Issues around race continue to be front-page news both in the culture at large and in the church. In this episode and the one that follows, Scott Rae and Sean McDowell interview Chris Brooks, pastor of Evangel Ministries, a large and predominantly African-American church in the heart of Detroit. Pastor Brooks is also the author of Urban Apologetics and Kingdom Dreaming and serves as Dean of Moody Theological Seminary, Michigan extension. Join us for this stimulating conversation on race and the church.
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host Scott Rae, professor of Christian ethics at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: I'm your cohost Sean McDowell; author, speaker and apologetics professor also here at Biola University, and uniquely for this interview, phoning in from my car because I'm headed to my son’s football game.
Scott Rae: Sean and I are here today with Pastor Chris Brooks, who is a pastor, radio host, seminary dean, community developer. Chris, I think the primary hat he wears is as senior pastor of Evangel Ministries, which is about a 1,600-member church in the heart of the city of Detroit. Chris also serves as dean at Moody Theological Seminary outside Detroit, and is host of the very popular national radio show entitled Equipped with Chris Brooks, which is heard on over 200 stations throughout the U.S. and Canada. Chris is also a very good friend of Biola, graduate of our program in Christian apologetics. He’s the author of a couple books that Sean and I both recommend strongly to you, Kingdom Dreaming and Urban Apologetics. Chris, delighted to have you with us. Thanks so much for joining us for this discussion of race in the church.
Chris Brooks: It's great to be with you guys, a very important conversation, as you know, that’s being played out in front of our eyes each and every day. I'm glad that the church does not shy away from the conversation.
Scott Rae: Chris, you pastor just on the outskirts of downtown Detroit. I take it largely multiethnic, maybe predominantly African-American church. How have you dealt with racial issues in your community, particularly in the last year or so?
Chris Brooks: Well, our church is in the heart of the city of Detroit, and we have a really interesting history. Real quick, Scott, we were started by a Caucasian pastor in 1967. Those who are familiar with 1967 know that it was a time of national unrest. A lot of unrest boiled over into conflicts between communities and police. Imagine a Caucasian pastor coming to the heart of the city of Detroit — a chocolate city, as we like to call it — into the city of Detroit and offering nothing but the gospel and love. But that’s what happened. He couldn’t find a building to open the church in, so the only building that he could afford to buy was a former Black Panthers headquarters. That’s the origins of Evangel Ministries.
From there God has always had in our DNA this passion for race reconciliation. He had as part of his mission, George Bogle, who is our founding pastor, this desire to just hug as many black men as he could, and show them the love of Jesus Christ. We’ve been committed to multiculturalism, multiethnicity from the very beginning. Obviously as the city’s demographics have changed, so has our church’s. We are predominantly African-American, but what we've tried to do it to make sure people understand that the goal in the kingdom of the new community that Christ formed, which is the church, is to be a multiethnic, multiracial, multilinguistic family that is united in him. We really do believe that a united church is a wonderful witness to a divided world. As they see our unity, and they experience the weariness and brokenness in the world, they’ll be attracted to Christ.
Scott Rae: Chris, I didn’t realize that about how the church was founded. What an incredible step of faith for one person to make back during a really challenging time. In your view, how has the conversation on race changed in the years since you have pastored, outside Detroit?
Chris Brooks: You know, I think it could be said that the number one defining characteristic in our current season of humanity is technology, how technology has just revolutionized everything. Nothing has been untouched, including the race issue. You know, what has happened more than any other phenomenon is the fact that we can’t hide from these incidents that provoke and evoke emotion. They are brought to our doorstep through the internet, through social media. You remember, it wasn’t just a few months ago, last year, that Philando Castile was shot by a police officer.
Scott Rae: Yes.
Chris Brooks: It played out on Facebook live. So we’re more aware of the fallenness of the world, and we’re more aware of the fallenness and the way that that manifests itself across the board, but including in the area of race. We’re more aware of injustices from business leaders, to education, you name it, even church leaders, religious leaders are not unscathed by that. I include in that that we are more acutely aware of racial injustice than what we’ve ever been before, and our congregations are demanding that we not be silent about it, that we speak up about it. I think the way the conversation has changed is that there’s more demand to address what people are more aware of than ever before.
Scott Rae: Chris, why do you think the church has been so silent on issues of race in the past? At least branches of the church have been silent about race.
Chris Brooks: I’m glad you clarified that, because obviously coming from a predominantly African-American church tradition, we’re not silent on it, never have had that luxury. I will say, for white evangelicals — and as you guys both know, I spent a lot of time with my white brothers and sisters; I’m an evangelical and I wear that label proudly with understanding — but I will say, it’s just a very uncomfortable situation to talk about, and nobody wants to do that. The desire is to really say, “Can we just move beyond this?” I liken it, and this may be a hard analogy, but I liken it to the counseling that I do as a pastor with couples where maybe the husband has been abusive, has a history of violence in his background, and he’s wanting to say to his wife, “Hey, I’m sorry, I want to move forward.” He doesn’t want to go back and deal with all the messiness, but wives need to do that. Wives need to be able to get healing, and to discuss it, and to go back in order to move forward.
I think that that is the biggest challenge between the way that minorities, in particular African-Americans, see this topic, and the way that whites see this topic. I think my white brothers and sisters have a deep desire to say, “Can’t we just move forward, and just focus in on how we can build bonds of unity now?” My African-American brothers and sisters are saying, “But, wait a minute, there’s some wounds that were never properly dealt with. We’ve got to go back, so we can move forward.” Somehow we’ve got to be able to reconcile that.
Scott Rae: I think that’s a really helpful analogy, Chris, because my experience in predominantly white churches has been, that’s just something we don’t want to visit. It’s painful, it’s difficult, it’s challenging to think about, and it’s just a lot easier to pretend like we can be in denial about that.
Sean McDowell: Yeah, Chris, you graciously had me on your show Equipped a little while ago to talk about my book, Ethix — which I appreciate you having me on. In that book, my goal was to help students think through some of the most difficult ethical issues of our day. Chris, it dawned on me not too long ago that in that book, I talk about pornography, I talk about war, I talk about marriage. I don’t even talk about race. It hit me that it’s such a blind spot for me personally, given my background and my experience, that if any African-American or minority wrote that book, that would have been the first chapter.
Chris Brooks: Sure.
Sean McDowell: I’m wondering if you could weigh in and talk about what you see just blind spots that people have, whether it’s whites, whether it’s blacks, or just human beings approaching this issue, that just prevents us to really have that compassion and understand where our brothers and sisters of a different race are coming from?
Chris Brooks: Yeah, I love that you said that, and I really appreciate, Sean, you just being transparent and honest. That’s what I love about you guys. One of the things that I will say is this, is that we all write or speak, minister from a cultural context. You just referenced the fact that your cultural context was such that that wouldn’t have been the first chapter you wrote. It didn’t really just pop into your mind to write it. No intentionality there, no ill will, it’s just the context. The context you grew up in did provoke you to write certain things. So it is with Hispanics and Latinos, it is with Asians, so it is with African-Americans. Here is the problem: I think what we’ve done is we’ve normalized white culture to make it the base culture, that it is not culture actually at all. It is normative, and that every other group is a special interest group. When African-Americans bring up an issue to say, “Hey Sean, maybe we should talk about race,” too often it is seen as a special interest. Why are you trying to smuggle in this special interest when the issues we see as being vital, they are the ones that really are the standard, and everything else is a special addition to the gospel.
What I would love to see happen is for us to be able to listen to people of different cultural backgrounds and experiences, and to honor them as being equally valid — though different than mine — equally valid and worthy of consideration. I think we got a lot of examples of this in Scripture. I'll just reference one, gentlemen, and that is Acts chapter 6. Acts chapter 6, man I read that for a long time, verses 1 through 7, and I just looked at it as a place we’re introduced to deacons in the New Testament. When you look at Acts 6:1–7, you have basically an issue of economic injustice, based off of ethnicity. These Hellenistic widows were not being serviced in the way that they should be, and a dispute arose. I love the fact that the apostles and leaders of the church in Jerusalem didn’t dismiss it, they didn’t minimize it, but they honored the concern. I think we had to recognize that we all come from a cultural context. None of us are complete in our understanding of issues, and we need to honor one another’s various experiences in life.
Sean McDowell: One more, and then you jump in. Chris, I love what you said about listening and honoring the other’s cultural context. I was just reading a book by Benjamin Watson, Under Our Skin.
Chris Brooks: Yes.
Sean McDowell: He described something that just gave me pause and opened my eyes. He said in many white families, when you talk about having “the talk” with your kids, that means the talk about sex and relationships.
Chris Brooks: Yes.
Sean McDowell: In black families, “the talk” means if you get pulled over by a white cop, how do you protect your life? I heard that and I thought, is that really at central the pressing issue? Talk about that for me, if you don't mind.
Chris Brooks: Yeah, we cannot underestimate in this conversation, Sean, a big area that you talk a lot about, and that is the influence of media on the minds of — you talk a lot about youth — but the reality is on the minds of all Americans. What has been the predominant view of minorities in the media, in particular African-Americans? Hollywood by and large has portrayed us as being violent, as being criminalized. Obviously, there’s been the other end of the spectrum, which has been that we’re not intelligent, that we are only good for service jobs and that’s it. But a large number of Americans have their view that African-Americans are violent and dangerous, in particular African American males. The news leads with these stories across the country, because they feed into this.
With that being said, what ends up happening is that African-Americans are disproportionately criminalized and targeted by police. Oftentimes, these police — and I love police, I’ve got police officers in my family, this in not to villainize them — but it is to say that they are not exempt from being shaped by these negative stereotypes. If these negative stereotypes pull over in the way we interact with groups, and none of us are exempt from that. I'm just talking about African-Americans right now. In our culture, we know that the history has been, we’ve been targeted by police in a disproportionate way, and if you don’t know how to carry on a conversation with diplomacy, there’s a high probability you're not going to leave that interaction safely.
You’re right, that conversation happens. African-American mothers across this country live with the sense of insecurity and fear that I’m raising an African-American son that may be misconstrued for a thief, or as a criminal, and he may not come home safely. This morning when I was dropping off my kids, I put on my Michigan State University hoodie, and I love that hoodie. I go to drop off my kids at a school and I’m thinking to myself, and it literally crossed my mind: Man, I hope I’m not misconstrued as a criminal because I’ve got on some jeans and a hoodie. This is the thought that many of us live with, even those of us who don’t have any of that in our background.
Scott Rae: Chris, let me follow up on that. I’m interested, have you ever been stopped by the police for no apparent reason?
Chris Brooks: Let me just put it this way: I don't know of an African-American male who has not. Man, there’s so many stories that I can tell you. I can tell you of a time where my brother and I — he’s a senior in high school, I’m a sophomore in high school. We’re coming back from a friend’s house. It’s late at night, our parents had moved out of the city, living in the suburbs now, and a police officer followed us for basically a mile. We weren’t doing anything wrong. We knew we were being trailed, so we weren’t speeding or anything. We pull up in front of our house, and he flashes the lights, and comes over and asks us what we’re doing in the neighbor. We say, “We live here.” He tells us to get out of the car. We’re both handcuffed. He has us sitting on the side of the street literally in front of our house. We were young. I know I didn’t have an ID on me at the time. My brother had an ID that they’re running. We were just saying, “Can you at least just call? You can go knock on the door and you can ask my parents, they’re right there at the door.” We were treated hostilely. There was no grace at all. That was when I was a teen.
One other story, quickly. Recently I was driving and I didn’t realize it; it was 1 a.m. in the morning. We’ve got five kids, my wife and I. We’d run out of diapers. I was going to Walmart to get some diapers. I’m coming home, and a police officer pulls up behind me. There’s a light, at the top, in the back of your car; I’ve got an SUV, there's a light above at the top of your car in the back. That light bulb had gone out. I didn’t know it. So the cop pulls me over. Again, I know I’m not speeding. The cop says, “License and insurance.” I say, “Can I ask you why you pulled me over?” Very hostilely he says, “You don't ask me any questions. Give me the ID unless you want to go to jail.”
Scott Rae: Wow.
Chris Brooks: This escalates the situation, and I’m saying to him, “You don't have to escalate the situation. I’m just asking. I don’t know why I’m pulled over.” He refuses to tell me why he pulled me over. We go through this whole ordeal and I’m saying to myself, “I’m a Christian man, educated man. I’m a man who’s going to carry myself in a way of diplomacy.” But what if I wasn’t, how would this situation have unfolded?
Scott Rae: Chris, thanks, I appreciate your vulnerability in sharing those stories. I think that’s really helpful for our listeners to recognize the realities that you live with. Let me go back theologically for a minute; where are some of the main places in your view that the Bible teaches about the imperative of racial reconciliation? In other words, why should we care as much as we should about racial issues, theologically?
Chris Brooks: I’m going to make a really bold statement, and that is, if you are a pastor and you’re teaching through the New Testament expositionally, and you’re not regularly talking about race and ethnicity, then you’re missing a major part of the New Testament. Let’s think about the narrative for just a moment before I give you a specific passage. Jesus takes this small band of followers, and he gives them the responsibility of evangelizing a multiethnic world. They go out and engage with groups of people that are diverse in culture and ethnicity. You just know, just practically, naturally, the type of issues that arise. We can anticipate those things, and the very things we would anticipate are the very things that do arise: misunderstandings, this cultural conditioning.
Let me just give you two that I really think are significant. Number one, we ground all things concerning unity in the body of Christ, in John 17:20–23. Verses 20 through 23. Jesus there prays that we will be one, that his followers will be one. He gives us a reason why that is important. He says twice in those three verses, “so that the world will you know that you have sent me.” Somehow our unity adds credibility to our gospel witness. Our disunity, on contrast, discredits our gospel witness.
The other thing that I find to be very interesting, and I think this is very important, that is, Galatians 2, when Paul confronts Peter to his face concerning his prejudice and his hypocrisy concerning his interaction with the Gentiles. He says that the reason why I had to rebuke him publicly, in verse 14 of Galatians, chapter 2, was because his conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel. For Paul to say that, that Peter’s conduct is not in step with the truth of the gospel, that is the equivalent in saying his behavior was heretical. This is why Paul felt like it was so important for him to rebuke Peter publicly.
I think we have a lot of people in the church, the evangelical church, who are rightfully very concerned about doctrinal heresy. We analyze statements of faith, and if they are off in any way, we’re going to criticize a group. What we’ve not done is treated a behavioral heresy to the level that we should. We’ll blot it off and say somebody like Robert E. Lee was a fine gentleman, he just had one blind spot; he supported slavery. We minimize that, but that’s behavioral heresy. I think we have to treat behavioral heresy the same way we do doctrinal heresy.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today’s guest, Chris Brooks, and to find more episodes, go to www.biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today’s conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening, and join us next time as we have Chris Brooks back to continue our conversation for part two.