Bishop Kenneth Ulmer has been pastoring for decades in Inglewood, CA. He has seen more than his fair share of racism on the streets and on stages across the country. But he has recently launched a campaign to work toward racial understanding and reconciliation that has captured the attention of Christians across racial lines. UrbanFaith contributor Maina Mwaura sat down with him to discuss his work to confront racism and bring people together. The below interview is edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been around for a long time, you’ve seen the ups and downs when it comes to race? Why did you decide to get involved with such an event like this, for people to come together and talk about this important topic?
I think you just answered it, it is the the importance of coming together. And talking about it, you know, the Bible does a passage where the Bible says, Come, come, let us reason together. And our efforts is simply first of all, to start with coming together, which, especially in these days of division, and schisms, and “isms” that should be “was-ims” all the divisions in the body of Christ, just coming together is an achievement. Yes, I’ve been doing this for a while…and I don’t think I have ever in my life or ministry seen a season and a time where the world is as divided. But more importantly, and more grievously more painful, is that the church is likewise significantly divided. And I think what bothers me is that many don’t know, don’t realize it, or didn’t get the memo, or whatever. And we’re kind of going on in business as usual.
But it is not, as usual, but in many cases, in terms of COVID, and everything, will never be the same. The issue is, what are we going to look like on the other side of this, and the exhortation is, don’t come out of this empty handed. Don’t come out of this, having learned nothing, haven’t having achieved anything, having made no progress. Look around, reach around, grab around for what God is saying to you. I would say, What is God saying to the church? You know, the exhortation of, of John, he did have ears. Here, listen, get it, catch it, what the Spirit is saying to the church, what he is saying, you know, the Prophet said, God is doing a new thing. And I love that verse. And I think it’s Isaiah 43, where it says…don’t miss this…don’t you see that God is doing a new thing? And so I think, ultimately, our gathering is to come together, to reason to wrestle to dialogue, even to dispute and debate. You know, what are you hearing God’s saying, what is God saying, now? What are the words of the marching orders for the body of Christ, when we come through this thing, and of course, all of us would admit that we didn’t know we, we did, none of us knew we would still be in it this long.
And, I gotta tell you, I’m not a prophet, not a son of a prophet, but I think things may get worse before they get better. And by that, I mean, this is not going to be a quick fix. It’s a major cultural shift. And there’s a major cultural shift as relates to the body of Christ as relates to the mandate the commission of the church.
Why do you enjoy talking about race? Like you don’t mind embracing it. Like you don’t mind stepping into it. When a lot of people are going, I think I’ll avoid that conversation. What do you enjoy about it?
I think it’s the new frontier. I say we’re in the desert. I think it’s the new battlefield. And I think it’s a battlefield where God can God desires. And I declared God will get glory. But it’s a battle we cannot avoid. It’s a battle we cannot did not it’s a reality that we cannot deny. But I think I think it is it’s one of those desert lands, is one of those wilderness lands, is one of those battles that God is going to bring us through. But the idea is you got to… I love that passage where in Second Chronicles, where God says to the Prophet Joshua, “Look, the battle is mine. The battle is not yours. I got this.” But then he says, “but tomorrow, you got to go to the battlefield.” Whoa, whoa, whoa, if the battle is yours, Lord, why can’t I watch you take it now? I’ll just be the cheerleader on assignment. God said No, no, no, it’s my battle. When I win through you.
And I think it’s a season where it’s those of us who are willing to take the risk of going into the battle that is in fact God’s, and that God will win. I have some white friends who admit, and I love them for admitting, “Man, I can’t even afford this.” Like I know a couple of white friends of mine who said some public stuff [that cost them]. [A friend and I] did a video about George Floyd and everything. And I have I noticed friends of mine who stood up and talked about the oneness in the body of Christ and racism and stuff. And that friend had a back door revival. He had members of families, some of them longtime families who left his church just for admitting just for mentioning it. And so, I think there’s a price to it, and I have some friends who are not willing to pay that price. But my only excitement is [that] I think it is the new battlefield where God will get glory. But he needs soldiers like us to take the battlefield.
Gerardo Marti’s Worship Across the Racial Divide: Religious Music and the Multiracial Congregation is a sociological exploration of worship music ministry in multiethnic churches, and as such, its timing is critically important. There’s, of course, no shortage of resources that point to multicultural worship music as a panacea to cure what ails struggling churches, something that will help to usher in a glorious new dawn of cross-racial unity. What sets this work apart is its approach.
Worship Across the Racial Divide aims to be more descriptive than prescriptive. Through thousands of interviews of pastors, worship leaders, and congregants from a variety of multiethnic churches across the diverse state of California, Marti, a sociology professor at Davidson College, uncovers a series of principles and patterns gleaned from actual multicultural worship ministries. Rather than speculate on what should be, the book tells us a lot about what is.
And when it comes to multicultural worship music, what is — that is, the way things are being done — is sometimes at odds with what or how we expect things to be.
With the rise of diversity as a cultural value in churches, there has been a noticeable creative spike regarding worship musicians diversifying their sound. The prominence of Israel Houghton, especially, has opened doors for a host of other artists (Freddy Rodriguez, William McDowell, Tye Tribbett, etc.) who have in some measure adopted a similar, dynamic, multicultural sound, what some might call the sound of the new breed.
Yet, when it comes to the ways in which multiethnic churches are approaching their music, that Israel-and-New-Breed sound is far from the norm. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most important is the differences in philosophies regarding musical styles. According to Marti, there are four main philosophical models of music selection at play in multicultural or multiethnic (for the most part, those words are used interchangeably) churches:
a.) The Professionalist – where the style of music doesn’t matter as much, so long as whatever music that’s performed is done with excellence (high musical variety, low racial awareness).
b.) The Traditionalist – where the style of music performed is whatever the worship leader or the church leadership is most comfortable with (low musical variety, low racial awareness)
c.) The Assimilationist – where the chosen style is deemed to be “universal” and can connect with most or all kinds of people (low musical variety, high racial awareness)
d.) The Pluralist – where a variety of styles are deliberately chosen to connect with various ethnic groups (high musical variety, high racial awareness).
Most leaders who deal in worship music may find themselves somewhere in these philosophical models, maybe even incorporating more than one approach depending on context. But the key is to remember, not only is there no magic bullet for achieving multiethnic worship music, but among practitioners of multicultural worship ministry, there seems to be no consensus as to how to define it.
And while the Pluralist approach seems to be the most explicitly racialized, it’s also most susceptible to racial stereotyping.
Less Rhythm, More Relationship
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the book is how little it has to do with music, per se.
It’s become a common refrain that worship is more than music. What did surprise me was the extent to which not even the music itself is about music. Contrary to popular assumption, Marti’s research shows tha the success of multicultural church music ministry lies less in the adoption or mastery of a particular styleof music, and more in the use of music ministry programs to form lasting cross-cultural connections in the congregation. In other words, it’s less about the rhythm, more about the relationship.
That’s because worship music is defined less by a particular sound and more by the activity that encompasses it. Worship music is inherently participatory, and it’s in this participation that lasting bonds are forged. It’s true monoculturally, and it’s even more true cross-culturally. Especially because worship ministries are by definition high profile, it’s often common for racial diversity to show up first or in greater proportions with the worship ministry compared to the congregation at large, a phenomenon Marti refers to as “ritualized racial inclusion.” The more people of color are conspicuously recruited and displayed on the platform, the more welcoming an atmosphere is projected, and the more likely people of various races will want to call that church home. Which isn’t to say that the style or the sound doesn’t matter at all — it just means that it’s not necessarily the key element that guarantees success. People might come through the door because of how the choir or the band sounds, but what will keep them coming back will be the relationships.
Cautions and Warnings
Worship Across the Racial Divide is not an easy book to read. It gets bogged down in sociological jargon in places, and because of its reliance on interviews, sometimes after five or six quotes supporting the same idea it feels redundant. Also, it should be stated that, despite Marti’s intent to reach a cross-section of diverse churches, they were all still in California. I’m sure there are plenty of cultural differences that come into play when you factor in regional geography.
Nevertheless, this work is a landmark achievement that lends plenty of insight into how multicultural worship is being done today, and how it might be done in the future.
Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier: ‘Immigration is a trauma. Even if you came here and you are a citizen, immigration is still traumatic.’
“Conversations on immigration are more often politicized than humanized,” marketing text says for the Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier’s new bilingual book, Listen to the Children: Conversations with Immigrant Families. In the book, which is a finalist in ForeWord Review’s 2011 Book of the Year awards, she attempts to change both the reality and the discussion by sharing immigrant families’ stories and by offering parenting advice to those in the midst of immigration journeys. Conde-Frazier is vice president of education and dean of Esperanza College in Philadelphia. She is also is an ordained American Baptist pastor with more than ten years ministry experience. UrbanFaith talked to Conde-Frazier about the book and about how Christians should think about illegal immigration. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UrbanFaith: Why did you write Listen to the Children?
Elizabeth Conde-Frazier: I wrote the book while I was professor at the Claremont School of Theology in California. Part of my job was working with students from the Latin American Bible Institute. A lot of them came from families that were a mix of persons who had or did not have citizenship and it led to conversations and to my doing workshops around the country. And so, I started to understand the issues of the people, of the pastors working with the people, of the Sunday school teachers, of the social workers and so forth.
In North Carolina, I did a five-hour presentation with this community, which allowed me time to be with the parents. When we sat down to eat, a lot of children were sitting at the table with us. There had been a roundup of persons at a particular place of employment, and I looked at the reaction of the children to the conversation about this. They recoiled; they became very fearful; they left the table; they began to cry. This was hard enough for the adults. But, for the children it was even more so.
Having been a teacher myself, I realized the children were not able to articulate their feelings. And so, I later spent time sitting on the floor in this room where they were playing. Rather than asking them questions, I began to use felt puppets to tell the story of Ruth and Naomi and how they had immigrated. Then I allowed the the children to retell me the story with the same figures. In doing so, the children used the figures to tell their own stories. I began to see how they were feeling. When I finished my time with that community, they came to me and said, “Where is your book on all of this that you have presented to us? We need you to write a book.” That to me felt like a call, and so that’s what I did. But I wrote the book not so much from the perspective of the adults, but for the children and their needs.
What are the primary challenges these children experience?
Immigration is a trauma. Even if you came here and you are a citizen, immigration is still traumatic. Let me create a metaphor for you to describe it. If I take a bunch of dominos and I stand them up and create a pattern with them, that is life the way we know it, where we are sure about the different institutions and how life is, how the culture names things, what our traditions are that create parameters around our identity and so forth. If I take my fists and bang them on the table, the dominos fall apart and the patterns that are there fall apart. Some of the dominos may even fall on the floor. That’s how immigration feels. The patterns of life and everything about life as you know it falls apart. You may try to rebuild, but there are pieces that you lose in the process.
Then, on top of that, if I take a bunch of marbles and I roll them out on this same table with the dominos, now you’ve got all these elements of life that you have no idea how to manage. You have to take the dominos, which are the things that you think you know how to manage and you have to use them in new ways to keep all these marbles from falling all over the place. In the midst of your trying to do that, I can continue to come back and bang my fists again, and the things that you thought you had begun to construct again once more fall apart.
When children are living in the midst of that, it is very traumatic. It says there’s no routine, there’s no structure, and the most important thing that children need in life is routine and structure. The routine creates the structure. Not having work creates chaos and poor families don’t have a sense of structure. That affects the child’s intelligence. That affects their ability to organize their thoughts, it affects how their brains are formed and so forth. Putting together life parameters, relationships, and so forth becomes twice as difficult.
Children also have a sense of abandonment. The adults can leave them at any point. They have no control over any of those things. Trust cannot be built. When families are separated for long periods of time, you see how difficult it is for children to reconnect to parents and parents to children. And so, there’s this continuous sense of loss that people are experiencing, but they can’t quite put their finger on it.
How can those of us who may be in relationship with immigrant children support them and their families?
In everyday life we are on committees in the community perhaps, we have food banks, we may be in the PTA, wherever we are, we can find opportunities to help change or expand the agenda of that place so that it is sensitive to those who may be alternately documented.
If a church has a program to the community and is serving these persons, then they need to be aware of how their program can address these needs, or how they can partner with others so that rather than being limited only to what their program has to offer, they have a network of other programs to pull from in a moment of crisis.
Advocating for the laws at this time is very important. Writing to our different legislators does make a difference. Legislators do listen to that. What does it take to have a night where you serve soup and bread? I say soup and bread, because it’s a very simple meal and it’s probably what persons who have just arrived here are going to have to eat. In solidarity, what we do with this evening is we pray, we have this meal, we write these letters, we talk about the issues, and we send the letters out. It forms the compassionate heart of a people of God who do justice. And what does God require of us in Micah? Whatever it takes that we can internalize persons who are different from ourselves, whose lives are different, that’s what we want to do as the faith practice of the church.
Given your target audience’s transience, how will readers find the book?
Remember that there is the network of churches and families. That is a network that’s beyond marketing. They pass it along. For example in the summer, I teach in Texas. People come from both sides of the border to learn. They’re pastors and lay persons and they’ll use the book. They’ll take it back across the border. The section on preparing children for border crossing or separation is helpful not only to people who might be thinking of immigrating, but it is also helpful to persons who may have already done so. It allows them the opportunity to reflect on what they did or didn’t do, so that then they can ask themselves, “Oh, what do I need to do at this point, because I did it this way or that.”
How would you respond theologically to those who may criticize you for providing helpful information to people who may be planning to do something illegal?
First of all, the theological piece has to be informed by a political piece, because theology is not done in a vacuum. People need to realize that the laws of our country and the free-trade laws are taking land away from people and making it impossible for many of the farmers [in Latin American countries] to survive. Those countries do not have the safety net that we so far have. And so, I would love to see those critics find themselves hungry, with nothing to feed their children, with no way of having a job and prayers that seem to go unanswered. I’d love to see how they would stay within the confines of what they call law.
What Christians need to ask themselves is: “When is the law unjust?” If it is unjust, then it is not a law according to the purposes of God. Our response to that should be that the church is called to denounce unjust law. Corrie ten Boom was a Christian. We glorify her story because she saved the Jews. She broke the law of her time. Today, after the fact, we say, “Oh how wonderful!” We’re also okay with those who break the law in China because they become Christians, but we’re not okay with people breaking the law because they’re hungry, or because the law is unjust?
I recall from research I did for an article I wrote in 2006 that the number of legal immigration slots for Latin American countries is the same as that for countries with whom we don’t share a border. Is that still the case?
Yes, it is. And the thing for people to look at is the following: The United States has a history of always needing cheap labor. Ever since we had enslavement, we have needed cheap labor. It’s just which immigrant group gets to be the cheap labor. That changes. In order for us to ensure that cheap labor what we do is we create an underclass of people with the law. So we say, on one hand, “We need you to come and work,” but on the other hand, we create laws that say, “If you come, we can’t give you citizenship; we can’t give you your benefits and your rights as a human being.”
Matthew 25 speaks about what human rights are. It speaks about it in the language of the kingdom of God. And so, for someone to eat, to drink, to dress, to be sheltered, to have human companionship, those are the things that are important for sustenance, and the kingdom of God is about sustenance. When we have laws that do not provide for the sustenance of a group of persons, then we are the ones who are against the law, but it’s the kingdom law that we are against.
There’s a discussion in the book about the “worthiness” of immigrants and you advocate using terminology like “alternately documented” and “uncertain” or “precarious” status instead of “illegal alien” and “undocumented.” What’s wrong with using language like “illegal alien”?
The most important thing for Christians is to recognize the Imago Dei, the image of God in all human beings, because to do so is to honor God. To fail to do so and to shut our wells of compassion is to dishonor God. How we call one another needs to reflect what we truly believe. I don’t believe that you are the only one who is in the image of God just because you happen to come to my church or you look like me, or you’re a citizen like me. All human beings are. When we do mission work—and these churches are very happy to go out and do mission work—is it only because it makes them feel good? Or is it because they believe in the image of God in others?
And so, the theological and biblical roots of worthiness come from there. Worthiness also comes from the laws in the Old Testament about how we are to treat those who are foreigners in our midst and how we are to treat the poor and the widows in our midst. There should be no one who is poor in our midst. There should be no on who is discarded in our midst. The words we use have to reflect honor. Rather than using words that reflect distance from others and categorizing them as not being a part of ourselves, we should use words that demonstrate the ministry of reconciliation. In 2 Corinthians 5, we’re called to be ambassadors of reconciliation. “Illegal” and “alien” are words that reflect disconnect with others and say they’re not my neighbor, so I don’t have to watch over them. They are words that go along with a current in our country, and around the world really, that categorizes human beings politically as being far away from us, and not deserving of any type of rights as the rest of us, whereas in the eyes of God, that is not how to do it. And so, we need to use words that allow the space for worthiness.
A delegation of prominent evangelical leaders traveled to Alabama this week to oppose the state’s new immigration law, HB 56. The group spent a day at a Birmingham church, where they talked to educators, students, health care providers, pastors, and families impacted by the law, they told reporters on a conference call yesterday.
Where Are White Evangelicals Now?
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, described HB 56 as an “anti-American,” “anti-Christian,” “anti-family” “violation of basic civil rights.” He said it is instilling fear, not only in undocumented immigrants, but in those who are in the United States legally.
I asked Rodriguez if there is more or less white evangelical support for comprehensive immigration reform now than there was when I interviewed him about the issue for Christianity Today in 2006.
“We have more white evangelicals supportive than in 2006 for sure, both in its leadership and from people in the pews, but I cannot come to the considered conclusion that we have overwhelming or even majority support in the evangelical community for a comprehensive solution,” said Rodriguez. “We do not have enough support to push back the Alabama law.”
Rodriguez described Alabama as a strongly evangelical state in the heart of the Bible belt and said that if Christians had put their faith before their American citizenship, the law would never have passed.
“It was Christian apathy in Alabama—that’s the best case scenario—if not Christian endorsement of the Alabama law that has resulted in our current malaise,” said Rodriguez.
Does Rodriguez Regret African American Comparison?
In light of UrbanFaith reader criticism of Rodriguez’s statement to CNN comparing the plight of Hispanics and undocumented immigrants to that of African Americans, I asked if the comparison diminished the long history of African American oppression in this country.
“No, as a matter of fact, I stand by my comments one hundred percent,” said Rodriguez.
“I can tell you that the vast majority of African Americans understand that what’s taking place here is a lot more than just illegal immigration. …The things that we’re seeing in Alabama and Arizona, these manifestations, they’re not addressing the elephant in the room. They’re trying to go around it, and that is the Latinization of America. The 21st century is an immigrant civil rights issue, a Latino civil rights issue because the vast majority of immigrants are Latino. This has to do with pressing one for English and pressing two for Spanish. Let’s not be naive. This is not just about illegal immigration,” Rodriguez explained.
Earlier on the call, Rodriguez had said his organization is launching a campaign to encourage Hispanic leaders and pastors move to Alabama in order to test whether or not the intention of the law is to “purge” Alabama of “any ethnicity group that does not reflect the majority composition of the state.”
Perhaps this is what he had in mind when he told me “initiatives, campaigns, billboards, conference calls” won’t succeed. “We need a movement that will accomplish comprehensive immigration reform,” Rodriguez concluded.
Is the Moral Obligation Greater?
Dr. Carlos Campo, president of Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia, also weighed in on the Civil Rights movement comparison.
“This movement is not about a people that are protected, at least in language, by the laws of the United States as fully, clearly as African Americans were, at least in the letter of the law,” said Campo. “That’s one of the reasons there’s an even greater obligation in terms of a moral response here, is these are the least and the last in our community. These are the very ones to whom we believe our God would call us to because they don’t have equal protection under the law.”
Campo doesn’t believe Alabamans fully understood the implications of the law, he said.
“I think there were certain leaders who did understand, but I believe there are a number of people in the Alabama faith community, as they see the implementation of this law, are appalled by what has been passed. And I think it is time for folks in the church not to remain silent any longer and to speak up on behalf of those who cannot or are too fearful to do so,” said Campo.
Is HB 56 Racial Profiling at Its Worst?
Also on the call was Rev. Daniel DeLeon, Senior Pastor of Templo Calvario in Santa Ana, California, and chairman of the National Hispanic Pentacostal Congress.
DeLeon was motivated to go to Alabama after he heard politicians say the law is accomplishing what they wanted it to accomplish. This represents “racial profiling at its worst,” he said. It bothered him too, as an American citizen, to see that “human rights have gone out the window,” he said.
Rev. Jim Tolle, senior pastor of Church on the Way in Los Angeles, California, described himself as a Republican evangelical, and said he believes “subconscious racism” was at play in the passage of HB56. He called attention to the fact that all Americans other than “first nations people” have immigrant histories. “Everybody arrived without permission,” said Tolle.
Both Tolle and DeLeon talked about the immigration struggles of longtime members of their Calfiornia churches. Tolle said a 27 year member had been deported “overnight” and DeLeon said a leader in his church had been trying unsuccessfully for years to legalize his immigration status. Both of these men have children who were born in the United States, the pastors said.
Do the Players Matter?
Robert Gittelson, co-founder of Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, said nothing that undocumented immigrants face in California compares to what they are facing in Alabama and Arizona. He noted that Arizona senators John McCain and Jon Kyl were key proponents of the failed Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 and a key “obstructionist” was Alabama senator Jeff Sessions. Sessions is still a leading opponent of comprehensive immigration reform, he said.
What do you think?
Is Rev. Rodriguez’s response to reader criticism of his African American / undocumented immigrant comparison adequate?
The pulpit at many black churches is a place to praise the Most High God — and to promote the importance of higher learning. How California universities are targeting urban churches to reach future college students.
In the African American community, involvement in the church has long been cited as a likely factor in determining whether urban young people graduate high school and go on to college. So, it makes sense that administrators from the California State University system would want to partner with the state’s black churches to preach “the gospel of higher education” to the urban community’s middle school children and their parents.
The goal is to increase the college enrollment of black students in the Cal-State University system. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the effort, which will reach some 90 churches this month, is having a positive effect. Though black students only represent about 6 percent of all CSU students (compared with about 8 percent of high school seniors in California), applications to CSU from black students have soared from 8,737 in 2005 when the “Super Sunday” campaign began to 15,550 in 2009 — a 78 percent increase.