In 2005 Australia had its own version of Charlottesville when race riots and mob violence broke out in the southern Sydney suburb of Cronulla. It happened on a hot Sunday in summer when around 5000 people gathered to protest the presence of Middle Easterners in their predominantly white beachside neighborhood.
It began ominously with white Australians chanting that they wanted Middle Easterners, particularly those of Lebanese descent from a nearby suburb, out of their town and off their beaches.
When a Middle Eastern man happened into the middle of the crowd he was surrounded and attacked. The police intervened and all hell broke loose. Other assaults and retaliatory attacks combusted across the southern parts of Sydney, resulting in 26 serious injuries, including two stabbings, and attacks on paramedics and police.
A local man, Eiad Diyab was quoted as saying, “We knew always there was racism, but we never knew it was to this extent.”
It was as shameful to Australia as Charlottesville has become for the USA.
The Prime Minister John Howard condemned the violence, but refused to acknowledge racism was at the heart of it. “I do not accept there is underlying racism in this country,” Mr Howard said, “I have always taken a more optimistic view of the character of the Australian people.”
Nonetheless, many other politicians, police, local community leaders, and church leaders condemned the race-based riots in no uncertain terms. The Archbishop of Sydney and the leaders of a number of other denominations spoke about the unacceptable nature of the Cronulla riots. There is no place for racism, they echoed. It must stop. In fact, the kinds of things I’m hearing American church leaders say in the aftermath of Charlottesville are exactly the same things said in Sydney over a decade ago.
But if I was a white supremacist in Cronulla or Charlottesville I’d be wondering whether these church leaders have a leg to stand on.
What makes the church think it can lecture its society about everybody getting along when there’s so little evidence of it happening in the church?
In Sydney we have white churches, Chinese churches, Aboriginal churches, Korean churches etc etc. In the US there are black churches and Hispanic churches. Very few of us connect intentionally with members of other ethnic or cultural communities in our neighborhoods, let alone within the church. Martin Luther King’s chastisement “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning” still holds true.
The church can’t presume to lecture its society about racism until it shows it is working hard and intentionally on fostering greater ethnic diversity within congregations and denominations.
Some are much better than others. It was inspiring to see a diverse group of church leaders, including Dr Cornel West, Traci Blackmon, standing in defiance of racism and hatred in Charlottesville, but we all still have a long way to go.
How might we embrace greater diversity in our churches? Here’s a few suggestions:
Repent – Just call it for what it is. If your church is just one color, especially if you’re located in a large, multiethnic city, there’s a problem. Acknowledge that you haven’t done enough to foster diversity and ask God’s forgiveness for not taking race seriously.
Stop referring to “multi-ethnic” or “multicultural” ministry – All ministry should be diverse, inclusive and integrated.
Stop using attendance alone to measure the success of your homogeneous church – Replace it with measuring the breadth of a church’s demographic base and its subsequent influence in a diverse community.
Be intentional – My friend Mark DeYmaz promotes a measurable goal of 20% diversity in 20% of churches throughout the U.S. by 2020 (and 50% in 50% of churches in 2050). Read Mark’s book Ethnic Blends for ideas on how to do this. In brief, he says unless churches set their minds and hearts in this direction it won’t happen incidentally.
Develop a diverse leadership team – Mark DeYmaz talks about a non-Christian praising his church by saying “I want others to know that your church is not just diverse on the outside but diverse on the inside as well.” In other words, what had caught her attention was the fact that the church’s leadership, including the pulpit, was fully integrated. The leadership of most churches is not diverse, and a mono-cultural leadership team will only ever produce a homogenous church.
Embrace a collaborative stance – Partner with other local churches to develop multiethnic relationships and pursue multiethnic competence, both of which are critical for leaders hoping to engage their community effectively in and through the local church. Go meet your local Korean or African American pastor. Invite the Chinese pastor or Aboriginal preacher to visit your church. Suggest that the 4.00pm Spanish service combine with the 6.00pm English service occasionally.
Get to know your neighborhood – Many Christians (and especially pastors) live in a bubble. They don’t even know which ethnicities are present in their own communities. I once saw a homeless man panhandling on the streets of Portland with a sign asking for help in five different languages. He knew the dominant cultural groups in his city better than the local church pastor it seems. Our churches should reflect the cultural diversity of our neighborhood.
Remember Paul’s words in Romans 12:9-18 and let them be our guide:
Love must be sincere.
Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.
Be devoted to one another in love.
Honor one another above yourselves.
Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
Share with the Lord’s people who are in need.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.
Live in harmony with one another.
Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil.
Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.