In the wake of current events marked by racial tension, the Courageous Conversations Conference (C3) Sept. 16 at Word Tabernacle Church in Rocky Mount, N.C., sought to provide local churches with a “biblical framework to resolve the racial tensions that prevent addressing the spiritual needs of a community.”
Fifty-one churches were represented by 447 attendees who heard from keynote speakers John Perkins, civil rights leader and founder of the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation; Noel Castellanos, CEO of the Christian Community Development Association; and Kevin Smith, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, was slated as a keynote speaker, but was unable to attend the conference.
Castellanos talked about restoration in the context of poverty and under-resourced communities, especially migrant populations. He urged attendees to recalibrate their lives to draw close to the poor and the marginalized, looking to Jesus as an example.
“Christ, who left heaven, became poor, came into the world, became a human being and put the needs of others before His own,” Castellanos said. “So what that means is whatever advantage you have … we’re to be like Christ, who was blessed and had pretty good housing in heaven.
“And He says, ‘No, I’m going to demonstrate the downward mobility of the King of kings and Lord of lords and instead of being God Almighty … I’m going to incarnate myself, my Son, not just as a human being but as a Galilean Jew.’”
Young activists and movement leaders aren’t turning to the church, Castellanos said, because of a perception that the church has no concern about justice.
“They think the only thing we care about in the established church is to help people get their immigration status in order so that they can get into heaven legally. … But not so much their immigration status while they’re still here in this broken world, where people are not just sinners, but they’re also sinned against.”
Castellanos clarified God’s love toward the marginalized through an illustration about a parent with several children attending to one who is deeply ill.
“You give all the attention possible to that one child. It doesn’t mean you don’t love the other children. It doesn’t diminish your love for them at all.”
Smith picked up the theme of pursuing people often overlooked and working through tension that arises in conversations.
Tension in itself “doesn’t have to be sinful, evil and wicked,” but is “just the consequence of different human beings being together,” said Smith, who replaced Moore on the program.
Jesus’ conversations with His disciples were often quite tense, he said. Tension was present throughout the book of Acts as Jews and Gentiles came together, and it was present between Greeks and Hebrews even as the church grew in Acts 6.
“Tension can arise in fruitful situations,” he said.
People’s inclination toward ethnocentrism also causes tension, Smith added. “Things I think are normal are just normal, and everybody who doesn’t think what I think is normal – something’s wrong with them.”
He implored attendees to seek out people they might unintentionally overlook. “We’ve been changed by the spirit of Christ. … That alone gives us the opportunity to have some consequential, possibly tense, courageous conversations.”
In the final plenary session, Perkins warned against preaching a gospel shaped by political ideology. “That would be salvation by works,” Perkins said.
“We’ve got to go back to the gospel. We have the gospel wrapped around our own political and social and cultural realities instead of preaching Christ.”
Slavery and segregation lasted for so long in the United States, he said, because the laws that permitted them were intentionally created to suppress the truth about God’s attributes and human dignity.
“There’s not one attribute of God – not one of them – that agrees with the kind of racism that we have developed in this country. … Talking about racial reconciliation – it’s so unreal. … You can’t get there without confessing your sins to each other. God loves us because we bear His image. … He loves Himself. He wants us to reflect God’s image. The call to repentance is the best news you could have. That’s the best expression of God’s love.”
A biblical approach to contemporary issues
C3 closed with a panel discussion moderated by Walter Strickland, first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention and associate vice president for Kingdom Diversity at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS).
Strickland asked speakers to identify scripture passages that address race-related conversations.
“If we can’t find this conversation rooted in the Word of God, we only get excited about this when something happens in the news,” Strickland said. “If we can actually see this in the Bible, then we can hopefully have a transformative, ongoing influence.”
The speakers’ responses included Genesis 1:27, which establishes the image of God in human beings; Hosea, which teaches God’s unfailing love for the unfaithful; John 1, which finds the Word becoming flesh and living among people; and more. Strickland then shifted the discussion to address contemporary issues.
Castellanos explained that Christians in the U.S. must first confront a broken racial past that has been largely ignored.
“I think we’re putting band aids on,” he said, citing how European settlers introduced Christianity to Native Americans but took their land.
“That kind of Christianity has to be confronted because the root of it has to be justified by the Bible that we say justifies love.”
Strickland asked Perkins to address recent protests in St. Louis, Mo., sparked by the acquittal of Jason Stockley, a white former police officer charged with the murder of Anthony Lamar Smith, a black suspect.
Perkins encouraged the audience to become visible groups of Christians who can be a prayerful, loving presence in such circumstances, even if they turn violent. “The Holy Spirit in us is a restrainer of sin. Our presence is a restrainer of sin,” Perkins said.
Between the three plenary sessions, participants had opportunities to attend several workshops. Topics covered benevolence, youth ministry, mass incarceration and prison advocacy, multicultural church models, poverty and unemployment and more.