Breaking the Silence

breaking-the-silence

Breaking the Silence

Now more than ever, the American church needs to have an honest conversation on race.

Interview by Edward Gilbreath | Nov 6, 2017

In this candid interview with Covenant pastors Peter Ahn and Alex Gee, the Companion opens up a dialogue on race and the church against the backdrop of heightened cultural and political tensions in our nation. We do so prayerfully, in a spirit of humility, inviting ongoing communication from our readers as we explore together how to address an issue that continues to wound and divide.
After the 2016 election, many pastors resigned themselves to never talking about race from the pulpit, lest they disturb the fault lines in their congregations. We asked two pastors to share about their experiences as leaders of color in the Covenant, and why it’s imperative for Covenanters to discuss this explosive subject. Peter Ahn, a Korean American, is senior pastor of Metro Community Church in Englewood, New Jersey, and Alex Gee, an African American, is senior pastor of Fountain of Life Covenant Church in Madison, Wisconsin.

Tell us a little about your friendship and how you connected.

 

Peter Ahn:

We met many years ago in a leadership group, and Alex is now one of my closest friends. Historically, there have been a lot of tensions between Korean Americans and African Americans. When Koreans immigrated to the United States, we didn’t arrive with lots of money. We had nothing. So that meant that a lot of times we grew up in urban neighborhoods, specifically black neighborhoods. We didn’t speak English, and we definitely experienced racism and bullying in those communities. In my friendship with Alex, I had to work on my own presuppositions and deal with them. Knowing Alex, I’ve learned so much about African American people, but I’ve also learned how to be a good father, a good husband. He has been a great mentor to me.

Alex Gee:

When we met at that pastors’ gathering, I was one of two African Americans in the circle. Most of the others were Asian American pastors. There’s not a large Korean American population in Madison, and I didn’t have any Korean American friends. I wanted to develop cross-cultural friendships, and when I met Peter I realized that we have similar thoughts about missions and about multiethnicity. When you connect at a very deep level because of things you hold in common, it’s much easier to deal with your differences.

Peter:

And because of our friendship, Alex’s pain becomes mine and mine becomes his. I’m not this Korean guy who suddenly became passionate about Black Lives Matter. I’m passionate because somebody I love has been inviting me into his world. I’ve heard his stories—like the time he was in his own church parking lot and the police came to him and said, “What are you doing here?” When he told them that he was the senior pastor of the church they didn’t believe him. He had to get one of his white pastors to come out and vouch for him. I’ve heard how deeply that upset him, how angry he is about what’s going on today in Madison, in the rest of this country.


What drew each of you to become a part of the Covenant?

 

Peter:

I came into the Covenant thirteen years ago as a church planter. I was so excited I couldn’t believe it—I thought this was the best kept secret. Coming into the denomination, I thought it was unlike anything I’d ever been a part of. Thirteen years later, I’ve served on boards, and I love this denomination with all my heart. I love what it stands for. I want to be part of this—the passion for racial reconciliation, multiethnicity, empowering women in ministry.

Alex:

When I was first introduced to the Covenant I saw how Covenanters were acting and I wanted to be a part of that. I watched these guys bathing a guy with AIDS, and I saw their care for the disheartened and the broken and the poor. When people ask me, “Why are you Covenant? Isn’t that a white denomination?” I’m able to say this is what we are about. That’s what drew me in.


The 2016 election and events in Charlottesville this past summer intensified an already volatile atmosphere in our country. Some pastors have decided that it’s neither wise nor safe to address the issue in their churches because of the divisions that happen as a result. How can pastors approach this conversation in light of our current tensions?

 

Peter:

What happened in Charlottesville was not a surprise for many of us. Racial tensions in this country go back hundreds of years. I think Charlottesville indicated a reality of where our country is. When white nationalists are given a platform, they give voice to the fear many people feel that they are losing their country. So preserving a statue of Robert E. Lee is important to them because it represents their history of dominant power. They hear the slogan “Make America Great Again,” and they feel like doing that will help them to maintain that power.

In the Covenant, we have seen an outpouring of support from pastors and other folks who support the removal of those Confederate statues. But there’s also been a lot of silence from white pastors who have not voiced their opinion, who don’t even know what’s happening. There are pastors who struggle with all of this, who deep down don’t like Black Lives Matter, who don’t like the cheering about justice for minorities in this country, who feel like that’s more of a political thing than a gospel-centered thing.

Alex:

Sixty to seventy years ago we knew we were polarized in this country, so we braced ourselves. In recent years maybe some people assumed that was over. But then Charlottesville or Ferguson completely discombobulates us, and that divides us in the church.

I think part of the fallout of last year’s election is that there’s a new liberty felt by some to say horrific things to people—against women, against people of color, against immigrants. There are many people in the church who support the concept of “Make America Great Again,” but they’re quiet about it. We need to have a conversation with those folks, because I think their perception of making America great did not factor in the potential for events like Charlottesville. I’d like to ask them to address this question: Have they counted the cost of the backlash of trying to regain something that never really existed? We never have been great because we’ve never really given free access to all.

We need to have a conversation that goes beyond the headlines. Talking about race when events like Charlottesville happen is like only preaching the gospel when someone dies. At the funeral we preach the hope of the gospel, but in that moment people are grieving and they aren’t really hearing everything we’re saying. We talk about race when there’s a shooting, but at that point people aren’t really listening. The conversation has to continue. There was Mike Brown, there was Tamir Rice, there was Eric Garner. We keep acting like these crises will go away, but we need a format to continue the conversation.


There are pastors who would welcome that kind of honest conversation, yet they feel they can’t speak out about race in their congregations and still hold their churches together. In practical terms, how do we begin to move forward?

 

Peter:

I would say that pastors who can’t be vocal in their churches need to ask themselves, are they going to continue to live for safety, or will they look at the Bible and remember that God didn’t call them to be “professional” pastors—he called them to be shepherds and prophets. He calls each of us to be a leader—a spiritual leader for our congregations to do what’s right and to take a stand.

If it means we get fired, then I have faith that God will lead us to another place. God’s not going to leave us hanging. I have a friend who was serving as a pastor of a megachurch with thousands of people when God opened his eyes to the racial injustice all around him. He became very vocal about it from the pulpit, and in the end he was fired. Now he’s a pastor in a small multiethnic church—and there’s no place he would rather be.

A year and a half ago, we lost between thirty-five and fifty people from our congregation because we talked about racial injustice in a very open manner. Some people got upset and left. I’m learning through that process.

I think fear has paralyzed too many pastors today from doing the thing God wants them to do. And to be honest, I don’t think there is a way to make it so everyone “wins.” People continue to get killed. Refugees are being told not to come to this country. People who have lived here for a very long time and have been good citizens, making great contributions to the country, are being forced to leave. I think many Covenant pastors are trying to find a win-win scenario—but there just isn’t one.

Alex:

People haven’t taken time to learn the true cost of building bridges cross-culturally. We’ve made it so easy to just hashtag something online and then consider ourselves “woke.” But we have to practice close, intimate relationships around our dinner table, around our fireplace, holding our children, sitting together when a parent dies. If you experience pushback for talking about something from the pulpit and you don’t have personal friends who uphold you, then when you try to find people of color to be your cheering section, that’s very difficult.

When those people left Peter’s church, he and I were in dialogue. We processed it together. He wasn’t just speaking rhetorically or being politically correct. These events in our country are impacting the lives of people he loves and respects, people his children and wife love and respect. When it’s personal, it’s easy to talk about it. When it’s all heady, it’s very difficult to stand strong on these issues.

Who are we as a denomination if our pastors are afraid of speaking about race because of how people in the pews might treat them? This is a biblical issue. This is a spiritual issue. Who have we become if we are afraid to talk about issues that are so clearly stated in Scripture?


Then where do we begin? How do we create a culture in the Covenant where we are not afraid of speaking hard truths?

 

Alex:

First we remember our own Covenant history. We remember what it’s like to be estranged and disenfranchised. The Covenant began as displaced and disenfranchised Mission Friends. My concern is that we have lost the ability to authentically connect with those who are disenfranchised. If you upgrade your airline seat to first class, you can’t still sit in coach. When you get the upgrade, you get the leather seats and the free goodies. When we “upgraded” as a denomination—when we stopped being outsiders and started to understand and accept that power—I think we started enjoying that first-class seat. So we need to keep looking back to remember.

Second, we begin to seek out leaders who have experience in multiethnic ministry and dialogue. We don’t call pastors who have not been through seminary. We believe in indoctrination when it comes to the things we hold very valuable—the atonement, baptism. Yet we continue to place people in positions of leadership who have not demonstrated a mentality of multiethnicity or practiced it on a personal level. When we want to have serious discussions about things that are key to the strength of our congregations, our families, our spiritual lives, many of those conversations are headed by white people who have never lived in a pluralistic or multiethnic reality. Yet they are providing leadership on how to do it and how to do it in a time when America is polarized. We think that somehow they’ll understand people of color and these kinds of issues by virtue of their position or title.

We need to stop that foolishness. We’d never hire someone as CFO who doesn’t understand spreadsheets. We’d never say, “They’ll learn on the job or they’ll Google it and figure it out.”

I think we need to be honest in our scrutiny, particularly in this season when we are looking for a new president of the Covenant.

No one understands multiethnicity more than multiethnic people who have had to navigate a predominantly white society. The truth is that we always have to lead cross-culturally, because that’s who is in our pews, that’s who comes through our doors.

Peter:

I believe that it’s really important that the next president of the ECC be a person of color. In all honesty, I’m nervous about the future of our denomination. In this climate, we need a person of color to represent the Covenant, to lead us to a place where our denomination needs to go. Otherwise, we may take major steps backward. We have had great leadership under Gary Walter. He will leave a remarkable legacy. But now to take us to the next level, I believe we need an ethnic person to lead us.


Some people might hear that as a type of reverse discrimination. Does that concern you?

 

Alex:

This isn’t something the Covenant owes us. This is something the Covenant owes the Covenant. If we’re really going to touch the world with the powerful gospel, then we’ve got to have people leading us who understand the world, look like the world, have eaten what the world eats, and understand what it means to be disenfranchised —and who still believe the gospel in the midst of that. It’s a great opportunity.

We have recognized the potential for other issues to be divisive and explosive within the Covenant. But I don’t think we have really given due weight to the role that race will have on our sense of unity and our collective witness to the broader world. We need to be praying about this, teaching it, discussing it.

Back in the 1940s the ECC made a bold statement about race. The Covenant had a statement about fair treatment of blacks that predates Brown v. Board of Education. That is monumental. Now fast-forward seventy years—we’ve got to do more than just say, “We support our brothers and sisters from other places, our black brothers and sisters.” We made a statement stronger than that seventy years ago. We now need to create structures and make choices that back up something that we declared back in the forties.

Peter:

This is what the kingdom is really about. White folks in the Covenant have a tremendous opportunity to empower and to advocate for other peoples—to be supportive of bringing in candidates for our next president who they feel are strong and good and also people of color. They could join us in being part of the minority, and we would be stronger together. That would be the greatest picture of heaven that we could see here on this side of eternity.


Over the last few years, we’ve heard a lot about the importance of Covenant cohesion—clearly, it’s a challenge for many denominations in such polarized times. Are we strong enough to maintain our unity amid the social fragmentation that our society is experiencing?

 

Alex:

We have struggled with this in other contexts—when older people haven’t wanted to make room for younger people in the church, when folks wanted to worship in Swedish and resisted making the transition to English, when some leaders initially resisted the decision to affirm the call of women to ministry. When we are committed to the gospel and to each other, we can stay united despite the tensions.

Peter:

Many people say that the biggest issue this denomination is facing right now is human sexuality. I know that our next president will have to handle this issue. But that conversation, if I can be very honest, is being led by white Covenanters. The Covenant is talking about this because white Covenanters are making a big deal about it.

I’m not saying it’s not a big deal. But there is a real, specific issue within our denomination that we’re not willing to talk about much. It’s not being seen or taken as seriously because there are not enough white Covenanters talking about it. It’s the people of color—the African Americans, the Latinos, the Asians, the Native Americans—we’ll bring this stuff up. The reality is that we need more white Covenanters to stand with us and to make noise about race.

I recognize that it’s easier to be quiet about it and just talk about it in general, as “what’s going on in America.” But this is a deep issue within our denomination. And
we need to bring it to the forefront.


What are your hopes for the future of the Covenant on this subject of race and diversity?

 

Peter:

I feel in my gut that selecting the next president of the denomination is more important than ever. It’s going to take a very special, gifted person who understands how to lead our denomination in a way that empowers people to change, to dream for the future of what heaven
can look like for the Evangelical Covenant Church.

Alex:

We are not saying we want the Covenant to become Korean American or African American. Our goal is to help the Covenant be a force against the powers of darkness. Our denomination’s growth is coming through congregations led by men and women who look like us. We want to keep growing, but we have to be honest about what we are bringing people into. We envision the Covenant at its very best—effective in the inner city and in town and country areas. We want to see this church flourish. We think new leaders who have experience understanding multiethnicity and disenfranchisement will help bring us toward healing. We want to be unified so that we can live out the gospel in a way that’s meaningful and effective.

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20 Comments

  1. Having somewhat carefully reviewed my 81 years, I have come to understand that simply be virtue of my place of birth, my gender, my height (6’4′) and other factors over which I had no control, I have been the recipient of privilege that I took for granted, assuming my experience has been “normal” and widespread in my country. But I have learned that what is “normal” for me is not so for others, and they have had to work very hard for that which simply came to me. Example: shortly after having my auto serviced, someone told me a brake light was out. I didn’t want to immediately return for further service and decided to wait until my next scheduled service. It has now been two months, and no police officer has stopped me to either tell me it is out, or give me a warning, or give me a ticket. I’m quite confident that most minorities have had quite different experiences. This is a simple example, but I can make a long list of the privileges that have come to me, that I never thought of as “privileges,” but which minorities have not had.

    1. There is no biblical argument for why I should apologize for benefits or privilege I derived by virtue of my birth. Scripture is clear each man stands condemned only for his own sins and none can redeem the sins of another or receive the judgment of another’s sins. Scripture does say God does often, as a result of righteousness, bestow blessings on subsequent generations and it does say we can suffer consequences of our predecessors sins. It also reveals that for a time on this earth the wicked will flourish and thrive but they will still turn to dust.

      However, if I have consciously placed any other person “below me” in any manner as determined by their color or their education or their income or their appearance or their gender then I indeed need to give account for breaking scripture. That in no way makes the Bible say the outcomes of individual lives or even people groups must be equal.

      The whole of scripture points to a sinful world where love of mammon and power are the root of most sin and no where do I see that expressed more than in the church that points to someone and says “no fair” or identifies someone as “victim” or “oppressed”. In the modern church we have people saying some humans should apologize for their positions or should complain about theirs when God has made it clear he knows our situations and cares for each and is not surprised by anything. Indeed Jesus and Paul, OT and NT, throughout scripture we are told there will be poor and rich (and woe to the rich), we are told there will be the last and the first (and the first shall be last), we are told there will be persecution and oppression and that we should count it as joy and might most aspire for and be quite satisfied in finding ourselves worthy of such testing.

      Focusing on our positions relative to one another is idolatry, covetousness, and causes strife and envy and reveals our hearts which clearly don’t trust God to make all things right in his time. We are staying in a “Motel 6” and trying to make it into the “Ritz Carlton” while God shakes his head and asks “don’t they see I’ve got an all inclusive resort waiting for them here if they’d only look to me”.

  2. I’m so grateful for Pastors Alex and Peter. What incredible examples of humble yet bold, prophetic leadership! This interview gives me great hope for the future of the Covenant. This is kind of straightforward and Christ-centered discussion on race we desperately need. Thank you, Covenant Companion, for publishing this excellent piece. Keep up the great work!

  3. Thank you very much for this interview! I am a white person who has chosen to be part of a multiethnic congregation, because the rest of my networks are all white. The kingdom of God is a multiethnic, multiracial kingdom and I believe it’s important to start living into that reality NOW in our multicultural world. It’s not easy though. Our church has struggled to discuss race and racism and white privilege adequately. So I appreciate this leadership from the Covenant Church and I hope to see more of it in the future. Thank you!

  4. After a careful reading of the article, as well as the comments posted so far, I’m filled with gratitude that Peter and Alex are my brothers in Christ, and are partners with me in the journey we share together in the Covenant! We/I need to hear more, and learn more from them and others. No one owns “the table” – we are all graciously invited to come and sit together. For those who disagree with what has been written above, or are made uncomfortable reading, I’d suggest that you go beyond making a comment here and make an appointment with Peter, Alex, or someone in the Covenant who is “different” than you, and listen to what they have to share. As we all do this, we won’t only learn from each other, we’ll make some amazing new friendships!

  5. Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” So then why, from a biblical perspective, does it matter if the next president is a person of color or a woman? I’m saddened to see that, despite an entire dialogue regarding race, there wasn’t one single argument made from scripture. This is why the race argument is troubling many people, because the scriptures teach something contrary.

    Furthermore, racial tensions have not accelerated since the 2016 election. Arguably, they accelerated since Obama became president (racial riots, looting, etc.) Alas, there appears to be a double standard in these arguments, which should come as no surprise to anyone.

    1. The scripture you cited clearly indicates that there is no favoritism with Jesus—ethnicity, economic status, and gender do not qualify or disqualify according to Galatians 3:28. Yet, in the United States, if like me, one is white and male, I have had privileges that are not extended to those who are not white and not male. This is a per se violation of the scripture you quoted. Numbers 15:15 is clearly violated by this favoritism, as is Leviticus 19:34. It appears to me that God is the author of diversity, and is neither colorblind nor unaware of socio-economic status or gender. In Revelation 7:9, this diversity is celebrated around the throne of God. The interview highlights the fact that we need to repent of America’s unequal systems, and repentance means going in a different direction. I can only speak for myself, but I need to listen to and learn from my sisters and brothers of color, and stand with them as they lead.

      I would like to make an observation from my community, which has a large Latino/a population. Racial tensions and fear have accelerated greatly since the 2016 election, as we seem to have given permission to speak hatefully about the “other.” As a follower of Jesus, I feel compelled to not only speak out against that behavior, but do what I can to bring about change. To that end, the gospel and scripture are my standards, and it is the love of Christ that compels me.

      1. I agree that the United States is off the rails, theologically speaking. In fact, as Romans 3:23 states, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” So I agree that the United States (and every single person on the planet, save for the Lord Jesus Christ) is in a state of perpetual sin. What the United States does is completely irrelevant to what the believers should be doing. In fact, one can argue that it’s better to do exactly the opposite of what those who are without Christ are doing. Fact is that, without God, it is impossible to please Him (Heb 11:6). Your point is weak in that it put one’s race above their standing with God as a child of God (ergo, a Christian). We should be above the racial tension argument because, as stated before, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28). But making this all about race and having race be your centre of importance, you are in direct violation of that reality.

        I’m sorry that there are perceive racial tensions in your community. We should hold ourselves and our brother and sisters in Christ to a much higher standard than that though. We should recognize that we are all brother and sisters in Christ, regardless of our race. The fact that people don’t want to look beyond that is very unnerving.

    2. I am a member of an interracial Covenant church in the Heartland. I also have an undergrad degree in Bible, an MA in cultural anthropology, and a PhD in sociology. When I teach in my Christian college on matters of race I embed it in Scripture. While Alex and Peter could have carried on a Biblical-theological conversation in this short interview, I appreciate the timeliness of their basic insights on the denomination, race, and what it means to be a Christian in our society’s current climate. I will just say that the early Church got it right. When discrimination began to emerge (Peter’s “holier than thou” eating habits; Greek widows getting less handouts), it was dealt with in a straightforward manner. The Holy Spirit gave a definitive answer to Peter in a vision, which is now part of the permanent record of Scripture. And, the Apostles made a definitive affirmative action — installing deacons of Greek/mixed heritage to oversee proper practices in the Jerusalem soup kitchen. Let’s be clear, our brothers in this interview are not stepping outside the Scripture. We in the church have not been in the Scriptures enough to see the relevance of what the message says for us today.

  6. Tremendous conversation. I especially appreciate Rev. Ahn’s boldness: “I believe that it’s really important that the next president of the ECC be a person of color… In this climate, we need a person of color to represent the Covenant, to lead us to a place where our denomination needs to go.”

  7. Thought-provoking and real. Thank you so much for this thoughtful and thought-provoking conversation. While I agree that having a person of color lead us through the next season would be wonderful and appropriate, I wonder if that person might also be a female for the first time, someone open to encouraging good conversation and action around all issues of justice, including sexuality along with racial/ethnic issues. This is a critical season for the broader church and for us, as a denomination. May God grant us wisdom, generosity, and an openness to one another and to the work of the Spirit in new and deeper ways.

  8. Thank you friends. I’m grateful for you and the spirit of this conversation. Thank you for sharing your hearts. I look forward to hearing more.

  9. This is a great interview, and so timely. As one of those white Covenant pastors, we need to acknowledge that we don’t know what we don’t know, and confess our blindness. Maybe then we can listen, learn, and join you as ambassadors of reconciliation.

  10. This is such an important conversation. I am embarrassed that what Martin Luther King Jr. observed so many years ago is still true, the most segregated hour in America is still Sunday at 11:00 AM. I am glad for the gains that the ECC has made, but we need to be able to embrace people of all races and nations as brothers and sisters in Christ and fellow children of God. Thank you Alex and Peter for speaking up and leading the way!!!

    1. I am wondering, if my skin is white & I care about my country, do you automatically decide that I am a nationalist racist?

      I believe we need to be careful how we address this very divisive issue & drawing too many conclusions based on our personal bias.

        1. Jelani, seems to me that you are trying to justify racism based on apparent inaction. That is a perfect example of the secular mindset that our society has come to, and now it’s plaguing the church. Concepts of white privilege and racial reconciliation are foreign to the gospel. We, as believers, have been reconciled to Christ, and therefore, there is neither greek nor jew, black or white, etc. The problem isn’t “inaction”, but rather people trying to look at everything from a racial lens. There are only two types of people in this world: Those who trust the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal saviour, and those who do not. As a result, we can trust these words, no matter our race, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8:1

          1. Randy, I appreciate your persistence to speak scriptural truth into an emotional issue. May godly clearer heads prevail in this persistent distraction from Gods true purposes. Humans act and react at a gut level but scripture warns us: God shows no partiality (Gal 2:6); take heed against those who want to distort the gospel (Gal 1:7); take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Cor. 10:5); see that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ (Col 2:8); and finally There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death (Prov 14:12 & 16:25). I am saddened so much pop psychology and earthly thinking has infected the thinking at such levels of leadership in this denomination.

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