Audio Series: A Conversation with Bryan Loritts
Bryan Loritts shares thoughts on reconciliation, faith, and work.
Dr. Bryan Loritts is the teaching pastor of The Summit Church in North Carolina, president and founder of the Kainos Movement, and was the co-founder of Fellowship Memphis Church.
The audio recording shared on this site has been edited for time. The full transcript of the conversation between MTR Executive Director David Montague and Bryan Loritts is below for full context and reference.
DM: Start on the broad topic of reconciliation. So you’ve preached and written a good bit about reconciliation, vertical, horizontal. If you could just restate that concept, give a brief summary of what you mean, or how you’d explain that. A little summary of that would be really helpful.
BL: So yeah, I think in general, I love what Philip Yancey says. He says that really the Bible can be summed up in the statement, “God gets his family back,” and it’s one of those statements where at first you go, “Hmm?” But then the more you think about it, that’s kind of true. And so if it’s Genesis chapter 12:1-3, which is the Abrahamic Covenant, if you understand Genesis 12:1-3 where God says, “I’m gonna bless you, Abram,” who’s the father of the Jewish nation, “And I’m gonna bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you.” And then this statement, “And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” So what we see even in Genesis is God’s heart is not just for a specific people group, but his heart is really for the whole world. And he’s going to use the Jewish nation in the Old Testament as a primary conduit by which he reaches the nations.
BL: So then we get into… There’s many examples of that. That’s Joseph, he sits second in command in Egypt, and God uses this Jewish man to bless this Gentile nation. That’s Daniel, Jewish young man who sits… Really ends up second in command, in the Gentile nation moves up the ladder in Babylon, then over into Persia, and then God uses these Jews. And then of course the fulfillment of that’s Jesus Christ, the Jewish God-man who on the cross on a Friday, through his death, burial, and resurrection, the world is now reconciled and God gets his family back.
BL: So in the Old Testament paradigm, it’s Jews as the primary means to that, and then it shifts to this thing called the Church, which is Jews and Gentiles together. So on one hand, there’s spiritual reconciliation, which is the deepest and most significant form. So if it’s first Corinthians chapter 11, where Paul says… Actually first Corinthians chapter 15, he says, “Of first importance is the fact that we’ve been reconciled to God.” So that’s the vertical reconciliation of it.
BL: But then, David, I don’t know if you’ve read books like… I’m rereading, I hardly ever reread books, but there’s a little book Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to carry around in his briefcase during the Civil Rights Movement and, unfortunately, this guy does not get his just due. It’s a guy by the name of Howard Thurman, and his landmark book was Jesus and the Disinherited. And, as a side note, Howard Thurman would pastor the first prominent multi-ethnic church in America. And, of course, you don’t even need to guess where it was. It was in San Francisco. But Howard Thurman openly asks the question in this book, “What difference does our Christianity make?” And he wrote it, I think, in the 40s. It was based on a series of lectures he gave in the 1930s, but he began to openly ask the question, “What difference does Christianity make as it relates to societal’s ills?” And he’s one of the first people of record to start asking that question so broadly.
BL: And so the fact that we’ve been vertically reconciled, now guys like Howard Thurman, who had then, in a lot of ways become the father to Martin Luther King, Jr. And so on and so forth, now they start moving into, what about the horizontal beam of the cross? In order to get at this, though, you gotta understand that the major rift, and I think it was the work of the enemy, that happened in our country, happened in the early 20th century. It’s called the fundamentalist-modernist divide. And what you pretty much said was, the modernists who were charged with having a social gospel, fundamentally the modernist says it’s all horizontal. So we’re gonna look at the horizontal beam of the cross, and we’re going to get into areas of justice. Well, the fundamentalist says, “No, it’s not that, it’s the vertical beam.”
BL: And so what now happens, what emerges in the 20th century in America is this dichotomy where, functionally speaking, the cross and its two beams become an either/or paradigm instead of a both/and paradigm. So that’s why the great anomaly of the Civil Rights Movement was how your biggest proponents of it, those who marched in the streets for it, were Christians, and your biggest opponents to it, sometimes aggressively, sometimes actively, but more times than not, our conservative friends were passive. Both were Christians. And you say, “How does that happen? How do Christians fall… ” Well it all goes back to the fundamentalist-modernist controversy where you had that split. And so the conservative branch says, “Just give me truth,” and the progressive, what many would call liberal, branch says James chapter two. What difference does faith make if it’s not impacting how you impact your neighbor? And so I think what’s now starting to happen, and it started to happen in the 90s, but I’m really hopeful in the 21st century, because I’m seeing a fresh movement of Christ followers 100 years later from the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, saying, “It’s not either/or. It’s both/and.”
BL: So I can give verse by verse expository sermons, and roll up my sleeves, and engage in schools, and feed the hungry, and… So that’s what we’re getting at here. The fact that I’ve been vertically reconciled to God, now has horizontal implications. D.A Carson calls it… These are gospel entailments. But the way Jesus understood it, so Jesus says the great commandment. If you just think of the great commandment, it’s that vertical horizontal. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. John openly asked the question in his epistle, “How can we claim to love God?” vertical, “Whom we have not seen, but hate our brother whom we have seen?” And so, again, those two things tie themselves together.
BL: I’ll say one more thing. I think the disheartening thing is, what was once right on, well within orthodoxy, we call it orthopraxy, Dr. King and what they were doing, that has now bled over into heresy. And so now we’ve taken it to an unfortunate extreme in some erroneous views that we have on the gay community, and so on and so forth. But at it’s finest, the Christian community historically in the Bible has been both vertical and horizontal.
DM: Alright. I’ve got teachers that come, and some of them are very, very passionate, very, very evangelical, very, very much conservative, and they struggle to some degree with the question: “How can I really be living out my faith and just being a math teacher, and kindergarten teacher, and I’m not allowed to say anything about Jesus at all, ever?” And at times, we’ve had people that eventually just said, “I can’t do this. I quit,” you know, “because I can’t. I don’t see the connection between my job and my faith.” Which I think gets a little bit into this deal. What would be… Already off script a little bit, but if an MTR teacher came to you and said, “Well, how do I reconcile my passion for Christ and being told by my principal I can’t ever talk about Jesus, all I can do is teach arithmetic?”
BL: I would say that is a faulty view of work. One of the great things that the reformation handed us was a robust theology of work. And that is, you have Abraham Kuyper, who says that God looks at creation, everything under creation and declares mine. And it’s this secular sacred divide that somehow elevates what’s done to the soul above and beyond the body. And I’d have to remind them, Jesus is a trained carpenter. He is a trained carpenter. Paul made tents. God looks at Adam, a gardener, a landscaper, and declares good. So I think books like Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor. I think Steven’s book really illumined to me this idea of faith in work, and the nobility of work: The Other Six Days.
BL: This is a fundamental interesting question that I think gets at the root of what we’re talking about here. When we talk so much about education, what’s the punch line? So are we educating with a view of, I want this person to have a corner office, be an entrepreneur, run their own business. Probably one of the most shameful things that I ever said to one of my kids, and I had to repent for it. I was seeing some laziness in him, he wasn’t working hard. We were living in Memphis at the time, and they were building some homes. So I said, “Son, let’s take a walk.” So we’re walking and I said, “You see these guys? They’re just laboring.” I said, “Man, I betcha most of those guys don’t have a college degree, and this is kinda what happens to you if you don’t… ” And, man, I felt awful. I felt awful, because my understanding now of work is there’s nobility in that.
BL: So then I’m having to backtrack, and I’m having to go, “Do I need to recalibrate what I’m looking at as far as successful?’ Is it okay for my son, anybody’s sons, to ever say, “I think I want to be a landscaper,” or, “I think I want to be a plumber.” Right? So part of me just tenses up a little bit when we get into issues of education. I think it’s helpful to go, “Educate for what?” Because if your picture of success is six figures, corner office, certain zip code, man, that’s fraught with problems. And now we’ve got success idols and status idols. But is there just nobility?
BL: So we can take it all back to Booker T. Washington and W.E Du Bois in that historic running debate that they had at the start of the 20th century. We have WEB Du Bois, he’s the first PhD African American from Harvard, and him and Booker T. Washington are gonna… Because Booker T. Washington starts Tuskegee. He’s saying, “Black people pretty much… We don’t need to set the bar too high for them. They need to be skilled in regular labor stuff. And they need to be taught how to be good cooks, or maids, whatever.” And then DuBois is saying, “No, no, no, no, you’re setting the bar too low,” and he couldn’t stand Booker T. And, “We’ve got to get them into higher education,” and so on and so forth. And I think God would be more tilted towards DuBois from the standpoint of, “Man, you should have the freedom to do whatever I’ve called you to do.” But I think you’d also look at Booker T, and go, “There’s nobility in that as well.” So, I think that’s a good issue to wrestle with. Someone’s gotta fix the plumbing.
BL: And is that a bad thing? There’s nobility in that, right? We can’t have everybody have a corner office. Someone’s gotta deliver the food. And I think there’s nobility in that. So sometimes I think maybe I’m projecting unrealistic educational expectations. I don’t know if you remember… I think it was a pilot episode of The Cosby Show, which I shouldn’t… Yeah. Bill Cosby. I’m having a hard time. But, him and his son Theo, Theo’s brought home some Ds and the whole Monopoly. So he’s trying to show him, “Let’s get some Monopoly money, and how much do you want to make?” And he’s just trying to show him the futility of life spent without an education and the limits that that puts on you. And Theo ends by saying, “But Dad, is it okay if I’m not you? If I’m not a doctor? Or if I’m not a lawyer?” For a parent, I’ve got to wrestle with that with my kids. So I always ask, “Educate for what?”
DM: At MTR… It’s a great question. And we’re in this world, and it’s kind of an urban ed reform world, but we don’t come at it from an urban ed reform philosophy or perspective. Urban ed reform movement is largely dominated by the secular…
BL: One more quick thing. I’ve been living in this world forever as far as faith and work. In fact, I just got back from a major foundation, and we’re trying to get some grant stuff here. So I want to say to some pastors, I don’t know how many middle to upper middle class churches who have plumbers on their elder board. To me, that’s the real test of what you believe about faith, and work, and the nobility of work. But that’s a little bit of a tangent.
DM: Off the record, I was at a… In Memphis, this was years ago, I was visiting a church. I’m not sure my church was guilty, it just wasn’t as obvious. Conciliation. How do we define it? And then, why do Christians care about it? Why is it important to the Christian faith that we have racial reconciliation?
BL: So, yeah. Gosh, this is a really… So in Ephesians Chapter Two, Paul begins by just talking about vertical. He says, “Chapter Two verse One, “You were dead in your trespasses and sins,” and, “You’re an enemy of God,” and then, “But God being rich in mercy and by grace you have been saved through faith.” Yes. But I want to say the average conservative evangelical has no idea how that chapter ends. So it’s kind of… Functionally, we just end at the end of verse two: “For we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works which he prepared in advance for us to do.”
BL: Well, now at beginning of verse 11 through 22, he now goes from the vertical to the horizontal, and he says, “The death of Christ demolished the dividing wall of hostility,” which that’s a reference to… So the temple was the last vestige of institutionalized segregation. And you had these four courts. The outermost court was the court of Gentiles. Only Gentiles could… And then you had the Court of Women. And then you had the Court of the Israelites. And then you had the Court of the Priests. And each of those is just siphoned off by a partition. And I think in the 1870s they actually found the dividing wall that separated the Gentiles from the rest. And written on it was something to the effect of, “Proceed no further upon punishment of death.”
BL: By the way, that’s why Paul goes to jail for the last time. Because it was thought that he took Trophimus, this Gentile man, into the forbidden parts of the temple there. Which is interesting. See, I think if you’ve got that bit of an understanding, then we can see why Jesus gets ticked off in Matthew 21. ‘Cause he walks into the temple, and he’s turning over chairs, and the money changers, and, “My house should be called a house of prayer.” Well, where’s that taking place? The Court of Gentiles. So it’s the Jews thinking, “Gentiles aren’t that important, they technically shouldn’t be here anyway. So we can just turn their section into this flea market swap meet kind of a thing.” And I think Jesus’ reaction against that… Some of his righteous indignation I think is pushing back against the implicit racism there. It’s very interesting.
BL: Anyway, Paul goes on in Ephesians Chapter two, says, “The death of Christ has demolished that, so that he might create in his body one new man.” And in the Greek, the Greek word for new is very interesting. Greek is a very beautiful nuanced language. There’s two major words for new. The one Greek word is neos and from an American perspective neos is something that is new as it relates to time or chronology. So it’s the 2015 Chevy Suburban or it’s the latest MacBook Pro. That’s neos. Well, Paul didn’t use that word. He uses the word kainos. The idea behind kainos is invention. So it’s something so new the world doesn’t have a paradigm for it. So, what Paul’s getting at here is the death of Jesus Christ is to provide a venue, a forum, for the coming together of Jews and Gentiles and this is so revolutionary, so new, that it literally… The world goes, “I have no idea what to do with that.” So, the only place you could go to in the ancient world, where you could see Jews and Gentiles, interacting meaningfully, substantively, they do their love feast together. The only place you could see that was the Church. The only place.
BL: So, this idea of racial reconciliation in multi-ethnic church, is not a 21st century idea. It’s a first century church deal. If you track through Acts, when Paul walks into town, he’s got two questions, “Where are the Gentiles? Where do they hang out? And where do the Jews hang out?” You just track with him. He always… And his first question’s really, “Where do the Jews hang out?” And that’s Romans 1:16, so he goes to the synagogue… If you just read Acts 17 and Acts 19. He goes to the synagogue in Athens, shares Christ, some Jews come, right after that he goes up the Areopagus to the intellectual elite of his day, who are these Greek philosophers and he shares Christ with them.
BL: If he’s in Ephesus, he goes to the synagogue, then he goes to the hall of Tyrannus. These people from these two groups come to know Christ and he doesn’t start two separate churches. He, fundamentally, puts them together. So, the norm, the churches norm, was multi-ethnic. It was the norm. If there’s one thing the American church has done really good at, it’s resurrecting what Christ tore down and that’s the dividing wall of hostility. So, if it’s the 1780s, black man walks into a Methodist’s church in Philadelphia and has the nerve to pray in the white’s only section of the church and these white people in this Methodist church are so infuriated, they lift him up off his knees and throw him out. Couple of weeks later, blacks are infuriated, they leave that Methodist Church. They buy a blacksmith’s shop and that would become the beginnings of the African-Methodist Episcopal church. And you guys know this. Just about every major African-American denomination came into being, because our white brothers either wouldn’t let us in, period, or they restricted us. You had segregated seating there. I could take you… That’s the origins of the Southern Baptist Convention, which by the way… And I just preached at Southern Seminary in Louisville.
BL: The Southern Baptist flagship seminary, Dr. King preached there in 1962. How’s that happen? Well, that’s when they were liberal. So, when conservatives are in charge, there’s just this undertone of racism. And so now what we’re trying to do, is we’re trying to arc the church back to her first century roots and get people together rallied around man’s deepest need, which is being in a reconciled relationship with God. And God now says, “Now that you’re reconciled to me, an indicator light that, that’s happened, is I need you to reach across the aisle, reach across the table, and do life meaningfully with people who don’t look like you, act like you, think like you, or vote like you.” So, a couple of things… Latest research shows that it’s… The multi-ethnic church is really a justice issue. Latest research says that the average minority in a multi-ethnic church makes 20% more money. That’s not, they were making 20% more, then they joined the multi-ethnic church. It’s since joining the multi-ethnic church, they make 20% more. Well, why is that? Well, most people get jobs out of relationships. Well, now that you get people from one side of the town, doing life with people on the other side of the town, that in 2015 those people are still the power brokers.
BL: Well now, they’re sitting in community groups and sharing about the prayer request, “I need a job.” Now, they’re connected to jobs. Now, these guys are making more money. It also says that the homogeneous church, reinforces racism. Because what happens when you’re just in an environment, where everybody looks like you, for the most part thinks like you, holds the same views. Well, those world views get entrenched and they never get pushed back against. So, fundamentally speaking, the multi-ethnic church, which is the venue for racial reconciliation, is the seed bed for issues of justice.
DM: As an aside, or off topic… Your church here…
DM: You’re already multi-ethnic?
BL: No. I’m running those numbers, right now. We’re about 3,000 people. It’s primarily young, white, urban, hipster.
DM: Midtown Memphis.
BL: New York. New York, I’m still figuring out New York. New York, the racism here it’s pretty interesting. It’s gentrification written all over it. Where they’re not only gentrifying, but they’re going into communities and renaming them. And prices go up and literally the poor people get pushed out. They just ran an article here. They just built low income housing, that you can make up to 120 a year to qualify for. And so, this low income housing, there are some units, that are just for the poorer people and then you got some that are regularly priced. Well, the affluent, in these apartment units want their own separate entrance. Is it a colored entrance? What? It takes you back to the… We got a lotta work to do here. We just got a ton of work here to do.
DM: Alright. So, you mentioned there at the end that the multi-ethnic church is a seedbed for issues of justice and so leads me to a question of, how do you see racial reconciliation done well? How’s it done poorly? How to people try to do it and they stub their toe. How do people do it and it’s effective, what’s the most effective way?
BL: So, the literature tells us there’s three layers of multi-ethnic churches and in my experience, I’ve found this to be true. So, kind of at the top layer is just the multi-colored church, where it’s pretty much you just look out on the audience and you just see people from different colors there. But when the service is over, there’s none of this. Sorta like the Pro-Bowl, you get these people from different teams who get voted as an all-star. They come to the event, but when the event’s over, they go back to their teams. So, you’re just there for the event. So, that’s the most superficial layer within the multi-ethnic church. By the way, I think 10 years ago, only 2.5% of all churches in America would qualify as multi-ethnic, meeting the 80/20 principle. Are you familiar with that? Yeah. And the reason why it’s 20% is because research says 20% is the threshold for when minorities feel heard and valued. That’s why it’s 20%.
BL: That number’s now moved up to 14%. So, we are seeing significant strides. And hopefully, in my lifetime, we’ll see it uptake to 50. So, the second layer is the assimilated layer. So, you go from multi-colored to assimilated and what pretty much happens here is, is you get one group, typically the minorities, who just assimilate into the white way of doing church and into the white way of doing things. At the deepest levels, you want the integrated approach, where there’s the constant laying down of cultural preferences and norms, that’s the true multi-ethnic church. Now, I’d love to revisit that 14% and see how many of them are kind of really functioning at that deepest level. I said all that to say, what were you asking me David?
DM: Well, how is it done well, if you’re gonna see communities that are reconciled racially, what are the ingredients of healthy reconciliation on a horizontal level and, if you can, you may have seen racial reconciliation attempted poorly and it failed and so what would be elements of either of those?
BL: So, number one is leadership. You gotta have what I call C2 leadership so then every ethnicity, there’s different cultures and that’s what my latest book was about “Right Color, Wrong Culture.” So, sociologists say within every ethnicity, three different cultures, C1s, C2s, C3s. So, C1s are people of one ethnicity who have pretty much assimilated into another. In the Bible, that’s Acts 6. You have your Hellenistic Jews and your Hebraic Jews. There’s a dispute there. The Hellenistic widows are being overlooked. Well, we know what Hellenism is, it’s the spread of Greek culture. Hellenistic Jews, Hellenist is their culture, Jews is their ethnicity. So, they were Jews ethnically who had bought into Greek culture. So, there’s are C1s. Keyword there is “assimilated.” Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, that’s Carlton Banks. So, he is African-American, and I’m not making a pejorative statement on his blackness because then you have to define what blackness is. I’m not saying he’s less than black, but he’s from Bel Air, he’s of a certain political party, he’s country club membership, private, so just kind of all that. On the other stream are C3s, these are people from one ethnicity who are culturally inflexible.
BL: So, they’re the rage against against the machine. We’re not gonna be flexible, we’re not gonna bend. Acts 6, they’re your Hebraic Jews. In the Gospels, they’re your Pharisees. Most of the Pharisees in Jesus’ friction was fundamentally cultural. So, these Pharisees would throw the flag, these C3s, “Hey, man. We always wash our hands before we eat. That’s our tradition. How come you don’t do that?” So, it’s just this culturally inflexible kind of a thing. In fact, in Philippians 3, Paul would say, as he’s run down his autobiography, “I was born of the nation of Israel, the tribe of Benjamin. A Hebrew of Hebrews.” That’s a cultural statement there, where he’s saying he’s culturally inflexible. On the show Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, on the show that’s Will Smith. He’s West Philadelphia born and raised. Him and Carlton, they butt heads and they’re differences aren’t ethnic, they’re cultural. And you get these guys from two different worlds.
BL: In fact, the producers of the show, they had Will Smith wear his blazer inside-out at private school. That was masterful ’cause what they were trying to do was, they were saying, “He doesn’t fit here. Carlton fits. Will doesn’t fit.” What I argue for, for multi-ethnic churches at work at the highest level is you have to have C2s. And to stick with the acting motif, well C2s are people from one ethnicity who can go in and out of different ethnicities and cultures, be adaptable without losing who they are in the process. That’s Denzel Washington. So, if you just look at a list of Denzel Washington movies, it’s Glory, it’s Malcom X, which by the way, those are two very C3 kind of roles. You take him in Flight where a white person could have easily played that role with The Taking of Pelham 123.
BL: One of the things is you look at his body of work, you go, “What range?” And yet he could still command $20 million a show because people know that no matter who he’s playing, they’re still going to get Denzel. So, that’s first Corinthians 9, Paul says, “To the Jew, I became a Jew. So I might win the Jews. To those outside, I became as one outside of the law, so I might win those. I become all things to all men… ” That’s C2 language. So, what’s interesting, Philippians 3, he says, “Here’s who I was before Christ, Hebrew of Hebrews.” First Corinthians 9, after Christ, C2, which tells us, C2s are made and not born. And the way you make a C2 is not just by reading a book, but you put them in and out of strategic, ethnic and cultural experiences, which, for that reason, minorities are best positioned to lead multi-ethnic churches, because if you look at any successful minority, and I put that in quotes. I say “successful” by the world’s standards, we have had to learn how to become a C2. In order for a minority to be a success in this culture, they have to learn how to relate to whites. That is not a two-way street.
BL: The blessing of that is, in the process of going to the schools, speaking the right way, dressing, looking a certain way, in the process, our C2 muscles are being strengthened. So, I’m in the middle right now, I’m looking around the table and I’m going, “We don’t have the horse-power to get to where we need to get to as a church, we just don’t have it.” Really I’m the only African-American pastor. We just hired Robert Guerrero, which is huge. So, I got to create my own mechanisms. So, I’ll be hearing pretty soon. I’ve applied for a $1.5 million grant, to run my own residency program, that will be significantly weighted, almost solely weighted, towards minorities. And I’ll get 300 applicants a year. I’ll give six spots away every single year. And I will raise up my own C2 leaders, many of them will get jobs, when the program’s over. So you gotta have…
DM: At your church?
BL: Yep, at our church. So, leadership is huge, location is huge, music is huge.
DM: And the role of the gospel, or the role of the vertical being or vertical reconciliation in someone’s ability to go from a C3 to a C2?
BL: Yeah. It’s interesting, isn’t it? It’s a little bit of back and forth, ’cause you look at the disciples, and Jesus is kind of the CEO of this new enterprise called the kingdom. And he’s saying to himself “The kingdom is gonna be Jews and Gentiles.” I’ve got all Jewish leaders. And they’ve grown up in Kosher homes and they’re going to their own schools, so I gotta get their feet wet. So, he takes them on a day trip to Samaria. They’re with him, when he’s with the Syrophoenician woman. Just little touch points, and then Acts 10 happens. Bam! And it’s Peter. Actually, even before Acts 10, God says, “Peter, I want you to go to Simon, the tanner’s house”, which tanners work with dead animals, which is a huge no-no for a Jew. That’s ceremonially unclean.
BL: So, “Peter, I need you to stay at that house and I know you’re gonna be uncomfortable. Get over yourself.” Peter C3, goes to stay at the house. Okay, while staying there, in the middle of praying, alright, here’s a vision. Some food dropped down, unclean. “Oh Lord, I can’t eat of that.” “That’s okay, don’t call anything unclean. So, I’m preparing you, now I’m gonna send you to Cornelius’s house. Share the gospel. More discomfort. But, then we get to Galatians chapter two and Paul talks about this big blow-up that him and Peter have. And he says, “Look man, Peter used to eat with the Gentiles but then the Jews show up and he shies away from the Gentiles. So what see here is this back and forth, and two steps forward and one step back. We just, we see a very messy scenario. And when we talk about this stuff, we’re not so much talking science, as we’re talking art. There’s some irreducible minimums… I was just talking with our team this morning about this multi-ethnic church plan, that we’re gonna do in Harlem. Yeah, there’s some irreducible minimums. Man this stuff is messy. And you gotta have patience. And you gotta be willing to embrace discomfort. And you gotta hold your cultural preferences and norms loosely.
DM: There’s certainly some overlap between how do you lead a church and what leadership… You mentioned leadership was key to vertical reconciliation and then we went into these different types of leaders and there’s gotta be an overlap between that and teacher’s going into classrooms
DM: And you have people that could come to the teacher training program and they’re C3s and we’re asking you to go be in a multi-cultural, or at least a different, some, a totally different culture. What similarities, or what encouragement would you give to teachers who are having to get out of their world? And it’s not just a racial difference. You could be the same race, but you could be a different culture and class, you can… And I think it’s fascinating. Almost entirely, even if to some degree, you could help me unpack this a little bit, but even if you’re… Even if you grew up in Binghamton and you went off and got a degree and got your… If you came through MTR, it means you got a masters degree and you passed the Praxis test and now you have a Tennessee teaching license, you’re still… There’s still a division between you and your students even if you’re teaching at Binghamton because there’s this massive education gap between where all the students are, and where many of them likely will be, and where you are. So, you’ve got this gap. What encouragement, what lessons learned can apply to the teachers?
BL: There’s a great article in Christianity Today that I’ll send to you, David. It’s called the Seven Stages of Whiteness written by a white guy who planted a multi-ethnic church. And he talks a little bit about the Messiah complex, and it’s well intentioned. People want to be a part of the solution and we wanna… But man some of the most freeing words ever uttered were by John the Baptist when he said, “I am not the Christ.” You gotta say, “I’m gonna help, I’m gonna come along side of, but I’m not the Christ.” I think an interesting devo would be Mark 1:29-39 with the people at MTR. Here’s Jesus’s first day of ministry, his first day of public ministry. Walks into Peter’s mother-in-law’s house, she’s got a fever and he heals her and people hear he’s there so the text says, “They bring him all who are sick and oppressed by demons.” And then the text goes on to say, “And Jesus healed the many.” Which that’s an interesting… So they brought them all but he only dealt with the many. Very, very fascinating which means at some point Jesus just had to say no. He just had to say I can’t do it.
BL: So at the end of the day… The next morning the disciples go looking for him, they can’t find him. And Jesus has gone out into this desolate place to pray. And Peter’s like, “Hey man, we’ve been searching for you.” And the Greek word is actually the idea of hunting. “We’ve been going after you for a specific purpose and that is, you need to leverage your new found popularity and build this thing.” And Jesus’s response was, “Oh, let’s go to the next town.”
BL: He just refused to buy into any notion that he was just there to fix people’s felt needs. And I’ve gotta give myself the freedom to say, “God doesn’t call me to fix people.” I can’t even fix myself. I do what I can, I encourage, but man if my benchmark for success is trying to fix this centuries old thing… I don’t think God calls us to do that. I got people in my church in Memphis, I got people in our church here, great people but I look at them I go, “I can’t fix your same-sex attraction. Or I can’t fix your fatherhood wounds.” And now the pressure’s off. So now I’m free to love you, and I’m free to come along side of you.
BL: But the other thing is, once you bring in the race dynamic, the race dynamic where you have a white person with the best of intentions, so I’m not demonizing. You have a white person with the best of intentions who has given up some things even to come along side in an urban inner-city context. When they come with that fix-it thing, now it’s paternalistic. It’s this top-down kind of a thing, and counter-intuitively you now reinforce the very thing you’re trying to eradicate. And so I think people just need to know you love them. The great commandment is “love your neighbor”, don’t fix your neighbor.
BL: That’s the great commandment. How freeing is that? I’m gonna burn the midnight oil, I’m gonna try to preach the best sermons, or I’m gonna try to prepare the best math lessons, and I’m gonna encourage, and I’m gonna inspire. But sometimes even little Johnny needs to fail, maybe. Maybe that’s the best thing for him, I don’t know.
DM: I mentioned earlier the kind of philosophical differences between urban, and reformed world, and the MTR world and this is, what you’re getting at is a big part of it. The mantra of the urban and reformed world is poverty is significant and it’s very destructive and… But great teaching trumps poverty. And you are the single person who is responsible, you the teacher are solely responsible for the academic achievement of your child. And if you’re not getting it, it’s not good enough, or you’re not working hard enough. And boy, that puts stress and pressure and guilt, and it just is a heavy burden to carry.
BL: It’s noble, but it’s even unbiblical. If there’s a mechanism that God looks for, for transformation outside the cross, it’s the family. So that’s what I would feel, is trying to help in an educational setting without having the reinforcement in the home. That picture was solidified for me… Our kids went to PDS and I think, the first parent teacher’s deal, I go there and there’s like 300-400 parents. And PDS has problems. But I’m hearing parents go, “Is there some kind of flash cards I can get to help?” It’s this competitive, successful… But you’ve got some engagement, which is great. I go straight from there. Our church was helping with Kingsbury high school. It just so happened Kingsbury high school, same night parent teacher thing. There may have been 20. And I go, “That’s it. That’s a major part of the problem.” ‘Cause if little Johnny’s coming home and dad’s nowhere to be found, and mama’s working her second job, and my choice, I have no one to engage me. No one to say, “Okay, do your homework.” And my choice is do my homework or go play basketball, I’m gonna go play basketball. So we gotta fix that. That’s a little bit of a tangent, but yeah.
DM: Yeah. We’re gonna shift. We’re gonna move in more education heavy stuff so… Obviously there’s a massive achievement gap, you saw between PDS and Kingsbury. So one question I wanted to ask. If I’m in front of a group, particularly church groups. Why does the inequality exist? Why do we have average ACTs in the US of 28.3? Average ACT Melrose High School are 14. So we got this 100% difference in academic achievement just based on a few miles down the street, where you’re born. What do we attribute that to?
BL: I think there’s a whole lot of different factors. So what I’m about to say… You can’t pull this quote out of context. If you’re gonna quote me, you gotta quote me the whole context. The beauty of segregation was a couple of things. Almost every historically black college and university, if not all of them, for sure almost all of them, were funded by white philanthropists who had a huge desire to see African Americans well educated. Spelman college… You know why it’s called Spelman? Rockefeller’s wife, her maiden name was Spelman. Rockefeller was the benefactor to Spelman, this all black girls school and the Atlanta university complex. That’s all… You go there today… That’s Rockefeller money. Similar story with Hampton. So on and so forth. And so what you had was, in the black community during segregation, that’s Meharry in Nashville. In the black community during segregation, the great benefit of it was, I did not need to look outside my community to see people who looked like me who were doctors.
BL: We had our own doctors. We had our own lawyers. We had our own insurance agents. There were these visible models before you, albeit in a very divided… Tom Brokaw, God bless him for saying the greatest generation. I wanna say, that’s also the generation that reinforced Jim Crow. You do know that, right? My dad talks about growing up and you’re just seeing what you could be right there. Well integration happens. And when integration happens, couple of things happen. But the major thing is African Americans, in a limited way, are given opportunities that now take them outside of their community. In his landmark book ‘Our Kind of People’, a black writer argues that the most elitist group in the nation are middle to upper middle class African Americans. My experience… I tend to agree with him. Because now what you have is in the 21st century, African Americans judge their success by the geographical distance they put between where they grew up and where they live now.
BL: So this whole idea of people moving back into Binghamton. That’s all white people. You might get a smattering or two of African Americans. For the most part, that is strictly a white conversation. I remember we tried to build a house in Orange Mound. We did build the house. 300 people showed up, over six weeks, three African Americans, I was one of them. I was furious. It’s the Jeffersons, the theme song to the Jeffersons. We’re movin on up, to the east side, to a deluxe apartment in the sky. And it’s this glorification of, “Look mama I’ve made it. I’m so far away from here and I’m not going back.” We’re not giving money, we’re not… By large, when you talk about urban revitalization, you’re talking about the David Montagues of the world. And it’s just not happening to the extent that it should.
BL: I think a part of what needs to happen is, we’ve got to figure out how in the world do we get minorities back in the game of going back to the communities, and getting really involved. That’s why what John Perkin’s did was so beautiful. And I’ve been there, I used to live in Pasadena. He goes to Northwest Pasadena. Was it the three R’s? Relocation, reconciliation, redistribution. Yeah. That’s a beautiful model. It’s just not happening today. So now you’re looking at little kids from these urban communities. They’re not really seeing models here. I think you’ve gotta also talk about the fragmentation of the family, the pandemic of fatherless-ness. Now broken families are everywhere. What slavery did was, slavery thrived off of divide and conquer the family. It’s on the auction block, literally we were divided. Mom goes to Georgia, dad goes to the South Carolina, one kid to Florida, and so on and so forth. And so from day one, the legacy of the African-American family was a legacy of brokenness. And that just, it just perpetuates itself over and over and over again.
DM: How does the church, when you talk about the greatest generation, the church is a part of that great generation, right? It’s not just all these World War II vets?
BL: I’m smiling because the church in the south was heavily involved in education in the 60s and 70s. Just about every single private school, private Christian school, most of them in Memphis, were started because Christians said, “We don’t want our kids… “, when desegregation happened, “to be a part of… ” I sat and had an extensive conversation with Principal Briarcrest. He goes, “We’re repenting of that.” So what Christians said was “We are going to… We can’t legally just start our own public school, but we can start our own private school and price out the undesirables. We can absolutely price them… Just completely.”
BL: Now I wanna go, that same passion, let’s now redemptively unleash it. And I think it’s gotta be preached about, David, absolutely. It’s gotta be significantly talked about. I think, even with that, you gotta be careful because I don’t wanna deify a form of education. It doesn’t have to be Christian schools. It doesn’t have to be public schools. It doesn’t have to be home schools. But I think parental involvement, just a robust men’s ministry that says, “Okay dads… ” Part of the reason why I’m at where I’m at, I just had a dad who loved me and was involved in my life. And my mom, God bless her, was always the president of the PTA growing up. That parental involvement, I think, is just a huge, huge factor.
BL: I think speaking into white flight is huge. Speaking into white gentrification is huge. And lifting up the nobility of public schools, I think is absolutely huge. And then I think one of the things we found fruitful in Memphis was, alright, let’s put our money where our mouth is. We would send people and money over to Kingsbury. They were on that, what do they call the striving list, I think it was? They were about to be taken over by the state. We sent a volunteer army of 300 people. And they get taken off. Out of that Terrance Brown, who was the principal, starts coming. Hussan, who ends up becoming an elder with us, he starts coming to the church. I remember, we’re just a new church, and we took out $6,000 bucks. Gave all 120 faculty and staff administrators a $50 gift card to Houston’s and said we care for you. And man, the response to that. I had people tell me, “Man, I’ve been in Memphis city schools for decades. Never had a church do that.” We’re talking a $50 gift card. Just encourage them, says, “Look man, there’s nobility in what you do. Thank you.”
DM: Relationship between an education gap and the ability for racial reconciliation to happen. I mentioned earlier the subject, can racial reconciliation happen on any scale, when you’ve got a community that are just massively segregated from an achievement gap, from an achievement standpoint? How big of an inhibitor is an education gap to the ability for there to be…
BL: So yeah, I think naturally it’s a three-prong deal. You got race, education, and economics. Anybody in my line of work will tell you, the real challenge isn’t multi-ethnic, it’s multi-class. But again, those three are really close, holistically, but especially in places like Memphis. I don’t know of any thriving, multi-class churches. I know of some churches that have some people of different classes, but I’m just talking about whatever that threshold is. It’s easier to get middle-class whites and middle-class blacks together than it is to get rich whites and poor whites together. Wherever there’s a multi-class, that’s just a tough nut to crack.
DM: Which would lead to the idea that, yeah, you gotta get… If you want to see racial reconciliation happen, it happens… The seed of it is in multi-ethnic churches. And the way to see multi-ethnic churches thrive, and therefore racial reconciliation to thrive, is part of the answer, not the whole answer, but part of the answer, is we need to help… We need to improve economics. We need to lift people up out of poverty. We need to give them the skills and tools they need to thrive where they are not living on such a survival mentality, that they have room and margin to live in a way where people wanna come together.
BL: Yeah, but… Yeah. Yeah. Yeah I would agree. For sure you increase the likelihood of a multi-ethnic church happening if you invest really well educationally. Absolutely. Yeah.
DM: Let me ask you… We’ve got about 15 minutes or so. We touched on this earlier, I’d like to talk in maybe a little more detail. If you’re speaking to a teacher, what are practical ways to create a classroom culture, practical ways to just live in a school building where you’re promoting reconciliation, and you’re either the black, or white, or mixed, or other minority teacher coming into one of these schools. What are ways that we need to be thinking about, the mindset that we have or actions that we have, that promote the idea of reconciliation?
BL: See, I would need to ask questions like, “Well what’s the age group?”
DM: It could be K-12. We generally think of two categories. You’re either elementary or you’re secondary. You’re 6th to 12th grade. And we’ve had mixed… We’re 60% white, but 40%… Probably 25% black, and 15% other. And we’re about two-thirds female and one-third male. 20% are from Memphis, 80% from all over the country.
BL: I can tell you kind of from a student’s perspective, and even going all the way up to my college and seminary days… I’ll give the illustration, then I’ll make the point. I’m even reading… I shouldn’t say his name. But it bothers me when I’ll read a guy, a white guy, who’ll write a book on preaching, and all of his analogies and examples are from other white preachers. So my point is, I think what communicates dignity and value, if you’re a white teacher with a classroom that’s majority something, is to use analogies and illustrations that esteem the demographic you’re trying to reach. If you’re doing something on music, pick one of their music… Or some kind of literary thing that’s happening.
BL: It’s interesting, since coming to New York, and me preaching here. And we’re trying to transition this church. Almost all my illustrations and quotes are coming from the African American or Latino world. And that’s intentional. I’m trying to communicate dignity. I haven’t even preached on reconciliation yet. But I’m trying to communicate dignity. Or you’re walking into a classroom and you’re going… The Dylann Roof thing happens. If I’m a teacher, I may not be able to pray. And I’ll say, “Hey, guys, let’s have a moment of silence.” And maybe even creating a space to where people can share what they’re feeling, and maybe processing… Again, so much of this is how old the people are in the classroom. Man, that stuff just really communicates value. When we enter into those kinds of discussions and use those kinds of analogies.
DM: Yeah that’s very helpful. Very helpful. I’ve got two more, I was gonna pause. Questions or thoughts…
Speaker 3: Perfect, so thank you for what you’ve shared.
BL: Honestly… Man, I remember a conversation with ________________, this white gentleman at our church. Man, I love ____________. And we’re sitting at Perkins there, right there on Poplar, and just his humility, and just going, “Man, I just… I’m probably going to say the wrong thing, but if you’ll just forgive me.” So for him to come through the door, almost posturing himself as a learner, and him having… Everything kind of had this, “Man, can you just kind of help me?” And that just speaks volumes. I think what causes me to tense up is a person just aggressively coming to the front door, and they’ve got their strong opinions, or they make sweeping generalizations. But when the spirit is back and forth, and dialogue, and… Man, that’s just… That’s huge. And what I do is, in fact I told a young man this morning, young African American man, on my side of the table… Dude, we just… We gotta be forgiving. And we can’t be impatient, and we gotta keep coming back to the table, and coming back to the table. And we gotta give our brothers and sisters an opportunity to say dumb stuff. But just keep coming back and coming back.
BL: I was in a meeting with the guys here, it was my first meeting and they were talking about some minority preacher. Black preacher. He preached at one of our locations, and I… The punchline was, “And he was intelligent.” And I just said, “Yeah, I’m gonna file that one away, and we’re going to have a conversation about that.” But I didn’t want to react to it right away, or else I may have just come across the wrong way. But there’s gotta be this give and take and this spirit of humility and almost a deference to one another. I think when that happens, forget the other two items on the list. Honestly that’s it. It’s helped me figure this thing out.
DM: And that’s the Civil Rights Movement.
DM: It’s a different context today…
DM: That would have been the message of Dr. King.
BL: Yep. Yep.
DM: Give, be gracious, keep coming back to the table. Don’t hate the person.
S3: Can I ask one more?
DM: Please, yeah.
S3: How would you respond to individuals who say that racial issues are just a small group of people hiding isolated issues and playing the race card?
BL: Yeah, so I was a… Man, I was… If you use this, don’t mention the church. Sandy had me come do a Amen Bible Study at Second, and I did this thing on forgiveness. And the last illustration I told, it was just the illustration, the point was not race. But just the guy who’d called me nigger in college, and just my own journey, and having to forgive him, and what the Lord was doing on my own heart. So one of the white guys come to me at the end, and he says, “Well, at what point do you think just… ” Here’s what exactly said, “White people just kinda need to get over it.” And I just… I paused, and I wasn’t upset or angry, and I said, “Do you have any black friends?” And he just stopped and thought. And to his credit, and he was very forthright, he goes, “No.” I say, “That would be a great starting point.” I think empathy only comes through proximity, and I can’t… What’s the line? I can’t propose what it’s like to walk in a persons shoes I will never wear.
BL: So I just… Most of the people who say that, if you look underneath the hood, they don’t have rich, meaningful relationships with people in the other part of town. They just don’t. Because if you did, not that you would change your views, but there would be a mellowing of how you see things, how you say things. Yeah, that can only come through relationship. I guarantee you, those people don’t have those kinds of relationships.
S3: That’s great, thanks.
DM: There’s so much ignorance in that question. [laughter] It’s just like waving a red flag. “Look at what I don’t know and don’t understand… ” When they ask this question.
DM: You need to go. I’ve got two, even just…
BL: I’m good.
DM: Very short comments. One… I’ll ask you this first, you can answer it second. It’s just if… Why would somebody need or want to read a book, or a title that’s gonna be Urban Education Matters? So why does it matter that you read Urban Education Matters? That’s one. And the second one is just your favorite teacher. Do you remember a favorite teacher, do you have a favorite teacher? Do you have a moment in school that is encouraging to others?
BL: So why urban education matters. Man, I just think the world is moving more and more back into cities. And that’s just… That’s just huge. So, what I’ve discovered, even the short time I’ve lived here, is a… Part of the reason why my kids aren’t going to private school, I don’t have $150,000 [chuckle] to send them to private school. So, you know, in a city like New York, if your child’s gonna thrive educationally, the city just caught on, we need to invest really well in our schools. And, lo and behold, they’ve done a really good job at that. And what I love about my foray into the city… Even though it’s fraught with problems, what I love about it is, for middle school and high school, you’re not zoned. If you think about the implications of that.
BL: Most other places, what I make, which has racial implications, determines where I live, and that has a bearing on the taxes I pay, and the kind of schools that are afforded to me. Well, in New York, it’s all about achievement. This city, it’s got, in some senses success and power. And so, you know, if you’re making the grades, they don’t care what color you are, they’re gonna send you to the best schools. But again, the mindset here in New York is, “Hey, we’re an island, 8.5 million people, we’ve got some private schools, but if we’re gonna unleash from this place well-educated, we better take good care of our schools.” And a couple months in, what I’m seeing engaged in that process, they’ve done it. And hopefully New York’s the forerunner for what the rest of the world will look like. So as more and more people move in, I think people will catch on the same way New York has, and invest heavily, which is significant.
BL: Favorite teacher? Gosh.
BL: I was such a slacker in school, dude. I don’t have one. I can’t think of one.
DM: We ask people we interview that, and I’ve thought to myself, “If I had to answer that, I’m not sure… “
DM: I could think of a favorite coach.
DM: Probably… But a classroom teacher, that’s a hard deal. Anything else?
S3: No, that’s perfect.
BL: Well, thank you.
S3: Thank you so much.
BL: Thank you.
DM: Really appreciate your time.
BL: Thank you again.