Maina Mwaura sat down with Dhati Lewis, lead pastor of Blueprint Church in Atlanta, Ga., to talk about Lewis’ book, Advocates: The Narrow Path to Racial Reconciliation. They discussed racial issues and the church.
Q: What made you decide to write about race in a day and age when people don’t want to talk about it?
A: I have a real reality, a sense of pride about being black and African American, but also with the reality of being African American in America.
When I started falling in love with a white woman, it struck me at the core of my identity. Here I am as a Christian, I was Mr. Racial Reconciliation Guy, but now, all of a sudden … I just had a preference to marry a black woman. But now I’m falling in love with a white woman. And so now I’m wrestling with this identity, and I have to really determine through this time – and God took me through a series of things – that what’s more important? That adjective in front of Christian or Christian? The fact that I’m a “black” Christian or just that I’m Christian?
This is really what I see going on in America. We’re struggling with an identity crisis.
Q: You are a pastor in a church that is incredibly diverse, you’re here at the North American Mission Board as one of their vice presidents – your life is diversity. So when you talk about the narrow path to racial reconciliation, what do you mean about that?
A: That’s simple. It’s based off of the verse in Matthew 7:12-14; it’s the Golden Rule: treat others in the way you want to be treated … verses 13 and 14, they go on, “the path is wide, the road is narrow.” And so God gives us a narrow road.
A lot of times, when people talk about racial reconciliation, I think they take on a posture of “by any means necessary.” But that’s not the posture we can take as Christians because the problem is that we have this thing called the Bible, and the Bible gives us bumper rails …. So, I like to say it’s not “by any means necessary,” it’s really by all possible means.
Q: You talk about Paul. Why him?
A: I think Paul gives us a unique perspective. As one who is dealing, specifically in Philemon, with racial tension and racial injustice – we’ve got to remember, the apostle Paul was a missionary to the Gentiles. He was an ethnic Jew as a missionary to Gentile believers. And it wasn’t to one Gentile, it was to multiple [Gentiles]. So he was very fluent in navigating through racial issues, cultural issues, racial things. I think Philemon is a manifestation of having to navigate through this type of tension. Now it may not be specifically racial in that context, but it’s about reconciliation, and Paul is on the outside.
A lot of times when you’re dealing with injustices or tensions, you either deal with the oppressed and the oppressor or the perceived oppressed and perceived oppressor. But a lot of times what we lose is that third position: the one of an advocate. And I think Paul comes in, and he’s that one on the outside looking in and he recognizes that “I can either be in advocate or I can be an aggravator.”
Q: Do you see yourself as an advocate?
A: Yeah, we had to. I’ve had to, and part of it is because of my own journey and my own story and I’ve had to wrestle through that in my own tension … When president Trump was elected, and I’ll never forget this idea … there’s people at our church who voted for President Trump, but then there’s people at our church that think that if you voted for President Trump, you’re the devil. Right? So there’s this tension that we have, and I was like, man, we need to talk. We need to come to the table.
Q: What do you say, Dhati, to people who go, “I am tired of talking about this issue of race”? They are fatigued over it. You talked about awareness in the book; they’re aware, but they are aware of their own personal limitations on this. What do you say to folks who are just tired of it?
A: I’d say I understand. I get it.
A: Oh, 100 percent. Think about it, you know. If you have brought up something continually over and over and over again and you feel like there was no change that took place after doing that … Or if you’re someone who’s constantly been accused of something over and over and over again and you change, but then no one’s feeling like you’ve done enough – that’s draining.
But the question is not whether or not we’re tired or fatigued or any of that – that’s not the question. Paul said he was poured out like a drink offering. So fatigue should not be our North Star. It should not be the thing that drives or not drives, whether we’re tired or not tired. Are we tired of talking about sin? We’ve been sinning since the beginning, since Adam we’ve not figured it out, so are we done? Should we stop talking about it? No.
Q: How do you deal being in a diverse area, leading a diverse church?
A: I wasn’t raised as a believer, but God’s providence and His sovereignty in my life, I think He’s prepared me for this. I’m the son of a professional football player, and I remember being middle class, upper middle class. The story that most people don’t know is that as soon as my dad’s career was over, literally the next year I’m on welfare. So I go from affluent to welfare. I go from going into a multi-ethnic, upper middle-class kind of context to a lower middle-class, which is mainly made up of people of color, black, Hispanic context. And then I go back into the high school context where, again, there’s a small percentage of African Americans. And, so, I’ve been in and out.
And even as a believer, I felt comfortable in an all-minority context. I felt comfortable in a majority context. And I think God was writing a story in my life to prepare me for a time and a season like this where I can be real because I don’t have to be fake, I can just be who I am.
Q: You believe the Bible should be part of our conversation when it comes to race?
A: Oh, 100 percent.
Q: Do you think it’s being left out right now?
A: Oh, yes, on all sides.
Q: The church, too, you feel like it’s being left out?
A: I think it’s because of the fact that we don’t look at it – the scriptures – holistically. For instance, we’re talking about the issues in Galatians. When you hear about Galatians, you hear, oh, that’s the gospel letter, about maintaining the integrity of the gospel. Yes, but I really believe that the book of Galatians is primarily answering the question, “How Jewish do I need to be in order to be Christian?”
The real question that we need to be asking one another is, we need to be able to differentiate between what is cultural and what’s gospel, what’s Biblical.
Q: Where do you see the church going, this issue of race, in the next five to 10 years?
A: We’re going to have to address it. Primarily, if we’re going to be effective, specifically in urban contexts.
Q: What if we don’t want to address it, though?
A: The polarization that is going on in our country is getting more and more polarized. And if we don’t come with a solution, then we miss it. And going back, that’s what I’m saying. Paul was seeing this in Rome. He was seeing these churches, Jews and Gentiles separating, can’t worship together, different sanctuaries, different living …
We’ve got to recognize that these are real issues that are so tied into our culture that we can’t separate the two. It’s called syncretism. And I think what the beauty of the gospel – the beauty of what Paul is navigating through – is allowing us to see this tension, see how we’re so wrapped up. And he says, “But the gospel is so much greater. So much bigger. And it’s worthy to fight for.”
Q: How can we be practical at being advocates? What are some practical points?
A: I really wanted to give handlebars to people who really want to be a part of it. Because I’m an optimist – let me just go ahead and say that – I try to wish and hope and think that people generally want solutions. But the problem is that we’re real good at what I call anti-vision, we’re just not good at vision. We’re real good at saying what’s wrong, we’re just not good at describing where we’re going, what’s right, what could it be.
Watch the full interview below:
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Maina Mwaura is a freelance journalist who lives in Atlanta, Ga., with his wife and daughter. They attend Johnson Ferry Baptist Church.)