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Kevin Murriel ~ A Conversation about “Breaking the Color Barrier”

Recently Wesleyan Accent had the pleasure of chatting with Dr. Kevin Murriel about his new – and timely – book, “Breaking the Color Barrier: A Vision for Church Growth through Racial Reconciliation.”

*What motivated and inspired this book, now? 

During my doctoral studies at Duke University, I wanted to research something that intersected the church and society–something that as a finished product would make a difference. I chose to research and write on racial reconciliation in American Christian life.  My mentor, Bishop Woodie W. White, during my time at Candler School of Theology spoke about the Mississippi Church Visit Campaign of 1964 during Freedom Summer. This initiative, led by Bishop White’s roommate at Boston University School of Theology, Rev. Edwin King, sought to desegregate white churches in Jackson, Mississippi. I am a native of Mississippi. So, I decided to use the methods Ed King and other leaders deployed as a model for racial reconciliation in the 21st century.

Also, this topic seemed fitting given the media coverage that the killings of unarmed black men and women in America has received since the Trayvon Martin case in 2012. America is in volatile condition regarding race relations and now, in 2015, the nation seems more willing (or more forced) to wrestle with race and its social, economic, and religious implications in our democratic society.

*I think the phrase “racial reconciliation” can be parsed out many ways depending on who is hearing it. What does it look like to you? (There’s a big difference to me, for instance, between merely coexisting vs sharing life together.)

Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, former President of Morehouse College and mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said that 11:00am on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week for Americans. Yet, we work together, eat at the same restaurants, and attend recitals and plays together. This, I believe, describes what you mean by coexisting. In other words, as long as we can be around each other without impacting our individual quality of life then we are content. That, however, is not how I view racial reconciliation. That’s desegregation.

Racial reconciliation as I describe in the book is about intentional community with an end goal in mind. That goal can be different depending on what one is seeking to accomplish. I argue that for Christians, our end goal should be more multicultural congregations due to the changing demographics of our country. In the next 25 years, America will look drastically different and our communities will be more diverse. Therefore, the Church must begin to mirror the diversity of our communities or suffer in the reality of decline. To move towards this goal, we must name what really keeps us divided–race.

We cannot argue that theological differences overwhelmingly divide us because Blacks disagree with Blacks on certain theological issues just like Whites, Latinos, and Asians do. The truth is that we enjoy and feel more comfortable worshiping with people who look like us. To break this trend for greater Kingdom growth requires engaging in difficult conversations about the racially divisive history that is the thesis of the American narrative and then we must work towards forgiving what has been. There then must be an intentional effort, primarily on behalf of Blacks and Whites, to move beyond the past and reconcile so that the institutional church in America can have a future.

*I love that you’ve approached this in synthesis with the desire for church growth. What has your research revealed about the relationship between racial reconciliation and church growth? On a more personal, intuitive level, what is your sense of church health and vitality when people come together to worship and “do life” together?

Based on my research, the churches that are growing and thriving are those who are intentional in their message, mission, and function about welcoming all people (and actually doing it). I visited a thriving church near Atlanta, Georgia a few weeks ago and what I witnessed shocked me and gave me hope at the same time. It was a truly multi-cultural/racial congregation. And they were thriving. Their pastoral team was multi-cultural/racial, their greeters, ushers, choir and band.  The congregational makeup was about 55% White, 40% Black, and 5% Hispanic. Everyone was friendly and you could feel the unity in the atmosphere. It was the closest I’ve seen to how I believe heaven will be.

I contend that when people come together without anger and with love and “life together” as the end goal, churches will be healthier and people will find that they have more in common. But again, this must be intentional. Society has changed from the 1960’s. There are more interracial dating and married couples than ever and our children are being educated in schools that are more diverse. Most people’s social media outlets are multi-cultural/racial. We are surrounded by diversity and have accepted it in our normal daily activity. Now is the time to do make it a reality in our churches.

*Sometimes I mourn that North American life seems to be so privatized rather than communal and shared, even in this age of social networking: we “network” from our private residences or vehicles. What does genuine, Spirit-filled community look like to you?

In short, genuine, Spirit-filled community, I believe, is the ability to love and accept everyone for the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

*Have you served in primarily single race-predominate congregations? What are practical steps an average Wesleyan-Methodist tradition church could take to break the color barrier?

I have served in three predominately white congregations and three predominately Black congregations and each has the same issue–we want to worship with whom we feel comfortable and each has a way of stigmatizing the other. The interesting thing about each of the churches I’ve served is that they were each in communities that in the past five years became more diverse. From my experience in these contexts and my research, some practical steps for local churches and conferences to break the color barrier are:

1. The congregation must decide missionally who it wants to be. In other words, they must decide whether they want to be a church that welcomes people of all races or remain a homogenized church community.

2. Pastors of race-predominate congregations should host intentional ministry sessions to consider ways of being in ministry together in their local community. This is in line with our Wesleyan theology of connectionalism.

3. Conferences should mandate that clergy have diversity training and push programs that equip clergy and laity to have conversations about race.

4. Appointments in our Methodist system should truly be made without regard to race. And when pastor is appointed to a congregation where they are the minority, the congregation should go through a time of preparation to help with the transition to minimize potential cultural and racial insensitivity.

These are starting points. But the desire to be with people in intentional community is the foundation to breaking the color barrier.

*What do you wish White North American Christians better comprehended about being a Black North American Christian? Do you think there are any misconceptions about White Christians within the Black Christian community? 

I can only speak from my experience as a Black North American Christian and though there are many things I wish White North American Christians comprehended about being a Black North American Christian, the primary thing regarding racial reconciliation is that it will take White North American Christians leading in a significant way for reconciliation to occur. I think there are misconceptions from both groups. But with racial reconciliation, misconceptions must be corrected through honest dialogue. We often don’t worship together because we do not fully understand each other and how can we make a judgment on someone or a group that we do not know personally? All White people are not racist and all Black people are not lazy, unintelligible thugs. Unfortunately, society, in many ways, paints these distorted group pictures. In fact, Rev. Edwin King, the focus character of my book, is a White pastor leading and helping to organize black students to desegregate white churches. It is a beautiful story of how together we can bring about change and be the church that God envisions–a diverse Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

*Fill in this sentence: “we will have broken the color barrier in North American congregations when: “All of God’s people celebrate diversity and join hands together in unity.”

Featured image courtesy Aaron Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash