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DC Pastor On The Role Of Diversity In Places Of Worship


The killing of George Floyd put a spotlight on racial injustice in a way this country hasn't seen in 50 years. This moment also demands a reckoning of a different kind, a personal evaluation of our own prejudices. For many Americans, that kind of inquiry happens through a religious frame.

Pastor Irwyn L. Ince Jr. is an author and the director of the Grace DC Institute for Cross-Cultural Mission. I asked him if his work on cross-culturalism meant encouraging all churches to become more racially diverse. He told me it's a complicated question.

IRWYN INCE JR: And it is one that I have worked through and wrestled with and really, in many respects, still do wrestle with. The reason you can talk about an African American church or a black church experience in America is because of the reality of racism and white supremacy and the willingness of the majority-white church to be complicit in that. And so I'm not going to say, OK, well, if you are a majority-black church, you must now start to look differently locally.

MARTIN: I guess another way of asking it or pushing it a little bit further is do exclusively white congregations bear a responsibility to become less white in this moment in service to breaking down those walls that you talk about?

INCE: I do believe that there is a heavier burden on churches that have been historically exclusively white to actively engage in breaking down those barriers and pursuing unity and diversity and, as a part of that process, really examining their own history and then saying, what does it look like for us to move in a different direction?

MARTIN: You write in your book that racially diverse churches are still, for the most part, culturally white. Can you explain how that manifests? What does that look and sound like?

INCE: Yes. So this is borne out by research that even churches that want to become multiracial, multicultural still are places that cater to white cultural norms. So some of what that looks like is in the music, in the style of preaching, in the way you engage the time of the worship service, in whether or not you're going to be really open and forthright about dealing with issues of racial injustice, hostilities and the like.

Very often, you will find a kind of a superficial multicultural or multiethnic pursuit. And so to really pursue cross-cultural life and love in a local congregation is hard. Matter of fact, I would describe it as impossible without a real deep dependency on God and his spirit to help you deal with the conflicts that are going to arise in those circumstances.

MARTIN: What are the very real and raw conversations that you see either happening right now as a result of this political awakening we're seeing in the country, or what are the conversations you wish would happen now?

INCE: We are really at a watershed moment here, and I see the church responding with necessary conversations about racial injustice, necessary conversations about the intolerance of oppression, a willingness - a willingness to even engage the topic of white supremacy as a reality. And so today, I'm encouraged by what I'm seeing. There is a significant amount of outrage across the spectrum within the church in America of President Trump's using the Bible as a prop, as an opportunity for a photo-op. And this is the culmination of what has begun to take place in majority-white evangelical denominations.

MARTIN: I've heard several times from different Christian leaders - white Christians, I should say - that there is no such thing as race - right? - that there is only the human race and that even using the very word just divides us further. What do you make of that?

INCE: Oh, my goodness. That was an exasperation (laughter) breath because I have heard and hear that argument. And we can say, yes, the idea of races is a human invention. It's a social construct, but it has very real physical impact on the lives of people. But to do away with talking about race and racism is to really suppress a willingness to deal with its impact. You can't just wish away history and the way that it still informs our present life and reality.

We are always making choices that are based on cultural preferences. And if we really want to become not simply a multiracial church that's culturally white but one that really is cross-cultural, we have to begin to look into examining the choices we make that are informed by our cultural preferences. And that's hard. If a church is really going to begin to move in a more cross-cultural direction - because you're not going to drift into it. It has to actually be intentional.

MARTIN: Pastor Irwyn Ince Jr. - his upcoming book is titled "The Beautiful Community: Unity, Diversity, And The Church At Its Best" - thank you so much for talking with us.

INCE: Rachel, thank you so much for the opportunity. I really enjoyed it.


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