By Pastor David McCleary, Calvary Baptist Church, Toronto
At the start of yet another Black History Month, we live in a world that seems increasingly at odds with the kingdom principles and values of God’s redemptive kingdom. Now, more than ever, we need to live into the fullness of Jesus’ call to be his body. We the church are reminded as the gathered family of God that we work and struggle for this: “Our hope is set on the living God, who is the saviour of all people, especially those who believe.” (1 Timothy 4:10) K. J. Ramsey, a Christian counselor, expressed it this way: “Any place you plant your feet on the ground of honesty, where you flee shame and striving and instead listen to the Voice of Love is holy, hallowed ground.”
But life in church is not always like this for people like me and I am left wondering, “Do I belong here?”
It’s a hard question to ask. Maybe you’ve asked it yourself, in love or family, at work or school, or in relationship to some other point in your life. Asking difficult questions isn’t a bad thing, but questions around belonging are especially hard in matters of faith. This is still true when you are in a place to which God called you—a supposedly safe space—the bodily expression of God’s ongoing love and care for the world. But questions alone are not good enough. As with everything in life, I have some areas of challenge, and others of privilege. Some of the privileges I have are that I am a Jamaican-born Canadian citizen, working as a Baptist pastor in a safe country. I have a loving and healthy family and a home in Toronto that I will own some day. I realize what a gift each of those things are.
Even so, I still live with the truth that at any moment, everything could be taken away from me, a reality invisible to the majority of European-descended population in Canada, but which is only too familiar for Black, Indigenous, and any other non-white people. A routine traffic stop for someone else, for me could suddenly be a life and death situation. Though I am made in the image of God, I am not always seen as such in the world. The Ontario Human Rights Commission’s recent interim report on racial discrimination by Toronto police found that Black people make up 70 percent of police shootings resulting in civilian death, even though Black victims of police shootings were less likely to have been carrying weapons, less likely to have threatened and attacked police, and less likely to have been carrying a gun during the encounter. This is not only an American problem. How could I not wonder whether or not I belong?
Even more sadly, though we are each made in the image of God, I am not always seen as an equal in church or in the ministry of reconciliation. Even in a position of supposed power and influence as a pastor, I am still subject to the same pervasive biases, slights and prejudices prevalent in the rest of the world, masked beneath Christianized words and smiles. Here is just a small sampling of some the comments directed at me over the last 35 plus years as a member of our CBOQ churches:
“You should smile more… so people won’t be afraid of you when they first see you.”
“You play golf? That is such an unusual sport choice.”
“No offense. It was just a joke.”
“We are not a clapping or dancing church and that’s not going to change because you’re here”
“I have been here my entire life and I will be here when you’re gone…”
Even as a pastor, maybe especially as a Black pastor ministering in a mostly white context, many times it has been a struggle to truly feel comfortable and welcome in “our Father’s house”. And so, I am left asking: “Do I belong here?”
Being Different to Make a Change
In truth, I have been thinking about some version of these questions for years. Now, as a family of Baptist churches, we have an opportunity to think through what it means to make space and place for people who are on the margins. What does it mean to include and lovingly take care of people who may seem different than ourselves, who are of non-European descent? What does it mean to properly minister alongside and to women? How are we listening to the poor, whom Jesus said would always be with us? Are we inviting them to the table of God’s fullness? What does it mean for us to welcome and walk with folks recovering from addictions? We too are God’s church, his beloved family, all of us broken and in need of Jesus’ love! And so how do we do that with godly integrity and do it well?
And still I wonder, as you may, “Do I belong here?” Inclusion begins with honouring the fact that all of us are created in the image of God. Maybe when we take this reality and way of life together seriously, as Jesus intended, our godly discussions around inclusion will lead us to different answers to the question that lingers in the air.
God’s answer is YES! Led by God’s spirit of truth and love, we can work together towards building up a church not just for ourselves alone, but a church for those “others” who are still our family, made in our Father’s image. Together, led by God’s grace, as the family of God, we are meant to embody, share and advocate a fuller, truer and more inclusive expression of church together. Jesus said: “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.” (Matt. 25:40) In Christ’s truth, we all do belong, in him, through the gift of his blood.
I have shared this deeply personal reflection because it is my hope that the outcome of all this asking, all this thinking about inclusion and belonging, will be that together we will stumble towards the truth that questioning provides. I am sure that in following those answers together, God will reveal the best possible future, which will free us to the best possible version of ourselves – the people, the family of God we are called to be!