Owning America's History of Injustice
Members of the EFCA Board of Directors reflect on their visit to Montgomery
In the 2008 revision to our Statement of Faith, the EFCA added nine words to Article 8: “compassion toward the poor and justice for the oppressed.” Based on the surrounding context of Article 8—entitled, “Christian Living”—this addition means more than just holding these principles up as orthodoxy. It means practical action. It means living it out. It means Christ-centered, Spirit-motivated, life-giving orthopraxy.
Within the last year, two EFCA leadership groups took meaningful steps regarding compassion and justice. In the spring of 2019, EFCA President Kevin Kompelien, members of the national ministries team and district superintendents visited The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. They invited four EFCA All People leaders to join and communicate their experiences as minority citizens in the United States. The visit had a profound impact on those who attended (read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 on our blog), and in January of 2020, the EFCA Board of Directors made a similar visit.
The purpose of the trip was to explore the deep issues of racial reconciliation and injustice that have marked the history of our nation and our current reality. But this trip was not just a history lesson—it was a time for reflection. How can the EFCA better reflect God’s kingdom in light of our country’s experience with racial injustice?
In recent history, both groups have shown evidence of tangible change. Last year, the EFCA added its first African-American superintendent, Pastor Cedrick Brown of Commitment Community Church (EFCA) in Lindenwold, New Jersey. Prior to that, in June of 2019 the most diverse Board of Directors in EFCA history was elected at the EFCA One conference.
The EFCA Board of Directors is significant to our movement. The following list summarizes the main “strategic ends” within their oversight:
- Increasing the number and diversity of well-equipped leaders
- Increasing gospel impact
- Increasing the number and diversity of churches
This desired diversity—both of leaders and churches and reflected in the diversity of the board—is a measurement of the EFCA’s health as we minister in an increasingly diverse America. Members of the EFCA Board of Directors represent a variety of races, experiences and backgrounds, which make their reflections from Montgomery even more significant for the EFCA.
I believe the experience of these leadership groups at the museum and memorial were providential. We did not know what would happen in the following months as matters of injustice and race rose to the forefront of conversations in our nation, but God did. Our shared knowledge of the pain and injustice felt by African Americans helps me believe that recent events have landed on fertile hearts.
It’s important for all of us to own the story of oppression and injustice embedded in the history of our country. In order for the EFCA to fulfill our purpose to “glorify God by multiplying transformational churches among all people,” we must embrace the words of our Statement of Faith: “compassion toward the poor and justice for the oppressed.”
Following their trip, we asked Board of Directors’ members Chairperson Jenni Key (Fullerton Free in Fullerton, California), Rick Terrell (Hope Church in Mason, Ohio) and Roberto Munguía (Hillside Church in San Jose, California) to share about their experience and how it might impact their ministry moving forward.
Q: How did the time in Montgomery impact you?
Terrell: I was not prepared for what I experienced in Montgomery. As an African American born and raised in this country, I had the opportunity to reflect on my own personal history. I thought about my parents and grandparents who were born in Mississippi and how they experienced the abuse and, frankly, the evil associated with our country’s civil rights history. The time in Montgomery began to feel very personal. I could not separate myself from what I witnessed in Montgomery. This oppression was not impacting someone else; it was impacting me in a very personal way. After seeing about half the exhibits in the museum, I was at my limit. I needed to leave and catch my breath.
Munguía: I am a first-generation immigrant to our country. Just last year, my wife and I became U.S. citizens. I remember vividly the emotions as I took the official oath that sealed a journey that took some 14 years to accomplish. Part of the process of becoming a citizen is to become acquainted with the history of our country. This, of course, is not a graduate-level course of U.S. history, but a more basic level of major events and how they have shaped our present. Slavery is only mentioned in the light of the Emancipation Act, and Martin Luther King Jr. is hailed as a hero of the civil rights movement.
The officer in charge of the ceremony finished his remarks with a phrase that stuck with me: “Now that you are a citizen, our history is your history…” At the time, I did not know the repercussions of that statement. As I walked the halls and exhibits of The Legacy Museum, my heart broke. My heart broke for this part of history I did not know. My mind repeated to itself, “I did not sign up for this. I don’t want this to be my history too.”
Key: In the mid-60s, I asked my dad to take me to a meeting of the NAACP so I could enroll as a junior member; I was 13 or 14 at the time, and the civil rights movement was gathering momentum, volume and effectiveness. From that junior membership, I went on to picket, protest and register voters long before I was old enough to vote, do precinct work or pray (when I later became a Christian). I’ve read dozens of books about racial reconciliation, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Just Mercy. I took African-American studies classes while a student at UC Berkeley, including one entitled, “Blacks in Prison.” I understood mass incarceration as the modern iteration of enslavement of African Americans.
Perhaps I had greater experience and understanding than many white Americans, but nothing really prepared me for The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. I knew…and yet I hadn’t sensed how far-reaching, inhumane and criminal the numbers and totality were. I also could not fathom the individual stories that make up this narrative. It was a devastating experience, and it should have been. I think the only legitimate response to understanding more fully our shared history (and I say this as a first-generation American, so I mean our human history) is to weep and repent. There has not been a day since we visited Montgomery that I haven’t thought and prayed over what we saw.
Q: As Christians, how might your time in Montgomery change the way you engage your world?
Key: When the movie “Hotel Rwanda” was released, my then-ten-year-old daughter asked me, “Mom, what did you do when you found out?” meaning, “When you knew about the decimation of that country, how did you respond? How did you help?” I don’t think I had a good response then—although I have since served in Rwanda, and that’s helped me find an answer. I feel similarly, post-Montgomery.
From now on, I can’t not know. I knew, but not enough. I knew, but even feeling anguish in response is not enough. This is one more place where I’m asking the Holy Spirit to show me how to move forward with this new knowledge. I’m more inclined to ask questions. I want to know the back-story, even when it’s painful, ugly and uncomfortable in both the hearing and the telling. Truth loves the light, and that started with my husband and me writing a check to the Equal Justice Initiative (Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, founded EJI); ordering ten copies of Dr. John Perkins’ book Dream With Me: Race, Love and the Struggle We Must Win; choosing Stevenson’s Just Mercy for our women’s reading group of 25; bringing in a speaker on racism for a lecture event at our church—and we’re just getting started.
Terrell: Frankly, I was taken aback on how often abuse and oppression to people of African descent was done in the name of Christianity. People are being persecuted all over the world. Within our Christian movement, we gravitate quickly to those individuals who are persecuted for following Christ. But do we think about those individuals who believe differently than we do? Are we directly or indirectly persecuting them because they believe in a different religion or have a different moral standard than we do?
I believe in Christ. He is the reason for my salvation, and He is the only way to God. However, for those who do not believe as I do, how should I engage them? Is it my responsibility to convince them they are wrong or shun them because they do not believe what I believe?
Ultimately, persecution is a form of control. I need to trust that God’s grace is enough to draw others to Christ. The gospel does not need any additional help from me other than loving others and living in a way that shows others Christ’s love in my life. I believe Billy Graham once said, “God judges, the Holy Spirit convicts, and we are to love.”
Q: How did your visit as a group influence your experience, and how might that help you as you serve your church and community?
Terrell: I’m a part of a racial reconciliation team at my local church. The experience in Montgomery has only strengthened my resolve that this work is critical in healing the wounds from our country’s history and the divisiveness within our country today. The team at my church operates using the following perspective:
- WE LISTEN. We believe the first step in reconciliation is listening to understand someone else’s story. We all are a product of our experiences, and understanding the experiences of others helps to form relationships.
- WE LEARN. We take the opportunity to reflect the experiences of others against our own experiences, which helps us to challenge our own paradigms and worldviews.
- WE LOVE. As Christians, Christ made the ultimate sacrifice for us, and we honor His sacrifice by loving others. He compels us to be reconcilers.
- WE DO. We look for tangible ways to show the love of Christ to those outside our normal circles and comfort zones.
As a team, we have not arrived and have a long way to go. But with His grace, we hope to get better every day.
Munguía: We as church leaders need to teach faithfully what the Bible teaches about racial reconciliation. Our only hope is in the gospel. Only the gospel can transform us and unite us. Only the gospel can change perceptions and stereotypes. Only the gospel can give us mutual respect. The problem I see is that somehow the church is starting to follow “movements” and wants to be “relevant” but in the process is casting aside our only hope: the gospel.
Key: To look around the table at the men and women who make up the EFCA Board of Directors is incredible...and humbling. We range in age from 30s to 60-plus. We are diverse in race and cultural, as well as church background, geography, work and education. Although we are different, we are united by a deep love for the Lord Jesus Christ and passion for His Church.
I absolutely love and trust these folks. This shared experience together allowed us to process and dialogue. These are the types of experiences we need to have in common—visiting The Legacy Museum, the Holocaust Museum, Normandy or Pearl Harbor. We need to stand at the Genocide Museum in Rwanda and the Killing Fields in Cambodia. We need to read the books, see the films, support the NGOs and our work through the EFCA. We need to act.
Current events have brought greater clarity and urgency to conversations about racial justice and reconciliation. We are more committed than ever, both as the Board of Directors as well as the broader EFCA movement, to be architects of biblical response, compassion and action. I encourage you to do the same. It is time for each of us to use our influence to engage the brokenness of our world—which we know grieves the heart of God. Racial injustice is one such area. Start with prayer, and go on from there.