Cheryl J. Sanders, senior pastor of Third Street Church of God (Anderson), a church of predominantly African-American and African-Caribbean people in Washington, D.C., says that “God’s purpose always includes the marginalized, the people who are somehow outside the boundaries and outside the walls.”
Sanders, who also serves as professor of Christian Ethics at Howard University School of Divinity, reminds us that the church spoken of in Acts 2 was born as a multicultural community. Speaking to Nazarenes at the 1998 Multicultural Ministries Conference in Bethany, Oklahoma, she proclaimed, “Let there be no mistake. Pentecost was a multicultural, multinational, multiracial witness to God’s work. The New Testament church comes to life as a gathering of male and female, rich and poor, people of every nation on earth— not as a principle or vision, but as a concrete reality. When we let the Spirit lead, then some of our ideas and biases concerning who is in and who is out get overruled as the Spirit chooses who should exercise gifts and authority in the church.”
Grace and Peace Magazine met with Sanders to ask her a few questions on multicultural ministry, the black church, and racial reconciliation. In addition to pastoring and teaching, Sanders is a prolific author. Some of her books include Ministry at the Margins: The Prophetic Mission of Women, Youth and the Poor; Living the Intersection: Womanism and Afrocentrism in Theology; and Empowerment and Ethics for a Liberated People.
GOD’S PURPOSE ALWAYS INCLUDES THE MARGINALIZED, THE PEOPLE WHO ARE SOMEHOW OUTSIDE THE BOUNDARIES AND OUTSIDE THE WALLS.
G&P: DO YOU VIEW MULTICULTURAL MINISTRY AND ETHNIC MINISTRY AS THE SAME THING OR DIFFERENT THINGS?
SANDERS: Multicultural ministry is intentional—being intentional about presenting the gospel and assessing and meeting the needs of people of different cultural backgrounds. Ethnic ministry, on the other hand, tends to focus on one particular group or target a particular culture or language or ethnic group for ministry, evangelism, and involvement in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
There is a place for both, but in the larger scheme of things, multicultural ministry is the approach that is most consistent with what we see in the Scriptures, whether you look at the Old Testament or the New Testament because, when God favors a group, it is only to position that group to be a blessing to the entire world. We see that in the blessing of Abraham, where Abraham can be seen as the progenitor of a particular ethnic group. But God’s intent from the very beginning with Abraham and for the Hebrew people is to make them a light to the nations so the entire world will be blessed. Of course, even though Jesus Christ is born with a Jewish ethnic particularity, still his gospel and his outreach are across culture and language and gender and all of the other things that tend to divide us.
G&P: HOW IS CULTURAL DIVERSITY BEST ACCOMPLISHED WITHIN AN ORGANIZATION? IS CULTURAL DIVERSITY SOMETHING THAT MUST BE DRIVEN BY LEADERSHIP AT THE TOP OF THE ORGANIZATION, OR IS IT SOMETHING BEST ACCOMPLISHED THROUGH GRASSROOTS EFFORTS?
SANDERS: Cultural diversity is best accomplished with a two-pronged approach. If the leadership does not prioritize representation and engagement of people of different cultures, then whatever is done from the grassroots level is going to have limitations. Ideally, you have integration of leadership but also within the congregation and even in the community so that, when people see different faces, they see themselves represented in leadership. It encourages them to participate on a grassroots level. It’s not an either/or option. Everyone should have a voice and feel included.
THERE IS PROFOUND BIBLICAL GROUNDING FOR THE SOCIAL AND POLITICAL INVOLVEMENT THAT THE BLACK CHURCH EMBRACES AND CONTINUES TO CHAMPION TO THIS DAY.
G&P: THE BLACK CHURCH IS WELL KNOWN FOR ITS INVOLVEMENT IN SOCIAL ADVOCACY AND POLITICAL ACTION. IS THERE A BIBLICAL GROUNDING FOR SUCH A POSITION?
SANDERS: The biblical grounding for social advocacy and political action goes all the way back to the Old Testament prophets. You can go as far back as Moses, who leads the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom. That’s social advocacy and political action. That liberation of the people from bondage becomes the defining event so that the children of Israel know who God is because God is the one who liberates them from their suffering. The prophets and the psalmists as well are always reminding us of God’s liberating act and the fact that God is concerned about social conditions.
In the New Testament, at the time of Jesus’s birth, Caesar Augustus has issued a tax. So it is under political and economic conditions of oppression that Jesus comes into the world. When Jesus goes to the cross, he is executed by the Roman government—the political, economic, and military oppressors of his people. But when he announces his ministry in the synagogue, he reads from the book of the prophet Isaiah, from the text that says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He’s anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Isaiah 61:1; see Luke 4:18). Advocating for the poor is one of the ways we follow in Jesus’ example.
The black church connects with the Exodus narrative because of the African-American narrative of slavery. In fact, there would be no black church if there were not white racism, segregation, and discrimination in the church because virtually all of the black denominations have their white counterparts. The main difference is not a doctrinal or theological difference but a sociological one. In different Protestant denominations, the races are not able to worship together because of discrimination, not because of a particular interpretation of the Bible. There is profound biblical grounding for the social and political involvement that the black church embraces and continues to champion to this day.
AS CHRISTIANS IN THE MODERN IMMIGRATION DEBATE, WE HAVE TO BE AWARE THAT THE SCRIPTURES TURN US TOWARD BEING KIND TO THE STRANGER, WELCOMING THE IMMIGRANTS, AND RECOGNIZING THE MIGRATORY NATURE OF BEING A DISCIPLE.
G&P: IN WHAT WAYS HAS MINISTRY CHANGED IN THE BLACK CHURCH FROM THE CIVIL RIGHTS GENERATION TO THE POST-CIVIL RIGHTS GENERATION? WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU GIVE TO BLACK MINISTERS WHO ARE WORKING BETWEEN THESE TWO GENERATIONS?
SANDERS: Indeed, ministry has changed in the black church since the civil rights generation. Martin Luther King Jr. was a black churchman. Many of the leaders of and participants in the civil rights movement were clergy—although not all were Christian clergy. There were members of congregations of all different faiths, even outside Christianity. There was an orientation in the civil rights movement to use nonviolence as a method of pursuing social change in an effort to bring down the legal and economic barriers and usher in the full participation of African Americans—and people of other races—in all of the blessings and privileges of America.
The post-civil rights generation today, particularly the younger people, have no memory of King or the civil rights movement except what they have read in history books. They don’t necessarily identify with the legacy of discrimination and denial of opportunity. So one of the challenges for ministers working between the two generations is that we must preserve the memory of the suffering but also be open to what may turn out to be unprecedented doors of opportunity that will allow African Americans to participate at such a high level in all areas of life.
In 1968, the night before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he gave a speech—a sermon, really—at the Church of God in Christ headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee. He was in Memphis for a sanitation workers strike, and they had a rally in the church. King spoke prophetically about seeing the Promised Land. He said, “I may not get there with you, but I’ve seen the Promised Land; I know that we’re going to get to the Promised Land.”
Forty years later, in 2008, a man of African descent was elected president of the United States. In many ways, that is a fulfillment of what Martin Luther King, Jr. prophesied and the Promised Land he spoke of. However, racism, discrimination, and prejudice are still major issues. King spoke about not being judged by the color of your skin but by the content of your character, and we have yet to see that fully realized.
G&P: THE ETHNIC CHURCH-PARTICULARLY THE IMMIGRANT CHURCH-SEES THE IMMIGRATION DEBATE AS INTEGRAL TO THE CHRISTIAN ETHIC AND IMPORTANT TO THE CHRISTIAN WITNESS. HOW CAN THE CHURCH BE TRUE TO ITS MISSION AS A PROPHETIC PRESENCE?
SANDERS: One of the important things we see in biblical culture is a strong ethic of hospitality. It’s just sort of inherent in the Scriptures. The nomadic people who bring their herds through the desert have to show hospitality in order to survive. In the more sedentary cultures, there also exists a strong ethic of hospitality, of sharing at the table, and of being kind to strangers.
As Christians in the modern immigration debate, we have to be aware that the Scriptures turn us toward being kind to the stranger, welcoming the immigrants, and recognizing the migratory nature of being a disciple. Jesus said, “Follow me,” suggesting that disciples of Jesus Christ are sojourners. If we have that theological understanding of what it means to be a Christian, then that will shape how we regard immigration and the current debate.
G&P: CHRISTIANITY'S CENTER IS NO LONGER THE EXCLUSIVE DOMAIN OF THE NORTH AND WEST. WHAT CHANGES MUST TAKE PLACE IN THE TASK OF EVANGELISM AS THE CHURCH MOVES TO THE EAST AND SOUTH?
SANDERS: The advancement of the gospel is more prevalent on the continents of Africa, Latin America, and in the so-called Third World than in North America or even Europe. The key change that needs to take place in the task of evangelism is to allow people from the East and the South to teach people from the North and the West how to evangelize.
G&P: IN YOUR VIEW, WHAT WOULD A WESLEYAN NOTION OF HOLINESS LOOK LIKE IN A CHURCH COMMITTED TO MULTICULTURAL MINISTRY AND RECONCILIATION?
SANDERS: A Wesleyan notion of holiness focuses on social holiness, which was a term coined by John Wesley himself. The idea is that holiness is not just an individual, personal matter but is a concern for the needs of other people. Here at Third Street Church of God, our mission statement says we are ambassadors for Christ in the nation’s capital. My predecessor, the late Dr. Samuel Hines, was an apostle of reconciliation. He always taught us that reconciliation is God’s one-item agenda. In the Holiness church, if we are committed to reconciliation, that takes us right into this notion of social holiness and reconciliation. We should be addressing the disparities between wealth and poverty, how women are treated, how men are treated, women being equally gifted by the Holy Spirit for leadership, full participation in the body of Christ. Or do we buy into the notion that somehow women are a separate category when it comes to leadership and that the Holy Spirit discriminates? You won’t find that in the Bible, but you certainly will find that notion in many of our churches.
A commitment to reconciliation includes willingness to tell the truth about justice and inequality and a willingness to face the truth about what we must do to correct what has happened. You can’t undo the things of the past, but we have to move toward God’s future, God’s one-item agenda of reconciliation. Social holiness takes us on a path where we bring others into the mix, and multicultural ministry is an important component of that.
A COMMITMENT TO RECONCILIATION INCLUDES WILLINGNESS TO TELL THE TRUTH ABOUT JUSTICE AND INEQUALITY AND A WILLINGNESS TO FACE THE TRUTH ABOUT WHAT WE MUST DO TO CORRECT WHAT HAS HAPPENED.
G&P: THE BOOK DIVIDED BY FAITH: EVANGELICAL RELIGION AND THE PROBLEM OF RACE IN AMERICA, PUBLISHED IN 2000, RAISES AWARENESS OF THE PROBLEMS OF RACE IN THE EVANGELICAL COMMUNITY. DO YOU FEEL THAT PROGRESS HAS BEEN MADE SINCE THE BOOK&RSQUO;S PUBLICATION? WHAT CAN EVANGELICALS DO TO BETTER REMEDY RACIALIZED SOCIAL INEQUALITIES?
SANDERS: I was very happy to read Divided by Faith when it was first published. One of the things I especially appreciate about that book is that there is a chapter on reconciliation that honors the efforts that Sam Hines, Tom Skinner, John Perkins, and other evangelical black leaders made to bring reconciliation to the center of a social justice and racial justice agenda for Christians. The book also tells how that effort largely failed because of the unwillingness of many evangelicals to accept and embrace the reconciliation agenda.
I’m not sure a lot of progress has been made, but it is helpful to name the problem. Divided by Faith suggests that one of the reasons there is so much racism among evangelicals is the lack of integration in our churches. If you are a white evangelical who lacks black neighbors and black congregants at church, and you don’t work or go to school with blacks, and your only image of black people is from television, newspapers, and social media, then you are likely to have a negative image of black people. If a person bases their views of race on images and not relationships, that helps explain why the problem of race is so prevalent, even within the body of Christ.
We have a long way to go. To remedy social inequalities requires that you begin at home. The church has lost its moral authority to mandate any kind of correction of racial and social inequities in society if we don’t even try to correct that among ourselves. If we only evangelize people who are just like us, we end up with homogenous churches, and we have no moral authority to talk about what society should do.
The rest of the world is way ahead of us because the church is exempt from civil rights legislation and laws and practices. The other social institutions—schools, the business world, housing—still have discrimination, but it’s against the law, and you have to work around the law to make discrimination effective.
Divided by Faith has helped us garner an awareness of how the key, the solution, is to get into vital relationships—respectful, loving relationships. Have a friend of another race. Have a neighbor. Worship with people. Listen to and participate in worship and music that’s maybe a little different from what makes you comfortable. Get out of your comfort zone in your own church, in your own faith tradition, and that will give us a lot more authority with which to speak to the social concerns of our time.
This article is part of a series, accompanying videos here.
CHERYL J. SANDERS serves as senior pastor of Third Street Church of God, Washington, DC, and serves as professor of Christian ethics at Howard University School of Divinity.