Trillia Newbell is no stranger to Christ and Pop Culture. Last year she urged our readers to move beyond color blindness and consider why race still matters in our country and churches. Her writings on faith, family, and diversity have been featured here, on Relevant, Desiring God, The Gospel Coalition, True Woman, and The Resurgence. She currently serves as a consultant on Women’s Initiatives for the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Trillia’s first book, United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity, releases this week. In it, she addresses the dichotomy between our current state of segregation in the church and the beautiful fact that we will one day worship together as people from every tribe, nation, and tongue. Trillia was gracious enough to sit down with me in a small coffee shop near her home outside Nashville to discuss her upcoming book and the needed conversation surrounding race in our churches today.
What inspired you to write United? Was there a catalyst that prompted you to write such a book, or was it more of a journey?
I read John Piper’s book, Bloodlines, and my pastor asked me to share what I had learned. That was the catalyst. I sent him an email, and then posted it on my blog, and it blew up! I guess people really wanted to read the perspective of a black, reformed female on the issue of race. In Bloodlines, John Piper confesses that he was a racist. That really affected my heart. We need to be able to say those words: “I was a racist at one point and now I have more understanding.” That’s the only way we’re going to be able to bridge these gaps and speak honestly on such a divisive topic.
That’s quite funny because when I was reading United, I couldn’t help but notice you quote John Piper throughout. Bloodlines certainly lays a theological framework for thinking about race in your book. Who else has been a major influence on your thoughts about race and the church?
Thabiti Anyabwile’s thoughts on race–because he doesn’t believe it exists!–has had a profound impact on my thinking. There’s actually an extended interview in the appendix of United on this very topic. It’s something we really need to talk about. Does race exist, because if it doesn’t, are we even having the right conversation? It’s a good question to ask.
Other influences include Martin Luther King, Jr. His heart for desegregation, and the way he so gently and firmly stood up for the rights of all people is awe-inspiring. My father, however, has had the biggest impact on me. Partly because he’s my dad, but also because he taught me how to love people before I understood what it meant to love people in the Lord. He taught me to love people in general.
I really loved and appreciated your openness throughout United to discuss your relationship with your dad and other close friends. I was glad that your book wasn’t an abstract defense for multi-ethnic churches, but a personal account that is approachable. Intimate storytelling is what we need in these conversations because discussion of race is often separate from personal relationships. When you know someone personally, it’s hard to argue against them based on stereotypes.
One thing I’ve learned as a writer is that you must anticipate your critics’ arguments before you even hear them. While writing a book on such a controversial topic as the church and race, what were some of the criticisms you anticipated addressing?
The word “diversity” has been politicized, and I address that pretty strongly in United. This is not about quotas. This is not about building churches that are multi-ethnic for the sake of being multi-ethnic. This is about loving people. That’s my goal and that’s my heart. I also address the fact that not every church is in a location that is feasible for racial diversity. Every church can’t be diverse in so far as race and ethnicity is involved. So I try to explain that I’m not just talking about building friendships with other ethnicities. God created us and uniquely designed us with different gifts. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul talks about how we all have different gifts that are to be used to serve one another. The hand needs the eyes to make the body work, right?
My optimism was very purposeful because we need to be open and honest with each other so we can have this dialogue. We’ve got to ask questions. It grieves me that this conversation is always accusatory and on the defense.I also anticipated some people questioning why we even need a book about diversity. “Aren’t we post-racial?” they may ask. I would say, “No, no we’re not.” We need to have this conversation. In my book I discuss a recent news story in which an interracial couple was banned from being married in a Kentucky church. That was in 2011! Racial issues come up one after the other in the news. We are not post-racial. We are not past race. People are still talking about race, so the church needs to be at the forefront of the conversation.
Speaking of interracial marriage, in United you address situations in which the public may not be too open to the idea. In particular, you recount a time you were leaving a restaurant with your husband and another African American woman called you a sellout. I was hoping you would elaborate more on that experience. What kind of social perceptions are battling against interracial marriage? How are such marriages very particular images of the gospel?
It was so strange! We walked out of this restaurant and me and my husband–who was my boyfriend at the time–got heckled. We couldn’t believe it. I’ve never experienced something like that from an African American couple. It was clear that the woman just thought it was inappropriate for me to be with a white man. Most of the racism I’ve ever experienced was from white people, so that experience has stuck with me because of how shocking it was. But it was a good reminder that all people struggle with this. Racism is not a white issue. It’s a people issue. We need to make that clear because sometimes it can seem that only white people get charged with racism. Based on my experience, that’s just not true.
As for my marriage, it’s a display of the same thing I want to see in church. We are united in Christ, and while we’re of two different races, there’s no real difference. Those things that are different about us are created by God. They’re unique, and we should celebrate those differences! My marriage reminds me that we are one in Christ.
United is a primarily optimistic book about the importance and possibility of multiple ethnicities and cultures worshiping together, but when the issue of race comes up in casual conversation, I find those dialogues often difficult and heavy–much more pessimistic than your optimism. Was this purposeful?
This is a great question. You’ve met me now, and let’s just be real, I am optimistic! The gospel is about hope, right? It’s about reconciliation—to God first, and then us to each other. There’s so much hope in that. United is a Christ-centered book, and when you go there, you can’t help but have hope. So for me, that’s number one. The gospel is hopeful. Number two would be that every time we bring up race, people tend to get defensive and the conversation breaks apart. My optimism was very purposeful because we need to be open and honest with each other so we can have this dialogue. We’ve got to ask questions. It grieves me that this conversation is always accusatory and on the defense. I hope to change that.
Is there a way to have this conversation without thinking critically about ourselves, though? For example, I’m a white, middle class, straight man. That brings with it so much privilege. But when you talk about race and privilege, people get defensive. “White privilege” is often heard as an accusation of racism. How can we hold on to our optimism in those instances?
I try not to use words that can be divisive or offensive because I know it will cause someone to immediately be on guard. If I accuse someone of ignorance because of their white privilege, that’s an assumption. How do I really know? As a black female, I want to approach this conversation as someone who knows the other person. I can’t assume I know everything about someone’s experience. You could have an adopted brother who is African American, in which case you would know more about race from that experience than someone who doesn’t. This is the problem with stereotypes. We make a lot of sweeping assumptions and say things that are harmful, then we put up a guard. Certain terms or accusations automatically set the conversation up as you against me or me against you. I want to avoid that.
Why is it important for us to see healthy multi-ethnic churches in the US today?
Christ’s blood is enough for racial reconciliation. When we have multi-ethnic churches, it screams to the world that Christ’s blood is enough and that [race] doesn’t need to be a barrier. We are united in Christ. We are the family of God. You’re my brother in Christ. When I first saw you, I was immediately comfortable because the gospel has already broken down any barriers that would divide us. Such barriers, especially in a racial divide, is just a product of our sinful hearts. Healthy multi-ethnic churches display the beauty of God’s creation in this world by uniting, in Christ, that which seems to divide us.
If Sunday morning really is the most segregated time in the United States, what are multi-ethnic churches doing well to overcome the dominant practice of homogeneity?
This is a hard question to address because I don’t know every multi-ethnic church and I don’t want to make any assumptions. The worst thing that could happen in our pursuit of multi-ethnic churches would be for those churches to become proud and arrogant because they’re multi-ethnic, because they have something other churches may lack. When you do that, it’s the sin of pride on par with racism. You’re putting two things against each other that don’t need to be in opposition. That’s divisive. We don’t want that.
In United you talk about one of the first churches you really invested in after becoming a believer. You had everything in common with regard to the gospel, but you still felt your otherness as a minority. How did your church begin to attract others different from the majority of the congregation?
It’s a very slow process. For my church, it simply began with my pastor showing me that he cared. He would ask good questions, and he often talked about loving others different from us from the pulpit. We were also very intentional in pursuing people. We would invite anyone and everyone to church without being selective in who should be welcome in our home. We were really intentional about inviting people from every tribe, nation, and tongue. With that said, though, it was never an incredibly diverse church. It might be now, but it wasn’t when I was there.
What are some of the biggest challenges today in encouraging diversity among our churches?
The biggest challenge is that we think we’re past it. People don’t want to talk about this. People think because the Civil Rights Movement was so long ago, we’re over it. That’s just wrong.
I know many pastors are probably curious about what type of church strategies you’ve found the most helpful in reaching the “other?” For example, there’s often a fear that white churches doing ministry in black neighborhoods may encourage the white savior mentality, or at the least, paternalism. How can we be responsible in reaching out to others different from ourselves?
First of all, leaders need to be the example. It’s just the truth that a lot of people look to them to see how to live. We look to our leaders to see what’s important in our church. If our leaders are reaching out and inviting others into our church home, if they’re inviting different people to speak from the pulpit, if they encourage multi-ethnic leadership, then it’s clear diversity is an important aspect of the church.
As far as other methods, I think talking about it from the pulpit and reaching out in communities not like yours is a good starting point. I do see what you’re saying about wanting to guard against the savior mentality–“I’m here to save these people!” You’ve got to get started with an understanding of the theology of race. If we start by understanding that we’re all created equal, that we sin equally, that we need Jesus equally, and that we’re all redeemed equally, then we can go humbly into a community that’s not like our own and serve in humility rather than in the pride of the savior mentality.
While United is primarily about ethnic diversity in congregations, what are some other blind spots the church has today that impact a different but unified people worshipping together? Diversity isn’t just about race, is it?
In United I talk about the sin of partiality addressed in the Book of James. Those Christians were partial to the rich. We need to watch ourselves for any partiality we might show in our churches. We can be partial to the famous, the popular, and all sorts of people.
In striving for diversity, then, is there a danger of becoming partial to those who are different from us? Can we be partial to the mission over the people? For example, my church started with a united vision for multi-ethnicity, but not long after we planted, God brought a lot of white college students us. Many of us questioned whether or not that was going to hinder our mission. But you know what? Most of our diversity now has grown because of the college population.
A lot of diversity I’ve experienced in churches has also been because of college students. There’s probably something to be about that. But regarding putting the mission over the people, that’s when we need to ask whether we are gospel-driven or mission-driven. The bottom line is that we need to be sharing the gospel. Be faithful to Jesus in sharing his good news. We’re going to be tempted to sin in some way because sin is always crouching at our door. What we don’t want is to get caught up in the temptation to sin. We can get so wrapped up in what we should do and how we go about doing it, that we end up not doing anything.
Any other final thoughts or comments you want to pass along to our readers?
Ultimately, this is all just about loving people. I can go on and on about methods and strategies, but the truth is it’s as simple as loving your neighbor as yourself. It’s God’s commandment. I don’t want to oversimplify it, but I do think it’s as simple as that–and we still don’t do it well. With regard to race, we can be so wrapped up in not wanting to do something wrong. Most of us are hindered by a fear of sinning or offending, so we don’t do anything. We need to put that aside and pursue people because we love them. We’re not always going to do it perfectly, but we never know what God has planned. As Russell Moore asks in his book, Adopted for Life, what if a rich white man was discipled by a poor Latino man? That would say something!
During my interview with Trillia, my wife was moved to tears as she had the opportunity to honestly express several difficult questions she’s been wrestling with on the issue of race. Witnessing these two women counsel each other in Christ as they addressed that which often separates was a sight to behold. It was, indeed, a beautiful picture of the gospel at work. Trillia expressed that one of her main goals in writing United was to foster open and honest dialogue about difference and race among believers. That goal played out right before my eyes as my wife was edified by Trillia and her work.
Even though United releases this week, Trillia Newbell is already working on another book exploring how women can overcome fear and temptation for the sake of the gospel. But for now, go pick up a copy of United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity here.