How the Black Church Shaped This Jewish-Christian

by | Feb 1, 2022 | 9 comments

“You should come visit our church some Sunday,” Mary said on her way out the door with the rest of the choir. It was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and the choir of Scott United Methodist Church had come to the Iliff School of Theology to host a worship service for the students and staff. I was a thirty-year old student there, and a Jewish-Christian. “Thank you. I believe I will,” I responded, thrilled with the invite. I had always wanted to attend a Black church service, even as a kid. From the outside looking in, it seemed so lively, so interesting, so passionate. Little did I know how the Black church would shape this Jewish-Christian.

I was born and raised Jewish. Before I came to know Jesus at the age of twenty-eight, my grandmother took me on a college graduation trip to Israel. For the first time, at the age of twenty-four, I finally experienced the carefree feeling of being in the majority. Surrounded by other Jews in Israel, fear and guardedness fell away, shrugged off like a coat in warm weather—simply unnecessary. With a sigh of relief, I melted into the multihued, multilingual, diverse society I found there. To be sure, there are distinctions in Israeli society based on one’s degree of religiosity. The size and shape of male head coverings carries a whole calculus of meaning. Round fur hats, small knit yarmulkes, and 1940s style hats each carry a coded message about the kind of Jew who wears it and the norms of their religious observance. I think I was too relieved to notice any of that at the time. I simply drank in the fact that being Jewish was acceptable.

I sensed a similar ease when I first walked into Scott United Methodist Church, a week after Mary’s invitation to me. I joined the well-dressed stream of African Americans who entered the church for Sunday morning worship. Although I wasn’t Black, I got what it was to move from minority to majority status simply by walking into a building. It was a move from “other” to “us,” from being an object of suspicion to being an honored individual, from feeling guarded to breathing easily. Personally, it was an interesting juxtaposition to be in the minority among minorities. Somehow it increased my sense of safety.

After that first Sunday, I trooped off to Scott UMC for the following five Sundays. The people were warm and welcoming. The music was inspiring. The choir was fabulous. The preacher was enthusiastic and kind. The congregation was responsive: “Amen!” and “Preach it!” could be heard throughout the sanctuary. On the sixth Sunday, I joined the church. Six months later, I started my Advanced Field Education placement there, and was invited to be the Associate Pastor.

When I first moved into a leadership position at Scott United Methodist Church, I was the first non-African American pastor in the church’s history. It caused some waves. At first, I thought they were ripples. That was due only to the politeness of the people; they were protecting me from what must have felt like internal storm surges.

One African American seminary professor who also worshiped at Scott UMC called me in to her office at the seminary and asked, “What are you doing at this church, really?” She wanted to make sure I understood the white privilege I carried, even as a Jewish-Christian, and the delicate balances of power it threatened; it had taken African Americans a long time to get to where they were, and they didn’t need me messing with it. Much as I didn’t see myself as white, I understood the privilege she spoke of. Applying it to my own religious experience I could only imagine how the Jewish community would have felt about a Gentile stepping into a leadership role: unsure, ill at ease, suspicious at the very least. But what drew me in to Scott UMC wasn’t a desire to usurp power; it was a desire to share it. At the same time I joined Scott UMC, I was taking seriously the call I heard again and again during my coursework at Iliff: step over the lines that fear has drawn. Be open, in the spirit of Jesus, to radical love of the other.

Jewish-Christian

Some people threatened to leave the church if I stayed, a few actually did. Many more embraced me. The African American pastor who had invited me to be his associate pastor stood toe-to-toe with the concerns being expressed. His courageous stand made a space for all of us to work through our differences. In the beginning, none of us would have said, out loud anyway, that we were prejudiced or racist. Or that we saw ourselves as better or worse than the other. But we all, I suspect, had hidden layers of fear, mistrust, anger, and stereotypes to come to terms with. In the end love prevailed, buoyed by prayer and many a long talk. When I left that church five years later to go to my next appointment, it was as an honored member of the family.

Excitement and engagement brought me to the church. Welcome and gracious hospitality kept me there. During my five years there, we overturned idols together, wrestled through stereotypes, and named fears. In the beginning, none of us knew how it would turn out. It might have led to a church split. Or worse. But when we gave ourselves the space to engage our hidden fears we were instead blessed. I have carried that blessing with me, as a treasure, into the rest of my life and ministry.

Recently an African American friend confessed to me that she had first mistaken me for a “Karen,” an entitled white woman who is passive aggressive toward Blacks, someone not to be trusted. As she got to know me, she came to realize I was cool, not a threat. Our conversation was warm, vulnerable, revelatory. It reminded me that the work of getting to know each other as people, of moving beyond stereotypes, is never done.

In the US, we are born into inherited assumptions about race, color, ethnicity and identity.  It is our work to notice and name the assumptions, then move beyond them, to create something brand new. To find and carry the treasure of blessing that comes from truly breaking through fear into God’s kingdom of love.

If your congregation is stuck in their assumptions, I invite you to join me for my upcoming workshop, Jesus-Sized Dreams for Small-Sized Churches, where you’ll learn how to create and live out your Jesus-sized dreams.

 

Excerpted and adapted from The Jew Named Jesus: Discover the Man and His Message (Abingdon Press, 2013.)

Copyright © 2022 rebekahsimonpeter.com, All Rights Reserved.

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9 Comments

  1. Ron french

    What can I say Rebekah! You. certainly are a brave lady.
    Thank you for sharing.
    Unfortunately Australia is still coming to terms with racism. Our black brothers and sisters live more in the country than in the city and therefore there are many Anglo Australians who have never connected with our first nation people.
    Our Australia Day is the day England claimed this land saying it was uninhabited because the local people did not farm the land.
    So our First Nation people now call it Invasion Day.
    Sad but true.
    Hopefully one day soon we may get closer to recognising each others worth
    God bless you as you encourage us all to live the way of Jesus

    Reply
    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Hi Ron, thanks for sharing some of what is happening in Australia. Sometimes we in America believe we are the only ones dealing with race and racism. Now is the moment for the global transformation for all peoples!

      Reply
  2. Jackie Gardner

    Thank you for sharing this experience at Scott UMC. I am an African American female pastor in a small, rural white church in Bible-belt northwest TN. I am looking forward to learning and growing in this congregation and bridging gaps and going beyond predetermined boundaries regarding race and culture.

    Reply
    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Hi Jackie, challenging as it it is, I think that cross-cultural ministry appointments are crucial, especially when the pastors are well-sourced and supported, for making the difference. I have been in cross-cultural ministry my whole life. It’s a tough gig, but really where the ability to effect the most change is! Prayers and blessings on this journey!

      Reply
  3. Mary Beth Mankin

    Rebekah, Thank you for this wonderful story of hope through intentional building of relationships. I appreciate the reminder that “the work of getting to know each other as people, of moving beyond stereotypes, is never done.”
    You also remind me that while I’ve had good relationships across racial differences, until recently, I have not been aware of the power and privilege differential that probably existed. I give thanks for God’s love and grace that bind us together.

    Reply
    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Hi Mary Beth, I hear you. I was surprised to realize that brand new friends didn’t know my history, my previous breakthroughs, or any of that. Even when white or seemingly white people accept and honor persons of color and are comfortable in the relationship, we are still engaged in relationships within the larger context of racism, rejection, fear–as well as courage and transformation. Staying mindful of that is important. I can guarantee that friends and colleagues of color sure are. Thanks for your spirit of love and transformation.

      Reply
  4. Jim Gulley

    Thank you, Rebekah, for sharing your experience at the beginning of Black History Month. We in the church need to be reminded of how great a task remains within both our churches as well as the broader society in breaking down the barriers and learning to love, as scripture calls and compels us to do. We must become more intentional. Your personal testimony challenges and encourages us. Thank you for your ministry. Grace and peace.

    Reply
    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Thanks Jim. For a long time I have felt overwhelmed by how much is still left to do. When I am reminded that it simply begins with me, and I must begin, then the load lightens. Thanks for your witness as well.

      Reply
  5. Jim Gulley

    Thank you, Rebekah, for sharing your experience at the beginning of Black History Month. We in the church need to be reminded of how great a task remains, both within our churches and in the broader society in breaking down the barriers and learning to love, as scripture calls and compels us to do. We must become more intentional. Your personal testimony challenges and encourages us. Thank you for your ministry. Grace and peace.

    Reply

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