Leaving the White Church for What?

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

Last week I listened to a powerful episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Pass the Mic, hosted by Jemar Tisby and Tyler Burns. In it, Tisby describes his many years deep within some of white evangelicalism’s premier institutions. After experiencing countless instances of racist complicity and enabling, the 2016 presidential election became a breaking point and he began de-tangling himself from these institutions. Pointing to an influential article in The New York Times about the “quiet exodus” of people of color from evangelical churches, Tisby and Burns are narrating their own journeys publicly, choosing to not go quietly. “To #LeaveLOUD is to tell our stories, to name things for what they are, to take back the dignity we’ve lost while being in institutions that don’t value the fullness of the image of God within us, and to go where we are celebrated and not just tolerated. ” (In the most recent episode, Burns shares his own story. I’m about a third of the way through and it’s just as impactful as Tisby’s.)

The story of Black Christians leaving – or being forced to leave – white Christian spaces is as old as this country. The first African American denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was founded after Rev. Richard Allen and others were forcibly separated from the white members of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. By publicly sharing their stories, Burns and Tisby are joining a long list of Christian witnesses who have testified against the moral corruption and racist complicity that is entrenched in so many of our white Christian institutions.

In an article about this series of podcasts, Kristin Du Mez, scholar and author of the compelling book Jesus and John Wayne, notes the similarities between the exodus of Christians of color from evangelical institutions and others who have left these spaces. She writes, “This evangelical exodus is not new, and it is not only caused by a seemingly insurmountable racial divide. A growing “exvangelical” movement has sought to draw attention to their own departures in recent years.”

Interestingly, the examples of the evangelical exodus which Du Mez goes on to cite are all, as best I can tell, white. Tisby’s experience of the racism prevalent in these institutions and churches becomes a point of departure for a host of other reasons for leaving. Du Mez wants us to see a commonality shared by those who are leaving, whether people of color or white, which is that they tend to depart quietly without making much noise about why they felt they had to leave. This is what makes the #LeaveLOUD project important. By telling their stories, Tisby, Burns, and others are opening space for truth, a prerequisite for healing and justice.

But I’m interested in a significant difference between what The Witness is doing and the trends Du Mez observes. The white people leaving white evangelicalism often find themselves with no idea about where they are going. Theirs is an exodus into a void. Whiteness, including its Christian forms, acts as a totalizng lens through which the world is seen and, importantly, erased.

One way to observe how this crisis plays out is to watch the decisions left to the departing white Christian. Sometimes they walk away from their faith entirely, not even attempting to replace their previous experience. But other times they move to a different Christian tradition or find their home with others who are deconstructing where they’ve been. What remains the same with each of these choices is the pervasive frame of whiteness. Rarely, if ever, have I heard a white Christian on this exodus who chooses to worship with, for example, a nearby Black congregation. A problematic expression of Christianity has been upended for these white women and men but they’ve left the foundation of whiteness undisturbed.

Compare this with the exodus of people of color from white and multiracial churches. Obviously, not all of these people take the same journey or land in the same kinds of places. People are complicated and our journeys are unpredictable. However, unlike their disheartened white counterparts, many of these women and men can imagine an alternative to white Christianity. Some of them return to the churches of their youth. Others foster new expressions of the faith, drawing from the faithfulness and wisdom of generations of Christians who have stood against the racism and supremacy long fostered by white churches. This exodus, from what I can tell, is pushed by a sacred history and pulled by a vision purposefully devoid of whiteness.

I want #LeaveLOUD to be a lesson for the (white) exvangelical movement. And I’m sure there are enough similarities between their stories and the tender ones being shared by Tisby, Burns, and so many others. But to learn those lessons and to join that particular exodus, it’s not just a toxic form of Christianity that needs to be renounced. It’s whiteness too.

(Photo credit: Nikko Tan.)

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