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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.