“This is my story–a journey of finding faith in a world in which I am different and discovering relationships that reveal the beauty and importance of diversity in the body of Christ” (Trillia Newbell, United)
Have you ever read a book, and been surprised by how much you needed to read it? I was looking forward to reading Trillia Newbell’s book, United: Captured By God’s Vision for Diversity, because I love Newbell’s gracious, friendly, and gospel-driven writing style. I’ve always enjoyed reading her articles at DesiringGod.org, CBMW, and now the ERLC. For this reason, I new I would enjoy being able to walk through a larger work by her, and indeed, I did.
I was surprised, however, by how much I needed to read her story–how much I needed to know what it is like to be the odd man out. Obviously, I am white. If you look at my profile picture to the right, you can see that I am really, really white (possibly translucent). I was raised in a small country town a little northwest of Houston, Texas and although my parents raised my brother and I to treat all people–regardless of race and ethnicity–equally, my close relationships with people of different races has been fairly limited.
Within the churches I have been a member of since becoming a Christian, two of them have been incredibly “white.” In fact these particular churches, averaged about one, to perhaps two black families within the entire congregation. I think there are a variety of reasons for this–ranging from theological beliefs, to worship and preaching styles–but the reason most certainly wasn’t that there weren’t any black communities near by. Unfortunately, this is the reality for many churches today. Though the civil rights movement has come and gone, voluntary segregation within our churches is alive and well.
This is where I would like to introduce you to Trillia: a woman who has a strong vision for purposefuldiversity within the people of God. She heartily believes that every church should strive toward racial and ethnic diversity, seeking to capture the beautiful reconciliation between races made possible by the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the way Trillia puts it in her book United: “There is one family, and all are welcomed because of the blood of Christ shed on our behalf. Once we’ve placed our faith and trust in Jesus, we are all counted as God’s children.” Because of this truth, Trillia challenges the church to do what does not come naturally: reach out into uncomfortable situations and build genuine, loving relationships across racial and ethnical boundaries. In other words, she wants the church to truly be the church: united and loved by the Savior who died for every tongue, tribe and nation.
Do We Understand Each Other?
Trillia’s book is about 70% memoir, 30% apologetic. She skillfully weaves her personal experiences and history as a black woman within her biblical arguments for a more diverse church. Learning from Trillia’s life–her family’s background, her coming to faith, and her struggles with being the extreme minority within her church body–was what truly impacted me the most. I was struck by just how different our life-experiences and thus worldview could be, even though we both grew up in America at about the same time.
Trillia shares stories from her family’s experiences with racism as well as her own. One particularly moving story was from her father’s past:
My father had the opportunity to attend a conservative college in the South. One day at a college football game, he refused to stand while “Dixie,” the song made popular after the Civil War, sung by artists in blackface, was being played. I remember crying as he described being taunted and beaten for his refusal to stand. This occurred in the 60s, right after the civil rights movement had come to a climax. I was horrified by the thought of my father enduring such pain and suffering–a man, a grown man, I respected so very much. It seemed as though someone were taking part of his manhood from him while he recounted the story to his daughters. Of course, he knew that he had adoring girls who respected him all the more when they realized that he not only endured but also forgave. He was teaching us invaluable lessons.
This personal family history touched me, because it revealed a blind spot in my thinking. I was struck by how something as simple as a song can carry great meaning and significance. To me, “Dixie” is just a song. Honestly, I knew very little about its history or its possible racial implications, but to Trillia, the song probably brings up very specific negative associations. I was challenged by how little I truly know about other races, and as a result, how I may be unknowingly insensitive to them. If I am aiming to love all the members of Christ’s body, then I will seek to understand those who are different than me, and thus be able to practically serve them better.
When Trillia became a Christian, she became a member of a church where she was the odd [woman] out. She could easily represent the one black person in my churches I referred to earlier: drawn to the church for its sound doctrine and fellowship, but still struggling with feelings of isolation in a church whose culture is naturally defined by the majority race. I appreciated Trillia’s honesty as she recounted her struggles to fit in, all the while caring too much for the theology and family of the church to leave. She shares how she could have easily left and found a church that looked more like her, worshipped with her preferred worship style, and that engaged in activities that were more comfortable to her. While her love for Christ’s body trumped her desire for comfort, she longed to be instrumental in creating a more diverse community of believers within her local church.
Trillia recounts how part of her growth in understanding God’s vision for diversity was to treasure the diverse friendships God had placed in her path, rather than simply seeking to add more people like her to her church. A good majority of her book is dedicated to displaying the beauty of diversity in her close friendships with women vastly different than her. By recounting the growth of these relationships, Trillia gives a practical illustration of what it means to understand, love, and serve people from different races and ethnicities.
It Doesn’t Come Naturally
Most recently, I had the privilege of being a member of a church body that truly exemplified the vision Trillia has for the church. It is situated in a very diverse community populated by many different cultures. The church purposefully seeks to be multi-cultural and one look up at the choir testifies to the beautiful way God is granting that desire.
However, as I searched my heart between the covers of this book, I realized that even though I was privileged to be among so many different ethnicities in that church, my close friends were still very… white. Most of those whom I was closest to were very much like me: similar skin color, stage of life, and economic standing. I was struck by how little I had personally sought to get to know those in the church who were unlike me, but whom I had an equal responsibility to love and serve.
This leads me to what I think is the strength of Trillia’s book: the acknowledgement of sin. What keeps us from going outside our comfort zones and doing life with those who are different from us? The love of self. Let’s face it, it’s hard work to get to know people who are unlike us and to love them in practical ways that don’t come naturally to us. It takes sacrifice and patience, things we sinners are often in short supply of. But thanks be to God, that we are not left to our own devices! We are being transformed by our Savior each and ever day to act, feel, and love more like him. Through his power we can put aside our selfishness and serve those who are unlike us, and together, through the grace of God, we can learn just how much we need each other.
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-14, ESV)
You can pre-order United (which releases March 1st) from Amazon.