A tale of two tables

My perspectives on race, religion, history, and justice come from both study and experience. From coming to faith in a white evangelical setting, to learning about Reformed theology as I attended a Catholic university, to serving as a 6th grade teacher and middle school principal, to getting a PhD in history–all of these varied communities and influences have shaped my unique insights on racial justice. But there’s more to the story. Read below to find out.

Season 1 – Invitation to the Table

I didn’t grow up Christian. My family didn’t have any hostility toward religion, it just wasn’t a big part of who we were. To the extent that school is a big part of a kid’s life, that’s how much religion was part of my life since I attended a Catholic school from Kindergarten to 8th grade. I credit the beginnings of my faith journey to a friend from high school who was an evangelist even at the ripe old age of fifteen. He invited me to go to (his very white, very evangelical) youth group with him. I started going because it was a social outlet – we got to play sports…there were girls…all the best reasons to attend church activities as a high schooler. Over time, however, the youth pastor’s messages really sunk in and helped me see the attraction to this new way of life. In textbook conversion fashion, I accepted Christ through the sinner’s prayer at a youth retreat. Despite not knowing what all that really meant, it was a genuine conversion that started me on the path of becoming a lifelong Christian.

Season 2 – Setting the Table

After graduating from high school, I attended the University of Notre Dame (Go Irish!). My evangelist friend from high school stayed in touch and sent me a copy of John Piper’s book Desiring God. While I had no idea that what I was reading came from the tradition of Reformed Theology, I knew that its use of scripture references drew me in. I wanted to get more of this kind of teaching, so I scoured the footnotes and endnotes and found other pastors and theologians and churches that sounded the same theological notes. I began attending my first, explicitly reformed Christian church and it was a very white church. At most services I was the only Black person in the congregation—not one of a few, the only Black person. But the book-by-book and verse-by-verse exposition of scripture scratched an intellectual itch I had for understanding Christianity.

At the same time, I did a lot of volunteering with the Center for Social Concerns at Notre Dame. Through this organization, I spent a summer working at a youth day camp in the North Lawndale community of Chicago – an inner-city neighborhood that exposed me to the effects of material poverty and disinvestment in ways I’d never experienced. 

I saw how this vicious cycle of injustice impacts kids and it lit a spark in me to use my education not to climb a career ladder but to serve and work for the common good.

Season 3 – Questioning my place at the Table

After graduating from Notre Dame, I became a corps member with Teach for America and was placed in the Mississippi Delta on the Arkansas side in a new public charter school. I was a 6th grade teacher. During this first school year, the abstract issues of justice that I had read about became extremely concrete. Every issue of injustice – from generational poverty to racial segregation, from lack of healthy food options to over-incarceration – took on a human face in the form of my 10 and 11 year old students who were dealing with the effects of these injustices every day. 

I looked to my faith tradition and realized that the Reformed Evangelical Theology that had been such a significant part of my Christian life didn’t have satisfying answers to the urgent issues I saw. The sources I looked to for understanding the Bible and God seemed to limit their topics to issues of personal salvation and piety. I didn’t find much insight on the plight of Black folks, and honestly, the topic of race or social justice rarely came up at all.

But I still had hope that this largely white tradition had the right resources, they just hadn’t been applied in the right direction. I thought I could be part of a movement toward making Reformed and evangelical Christianity more racially-inclusive and justice-minded.

Season 4 – Adding seats to the Table

In 2011, I moved from being teacher to student when I enrolled in Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi to earn my Master of Divinity degree. I also began to take on a much more public voice in speaking and writing about race and religion. While at RTS, I came “under care” in the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) and worked at an intentionally multi-racial Presbyterian church. What I came to find out, however, is how racist many Christian circles can be (the PCA has historical and cultural ties to the Southern Presbyterians who broke off during the Civil War to maintain their pro-slavery theology and practices). 

It was also at RTS that I started the Reformed African American Network (RAAN) and the African American Leadership Initiative. I received a lot of support and found there was a hunger and desire to address racism in the church. There was a community I could gather around these topics and around making progress in terms of racial justice. I imagined making space for Black people at the white, Reformed and evangelical table to which I’d first been offered a seat a decade ago in high school. I was about to learn, however, just how closely whiteness and the pursuit of power was tied with evangelicalism in the United States.

Season 5 – Flipping the Table

In August of 2014, Mike Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri which sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. This is when I started to see the most aggressive pushback around racism I had seen up to that point. Anytime someone would say, “Black lives matter!” many Christians would respond with “All lives matter” or “Blue lives matter”. They would argue it was an isolated incident or that the police officer was just “one bad apple” or even that Mike Brown got what he deserved. I knew instinctively as a Black man that they weren’t right.

This is when it became apparent to me how powerful history is to help us understand our present-day context. I enrolled in my first graduate course in History at Jackson State University. To this day, it is the only class that I have completed every assigned reading before the assigned due date. I had been Black my whole life and I had gotten a college education, but I had never learned this history of race in our country. This hunger for more knowledge about the past launched me on the path to pursuing a PhD in History from the University of Mississippi.

In 2016 when Donald Trump descended the elevator in his New York City Hotel to announce his bid for candidacy of the President of the United States, we learned how egregiously connected white evangelicals are to racism and Christian nationalism – exit polls showed that 4 out of every 5 white evangelicals who voted pulled the lever for this man. 

It became undeniably clear that there really wasn’t space at this white, Reformed and evangelical table for a person to be present as their whole self—Black, and Christian, and all. This table was never built for people like me and I couldn’t justify spending so much time and effort trying to make myself or others like me fit. Sometimes you have to flip the table you’re at and start building your own.

Season 6 – Building Our Own Table

In 2017, the Reformed African American Network became The Witness: A Black Christian Collective. We acknowledged that, although we had been trying to get a seat at the white evangelical table, there were too many decision makers and gatekeepers who wanted Black people present, but did not care to listen to their perspective. The cost of having a seat at this table was assimilation to the dominant white cultural norms and theologies. We walked away and started to build our own table. 

While this was happening institutionally, it has also been happening for me personally. I am continually learning what it means to lean into my own liberation. I finished my PhD and landed what I believed to be my dream job working for the Center for Antiracist Research (CAR) at Boston University. I realized, however, that my real passion is writing and challenging and encouraging the nation and the Church to be a racially and ethnically inclusive community. I stepped down from a full-time and prestigious position with the hopes of writing and creating content that can help move us forward in the journey toward racial justice.

For those of you who are reading this page and visiting the website, pull up a seat – there’s room at this Table for you.

Now you know my story, I hope this provides context to the work that I’m engaged in. For my most recent thoughts, subscribe to Footnotes and check out my podcast Pass the Mic.