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Review: Hear Us Emmanuel: Another Call for Racial Reconciliation, Representation, and Unity in the Church

Hear Us, Emmanuel: Another Call for Racial Reconciliation, Representation, and Unity in the Church (Doug Serven, ed.) is a collection of essays that addresses a variety of issues regarding racial inequality and the church in the United States. The compilation, a follow-up to Heal Us Emmanuel: A Call for Racial Reconciliation, Representation, and Unity in the Church (2016), is the attempt of a particular denomination (Presbyterian Church in America) to address these issues specifically within the denominational context. As such, it serves as a model for other churches or traditions that might choose to put together a similar in-house series of essays for the specific benefit of that church’s members.

Hear Us, Emmanuel parallels the earlier collection in that the essays are organized into the same categories: “An Invitation to Listen,” “Awakening to Privilege,” “Sins of Omission and Commission,” “Historical and Theological Perspective,” “Confession and Reconciliation Are Necessary for Obedience,” and “A Way Forward.” The significant difference is that while the 2016 collection only contained the work of male authors (nearly all ordained), the 2020 collection represents a much wider span of people working in the denomination. Nine of the 29 authors are women, and a good variety of church-related positions are represented—worship leaders, missionaries, pastors, campus ministers, pastors’ spouses, non-profit leaders, authors, podcast hosts, and professors. Approximately twelve of the contributions come from authors who identify themselves as people of color or as of more than one race, largely either black or Asian American. (According to one of the contributors, Lisa Robinson Spencer, the denomination as a whole is about 80% white. [1])

Because the contributions are so disparate, however, capturing the collection’s thesis is a challenge. One clear goal is to share specific people’s or church’s experiences as case studies. Some highlights in this regard are Barbara Jones’s reflections on the frustrations of working as a black woman in predominantly white ministries and Ryan Zhang’s essay on how “Assimilation Made Me a Bad Christian.” Robert Wootton describes attending a Virginia grade school in a place where Nat Turner’s Revolt (and its ending), school desegregation, and the creation of reactionary private schools were all very much alive in people’s memories. Sherrene DeLong writes of the struggle to find true hospitality, as a woman of Indian descent, while attending churches in Alabama, a place where people assumed she did not even speak English. Reed DePace describes his congregation’s excavation of past racial sins, a process which culminated in posting a document describing these ancestors’ sins in the church’s entryway. And many more contributors give autobiographical perspectives reflecting on their race, immigration status, childhood experiences, and interracial relationships. The theme “An Invitation to Listen,” rather than just capturing the first section of essays, is actually what holds the entire volume together. [2]

A variety of action points arise from the different authors’ essays, many of which are directed toward white readers. Trying to identify small concrete steps, Ashley Hales suggests reading Christian authors of color and participating in local politics. In her words, “we show up to the town meeting and hear from people who don’t hide behind their picket fences because they can’t.” [3] Ashley Williams celebrates the example of a white friend who takes her children to the library in the part of town where other white mothers would not go. [4] “Curate your visual intake” is the call from Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt, who asks us to question our responses to media images of people of different races. [5] Ereke Bruce and Daniel Murphree offer multiple responses to economic inequality. “Justice,” they insist,

requires us to become aware of the poor, the causes of economic disparity in the body of Christ, and then engage in acts of repentance to remedy ways wealthy Christians have become wealthy by generational and systemic misuse of God’s people and resources. [6]

Noting that PCA pastors make about $100,000 a year on average, they ask that the church do something to make this figure come closer to the average African American income, which is about $40,000 per year. [7] In other words, they would like to see middle-class pastors “take a more commensurate salary and create ministry positions and sponsorships for POC so that they do not have to live in poverty.” [8] DeLong and Williams both insist on the necessity of practicing hospitality across racial difference. Moses Lee’s call for action was unique in that it was not about actions for white people to take. Rather, his essay calls for Asian Americans to recognize more openly the way black people’s efforts for civil rights has favorably affected all racial minorities in the country, including Asian Americans. [9]

The primary benefit of the book is that it seeks to hold a conversation within a denomination. In other words, readers may recognize the names of some of the essay authors, might be familiar with the contemporary theologians referenced, and be able more acutely to see the “sides” or stances represented by the various authors. [10] Since many of the essays are at least partially autobiographical, the readers can feel a closeness to the situations described. Stories of people experiencing racial disparities, or of churches who are attempting to address histories of segregation, come from directly connected congregations—from near neighbors. In this way, the stories “come home” to the reader more concretely than they may have otherwise. One of the contributors (Edward Koh) searched for a similar denominational-level text on the “problem of leadership challenges for minority pastors” and reported he found only one, from the United Methodist Church (Many Faces, One Church). [11]

The volume is not without shortcomings. The titles of the sections suggest that the reader may feel that he or she is moving through a logical progression (“listening,” “awakening,” “confession,” “a way forward”). This is not the case; rather, many of the essays could have been located in multiple sections. Unfortunately, the volume is also poorly edited, with many distracting errors of spelling and style. However, this deficiency may result from a desire to keep the production costs low. The proceeds of the book are to be used to foster racial diversity in the denomination’s campus ministry organization. If funds were not put toward copyediting, perhaps more remained to be used in this constructive way.

I would recommend the volume for readers not only in this tradition, but also for those in other churches who may wish to compile something similar for their denominations. For these outside readers, what this collection illustrates is that telling local stories—of specific church members, of specific congregations—and giving local applications matters. The volume does contain essays that are more general theological or theoretical pieces, but these areas are not the book’s strength. If you need a biblical theology of race or a history of racism in the church, you would look elsewhere. But as an example of a denomination capturing a breadth of voices and experiences from churches around the United States, the collection stands as a good example.

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Morgan Crago

Morgan Crago

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