were filled with tears, repentance and new levels of understanding.
In other words, lament built a bridge. This biblical prayer language opened the door to grace-based reconciliation.
The ripple effects of this trip continue. I’ve heard about presentations in public schools and conversations in our people’s workplaces. I’ve heard about late-night conversations with children and extended family members. People at College Park are asking if we’ll host the trip again. The answer is yes, eventually.
The Civil Rights Vision Trip helped some members from our church take important strides toward greater unity in diversity. We still have a long way to go. But we see God at work. Walls are being broken down, relationships are being built, and the gospel is creating a beautiful harmony.
I’m still processing a lot of what I learned and experienced. I suspect and even pray that it will continue for some time. But in the meantime, I’m thrilled to see our church body looking more and more like the bride of Christ.
NUTS & BOLTS INFO
This Civil Rights Trip grew out of a three-year discussion on how to help our church exemplify our unity in Christ. We had a monthly gathering on Sunday mornings for people from different ethnicities to build relationships, pray together, and dialogue about differing perspectives related to ethnic harmony.
About a year ago, we hosted a forum to hear from our African-American brothers and sisters regarding their church experience at College Park. It was raw, honest, and helpful—although it did create some challenging conversations for us to work through.
All of this is important to know because the trip happened as merely the next step in an intentional, gospel-centered, and relationship-based strategy to increase our diversity and biblical unity. Without such a foundation, the trip could have—and likely would have—been a disaster.
We traveled together for five days (Thursday–Monday). Each participant was nominated by one of our pastors, so the trip was invitation-only. We wanted to be sure that participants were conversant in issues related to unity in diversity, and that they even had some experience in navigating these conversations.
The trip was 30% African-American and 70% White. It was a mix of staff and lay leaders. We provided two books beforehand: One Blood by John Perkins, and The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.
The cost for the trip averaged $600 per person. This included coach transportation, lodging, and tickets to the locations we visited. Participants provided their own food.
You can watch a wrap-up video of the trip here.
Mark Vroegop is the Lead Pastor of College Park Church in Indianapolis, and the author of a new book entitled Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament. He blogs at markvroegop.com.