Transforming the "Other" to "Us": A Call for Faith Communities to Practice Mutuality

Wednesday, February 19, 2014 - 5:47am

Transforming the "Other" to "Us": A Call for Faith Communities to Practice Mutuality

More than 50 years later communities of faith are still the most segregated major institutions in America. Why?

In the early 1960's, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was often asked if he didn’t feel that integration could only be started and realized in the Christian churches, not in schools or in other organizations. This action of the churches would be a means of revealing just who were the true Christians. Dr. King always replied, “I would certainly have to agree with this. We must face the fact the church is still the most segregated major institution in America.”

As a white male pastor, I grapple with the fact that in 2014, more than half a century later, there has been little change with less than 10 percent of all churches in the United States being racially integrated. Why? Because of the intentional pursuit of homogeneity for the sake of church growth for some and the desperate need for racial refuge for others. The tragedy of such polarities is the perpetuation of racial strife among people who aspire to be ambassadors of reconciliation.

After decades of dialogue and hundreds of books written about racial reconciliation, the question must be posed: Why can’t more communities of faith break away from the homogeneity and refuge mindsets to be more integrated?

A convincing amount of research is telling us that religious institutional segregation stems not from music, clothing, food, and preaching preferences, or even theological convictions. Rather, it arises from a pervasive unwillingness of people to practice identification, reconciliation, and mutuality with those of other races. If churches (and all communities of faith for that matter) hope to write a different script for the next 50 years, there is much work to be done.

Identification is the starting point because it is impossible for people to integrate if they share little empathy and knowledge of one another’s racial narratives. For instance, most Americans argued about the tragic death of Trayvon Martin in terms of the machinations of the justice system. The work of identification is more personal. It places proximity ahead of postulations. It asks everyone, regardless of skin color, to stand alongside African-American families with teenage boys and learn firsthand why they believe black men are being set up for failure in our culture. This response will involve listening to uncomfortable truths and reexamining assumptions about the role that race still plays in our society.

After identification comes reconciliation, or the practice of making things right between one another. This is best done one-on-one or in small groups where it is safe for people to be honest with one another. Prejudice is difficult to dismantle as a societal monolith but can be carefully disassembled when any two people are willing to process past grievances, build trust, and forge new futures together.

Identification and reconciliation are important, but the ultimate game changer is mutuality. Mutuality is the joyful art of doing life together across racial categories without fear.

American religious traditions as a whole have largely failed to model racial mutuality for broader society because they lack working philosophies and theologies of diverse community. It is hard to discern where philosophies end and theologies start, but one thing is clear: if communities of faith want to thrive in an increasingly globalized world, they will be wise to widen their horizons beyond the Western cultural definitions of community bred in the hierarchies of European colonialism and America’s rugged individualism. Both have an innate propensity to eschew “the other.”

Consider, for example, the African concept of Ubuntu. South African human rights activist Desmond Tutu once wrote:

“Ubuntu is the essence of being human. It speaks of how my humanity is caught up and bound up inextricably with yours. It says, not as Descartes did, ‘I think, therefore I am’ but rather ‘I am because I belong.’ We are created for a delicate network of relationships, of interdependence with our fellow human beings.”

This philosophy is one that can help faith communities embody mutuality and transform “the other” to “us.”

America is rapidly becoming a snapshot of our globalizing world, and dialogues about race are only going to intensify as we move toward a truly multiracial society. Communities of faith can play a more constructive role in bridging racial divisions in the next 50 years than they did in the last 50 if they consider identification, reconciliation, and — most importantly — mutuality.


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Dan Collison

is lead pastor of First Covenant Church in Minneapolis. A research fellow at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research Fellow and an organizer of the Minneapolis Multi-Faith Network, he received a doctoral degree in ministry from Fuller Seminary. Before becoming a pastor, Dan and his wife, Holly, ran an adult foster care home for men with developmental disabilities where he learned the importance and rewards of servanthood.

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How is that possible when one of the major tenets taught in american christianity is that "i'm right, you're wrong" and let me tell you why in the name of 'saving you'?
this is a serious question. i avoid attending church, not because i don't respect the church members beliefs but because many feel THAT BY VIRTUE OF THOSE BELIEFS they are duty bound not to respect mine.

Lisa-I hear you...and get you! It is my conviction that Christianity, as the dominant religion in the West for centuries, co-opted the ethics and posture of "empire" rather than do what I believe is core to the Christian faith--embody the ethics and teachings of Jesus. And, while I believe that the ethics of "empire religion" has led to historically tragic outcomes in how Christian religion relates to the other religions and philosophies of the world, etc, the current decline of the Christian religion in the West is a remarkable opportunity to have the Church's ethos distilled down and refined to look more like the core principles and ethics of Jesus and not nationalism, imperialism, etc. Jesus led with compassion, mercy, justice, and love, and not the and exclusionary and vilifying sentiment that you feel so deeply. Thanks for sharing.

Amazing and perfect-reconciliation after years of oppression the church needs to wake up and see it is mutual -many cultures one body.
I do always balk though at the word race
Aren't we one human race with diverse cultures?

Good point. And, I too struggle with the sometime confusing nomenclature of the racial integration dialogue. "Multi-ethnic" or "ethnic" integration would probably be better than "multi-racial" or "racial" integration if we are one human race. And, "ethnocentrism" or "ethno-exclusivity" would probably be better than "racism." However, in my conversations with credible voices on the matter it seems that the inter-changeability (and perhaps ambiguity) between such terminology as "multi-racial," and "multi-ethnic" is likely something that we need to accept simply because of the ubiquitous usage of the words "race" and "racism" in our historic narrative of ethnic conflict and strife.

Dan, Thank you for a new definition of mutuality, "joyful art of doing life together." My experience of mutually transformative relationships is in a faith community, L'Arche ( Our diversity seems to be leading us to be a place of belonging and refuge. Our hope is to be a place where security is offered to all those welcomed and willing. Our question then becomes, how do we honor and lift up difference/mutuality/ubuntu to the highest place of value?

Caitlin: Thank you for the comment and the connection to L'Arche. In my mind. the L'Arche community embodies one of the clearest pictures of mutuality in the 21st century. I am often gripped by Jean Vanier's concept of shared “impuissance” (or touching our shared powerlessness) as a means to understanding our common human experience. It returns my imagination to the twenty years of my life (1978-1998) where I lived in holistic community with disabled adults in a few different settings. You give me/us a great question to hold!

Many of the private clubs and bars are more segregated. A lot depends on communities.

Thanks for this piece. I wonder, what are the benefits of mutuality as you describe it. What does it look like? How has it improved a community, family lives there, families' experience of church? Conversations around reconciliation and integration always seem quite abstract. I find myself looking for working examples of communities or churches who can model for the rest of us.