“Racism has prevailed as an organizing principle of religious life” in the United States, laments author Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook. But the ministry of racial inclusion, far from being merely a “program” of the church, can revitalize the church of the 21st century as it reclaims its mission of being an agent of reconciliation and “a house of prayer for all peoples.”

With Kujawa-Holbrook’s book A House of Prayer for All Peoples the Alban Institute offers yet another practical and hopeful resource for churches seeking to understand and overcome the complex issues of racism in our society. Rather than approaching racism as a cultural problem, the book views it as a spiritual crisis that undermines the essence of the church’s mission of liberation and freedom for all people.

“It is ultimately our resistance to the Spirit that divides us as peoples–not race, or ethnicity, or religion, or nationality,” the author contends.

An Episcopal priest and associate professor of pastoral theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., Kujawa-Holbrook writes with a personal interest in the subject of racism. The child of Polish Americans, she experienced the pain of racism in the Midwestern city where she grew up. But later, when attending a prominent university in the East, her “ability to ‘pass’ as someone from a middle-class, white ‘American’ culture” assured her of advantages over other persons of color.

“The experience taught me a lesson about the privilege of whiteness,” recalled Kujawa-Holbrook, “and at the same time gave me a ‘window’ into what it might be like for those who experience racial oppression.”

Kujawa-Holbrook, who also chairs the Anti-Racism Committee of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, writes as a person with a personal passion for racial reconciliation. With words that—from the perspective of a white reader–are convicting and uncomfortable, yet pastoral, she sets the issue of racism in a theological and sociological context.

She then sketches out the steps of an intentional process by which churches can journey from being exclusive to becoming “a transformed congregation [that] upholds a future vision of a new reality where racial oppression no longer sets limits on human growth or potential.”

The bulk of the book is dedicated to six congregations and their intentional efforts to build multiracial communities of faith. Here is where hope emerges in an otherwise bleak landscape of segregated churches.

The stories reflect the steps churches have taken–often with reluctance and fear–toward building bridges of understanding. These stories describe partnerships between churches of differing races, as well as churches which have become multiracial in and of themselves.

A theme running through all the stories is the importance of individuals listening to and learning from one another. As churches in Quincy, Wash., discovered, racial reconciliation is not a program but “a long-term relationship between people.”

Although all six of the churches engaged in some form of dialogue between people of different races, all the churches furthered their efforts through hands-on projects. In many cases, the projects led to recognition that systems and structures also needed to be changed, and church members in most of the congregations had begun to move from social ministry to social justice.

Of the six churches profiled, racial dialogue had caused them to address other forms of discrimination. Four of the six had becomes openly accepting and affirming of gays and lesbians, a stance that may distract some Baptists from giving serious consideration to the racial reconciliation issues.

The process outlined and illustrated in the churches could provide a clear road map for churches wishing to embark on a similar path. Kujawa-Holbrook also provides an extensive annotated bibliography and resource list for continuing or deepening the journey.

Throughout the book, Kujawa-Holbrook asserts that the work of reconciliation is a spiritual process.  “As people of faith, we know that the reign of God will not ultimately be built on separatism or political arguments, but on the transformation of hearts–new life, not just reordered life,” she explains.

But if the core message of the gospel is reconciliation, then churches that choose this difficult path will become powerful symbols to a world divided by race, ethnicity, culture and other differences.

“[T]hrough building multiracial community, we can be about the healing and wholeness that the world craves,” she concludes.

Michael Tutterow is senior pastor of Winter Park Baptist Church in Wilmington, N.C.

Order A House of Prayer for All Peoples now from Amazon.com.

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