Photographed from left to right, Michelle Sanchez, Mike Thomas, Ayanna Gore, Courtney Claxton, Chris Williams
Last month Pastor Mike Thomas and Radiant Covenant Church of Seattle, Washington, hosted the first annual Faith & Race conference. About a hundred people were present, representing at least ten different churches as well as people without faith backgrounds.
“I had no idea it would have the impact it had, that it would resonate with so many people,” said Thomas when we spoke over the phone. “I was very pleased with the response we got from people. When we go over our digital feedback, there will probably be a few critiques, but the verbal feedback and the number of preregistrations we already have for next year convince us that we’re striking a chord, and we’re excited about it.”
Partly the conference was such a success, says Thomas, because it was an outgrowth of conversations that were already happening within the church. Most of the presenters were members of Radiant. “We created this conference to invite others into the conversations that we were already having and to elevate the voices of people in our church beyond our Sunday morning gatherings,” Thomas said.
The consistent theme of the weekend was justice.
A panel of pastors talked about the link between faith in Jesus and a cry for justice. As part of that discussion, the question was asked, “Why is lament necessary for following Jesus?” The answers were nuanced and thoughtful.
“We lament as part of our denial of self,” said Rev. Curtis O. Taylor, pastor of Seattle Word of God Church. “Without lament, it’s an incomplete gospel,” said Sergio Chavez, cultural diversity advocate at Bellevue Presbyterian Church.
“Lament is in the psalms,” said Rev. Dr. Kenneth J. Ransford, pastor of Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Portland. “God even lamented…he was grieved at one point that he created humanity.”
“Lament is a prophetic gesture against the movement of the culture away from God,” said Rev. Rob Fairbanks, pastor of Immanuel Covenant Church in Spokane, Washington.
Later the discussion turned to the church as an expression of God’s heart for justice in the world. “Pentecost was the launch of the church because it ensured that the good news would reach people of every nation,” said Scott Dudley, pastor of First Presbyterian Bellevue. “If the book of Acts is the definition of the church, then you’re not really a church if you’re not focusing on justice in the context of multiethnicity.”
While the call for justice was clearly established in these discussions as a key part of discipleship and formation, the tone shifted between prophetic declaration and gentle exhortation, especially to allow space for people at different places in their journey of faith. One person acknowledged that tweeting “black lives matter” may not seem like a big deal to some, but for people taking their first steps on the journey, it is. Another mentioned that silence isn’t always a sign of tacit acceptance—sometimes it indicates fear, especially for certain people of color who might be subject to persecution for their immigration status.
Michelle Sanchez, executive director of Make and Deep and Disciples for the Covenant, presented materials from her book, Color-Courageous Discipleship, and she explained the foundation of her approach, which starts with analyzing the most common evangelical approach to racial differences—colorblindness. “Colorblindness prevents you from seeing racism,” said Sanchez. “Jesus treated blindness as something to be healed, not idealized.”
When I asked Thomas what he learned from the event and what he might do differently, he had to think for a bit.
“Next time we will overcommunicate with our neighbors, in terms of parking, sharing our needs, and tightening up some of the logistics surrounding our neighborhood presence. Because being a good neighbor is one of the best things you can do for your witness.”
But he kept coming back to following Jesus.
“I mean, we don’t have the option of whether or not to be talking about this stuff, because of the makeup of our church. But the important thing is, as we pursue Jesus, Jesus always gives us direction for how to be relevant. Our greatest opportunity to evangelize is, ‘How are we being relevant?’”