Breaking Down Walls

Karen Johnson

I don't think I'll ever forget it.  In September, 2007, Glen Kehrein installed a stove in my apartment.  Glen and his wife Lonni were my landlords.  They were also my heroes.  For over 30 years, Glen had been living out a life committed to racial reconciliation, which caused him (a white man) to move to Chicago’s Austin community (which had just flipped from white to black in 1973), and to found a non-profit called Circle Urban Ministries.  In his years of service, Glen, a white evangelical Christian, addressed racism and its effects at the personal and structural level - building friendships and rehabbing hundreds of apartments, partnering with a charter school, providing wrap-around educational services for neighborhood children, and offering GED classes, among a myriad of other endeavors.  With Raleigh Washington, a black pastor who had served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army, Glen wrote a book called Breaking Down Walls, which offered a model for racial reconciliation based on their experiences.  Together, Glen and Raleigh had built a unique partnership that made Raleigh’s church, Rock of Our Salvation Evangelical Free Church, deeply committed to racial reconciliation.  By the time I came to Rock, Raleigh had been gone for nearly 10 years, having taken a position at Promise Keepers.   

In a region as geographically segregated as Chicago’s, interracial, religious spaces continue to matter for breaking down walls between people and working toward racial justice.  But how effective are these places?  How effective has Rock Church been?

Four and a half years later, on a Saturday in November, I sat in a packed gym, participating in Glen's home-going service.  Glen had lost a year-long fight with colon cancer, and my life – and the lives of so many others – would be less rich without Glen (for more on Glen, go here and here).

Recently, I’ve been doing a little research about the history of Rock Church and Circle Urban Ministries for a conference at the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation.  My presentation will consider Protestant and Catholic approaches to reconciliation and the value of interracial, religious spaces.  Rock Church, which I have attended for the past 6 years, is my Protestant example. I have been conducting oral history interviews and reading published material, including Glen's and Raleigh's Breaking Down Walls.

In light of the critique of white evangelicals Emerson and Smith offer in Divided by Faith, Glen's and Raleigh's book Breaking Down Walls fall short.  Emerson and Smith argue,
Although their faith directs them in many powerful ways, white American evangelicals, unless burdened by an individual ‘calling,’ assume that faith does not ask them to change the material aspects of their lives for this cause.  Given their aversion to discomfort (a universal human trait) and cultural tools, they offer “Christian” solutions such as asking forgiveness, converting people to Christ, and forming cross-race friendships (130). 
Armed with this knowledge, I reread Breaking Down Walls expecting to see Glen and Raleigh call all white Christians to make substantial sacrifices, beyond forming interracial friendships.  Their call to sacrifice, however, was limited. 

In their own lives and their ministry, for sure, Glen and Raleigh sacrificed and the solutions that they lived out addressed structural racism.  For instance, they did promote interracial congregations, which Emerson and Smith lay out as a key solution for promoting racial justice, especially among white evangelicals because it prevents them from being isolated racially.  Raleigh and Glen wrote,
The American church today doesn't like to be uncomfortable.  It's part of the seduction of the age to equate our comfort level with God's blessing, unlike fellow believers in China and the former Soviet Union.  The more comfortable things are, the more we feel blessed.  White and black churches in the same city are comfortable in their sameness, and because of that comfort level, there is no felt urgency to cross the barriers that divide us (180).
In addition, through the non-profit Glen founded, white and black Christians have worked together to promote institutional, political, and structural change.

But in the end, while Glen and Raleigh may have addressed structural issues in their own lives, they did not challenge white evangelicals to do so in the book.  They made the call to racial reconciliation for white evangelicals (who, with the Moody Press imprint, were the main audience for the book) easy. Like being called to evangelism, all Christians are called to reconciliation, Glen and Raleigh argued.  Most Christians can fulfill that call by forming a cross-racial friendship, they suggest, and Breaking Down Walls offers a great road map for doing so.  But Glen and Raleigh seemed to let most Christians - white and black - off the hook.  They suggested that only some people, and hopefully a growing number of those with a special call, should sacrifice by moving into a poor, black neighborhood for the cause of reconciliation: "Beyond the general call to be ambassadors of reconciliation, some of us will receive God's specific call to make racial reconciliation a primary ministry focus" (210).  Those with the special call will do radical things.  The rest can be radical in their own way, by forming personal relationships across racial lines.
As Paul Harvey put it in a blog post a while back, focusing only on "the personal can allow the powerful to ignore the structural." 


Great piece Karen. And your final thought provokes a question: Protestantism, with its emphasis on an individual's relationship with God and the Scripture, perhaps lends itself to a single-minded, non-structural approach toward racial reconciliation and all social change in general. But Catholicism, with its emphasis not only on scripture but also tradition and hierarchy, has developed via its anti-liberal neo-Thomism a more communal, perhaps even structural outlook. For later posts, maybe you can share the differences between the two based on your findings for the John Hope Franklin paper. We could all learn a lot from that.

In the meantime, my deepest condolences for your loss.
Karen Johnson said…
Thanks, Kevin. I think you're right on target re: Protestantism and Catholicism. Emerson and Smith would agree with your take on Protestantism. One of the things that really struck me as I researched Catholic interracialism was how different the Catholics' theology was compared to the Protestants. The Catholic take on interracial justice follows the path of the the communalism of Rerum Novarum. This would be really interesting to follow out further. I'd be glad to write more - I actually cut out the second part of the blog post with some initial comparisons because I thought the post was becoming a bit too long!
Matthew said…
There are definitely some interesting themes being built here. I've grown up in a city with virtually no black people, therefore my impression of them has been what I've seen on TV: either sweet older black people and violent young black people. However, as I've encountered black people, I've recognized in myself that I'm not so much racially prejudiced as culturally prejudiced. When black people dress and talk in a way familiar to me, I have no fears or concerns, but when they wear cloths that speak of social rebellion and cuss a lot, I become very concerned and don't want to be around these individuals.

I find the idea that Catholicism is more communal based an interesting insight, and I am concerned when Protestants are individualistic. However, there are problems in both extremes. Not to quote an over-quoted book, but I love the concept of Inter-Dependence from 7 Habits and think it has much to say about the Church as a whole's relationship with itself.

I'm always very bothered by where and how racism is continued, what we are suppose to do about it, and who should be doing the work. I find it an odd thing to claim as the mission of every person to go out of their way to do, yet it is everyone's mission to do as the issue comes up, whether you are white or black, rich or poor. Racism is an old social construct that continues to live itself out in subtle unconscious ways which are reinforced in so many ways by both black and white people. Personally, I think there needs to be a very deep analysis of what ways we are continuing these trends, both in white and black people, and how best to counter act them in our every day lives.
Karen Johnson said…
Thanks, Brian. Fudge-Ripple meetings at the Rock showed people that there is no universal "black" or "white" experience on everything, which speaks to your comments about culture. Also, I appreciate your comments about addressing racism - and I think that building cross-racial/ethnic/cultural friendships is a crucial starting point. But it cannot be our only action.

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