Trillia Newbell, a Christian author, had just delivered a talk in Jackson, Tennessee, when a White man approached her.
Newbell, who is Black, had spoken about imago Dei – the idea that all humans, of all races, are made in the image and likeness of God. The man disagreed.
“He explained that I was subhuman, that I was a different species,” recalled Newbell. “And he was trying to use Scripture as proof.”
Newbell, 41, chooses her words carefully. But the Knoxville native is candid about the racism she’s faced during her ministry, including the past seven years as a community outreach director for an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“Too many times to name, I have gone after a speaking event and wept in my hotel room,” Newbell recalled in a recent interview, “just realizing how deeply deceived some people are.”
Since the death of George Floyd in police custody in May, conservative White Christians have condemned racial injustice in unprecedented ways, with many acknowledging and pledging to fight the persistent scourge of systemic racism.
White Christian leaders have prayed at vigils and marched in protests, damned the officers accused of killing Floyd and recited the slogan Black Lives Matter, often while distancing themselves from the organization of the same name. One evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, called for a church-led reparations project.
But even as they appreciate the scales falling from some White Christians’ eyes, some Black Christians remain wary.
That’s especially true of those like Newbell who have spent significant time in predominantly White spaces. Many said they are bracing for a “whitelash” – the moment White Christians tire of talking about race and bristle when Black pastors or congregants want to continue the conversation.
Newbell said she is optimistic about the possibility of change, but is carefully guarding her heart. In the past, she’s been told her interracial marriage is an affront to God, witnessed frustrated Black friends leave predominantly White churches, and – too many times to count – been expected to prove that anti-Black racism persists in America.
“It is so detrimental to someone’s faith when your experience, your reality, is squashed because it’s not the other person’s reality,” Newbell said. “I have experienced that time and time again.”
The sermon problem
Sunday morning has long been known as the “segregated hour” in American religious life, when many Black and White Christians worship the same God in separate sanctuaries.
Some of the division may derive from the pastor’s pulpit, according to recent public opinion surveys.
More than 6 in 10 Black Christians say it’s important for sermons to address topics like racial relations and immigration, according to a recent Pew Research Center study. (Nearly a quarter called it “essential.”)
White Americans did not agree: More than 6 in 10 said those topics are not essential for pastor to examine, with 40% insisting that race and immigration should not be mentioned at all at church.
Pew’s survey was conducted before Floyd’s killing made international news and sparked nationwide protests. But Black Christians have been raising alarms about police brutality and systemic racism for decades.
As recently as last summer, only 35% of White Christians said they were motivated to address racial injustice; and less than 2 in 5 believed the United States has a race problem, according to a 2019 poll by the Barna Research Group, a Christian public opinion firm based in California.
Michael Emerson, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, helped conduct that survey and is co-author of “Divided by Faith,” one of the most comprehensive surveys on race and religion in America.
“The racial gaps are huge on diagnosing the problem (of racism) and determining what we should do,” he told CNN. “There are even huge gaps on understanding what racism is and whether it’s individual or systemic.”
Some of those gaps might have narrowed since Floyd’s death. But, as some evangelicals acknowledge, that is not the only problem.
The theology problem
Last month, the National Association of Evangelicals put together resources for churches and pastors to respond to racial injustice and encouraged its members to “combat attitudes and systems that perpetuate racism.”
It wasn’t the first time the NAE, which represents some 45,000 local churches, has addressed systemic racism, said the Rev. Walter Kim, the association’s president.
Appointed last October, Kim is a Korean American and the first person of color to lead the NAE. He said he sees a broader, more active swath of evangelicals engaged on race in recent weeks.
But he also acknowledges that evangelicals haven’t always been willing to address their racial history or see the wider repercussions of contemporary racism.
“There are streams of evangelicalism in which the issue of race has been woefully and inadequately addressed,” Kim said.
Evangelicalism itself began as a spiritual renewal movement, with a primary focus on saving souls and fostering deeply personal encounters with Christ. Often, larger societal problems are seen as spiritual issues that can only be solved by salvation.
“The outworking of evangelicalism’s public theology needs to catch up to its understanding of personal transformation,” Kim said.
But like other evangelicals, Kim believes the wind has shifted since Floyd’s killing.
“When America saw the death of George Floyd with their own eyes on a video played millions of times, it changed something,” said Ronnie Floyd, a former Arkansas pastor who now heads the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee.
“I really believe it will be a watershed moment for this country.”
Floyd, a longtime advocate of racial reconciliation, noted Southern Baptists’ public apology in 1995 for its history of slaveowning and said there are a wide variety of views on race among Baptists. He also pointed out that 4,000 of the Southern Baptist Convention 47,000 churches are predominantly African American.
“Do we have a long way to go in the Southern Baptist Convention? Absolutely,” Floyd continued. “Are we making progress? Yes.”
But there are caveats. Emerson noted that only 1% of White Christians worship in a racially mixed or predominantly African American church.
Nearly all of the increase in diverse congregations has been a result of Black and Latino Christians worshipping at predominantly White Churches – where they haven’t always had positive experiences.
The ‘whitelash’ problem
Jemar Tisby, author of “The Color of Compromise,” a book about White churches’ complicity in racism, calls himself “post-evangelical.”
The Black Christian historian, who left his predominantly White denomination years ago, said he receives several messages per week from Christians looking to follow in his footsteps.
He says many write him after their White pastors minimize or try to explain away devastating incidents of anti-Black police brutality. They ask Tisby, should they leave?
“We are telling them to get out,” he said. “Especially at this moment, if your churches are not taking a strong stand on racial justice it’s unlikely they ever will.”
Even when White churches say they are committed to addressing racism, their attention can be fleeting, said Danté Stewart, a writer and preacher in Augusta, Georgia.
Stewart, who was raised in Black churches, said he became immersed in White evangelicalism while playing football at Clemson University. After school, he and his wife worshipped at predominantly White churches.
Stewart said he was welcomed warmly – until he started preaching about race. One church, which he declined to name, rescinded its offer to hire him as a pastor.
“Stew, you are making too much about race right now,” he recalls one church leader saying. At the time, Stewart was writing articles in prominent evangelical magazines and being asked to speak on panels. But his church didn’t want to hear about it.
It was a painful and exasperating experience, Stewart said.
“It was exhausting to stay in a White evangelical space,” he said. “They may have been around me, but they didn’t love me and wouldn’t fight for me. That’s when I knew I had to leave and return to the Black church.”
Kristina Brown Button, an author and advocate for racial justice, describes a similar sojourn through White Christianity.
A mother of five who lives in Virginia, Button said she searched for 20 years to find a congregation and pastor who would make race and racism a top priority.
She recalls being the first Black member of her former church in Virginia Beach, which she joined with her future husband 20 years ago. There, Button said she endured years of isolation.
White men addressed her White husband but failed to acknowledge her. Pastors proclaimed deep sadness about racism but were quick to move on to other issues, even after the shootings of Black men like Michael Brown demanded deeper responses.
Button said she is heartened by what she hears now from White Christians. But experience has taught her that White Christians often balk when discussions get difficult and pastors dread offending White congregants.
“It’s so rare to see White Christians stick with it unless they have a personal stake,” Button said. “I am not going to a predominantly White church again. It was just too painful.”
Even Black pastors said they have trouble engaging White Christians on race. Congregations are more than willing to tackle issues like homelessness and abortion, but racism is often deemed too “political” to touch, said Pastor Jevon Washington.
“Honestly, the church has been the worst when it comes to dealing with some of these things,” said Washington, who worked at several predominantly White churches before settling in Rainier Valley in Washington. “They just don’t get it.”
Since Floyd’s killing, more White Christians are joining the “woke party,” Washington said. But they are tardy and inconsistent allies.
“This is the first time I am seeing White Christians responding in the way they have now,” said the pastor. “But I am deeply saddened that it took a man getting murdered before their eyes to see the problem.”
The Trump problem
When 81% of White evangelicals voted for Donald Trump for president in 2016, some Black Christians viewed it as a betrayal.
“When presented with a choice between loving their black neighbors and supporting White supremacy, White Christians chose White power,” said Stewart.
It’s more complicated than that, White Christians have protested, arguing that there were many reasons to support Trump over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
“The disruption of our political system is not entirely attributable to Trump,” said Albert Mohler, an influential Southern Baptist and president of the SBC’s flagship seminary.
Mohler opposed Trump in 2016 but has said he will vote for the president in November. Evangelicals’ political priorities should be abortion, adding conservative justices to the Supreme Court and protecting religious freedom, he said.
That’s precisely the problem, say Black Christians. Challenging Trump’s racial divisiveness is not a priority for too many White Christians, they say.
Floyd, the head of Southern Baptists’ executive committee, has also served on Trump’s informal board of evangelical advisers. He said some evangelical leaders have called the White House to register objections “when certain things happen that are not right.”
“I don’t think White evangelicals have been totally silent,” he said, although he declined to offer specifics. “Should they have been louder? Probably so.”
But Floyd, who pastored a church for 35 years, said many local pastors are simply overwhelmed and often don’t know enough to address difficult topics like racism.
There’s also the fact that when White Christians look at their congregations, they see a lot of Trump voters. According to a recent Pew poll, 8 in 10 White evangelicals said they would vote for him again.
Meanwhile, nearly nine in 10 Black Americans do not think the president “cares about people like you,” according to a Fox News poll from last month.
And therein lies perhaps the steepest obstacle to racial reconciliation.
Some Black Christians have laid down a marker, saying that if White Christians vote for Trump in large numbers again, racial relations in this country may be irreparably harmed.
“If they have made all of these gestures in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, only to go back to voting for a man who embodies racial bigotry,” said Tisby, the historian, “it will do more damage than if they had just remained silent.”
George Floyd’s death was a moment of racial reckoning for many White Christians. The presidential election in November will provide another.
Black Christians will be paying close attention.