Waiting: it makes no difference.

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We packed our bags, loaded up the van, and set off on the 8-hour drive to the North East – and it felt like the moment had finally come.

Since Rose was accepted for ordination training, we knew our lives were about to change. Since we’d decided on her training college and I’d accepted my placement, we knew where that change would take us. Since I’d handed in my notice at work, we knew the change was official. Since we’d booked removal vans and organised goodbye parties, we knew the changes were imminent. We’d been waiting, waiting, waiting – for the best part of a year. And when we set off to the North East, the waiting was finally over.

And yet, it didn’t end at all.

***

A few weeks into term, I went somewhat nervously to my first ‘Spice’ Bible study, a group for the spouses of those in vicar-training.  The theme, to my surprise, was waiting. And as this room full of women (yes, they were all women) opened up and shared snapshots of their lives, I realised there was no one there who wasn’t waiting. And many had spent a long time waiting.

Waiting while their partners were in the discernment process… waiting to see if life would be turned upside down by God’s call. Waiting for the decisions… waiting for the move. Waiting when they’d got to college… waiting for school places for children… waiting to find work… waiting to feel settled. Waiting when curacies were being discussed… waiting for visits… waiting for decisions. Waiting for a clearer vision of the future… waiting for a home to settle in for more than a couple of years… waiting to carve out a role for themselves in a new place and a new life.

We talked about being in liminal space – having moved on from the old and familiar, but still waiting for the new to begin. It seems to fit theological college life for both ordinands, waiting to embark on the ministry they’ve been called to, and their families.

***

As I’ve embarked on my own process of discernment with the Diocese, I’ve found that almost every day of every week involves waiting – waiting for paperwork, waiting for meetings, waiting for letters, waiting for interviews, waiting for panels, waiting to hear. There have been times when it’s felt exciting, fast and fun.

And times when I’ve been glad of the breathing space.

And times too, more recently especially, when the waiting has been almost more than I can bear. It’s weighed heavy on my chest, claiming every spare thought when my mind isn’t otherwise occupied.

But whatever the outcomes of all our waiting, of this waiting (because there will surely always be more)… nothing will change, not really.

Sure, on one level everything will change. I’m living at the moment in two communities: one where we’re all involved in vocational discernment and the other where people are preparing for ordination. And it’s so intense because of the enormity of the decisions and changes we’re dealing with. To seek to hear and respond to God’s call affects everything – the person you are… the role you embody… the prayers you pray… the place you live… the churches you serve… the work you do… the family you nurture… the home you open… the people you welcome. It’s no wonder this waiting seems to take over everything else.

But at a more true, more real level, nothing will change. I’ve found encouragement and comfort in the last few weeks from singing and praying about the faithfulness of God. Looking back at the years of my life (you do a lot of that in the discernment process), I can see clearly how God has been close, been guiding, been shaping, been challenging, been calling. I can see how God has never once left me alone. I can see how he’s orchestrated and inspired, breathed life and fanned flames. And I trust that his faithfulness will never change, no matter what comes next.

And looking forward to the possibilities of the years ahead (there’s a lot of that too), I already know what my life will look like: it looks like adventuring in God’s story. It looks like listening for his voice, being obedient to his call, going when he takes us, diving into his will, embodying his love, serving his people, working for justice, fighting for peace, and relentlessly sharing the good news that the Kingdom of God is near.

The rest is detail. Significant, important, life-shaping, but detail. 

So wherever my wait takes me, I’m safe in the knowledge that God is faithful and God has already given me all I need to get on with life in his adventure. 

Posted in My life and faith | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

I’ve seen hope born.

It’s hard to tell a story that isn’t yours alone – especially a story that weaves in and out of years, a story that can’t be untangled from everything else you’ve known.

I’ve told my Mum she needs to write her book one day, her memoirs will be a best-seller. Perhaps I’ll write mine then too. But this year has been an especially important chapter in that years-long story. So I’m hoping she doesn’t mind that I’ve used it as a chance to shape a little of the story so far into something simple.

2807561013_64bfb98783_oPhoto: Andrew Bowden

I’ve seen hope born;
stark not softly lit or sweet-smelling,
no warming glow for any
who looked on.

And I’ve seen hope born
after nine rounds with denial,
sleepless nights looking for signs
it could be delusion.

And I’ve seen hope born;
but before it came a sickness
never more than a layer beneath
fragile surface skin.

And I’ve seen hope born
in the wake of weary wailing;
circular sobs that rumbled on with rarely
a breath for years.

And I’ve seen hope born
through doubting, daring tussles;
false pangs of life that threatened
to deaden faith for good.

And I’ve seen hope born
when siren screams reverberating
sounded relief, of sorts,
from urgent silence.

And I’ve seen hope born
when all was gone
but a bed, meal, call
to hold on.

Yes, I’ve seen hope born
in the intercession of the faithful,
in a pile of cards encompassing more
prayers than you know.

And I’ve seen hope born
as wise people came around and offered
their own stories of death and birth
to deliver yours.

And I’ve seen hope born
unnoticed to the uninitiated;
earnestly early at the station
to dispel my doubt.

And I’ve seen hope born,
lingering on the yet-unmentionable,
unprompted but by humility;
received with shy thanks.

And I’ve seen hope born
and it’s weak cries slowly wakening,
to gulp great gasps of life
as if the first.

And I’ve seen hope born
and freed from expectation,
waking up to wonder at life
hard won, now new.

Yes, I see that hope is born,
I see you.

Posted in Poetry, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Cynicism vs soup.

soup-475077_1920Every time I start to write about prayer, I stop praying.

And then I have to stop writing. It’s happened at least three times now.

I guess it’s a bit like how, the moment you think you’ve cracked humility, you get proud of yourself for being so humble and you have to start again. Each time I get to a point where I’m discovering deeper depths to prayer and drinking in all I can from close moments with God and I really want to share some aspect of it – that’s when I get self-conscious. And the consciousness makes me proud. And before I know it, the time I did spend reflecting on God has become time reflecting on myself and how I will share my wisdom with the world. And then there’s no wisdom to share.

Prayer must be a bit like a frog, I suppose. When you dissect it, you kill it.

So I can’t write about prayer, because every time I try, I stop praying. But today, I’ve caught myself off-guard and I’m hoping I’ll finish writing this before the cycle kicks in, because there is one thing I really want to share – not my own wisdom, just something I was shown, that’s changed how I engage with church.


If you go to church  a lot, you’ll probably recognise the whole range of different attitudes we can walk into services with. And since I’m now in church for at least two services, sometimes more, a day – I’m experiencing the whole spectrum of attitudes at a dizzying rate.

Sometimes it’s carefree – I’m happy to be in church because there’s little else worrying my mind so I may as well be here.

Sometimes it’s expectant – I come knowing that I need to connect with God, and trusting that he is ready to speak if I’m ready to listen.

Sometimes it’s full of praise – for what’s happened in the day, for excitements to come, for beauty and fun and satisfaction.

But perhaps just as often, I come with cynicism – reluctant to engage with the same old rituals when they don’t seem to change anything, and it’s probably all just an excuse for people to ponce about in silly outfits.

Other times, I come in body only – mind left behind in the stress of the day and the fear of the future.

Sometimes I come in a rush, having forgotten until two minutes before leaving that I was supposed to write intercessions. Sometimes I come grumpy at God, or grumpy at the world, or just grumpy at myself.

And then half an hour, three Psalms, two readings, a responsory and some canticles later, I leave, wondering again what the point of all that was.


So I’ve been trying something that I learned back with the Community of St Anselm, something so simple I had no idea what a difference it could make. I’ve been trying out having periods of silence before I go to Church.

On our week-long retreats last year, we’d have one night designated as a night for reconciliation. There was space for reconciliation with God, expressed through confession, through writing, through lighting candles and quiet adoration at the foot of the cross. And there was space for reconciliation with one another, through honest conversations, apologies, hugs and sometimes tears. In other words, big stuff happened on those nights.

And so to prepare for them, we’d have a few hours of silence first. It was more than just stopping speaking. An atmosphere of prayerfulness would descend, and each person would prepare themselves for what was to come. We’d have a very simple supper of soup and bread, and some would choose to fast. We’d return to our own rooms, quieten ourselves and ask God to show us what needed doing that night. And when we came together to worship, there was a palpable sense of expectancy. By the end of the night, there was rejoicing at all God had done.

It’s a bit different here, not least because outside of that intense community, there’s no exactly equivalent times to prepare for. But there are some services, such as healing services, that I want to come at with that same attitude – quiet, prepared, expectant. So I’ve tried, a few times now, that same sort of ritual. If there’s anyone else home, I let them know I’ll be keeping silence. I switch off my phone, and avoid social media. I eat a more simple supper than usual. I spend some time in prayer. I walk to the service, rather than driving, using the physical activity as a way in to reflect on the journey towards meeting with God.

And it’s not a perfect antidote to my grumpiness and cynicism. It doesn’t always happen – I forget to leave enough time to prepare, or I can’t persuade myself that a simple evening is more worthwhile than lounging in front of the Big Bang Theory with a glass of wine. But I have found God to be gracious with my few attempts at quietening myself, and that he has honoured my silence by coming tangibly close, whispering clearly enough for even me to hear, and leaving me tingling like he’s passed an electric current across my skin. It’s addictive, and it makes me ever more sure that the life I’m designed to live is a life of prayer.

So next time you find me moaning like a broken record, or sitting sulkily in the back pew, you might like to gently remind me to shhh – that Church is much better when I’m prepared to listen to God.

Posted in Community of St Anselm, Discipleship | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

You can take the girl out of the evangelical church but…

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If you’d been driving up the A690 at about 10pm on Wednesday night, and you’d driven up alongside a little white Chevy (before inevitably overtaking it), you’d have heard a song belted out with unlikely enthusiasm.

“LORD, I give you my hearrrrrt, I give you my sooouul…
I live for YOU ALONE!”

It’s not a particular favourite of mine, it’s now 20 years old and contains eight lines of perhaps averagely inspiring lyrics. But they were eight lines I could remember by heart and they were the eight lines that came to mind on that one of my many journeys on the A690. They were eight lines so familiar that I was transported back to intimate times of worship alone in my childhood bedroom, and to the fresh excitement of youth services in a glow-stick-lit and bean-bag-furnished church.

Those eight lines freed me to worship at the top of my voice, uninhibited and unselfconsciously.

And I’ve discovered over the last month that this is something I need; it’s a really important part of my spirituality. It’s part of the way God has made me: an expressive and loud worshipper. A spontaneous worshipper. An exuberant worshipper. An emotional worshipper.  A hands-raised, eyes-closed, foot-stamping worshipper. A kneel-in-wonder, shout-in-praise worshipper.

***

Each morning, and each evening, we sing a thing called an Office Hymn – not a concept I’d come across before starting this placement. They come in a little green book called The English Hymnal, and the books tell you when you’re meant to sing each one – Wednesday morning, or Friday evening for instance, or on a particular saint’s day. The book was first published in 1924, but each hymn is also marked with which century it comes from. The seventh century seems to have been a particularly prolific period.

At first I could barely make out the words, let alone follow any kind of tune or rhythm – I’ve since discovered that’s a feature of plainsong. A few weeks in, there’s a growing familiarity to the rise and fall of the notes, and I’m no longer surprised at singing to ‘God the Holy Paraclete’. These hymns are a soft and comforting way to start a 7.30am morning prayer service. And I’m growing to love the special sense of connectedness to Christians who went before me centuries ago as I worship as they did.

But alone, they’re not enough for me, they can’t be the entirety of my worship.

And a very helpful session on spirituality at the beginning of the placement reminded me that it’s okay – even good – to know what I need to keep me aware of a close, intimate relationship with God. To say I need something else too isn’t to belittle what others find most helpful, nor to close myself off from discovering value in those practices which I wouldn’t have known as part of my own tradition.

Our God is endlessly creative in the ways he’s made us and wired us, and endless diversity in the ways we worship is just one expression of that.

***

So here’s the ask. 

As previously noted, I probably spend as much time in my car as I do in church now – and I want to take those opportunities to worship with the familiarity and comfort that comes from singing worship songs at the very top of my voice.

But I could do with a little help. So if you have any old worship CDs knocking around, ones that you don’t use now that everything is stored on computers and phones and iPods, I would love to take them off your hands and keep them in my car for such occasions.

Anything you’ve got – from Graham Kendrick, Brian Doerkson, Delirious?, Stuart Townend and of course the Gettys, through to Hillsong, Soul Survivor, Worship Central and Bethel – anything would be much appreciated and help me keep breathing the oxygen I need to worship in spirit and in truth during this placement year.

[Address removed because I’ve received so many donations now – thank you for all the support!] 

The A690 won’t know what’s hit it. Don’t worry – I’ll keep both hands on the wheel and my eyes open.

With love and thanks!
xx

Posted in My life and faith | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

“I’m sorry, I haven’t a clue.”

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Nearly a month ago, I left my job, my house and my friends in London and drove for what felt like days up the motorway to start my new life in the Great North East. And when people asked me, “So what will you be doing in Sunderland?”, I had a number of wise, sagely answers for them.

“I will be discerning the will of God for my life, particularly whether ordained ministry is my vocation.”

“I will be living in intentional Christian community, and adopting a rhythm of daily prayer, eucharist and service.”

“I will be serving the people of three parishes, embodying the love of Jesus for them.”

“I will be shadowing and working alongside a number of well-esteemed clergy, and benefitting from their sought-after wisdom.”*

“I will be continuing my theological studies, observing and reflecting on theology worked out in action.”

And now I’m a few weeks in, it’s not that any of those answers were wrong exactly – it’s more that I simply missed out my primary activity, the one task that seems to take up more of my time than any other: asking questions.

What I do in Sunderland is ask questions, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Here’s a small selection of the many that have been on my lips since arriving:

“Can you tell me the alarm code again?”

“Why is Mary suddenly such a big part of my life?”

“What is a girdle?”

“How do you tie a girdle?”

“Why are the windows bricked up?”

“What does Holy Cross day mean?”

“When is bin day?”

“Where should I go on a sunny day?”

“Does Asda sell asparagus?”

“What happens at the crematorium?”

“What are all these keys for?”

“What’s an Ember day?”

“Where do we keep cheese graters?”

“Can you help me make sense of the Daily Prayer book?”

“Which doctors’ surgery should I go for?”

“What’s the Angelus?”

“How do you work the lawnmower?”

“What on earth is a blood-stained purificator?”

“Where do I leave the bins out?”

“Why do you pray for the dead?”

“Where’s the post office?”

“Why does the statue of Mary have a flower?”

“Do you know how the tumble dryer works?”

“What’s the difference between the invocation of saints and praying to them?”

“What was that green poncho thing called?”

“How do you always know what office hymn we’re singing?”

“Is there anywhere to park there?”

“What does ‘concelebrate’ mean?”

“Is that razor wire on top of our garden fence?”

“How do I process in and out?”

“Which garage will fix my car for a fair price?”

“What does clearing the altar mean, and how do I do it?”

“What does preparing the altar mean, and how do I do it?”

“Can you show me that one more time?”

“Will Fridays start this early every week?”

And of course, the most regular of them all:

“I’m really sorry, can you remind me of your name?”

It’s a very humbling experience, realising you know absolutely nothing. And it’s meant that I’ve started my year of supposedly ministering to others by gratefully receiving their kindness instead. Far from being unsettled and bewildered, I’ve spent my first few weeks feeling more content than I have in a long time, upheld by the many people I’ve depended on to show me the ropes.

It’s thanks to the affectionate hug of a woman who reassured me after I’d failed at getting the car out of the drive unharmed this morning, saying “Don’t let it feel out of proportion – you’ve only been a bit of an eejit.”

It’s thanks to the patience of the curate who spent a whole Friday morning walking me through my tasks on Sunday so I wouldn’t be so nervous about spilling Jesus’ blood or forgetting when to bow.

It’s thanks to the strength of my new housemate who came out in the garden to get the lawnmower started for me every time my weak attempts at pulling the cord failed.

These first few weeks have been about the coffee people have poured me, the meals they’ve cooked me, the books they’ve lent me, the explanations they’ve repeated for me, the prayers they’ve offered for me, the films they’ve watched with me, the tight-knit groups into which they’ve welcomed me, and the countless smiles with which they’ve encouraged me.

Over the rest of the year, I hope I stay humble enough to receive the help and kindness so graciously shown by the people I’m living, worshipping and working alongside. And I’m praying that from here on, I can focus on asking another type of question: “How can I pray for you?” “Would you like another coffee?” “Can I give you a hand with that?” “Would you like to come in?” “Would having company help?” 

But it have a sneaking suspicion that God has more to teach me through my questions of helplessness than the help I think I can give. Please pray that I’ll learn it quickly!


*Hope you’re reading this J, K and P… You can pay me later.

Posted in My life and faith | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Dear… the next LGBT St Anselmer

While my Year in God’s Time is over, a new cohort of the Community of St Anselm will this week be moving in to Lambeth Palace, being measured up for their albs, and wondering what on earth they’ve let themselves in for.

And statistically speaking, it’s almost certain that one or more of them, resident and/or non-resident, will be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise queer.

So I offer these words in the hope they’ll reach those for whom they might be helpful.

St Anselmer cross on red patterned jumperDear New LGBT St Anselmer,

What you’re doing this year is something deeply personal, transformative, and unique – no-one else will ever experience exactly what you do in the next 10 months.

Including me.

Your journey, individually and as a community, will of course be different to mine – and I can’t speak into exactly what you’ll experience. But these are a few thoughts and words of advice from my own time with the Community, which might help you navigate the year to come:

1. Begin with your eyes on God 

At first it can see a little overwhelming – you’re spending a year at the very heart of the Anglican Communion, under an Abbot who is the spiritual leader of more than 85 million people. Perhaps there’s already part of you wondering how to make the most of such an opportunity. If you’re out as an LGBT person, there’ll certainly be those who’d like you to use it for politicking and point-making.

But above all else, your year is a year to come close to God, to learn from Jesus, to live step by step with the Spirit. That will impact every area of your life, not least how you understand and communicate about your sexuality. But start everything with your eyes on God, and don’t move them for a moment. Begin with a longing for his agenda, and be prepared to be surprised at what he has in mind.

2. Decide for yourself how out to be and when

It was my first ‘sharing group’ time when I explained that I was in a relatively new relationship, but I didn’t know how to tell them she was another woman. So I started my coming out less formally, chatting with the new friend I trusted most. Encouraged by her positive reaction, I dropped my partner’s name and gender into more and more conversations, until word spread and everyone knew.

Your sexuality, partner or gender identity might be so important to how you understand yourself that you bring it up in your first introductions. It might be something you’ve never told anyone about before. Both of those are okay. Expect to find it natural to open up more as you grow in intimacy with one another; expect to find it awkward sometimes to share more than any social norms dictate.

Be too open, and there will be those who feel uncomfortable by being confronted with your sexuality. Keep too much private, and there will be those who feel you’re lacking in transparency and trust. I say this not to make you feel you can’t win – but to show that it’s fruitless to choose how open to be based on other’s expectations.

Pray. Engage with your instincts and challenge them. And err on the side of faith, trust and friendship.

3. Know that they can’t unchoose you

One of the most profound privileges of being part of the Community of St Anselm is that each of you chooses to commit to the others before you know a thing about one another – except that you are all followers of Jesus who desire to follow him more closely.

Your community will include those who are LGBT, those who have never knowingly met a gay person, those who can’t understand how a Christian could condone same-sex relationships, and those who can’t understand why this is an issue at all. And probably everyone in between.

You can’t unchoose a member of that community when you discover they take a very different position to you. And they cannot unchoose you. This is the freest you will ever be to engage honestly and share openly about who you are and who you love – because even those who disagree are deeply committed to you. Have confidence. You don’t need to be anyone else.

4. Treat every issue as a community issue

Depending on where you’re from, you’ll be more or less used to some issues being private – for some people, faith is a deeply personal matter, and relationships are usually only between two people. But in community, it’s never only about you. Everyone has a stake in one another’s beliefs, experiences and even conflicts. That’s a frustrating, sometimes painful reality that makes no sense outside of a community. But as you begin to accept it, you’ll see the opportunities – to listen deeply, to love freely, and to practise reconciliation and forgiveness.

5. Expect relationships to change you all

I’ve got some really good arguments. I’ve got some great explanations. I’m sometimes sure that if I could just sit people down for long enough and talk at them, they’d have to come around to my way of understanding a Christian and biblical perspective on same-sex relationships. But of course that’s not true. Just like I don’t imagine that someone of a different view lecturing me is going to change my mind.

But relationships will make a difference. The single thing that will make the most impact for people who have only ever thought about sexuality in terms of arguments and verses, is knowing you. Be kind. Be generous. Be invested in their lives. Cry over what hurts them. Celebrate their successes. Pray with them and for them. Worship side by side. Share communion together. And be prepared for both of you to change.

I haven’t changed my mind about my relationship. I’m still as convinced as ever of God’s blessing upon it. But I’ll never be able to write off everyone who believes differently as a homophobic bigot – because I can see the faces of my friends, people who were part of a community with me and shared their lives and their worship with me. And I hope they too will never be able to write off every gay person as a promiscuous God-denier, because they know me. They’ve seen my faith. They’ve witnessed my love. And so all we can do is listen to one another, learn from one another and hold one another in prayer.

All the best, New LGBT St Anselmer, whoever you are and wherever you’re coming from. You’ll be in my prayers this year, and if you’d like to chat as the months unfold, get in touch.

Love,
Claire
x

 

 

Posted in Community of St Anselm, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Yes, it’s racist: 5 objections to The Gospel Coalition’s article

I’ve never written about race before. And for that, I’m sorry.

The racism that is still prevalent in white Christian circles and in the structures of our society demands both words and action to make change. And those words and actions can’t just be the responsibility of black people – it’s for us to repent, to listen, to learn, to challenge, to change. So here’s a start.

The Gospel Coalition (an American conservative evangelical organisation, led by a Council of 55 men – naturally) has published an article called ‘When God sends your white daughter a black husband’. Have a read:

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I tweeted about this article as ‘barely disguised racism’ – and although many people seem to agree, a few have asked me what’s wrong with it. Surely it’s a story redemption, of a woman overcoming her prejudice and realising that we’re all equal?

In response, I thought I’d show a few tweets and responses from others, grouped together by ‘ways this article is deeply flawed’.

  1. The premise of the article – that having a black man marry into your family is an issue to address. By publishing the article, TGC legitimises white people’s feelings of discomfort at black people being part of their family.Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 11.04.14Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 11.01.27Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 11.08.45
    Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 10.44.55
    Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 10.46.37


  2. The erasing of Glenn’s identity – the way that the writer comes to accept her son in law is to stop seeing him as black.
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  3. The answers given are about learning to cope with the issue as a challenge or a trial, not to repent of your racism. 
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  4. It even suggests that white people shouldn’t challenge others on their overt racism – showing more concern to appease the prejudices of white family members and keep the peace than for black people being treated as less.  Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 10.56.19Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 10.56.29Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 11.02.22

  5. The article addresses an issue of racism by giving voice only to the person with power and privilege – not to the oppressed person.

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To sum up – the piece is apparently meant to show us how a woman overcame her racism and now loves her black son-in-law. But instead, it reassured racist parents that it’s normal to hope for your children to marry a white person. It framed a woman marrying a black man as a spiritual trial for her mother, who had to ‘die to her expectations’ – as if accepting a black son-in-law is a sacrifice for her.

The lessons for parents facing a similar situation don’t touch on repenting of your racism (the author bizarrely insists that she was never prejudiced, despite hoping for a white son-in-law), but instead suggest theological ways to erase the black man’s identity and look past it, rather than loving who he is as a black man.

The article prioritises white people – by suggesting that you take the side of prejudiced white family members over your new black family members, and by publishing the story of a white woman’s struggle with her own racism rather than the experience of black people on the receiving end of her prejudice.

White Christians, we have to do better than this. 

Posted in Evangelicalism | Tagged , , , | 15 Comments