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Engaged Advocacy: Working Together for Racial Justice

There is little doubt we are experiencing a moment of heightened racial tension.

The easy access of video recording has unveiled multiple instances of police violence as well as acts of overt racism that many of our brothers and sisters experience daily.

White supremacists marching in Charlottesville and anti-immigrant rhetoric of the political primary season are a few more easy examples. These are discouraging times.

For white Christians, it can be tempting to focus inward on our own families and congregations, where the impact of this reality is rarely felt. We know there is a cost to wading into such controversial waters, one we can choose to avoid.

While Christ himself got discouraged, he also commanded his followers to not be afraid.

Christians must not lose hope and fail to offer a gospel witness to a world in which it is so clearly needed. These times demand a response from all people of faith.

I’m convinced and convicted that white Christians should feel particularly compelled to find our own role in this struggle and work not only toward greater personal understanding and sensitivity, but also for racial justice at the systemic level.

Among the many potential actions, I encourage you to consider engaging in advocacy efforts.

Collective public witness offers a unique opportunity to make progress, build relationships and bear witness to a Savior who calls us to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.

I began advocating for reform of payday and auto title lending because the practice is predatory, unjust and exploitative.

What was once illegal has become an accepted industry in which wealthy and powerful interests use all available mechanisms of politics and law to continue profiting from the financially desperate.

I didn’t know at the outset that this was racial justice work, but that realization has kept me committed nearly nine years later.

When I first made presentations on payday lending to mostly white audiences, they were shocked at the practice and astonished it was legal.

When presenting the same material to an African-American audience, however, they were hardly surprised. Nearly everyone had a personal story of impact to their own families or circles of friends.

Upon further study, this anecdotal, personal observation of bias was confirmed through survey data and policy research.

Our history of racial discrimination means there are numerous issues which continue to bear the mark of both intentional racism and a disparate impact upon communities of color.

As Alan Sherouse, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Darryl Aaron, pastor of Providence Baptist Church in Greesnboro, so brilliantly described at the New Baptist Covenant Summit last year, racism is in the water.

It has seeped into our ground water, our collective aquifer, and this tainted water bubbles to the surface in innumerable springs.

From the racial wealth gap to health care outcomes, from educational funding and attainment to housing discrimination, from financial exploitation to the criminal justice system, from the war on drugs to mass incarceration – each of these pools, and more, are polluted by our collective sin.

We need not agree on every factor that created such disparities to agree that something should be done.

Action is needed by individuals, congregations and policymakers. Pick a pool and find a way to wade into the water.

Committing to the work of advocacy provides opportunities to make progress toward racial justice on both macro and micro levels.

Successful advocacy efforts will result in systemic improvements on the macro level, but the relationships and friendships developed along the way can forge new pathways of understanding among individuals.

For me, a commitment to payday and auto title reform has led to a broader understanding of the many ways that discrimination in financial markets has been a key perpetuator of systemic racism.

Discrimination in mortgage lending, student loans and car loans, to name only a few, has yet to be fully excised and continues to drive a racial wealth gap.

Just as important, by working closely with a broad and diverse coalition, the dozens of relationships I’ve formed over these years has left me changed and enriched.

Through these friendships, my eyes have been opened to the experience of African-Americans in these troubling times.

Our current reality of racial discrimination and racial disparities was not created overnight, and it will not be solved in our lifetimes.

Effective engagement in this type of advocacy requires the same type of long-term presence that is required for good mission efforts.

To make progress requires commitment, and this commitment is recognized by those whom we engage in this work.

Whether it is by fellow members of your congregation, coalition partners of other racial identities or elected officials, commitment is noticed, respected and appreciated.

Healing the racial wounds in our country will take a movement of the Holy Spirit, but the church of Jesus Christ is required to act.

Look for nonprofit organizations in your area committed to an issue, to a community or to grassroots organizing, and ask how you can help. Discover the diverse, ecumenical ministers’ groups in town and show up.

Find out when and where civil rights organizations are meeting and join them. Show up with a posture of humility, eagerness to learn and a commitment to be in it for the long haul. Keep showing up. Don’t expect an easy win.

Respond to the racism in our midst by becoming an advocate where the wound of America’s original sin manifests itself, and you’ll be moved in ways you never expected.

Stephen K. Reeves is associate coordinator of partnerships and advocacy for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. He is an attorney from Austin, Texas, who previously served with the Baptist Joint Committee and the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission. You can follow him on Twitter @StephenKReeves.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series focused on racism and the local church.

Previous articles in the series are:

Recognizing Hidden Racism’s Grip on Our Society by Ryon Price

When Will Churches Begin to Reflect Racial Diversity? by Timothy Peoples

The Church Will Never End Racism by Ignoring It by Starlette Thomas