Opinion

The Rodney O. Lain Archive

Racial Conditioning: Racial/Human Reconciliation Day in Houston, Texas

Rodney O. Lain - 1996.01.13

This article was written while Rodney was involved with the Macon, GA, Worldwide Church of God (WCG) congregation. It was originally published on the MarkTab Ministries website, a site which no longer exists. It is copyright by Rodney O. Lain. Links have been retained when possible, but many go to the Internet Wayback Machine.

Open Letter to Mark (from Rodney)

Mark,

Well, here is what I put together from my trip to Houston. I hope it isn't too long (it was eight pages on my MS Word document). The layout was much better on my screen. Have at it!

I have to get home. I hope all is well with you.

Thanks,
Rodney

Introductory Quotations

"For [Jesus Christ] is our peace, who had made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility . . . to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which He put to death their hostility . . . For through Him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit."
 - Letter to the Ephesians 2:14-18, NIV

"It's no disgrace being a black man - but it's terribly inconvenient."
 - Bert Williams, comic

"He ain't heavy; he's my brother."
 - Anon.

Meeting WCG Pastor Chris Beam

The first time that I communicated with Chris Beam (pastor of the Worldwide Church of God, Houston-North congregation) was through e-mail. I immediately noticed something in his messages: his signatures simply said, "Chris." In retrospect, that was a good omen.

I was invited to attend what had been dubbed a "racial reconciliation weekend" in the Houston WCG. Although it was short notice, there was no way I wanted to miss what I knew would turn out to be a watershed event in the annals of our fellowship. And it was.

What follows is an organization of my notes, impressions of, and comments on a day that consisted of a seminar and a highly thematic worship service. For me, it was a very positive and Christ-centered meeting - I exited Texas in far better spirits that I entered that state, due to what was said and done on Jan. 13. I've never even attended a Feast site that was more pleasant. Nor have I ever attended a WCG service, for that matter, that affirmed my native culture instead of chiding me for wanting to be as "black as I wanna be." As a Sammy Davis, Jr., song once said: "I gotta be me."

Meeting the Beams and Floreses

Chris Beam lived up to his signature. Part of my paradigm shift about WCG ministers has been aided by his and his wife's friendship. I can't believe that he was ever a WCG minister of old: When we talked, it actually seemed that my ideas meant something to him. When we hugged and shook hands, his body language never conveyed "bad vibes." In his presence, I never felt like a "mere lay member." Both he and his wife, Dee, treated me like an honored guest - less like an honored guest, more like an old-time friend. This is one of the most pleasant things about the "new" WCG - the ministry's transformed attitude toward the laity, a transformation that was confirmed repeatedly throughout the day... ample evidence of the Spirit's presence and His stamp of approval.

That Friday night, after arriving in Houston by plane, Chris dropped me off at the home of Becky and John Flores, a beautiful couple in the Houston-North church. They also treated me with an enviable hospitality. A Hispanic couple originally from Pasadena, they talked with me for hours, during which we swapped tales about our trials and triumphs in the WCG, in light of the next day's focus on racial and culture. They were very encouraging to me, and positively contagious. It was good night.

Barbara Hacker: 'Racial Conditioning' and Racism

Over 460 people gathered on an early Sabbath morning at the Holiday Inn, near Houston's Hobby Airport, to talk about race and to worship and praise our great, triune God. After introductory comments from the local ministry, the stage was taken over by Cheryl "Cherry" Steinwender and Barbara Hacker, cofounders of the Houston-based Center for the Healing of Racism. Barbara spoke first.

"Every group of people, every religion" needs reconciliation, she said. Then she commenced to compliment WCG leadership for seeing this need and for having a "sense of vision . . . [and] a sense of responsibility" to address race matters in our fellowship. Barbara easily allayed potential resistance to the subsequent discussions when she pointed out that pain is a life process, that it's "very natural to life." Only brave people are willing to see and to correct their own prejudices; racial reconciliation is not for wimps [neither is true Christianity]. At this point she recalled an anecdote that appropriately describes our doctrinal transition and our organization's burgeoning acceptance of true, Christ-centered multiculturalism: "Just when things look like they're falling apart is when they are falling together." She then outlined six "denials" that are usually voiced in opposition to the obvious need to engage, discuss and confront racial issues and problems:

Denial #1: When many hear the words "racist" and "racism," they think only of sheet-wearing Klansmen and other high-profile hate mongers, saying "that's not me."

Reply: "There is more to racism than the KKK; there's

  • "unaware racism" - what "good" people do; it offends minorities and makes them standoffish toward the offenders.
  • "cultural racism" - judging all ethnics by Eurocentric standards, such as beauty [blue eyes, blond hair, thin lips, etc.], music [classical, country], etc. This denies the strengths of minority cultures.
  • "institutional racism" - when all of the systems in a society (health care, judicial, religious, educational, mass media) promote mainly negative stereotypes about minorities and mainly positive ones about the majority culture [See Ethnic Notions, below].
  • "internalized racism" - when the affected minority comes to believe the stereotypes perpetrated by the majority culture [See Ethnic Notions, below].

Denial #2: People concede that America's racial past was painful, but "things are better now."

Reply: So much time is spent avoiding past pain that the future [and the present] pain is avoided, also.

Denial #3: People who want to talk about racial problems are troublemakers; such discussions are counterproductive.

Reply: create guidelines, etc. for making discussion "safe" for all parties involved.

Denial #4: "Hurt- or anger-producing" topics are unhealthy.

Reply: The discussions don't produce the pain and the hurt. "The pain is already there."

Denial #5: "God is all-powerful, so pray, leave it up to him and it'll all work out."

Reply: we have to move/act for God to begin working.

Denial #6: Focusing on race is "disunifying."

If race is ignored, the "unity" that is in place is superficial.

"True unity is what gets to our inner being and purpose. [Unity is not conformity; unity is not "integration"; I'm also reminded of the time that Ghandi was asked what he thought about western civilization. "That would be a good idea," he said. "We should try it someday." I say the same thing about our past "integration" and "racial harmony." It would be a good idea....]

Barbara said that racism is a "disease that's learned; if it can be learned, it can be unlearned."

Cherry Steinwender: 'Racial Conditioning,' Not 'Racism'

Cheryl followed Barbara, stressing how attempts at racial reconciliation must be initiated and maintained from all involved parties.

She stressed the importance of not alienating white brothers and sisters who are actually wanting to reconcile racial problems.

"To call anyone 'racist' is not productive . . . do not make [people] feel small," she said. She suggested the term "racial conditioning," instead of "racism." This way people aren't attacked, labeled or belittled, which paves the way for constructive dialogue and productive solutions.

Cherry said that she and Barbara debated how to address us, since the WCG's theology and racial culture were quite unique. Usually she (an African-American woman) addressed their audiences first; but this time, they agreed to let Barbara (a Caucasian) go first. She explained that in American society, we have been racially conditioned to see the white person as the authority. She told how they are interviewed by a reporter, for example, and the interviewer will always address Barbara as the authority; once Barbara kept telling the reporter that Cherry was going to answer a certain question; it took a while before the reporter realized what message Barbara was trying to get across. This and the following anecdote emphasized how she came to see that whites suffer from racial conditioning, also:

In one of their many talks, a Caucasian male approached Cherry and she sensed that he wanted to talk; he told her that "every institution in America lied to me. Every institution told me that I was superior."

Racial conditioning in action.

Ethnic Notions

After Cherry's and Barbara's talk, the award-winning documentary "Ethnic Notions" was shown. The film shows how popular culture incessantly broadcasts - ever since the first initial anti-black propaganda that followed the Civil War - negative, demeaning and dehumanizing images of African-Americans; examples were taken from areas like advertising, radio/film, and even Bugs Bunny cartoons. The film details the treatment of blacks in mass media as the quintessential practice of cultural chauvinism. I vacillated between being livid and being sad while viewing this film. It was very disturbing.

Racism in the WCG

Houston pastor Gerald Witte moderated a discussion about race and racism in the WCG; the panel consisted of a dozen members and pastors.

Many emotion-laden anecdotes were related from the panelists' lives.

Some of them:

Murdock Gibbs, a new minister in the Dallas area, told of the racial climate in AC in the 1960s: "the initial [AC] charter was established for Anglo-Americans - white folks." Interracial social intercourse was severely limited: interracial dating, for example was a prime no-no.

"Doc" Gibbs' most painful memory was the time he came up for an interview as a potential new-hire into the WCG ministry. He said the interview pool consisted of eight white men and two black men. In interviews, white candidates got minor critiques: work on your personality; work on your bible knowledge, etc. But the black men's future with the WCG ministry hinged upon their views on interracial marriage: Gibbs was asked what he thought about interracial marriage. His reply was that "according to the scriptures, it isn't a sin." The interview panel, which happened to consist of high-ranking evangelists, railed against the "sin" of interracial marriage and subsequently told him that "until we can convince you of the sin of interracial marriage, you can be of no use in the Work."

Letting the enormity of this statement's effect on him sink into the audience, Gibbs paused slightly and then announced, "two months ago, I was ordained into the ministry." Applause erupted.

[In his best-selling book, Race Matters (1993), the eminent Harvard University scholar Cornel West argues that there can be no progress in black/white race relations until there is open, frank discussion concerning whites' obsession and fear of interracial sex, marriage, and social intercourse. In the first half of the 20th century, many a black man died by lynching, just from an accusation of "raping" a white woman. A couple of years ago, I authored a paper examining the deadly ramifications of the motif "protecting the sanctity of the white female" in African-American literature. In real life, the name Emmit Till comes to mind....]

Curtis May, a L. A., Calif., pastor, answered a question about the effectiveness of small groups in racial reconciliation, and the question over whether or not blacks suppress racial hurt - to which he answered "yes!"

[To which I say "Amen!"]

Leonard James said that "racism doesn't exist in a vacuum. A man who is a racist usually beats his wife, his kids . . . "

[Racism is only a symptom of a plethora of other personal problems.]

Greg Albrecht, Plain Truth editor in chief, summarized the church's racial history and how the WCG began to grow out of institutional racism. He denounced the book United States and British Commonwealth in Prophecy, saying it was "racist to the core." Albrecht said that he began studying the book in 1987 and spent "hundreds and hundreds and hundreds" of hours researching the validity of the work. He said the idea of British Israelism germinated when Britain began its vigorous colonization efforts.

They needed a justification for their dominating Africa and other continents Albrecht said. They found it in the bible (a type of Manifest Destiny), an erroneous belief that he said is hermeneutically, exegetically, and historically incorrect .

He then began to show how recent changes in the church affected people according to race: "what people had the most amount of problems [with The Changes]: white, middle-aged men; who had the least problems: women, minorities."

[I call this the Great White Male Shakeup: race is no longer THE prerequisite for seats of power and authority in our fellowship; this may take some time to weed out, I'm afraid, if my past and present experiences with white male arrogance means anything; like a friend told me - alas and alack, "cultures don't change over night"....]

He related stories of how the church's admission of corporate and individual racism has affected members: an African-American woman ran up to him after one sermon, bear hugged him and shouted, "Thank God! Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I'm free at last! I never thought I'd heard ANYONE say that in this church! I never thought I'd hear a white PERSON say that in this church! I never thought I'd hear a white MAN say that in this church!"

Let's Do Lunch! or, "Why Did People Stay in the Church?"

During lunch, I had the pleasure to eat with Cherry and Barbara. We traded titles of favorite books, authors, etc., and basically picked each others' brains. What was really interesting was a question that they asked me: "If there was so much racism in the [WCG], why did people stay in the church?" Becky Flores and others previously noted that they stayed because they believed that God was in charge and all would work out.

Barbara and Cherry didn't find that an acceptable explanation, for some reason, so they asked my opinion.

This same question always posed a problem at the back of my mind, the same way that a loose tooth would - you constantly probed it with your tongue, no matter how much it hurt. I always mentally probed the question, from time to time, no matter how much it hurt.

But I did not hesitate on the ladies' question. I told them that I wasn't as enlightened as my other brothers and sisters: "I put up with it because I thought this was the one-and-only true Church of God. I bought into all of the spiritual error." I went on to say that the first time all of the New Covenant arguments began to fall in place, one of the first things I pondered was "You mean I put up with these white people, and took all that racist mess off of them, for nothing?" Like many others, I had my own bout with cognitive dissonance, my own demons to slay.

'Doc' Gibbs: Just a Li'l Bit of Country . . . and Rap, and Calypso, and . . .

One of the most delightful parts of worship services that afternoon was the contributions made by Murdock Gibbs. He presented a musical medley, which consisted of ethnic renditions of hymn #108 - "Holy, Mighty, Majesty." His prefatory comments stressed the beauty of cultural difference and how it is best exemplified in musical diversity. Then he proceeded to perform the hymn in several ways, by singing and playing his keyboard: a traditional style, a Caribbean beat, a country/western flair, and finally with "rap" style ("M.C." Gibbs said that "rap music is poetry with an attitude").

Another musical highlight was the special music, a rendition of the song "There is a Balm in Gilead," performed by the Houston Gospel choir, which had vocal solos by members, among whom was Gerald Witte.

Greg Albrecht's Sermon: 'I'm Greg. I'm a Recovering Racist.'

Mr. Albrecht's sermon was based on Ephesians 2, some of which is in the epigraph to these notes. He spoke of his personal encounters with racial difference, and he traced the path that he traveled in learning about the WCG's wrong teaching about race and culture. He said that 1995 was a watershed year for our fellowship, when we began to break the chains of abuse. The year 1996, he said, would be a year in which we kept moving forward, not looking back.

He then compared his personal trek toward racial reconciliation to the analogy of an AA meeting: "I'm Greg, and I'm a recovering legalist, and I'm a recovering racist." To which he was applauded.

He ended his message with reminders about our true Reconciliation:

  • "Reconciliation is not cheap."
  • It must entail laying aside hurt, laying aside grievances.
  • Reconciliation is at the cross of Jesus Christ.

C. May's Sermon: 'I Knew that God Was Real.'

Mr. May spoke on "Why I stayed in the Church." He spoke of the problems of our Israelite theology: he said that at times, he was more than willing to give up being a spiritual Israelite (Gal. 3:28) in order to become a physical [white] Israelite, since it was more profitable - in our fellowship.

He said that two things helped him endure:

  • He had good mentors in the ministry - the late Harold Jackson, Stan Bass, Abner Washington, and Greg Albrecht.
  • "I knew that God was real." He described a sign that he holds up from time to time in his congregation, a sign that says "We signed up for the duration."

Epilogue: Beyond Race, or Why Rodney Stayed with the WCG

The past year has been hectic, stressful for me. I've had to come to grips with the WCG's many doctrinal errors, just as many of you have.

I've been very angry with the WCG's institutional racism. I've talked to black brothers and sisters in our fellowship who can not forgive what was taught and what was done to them. Some no longer are with us, but they are still true Christians. They wonder why I stay. Here's why:

No matter what we taught as an organization, I always had white brothers and sisters who were extremely sensitive to my personal problems with our racial climate. One thing that encouraged me to stay was a phone call that I had early in 1995 with Ken Frasier, a deacon in Monroe, La. I was living in Minnesota, and I was calling WCG friends down South, being encouraging, seeking to be encouraged. In the middle of a conversation in which Ken Frasier and I were expressing our excitement over our spiritual rebirth and revival, he pleasantly stunned me with a comment:

"Rodney, how are the black brethren taking all of this?" I had no answer (do I know all that African-Americans see, hear and know?) He endeared himself to me that day, more than ever before. I'm not joking when I say some of my best friends are white . . .

He didn't know that I, at the time of our conversation, was pondering why should I attend the St. Paul, Minnesota, church - which is what I jokingly and lovingly call the "whitest WCG congregation in the USA" - when there was a warm and friendly black, Baptist church two blocks away. My conclusion? I knew that I would have to face a different set of problems with that fellowship also. (All-black fellowships can be racist, too, you know.) I decided to stay because my beloved fellowship, the Worldwide Church of God, is willing to face its history, apologize, and then stand shoulder to shoulder to rebuilt hearts, to rebuild relationships, to rebuild lives. Any "white folks" who will subject themselves to what Greg Albrecht, Chris and Dee Beam, et al. subjected themselves to in Houston (I left out a lot of what black members told me in private), have to have a big measure of the Holy Spirit and lots of the spiritual gift called courage. Where ever there is that much reconciliation and brother love, that's where I want to be.

Learn to reach out, my black, Asian, Filipino, Hispanic, and black brothers and sisters. Don't wait for the other person to act first. It'll be worth it.

A Final Appeal

I sincerely hope that all of us will develop, and retain, a sense of deeper empathy for the situations of people in other ethnic groups. And I hope this will extend over to concerns about age differences, handicaps, gender differences, socioeconomic differences, etc. We really are all in this together.

If we do stick to the broader issues of reconciliation, by this shall all men know that we are Christ's disciples. Reconciliation is, to me, one of the supreme expressions of outgoing concern, showing that we really do love one another, that we really do practice what we preach . . . that we really are Christians.

Let the healing continue.

Open Letter to Rodney (from Mark)

Dear Rodney,

Thank you for going to the conference and taking such detailed notes. I find it no coincidence that you wrote an extensive webpage on this subject even before this conference was scheduled; clearly, God's spirit is stirring you and others to use this changeover time in WCG to solve this problem.

Your friend,
Mark

Rodney O. Lain teaches English and Journalism at Georgia College in Milledgeville, GA, and is the worship coordinator for the Macon, GA, Worldwide Church of God (WCG) congregation.

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