The Bradley/Rhodes Conversation: Being Black and Christian in the 21st Century
For Christians who long to see more racially and ethnically diverse churches, the situation can sometimes seem hopeless. Sunday mornings are still segregated. Many believers, especially Blacks and Whites, still harbor prejudices about the other. And it seems we’ll never see progress on this side of Heaven.
But along the winding path to racial unity in the Church, we sometimes pass by landmarks of hope. The Bradley/Rhodes Conversation is such a sign.
For the second year in a row scholar, Anthony Bradley, and pastor, CJ Rhodes partnered to dialogue about race and the Church. This two-day event entitled, “The Bradley/Rhodes Conversation” took “Being Black and Christian in the 21st Century” as its theme.
Featured speakers included both Dr. Bradley and Pastor Rhodes. Rev. Bobby Griffith, pastor of City Presbyterian Church in Oklahoma City spoke on “Race in the South: A Theological, Historical, and Ecclesiological Account.” Phillip Holmes, co-founder of the Reformed African American Network (RAAN), also led a student panel focusing on racial solidarity.
Although I was only able to participate in the last half of the conference, what I witnessed encouraged me as a Christian who daily labors and prays for a more racially unified body. Here are just a few of the many reasons to be encouraged by this year’s Bradley/Rhodes Conversation.
We Should Be Encouraged…
#1. Because it Happened.
The fact that the Bradley/Rhodes Conversation is even happening shows progress. These conversations began when Dr. Bradley and Pastor Rhodes made a connection via Twitter. They began discussing various topics pertaining to the Black church and Christianity as a whole. From there emerged the idea to start an annual gathering and make these conversations public. The advent of this conference reveals a concern about the state of Christianity among Blacks and an effort from Black leaders to push for positive change.
#2. Because of Where It Happened.
Where the conference happened shows progress. Dr. Bradley lives in New York City, but instead of traveling to the Big Apple, Bradley and Rhodes meet in Jackson, MS. Mississippi is the state where James Meredith could only integrate Ole Miss under the protection of soldiers armed with automatic weapons. Jackson is the city that provided the content for the famous book and film, “The Help.” Jackson is also the place where Medgar Evers was assassinated. Who would think Jackson, MS could also be the site of bold and biblical ideas about how Christians can mobilize for transformation in African American communities.
And these conversations didn’t take place at a five-star hotel or a convention center either. They were held at Mt. Helm Baptist Church, the oldest Black congregation in the city. The entire tenor of the conversation was shaped by the old wooden pews, the deep red carpet, and gray-haired senior members of the church who attended. The history of the place proved an apt setting to talk about the future.
#3. Because of Who Was There.
The diversity of the people who were there shows progress. Although Bradley and Rhodes are both African American, Whites, Blacks, and mixed race people were represented. Most significantly the final segment was a Q&A session with Pastor Rhodes and Dr. Ligon Duncan. Dr. Duncan is a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary and is the pastor of the historic First Presbyterian Church in Jackson.
Having grown up in South Carolina as the descendent of generations of elders in Southern Presbyterian church life, Dr. Duncan represents conservative, White, Southern, Presbyterian evangelicalism. His background would cause many to presume his staunch opposition to participating in a conversation about the Black church, race, and the Gospel. But Dr. Duncan is passionate about unity in the church. “I’m all in,” he said. “I’m all in.”
#4. Because of the Content.
The content of the discussion shows progress in terms of race relations in the church. The most important point to make here is the conversation started with Scripture. Others have made efforts toward racial solidarity but those efforts have fallen short. Often, their notions of dignity and equality were fundamentally human-centered. The Bradley/Rhodes Conversation held the Bible as the authoritative Word of God and took Scripture as the starting point for all the ideas and solutions the speakers proposed. Conversations like these plumb the depths of the Gospel and draw out the paradigm-shifting implications of the Cross.
The Bradley/Rhodes Conversation on “Being Black and Christian in the 21st Century” demonstrates God is building His Church (Mt. 16:18). And it is a multi-hued, unified congregation under the great Shepherd of Souls, Jesus Christ.