One of the great ironies in my latest call to ministry is its location. It’s in the most far-flung portion of west Portland, tucked into an odd municipal cavity that still belongs to my home city, despite being eight miles into a neighboring county. Sunset Covenant Church, named after a series of developments overlooking vistas where the sun sets westward toward the Pacific, is culturally suburban, even if it still has a Portland address.
Since the church is in the suburbs of a very white city, I expected to find a certain amount of affluence and privilege here, and I’ve seen plenty. On the other hand, Portland is similar to many other cities in the sense that gentrification has—in a reversal of what happened in the 1960s and ’70s—forced many communities of color out of the city core, toward the margins in every direction. The black folks who spent the ’80s and ’90s in north and northeast Portland have, for the most part, scattered east to Gresham, southeast to Happy Valley, north to Vancouver, or west to Beaverton or Hillsboro, our church’s neighboring suburbs.
So as I’ve been driving around getting a feel for the place, there’s a lot more diversity here than I expected. As I encounter these demographic shifts, I’m constantly navigating the tension between an effort to be my most authentic self, trusting my instincts, techniques, and experiences—and at the same time looking for cues that will help me to blend in and become acclimated to this new scene. Like all of us, I bring a certain amount of my culture and upbringing with me wherever I go. Yet I feel like I’m constantly adjusting my internal blackness meter. Some moments I dial it up, others I dial it down, but the right setting always feels somewhat elusive.
It’s a little embarrassing to admit this, being a pastor and all, but I was surprised to find a solution to my burgeoning identity crisis in, of all places, the Bible.
“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: ‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds” (Matthew 11:16-19, NIV).
I first read this passage as Jesus unleashing condemnation on people who can’t figure out what they want. Any volunteer church event coordinator understands this dynamic. Some people want things loud and exuberant; others want quiet and solemn. The same couple who complains one Sunday that the worship service didn’t engage their children enough, might well complain the next week that the special kid-friendly service was too immature and lacked depth. The religious crowd criticized John the Baptist for abstaining from normal fare, yet turned around and criticized Jesus for eating and drinking with regular people. In religious circles, criticism can be elevated to an art form.
I can’t afford to compromise my cultural identity just to get approval.
This hard-to-please, easy-to-criticize spirit is one of the things that prevents repentance, even in the face of miracles, which is what Jesus goes on to denounce in the following verses. Elsewhere, Jesus even says that those too stubborn to heed the warnings of the prophets wouldn’t repent even if they could speak to the dead.
But look closely at verse16. Jesus isn’t comparing the generation to the “others” to whom the children are calling but to the children themselves. The only thing more tragic than people who don’t know what they want is continually seeking the approval of those who don’t know what they want because that approval will never come.
I’ve spent most of my life feeling like I was too black for some people and not black enough for others. But if I’m going to be a good pastor, I can’t afford to compromise my cultural identity just to get approval. So whether I’m dancing to a hip-hop groove or mourning another unjust death, I refuse to let the cultural zeitgeist prevent me from being who God created me to be.