Everything I Know About Racism I Learned From the Church

Editor’s Note: The author’s experiences within the church can be painful and difficult to read about. However, we believe these are reflections the Church needs to hear. Please take time to read and process the author’s story. Before reacting too quickly, we encourage you to listen and reflect upon the implications this might have for your ministry context.

Every summer, my mom would sign us up for vacation bible school (VBS) programs at local churches so we could experience God in diverse settings. The summer I turned six, we attended VBS at an all-white church in a neighboring city. During recess, my brother and I were so engrossed in our tetherball game that we didn’t hear the teacher calling us to return to the classroom. 

Exasperated, she yelled at the top of her lungs, “Get in here, n*ggers!!”

Being six and all, I had no idea what the word n*gger meant; I just knew that it referred to me and that it was negative.

I ducked my head in shame and ran toward the classroom. The teacher’s words violently contradicted the VBS theme “God loves all the children in the world,” and made me question whether God’s love was meant for me too.

The church taught me that God’s love is only for the white kids.

When I Learned that All Black People Rap.

Many people recall junior high as a dark and stormy stage in their identity development timeline. But as one of two black girls in my class at my Christian school, I had the unenviable task of figuring out who I was and where I belonged while surrounded by a sea of white classmates who only interacted with me long enough to ask to touch my hair.

Feeling different and excluded, I signed up for choir class, hoping to find a place to belong.

That year, the Christmas musical script unironically called for a “Rapping Angel” who rapped Luke 2:14.

Without holding auditions for the part, our choir director (with obvious support from my classmates) cast me as the rapping angel, saying, “You can do it, right Christena?”

Nope, I couldn’t.

MC Hammer, I was not.

But since I did not fit in with my classmates, I was desperate to prove that I belonged to another relevant social group—namely, black people. So I went along with our director’s decision and now have the distinction of being the most woefully miscast Rapping Angel in the history of cheesy Christmas musicals.

The church taught me that I belong nowhere—not even in the tiny stereotypical box that they tried to stuff me into.

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Christena Cleveland
Christena Cleveland is a social psychologist with a hopeful passion for overcoming cultural divisions in groups. Drawing from a vast body of research, she uncovers the underlying processes that affect relationships within and between groups and helps leaders understand how to promote an appreciation for diversity and build effective collaborations with diverse groups. She recently completed her first book Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart.

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