How to be an Ally 101 Pastoring & Leadership

How the Black Church Saved Me

Jeremy Odekerken

I am a white male from southern California, raised in a largely white community, and came to faith in a predominantly white Baptist church. Who, but God, in his surprising, yet delightfully providential way, would have imagined that a Black church on the south side of Chicago would be a tool of unimaginable transformation in my life? A year ago, I would not have conceived this would be the means God would use to save and salvage me from my ignorance and iniquity, but in his grace, he has used this place to change me.

It Forced Me to Confront and Repent of My Ecclesial Racism

Since joining a Black church, I’ve seen with fresh eyes my need to confront, confess, and repent of the ingrained white supremacy that comes so easily when immersed in white evangelicalism. While the predominantly white churches I’ve been a part of have not been explicitly racist, and have occasionally addressed the sin of systemic injustice and racism from the pulpit, this culture in and of itself has displayed subtle forms of ecclesial racism that is evident when viewed from the prism of cultural differences.

These churches fostered my belief that their form of worship, preaching style, and congregational life was superior. This bred both skepticism and cynicism in me toward the practices of other traditions. While claiming to see and understand the racism that existed outside myself, and beyond the church walls, I failed to perceive it in my own thoughts about the church and Christianity. My attitude of intellectual and theological superiority grew, accompanied by a haughty cynicism toward church services that seemed strange. But thanks be to God, he led my prideful and ignorant self to the Black church.

Participating in a black church has introduced me to the immense and long lasting contributions people of African descent have made to Christianity. Engaging in a tradition different than the one in which I was raised has offered me a fuller picture of the gospel. I am continually discovering how practices of worship within the Black church, which I once viewed with suspicion and cynicism, are actually magnificent means by which the Lord is spurring a greater awe for God, and deepening devotion in my life and in the life of my church family.

The worship experience, the preaching (which I now realize is the strongest preaching tradition in U.S. history), and the community life within an African American church is beautiful, and it is abundantly clear how the Lord is moving and using this church for his kingdom.

The Black church saved me by breaking my heart, forcing me to look at myself in ways that drew me to tears of confession and repentance for the embedded racism and white supremacy that I hid under the guise of theological difference. It drew me to seek forgiveness, and pursue reconciliation with my African American brothers and sisters. Being in a Black church has truly ruined me, but in the most glorious way. The Lord used this experience to begin the process of refining me so that I can more fully appreciate, embrace, and desire to learn from a culture that is different from mine.

It Has Given Me a Heart to Feel

In his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone makes a heart-searing observation when he states, “Often white Christians have the eyes to see black suffering, yet they do not have the heart to feel black suffering.”

Before I joined my current church, I had read widely on the issue of racism in church and in society. I had moved into a predominantly African American neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago, and I was becoming more deeply aware of the plight of black suffering in the United States. I had grown sympathetic towards racial issues, but not empathetic. But membership in a Black church, developing intimate relationships and community, and living my life alongside African American brothers and sisters has been used by God to soften my heart and launch me on the journey of growing a heart tender to the suffering endured in our context. The Lord calls his people to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn,” and being in a Black church has enhanced my understanding of what this really means. God has used this experience to initiate a chain reaction of sorts so that my heart might be softened in other areas as well.


It Has Shown Me the Love and Acceptance of Christ

As I began to realize the extent of white supremacy and racism within our society and within our churches, I started to experience extreme amounts of guilt and shame, and felt somewhat “homeless.” It was as though the sins of my white ancestors rested upon my shoulders, and when combined with my own ingrained prejudice, I was overwhelmed. I doubted my salvation, and feared there could be no forgiveness for my racism.

During my time in college, it was impossible to not have discussions about the race due to the events surrounding the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray. Unfortunately, my immediate response was to downplay the racism involved in these events. I was entrapped in a form of “colorblind racism,” and assumed we lived in a post-racial society since that was what I learned in school.

Thankfully, the Lord placed key people around me who were willing to patiently and graciously engage me in conversation, and consistently, yet in a loving way, point out how I operated from a position of privilege and white supremacy. Slowly I started to see the realities that surrounded me, and through these conversations as well as an increasing knowledge of the racist past and present of Chicago, the Lord brought me to the place of repentance for my sins of prejudice and racism, and started me on a journey that has brought me to where I am now: living on the west side of Chicago, a member of a black church, and committed to spending my life learning from my African American brothers and sisters, and fighting white supremacy in the church, theological institutions, and society at large.

I became increasingly vocal about racial injustice, which led to pushback and strained relationships with white friends and family who did not believe that systemic racism exists. It seemed most white people hated me because they thought I was a race-baiting traitor, and I assumed most African Americans would reject me because of what people of my skin tone have done, and continue to do. It felt as though I would not be accepted by anyone, not by majority culture, not by ethnic-minorities, and especially not by God.

Thankfully, some dear brothers of mine encouraged me to start coming to their church, a historic African American church on the South Side of Chicago. The Lord has used this church to help me start the process of moving past my guilt and shame, as he placed me within a church home in which I experience the joy of warm acceptance and unconditionally love by my African American brothers and sisters. These dear people fully embody and faithfully express the welcoming love and wholehearted acceptance of Christ, and mirror Christ’s love for the sinner so well. The Lord has used them to stir my heart toward greater devotion, and to renew my relationship with him. I have seen firsthand what the power of the gospel can do, reconcile people who might otherwise allow difference to prompt disunity.

The Black church has truly become my spiritual home, and I have a family of brothers and sisters in Christ that may look differently than I do, yet still generously offer to share, live, laugh, cry, and celebrate life with me. The Black church has saved me. I am forever grateful.

Leave A Comment