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Engage 2016: Is the CRC truly “God’s Diverse and Unified Family?”

Dr. Michelle Loyd-Paige spoke openly and honestly about her experience as an African-American woman on the opening night of the Engage 2016 conference, a multiethnic gathering on the grounds of Calvin College in Grand Rapids this past June. For many, including the two of us, that talk was one of the highlights of the conference (which is significant because there were so many great speakers!). Loyd-Paige’s talk was prophetic in two senses—it spoke truth to power and it was a sign of things to come.

With courageous vulnerability, Loyd-Paige led Engage worshippers into lament. Lament for the continuing imbalance of power between ethnic groups. Lament for the ways that dominant culture fails to take the time to listen to the pain of African-Americans and other minority groups who have experienced marginalization and oppression. She cautioned attendees against moving too quickly from lament to reconciliation. She warned that this is often done for the sake of the comfort of dominant culture, quoting Jeremiah 6:14: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. 'Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace.” She admonished that unity without reconciliation was merely the opportunity for a photo-op, as those who offered representation continued to face trauma and bear burdens that were not being acknowledged or addressed.

While the theme of the first night’s worship was Injustice and Lament, the theme of the second night was Praise and Celebration. It was a beautiful service, with banners, flags, dancing, and open freedom of expression in worship. And yet, perhaps the question we failed to ask one another was: had we sufficiently heeded Loyd-Paige’s warning? Before those ribbons, shakers, flags, and bongo drums were packed away, her words of moving too quickly to celebration rang eerily true. In retrospect we wondered: had we as a worshipping community been too uncomfortable with lament to stick it out?

Unknowingly, Loyd-Paige’s address prepared us for the reality of Friday morning’s worship service, a shared service with Synod delegates and the Chaplains Conference. Bernadette recounts, “As I walked into the room I immediately sensed a marked difference.” Gone were the diverse faces leading us, the banners, the flags, the feeling of freedom of expression in worship. The sense of appreciation, wonder, and even slight discomfort that comes from stumbling through a projected slide that contains words other than your own mother tongue was gone. While it is true that God’s Spirit abides wherever two or three are gathered, the Friday morning “joint” worship service sent the message to Engage attendees that a gathering of diversity is tolerable so long as it doesn’t infringe on the mainstream activities and culture of the church. Thus, the Synod’s opening ceremony occurred without any verbal acknowledgement that the CRC had already begun gathering in the form of Engage 2016’s Multiethnic Gathering. Although Engage was dubbed as a time of celebration for the CRC, “as we continue to grow into our identity as God’s Diverse and Unified Family,”  the "joint" worship service of Synod, the Chaplains Conference, and Engage acted as a stark reminder that becoming a diverse and unified family as the CRC is still an elusive dream, despite the reality that the denomination is steadily growing in ethno-cultural diversity. Which causes us to ask: would we rather have a photo-op than true biblical reconciliation? Peter Cha’s Thursday workshop on Redeeming Racialized Identities explored the themes of assimilation versus integration. Although he did not speak directly to the reality in our denomination, his mini-lecture provided context and language for understanding what transpired the day after. Friday’s “joint” worship service appeared to be a display of cultural dominance, which led us to ponder whether the goal of purposeful Kingdom diversity was really only the dream and work of a minority few in the CRC. Despite the phenomenal speakers, engaging workshops, and meaningful times of fellowship our experience Friday morning left us wondering if diverse voices are truly welcome at the CRC table.

As we (Bernadette and Danielle) prepped to write this piece, we found that our experiences prompted us to reflect on the presence of tokenism in our denomination. Tokenism is “the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce”. (Source: Google)

I (Danielle) realized through Engage how easy it is to fall into the temptation of tokenism. As the editor of this blog, Do Justice, I have sometimes been guilty of it. It's all well and good to ask my African-American or Afro-Caribbean-Canadian friends and colleagues to write a piece for Black History Month...but do I seek out their voices at other times of the year? It's great to welcome Aboriginal voices when discussing missing and murdered Indigenous women...but do I welcome those same voices to comment on other issues? And when they speak, do I value their contributions as they deserve? The sin of racism and misuse of power is pernicious and often subtle.

We find tokenism is also at work through the system of ethnic and women advisors at Synod. The inability of these advisors to cast a vote points to a type of “photo-op representation.” Ultimately, representation without power is tokenism. We have made some steps, but we have a long way to go for real representation, real listening, real power-sharing.

Thanks to the power of Christ in us, we are called to be a community that is characterized not by assimilation and tokenism, but by diversity and reconciled unity. May we truly become God’s diverse and unified family—and may we dare to have hard conversations and lament along the way.

[Image: Daniel J Cooke Photography]

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