Walk in My Shoes: Reformed Means White, But It Doesn’t Have To

Walk in my shoes for a moment to see my identify with the reformed minority

As one of almost fifty African-American pastors in a pool of thousands in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), I remain because I believe Presbyterianism—as defined historically and in the Westminster Standards—is the most accurate representation of what we read in the Bible. Therefore, I am committed. Will I still experience growing pains? Yes! But it comes with the territory.

 

Why did you call me the N-word? Don’t you know how much baggage that term carries? Do you really think that if you call me—as your pastor—your prison ministry will flourish because there are more blacks in your state prison than whites? Should you have told me that one of the reasons you’re not going to issue a call as your pastor is because you’re not ready for a dynamic black preacher? Why doesn’t it seem to matter to you that your neighborhood is culturally and ethnically diverse, but your church isn’t? I feel like you’re staring at me when I walk into your church; will you stop? I guess you didn’t realize you were racist until your daughter got engaged to a black man—thanks for being transparent, pastor. I feel like I’m only welcome if I conform to your culture. Is that true? These are the types of questions I had to ask and the issues with which I had to deal once I became Presbyterian. For just a moment, will you walk in my shoes?

Rcently,, my wife and I were looking at one of our wedding pictures. Although we’ve only been married eight years, our wedding day is still fresh in our minds. The songs we sang, the food we ate, the laughter, tears, shouts of joy, and even chaos are all still vivid memories. That’s one of the good things about pictures. Sometimes photos take you back to a place you love.

On this particular photo, something stood out to us, which previously had not. From left to right, there were a myriad of cultures and ethnicities represented. By culture, I mean, “certain behaviors and beliefs that are associated with a group.” I needn’t define, “ethnicity.” Our wedding party included those who were Mexican, Puerto Rican, Guamanian, Filipino, African-American, and Caucasian. Each made in the image and likeness of God, they also represented difficult cultures. Some were in the dance industry, others in the hip hop culture, some were military, and others preppy. The photo is a glorious image of our friends coming together for our wedding.

Then we became reformed (i.e., Presbyterian). The ethnic and culture-saturated relationships quickly vanished. Our newest (and reformed) friends were predominantly Caucasians, and all adhered to the same cultural identity—the same dress; the same talk; the same walk. The break dancers, tattoo artists, those involved in the metal or hip-hop culture, Filipinos, Latinos, African-Americans, all disappeared. What happened? How did our pool of friendships go from an ethnic and cultural melting pot to a homogenous solution?

This is a question many have attempted to answer. Thankfully, many more are still engaging this topic. I have my thoughts, too, but the point of this article is not so much to provide a remedy for this problem—sorry to let you down, and “yes,” I see it as a problem—but to see if you’re willing to walk in my shoes for a moment. Identify with the reformed minority!

Many people of color, according to a title of a recently published book, feel like aliens in the promise land. We look around and don’t see anyone like us. Yes, in Christ, we are all brothers and sisters, but we are not color blind. When my friends tell me they feel like an ink spot on a white sheet when they walk into your church, the color of one’s skin becomes even more apparent.

What makes things worse is how you talk to us (Luke 6:45). You called me the N-word. All I was doing was minding my business walking from one seminary class to another. Perhaps you thought you were being cordial and sought to bridge the ethnic gap by utilizing what you thought was a term of endearment. It didn’t work.

I think it’s unfortunate that one of the reasons I didn’t receive a call to your church was because you weren’t ready for a dynamic black preacher. I know I’m black, and thank you for acknowledging that I am dynamic, but I didn’t know those two things combined disqualified me.

Do you really think I’m related to the only other black person in your church? Was it okay for your son to call me a “monkey” even if he seemed to be joking? How many more phone calls from my friends do I have to endure as they tell me they feel like they’re being stared at when they enter a Reformed and Presbyterian Church for the first time? Sure, we look at church visitors, but looking and staring are two different things.

Are you shocked when I walk into your church; you think I’m a visitor, only later to see me ascend to the pulpit? Are you further in awe when I preach without, what many African-American ministers call “whooping?” I think you are. If not, why, then, did you tell me that I spoke clearly and intelligently? Were you expecting something else?

Like a husband and wife, I think we sometimes speak different languages. I’m not talking about Ebonics and Spang-lish versus proper English, but an ability to converse in a manner where we both understand each other. But in order to understand one another, you must first listen. Will you? Instead of pointing the finger of rebuttal, let us speak and promise us—the reformed minority—that you will engage our concerns and be sensitive to our wounds? Will you stop thinking this isn’t a big deal? Will you begin to ask why your church is homogenous when the larger community might not be? Will you pray? Will you ask the Lord to grant you wisdom in this area? Will you read literature on the topic? Will you read your Bibles? What does it have to say?

“I will make you [Abraham] exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:6-7). God fulfills his promises, and we read and experience the ramifications of his covenant promise to Abraham today (Galatians 3:7-14).

For the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and his name was Jesus (John 1:1-3, 14; Matthew 1:21). As the resurrected Savior of the world, he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:18-19). In the providence and grace of God, both Jew and Gentile are brought under the reign of Christ.

The reformed tradition, much of which is highlighted in the Westminster Standards, brings these truths to light. Therefore, reformed can’t mean “white.” It must mean “biblical.” But if you look from the outside in, what do you see?

As one of almost fifty African-American pastors in a pool of thousands in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), I remain because I believe Presbyterianism—as defined historically and in the Westminster Standards—is the most accurate representation of what we read in the Bible. Therefore, I am committed. Will I still experience growing pains? Yes! But it comes with the territory.

I also believe the promises of God (Genesis 17:6-7; Matthew 28:18-19). And since we, in the US, have the nations at our doorstep, I believe God is able and willing to have those nations represented in the PCA. It will take time, prayer, communication with one another, and endurance. I am willing. Are you?

Leon M. Brown is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and is Assistant Pastor of New City Presbyterian Church in Fredericksburg, Va.