Racism and the Church in Ireland

I left my office about 11pm after the Prayer Meeting. Some of our church members had stayed behind after the meeting to fellowship. The last two stragglers had gone out a few seconds ahead of me. As I was locking the door I heard shouting coming from the front of the Church. The two ladies were standing by their vehicles in the car park. Two young men on the street outside were screaming abuse at them. It was a particularly offensive form of racial abuse, full of liberal use of the ‘N’ word and threats of violence.

Racist abuse

The men saw me and quickly retreated to the other side of the street. I moved quickly to stand between them and our two ladies – and, although there were no more threats of violence, they continued to spew forth racist abuse. Our two ladies left, and the loudmouthed racists carried on down the street. Now, here’s the weird thing. The young men were white. I’m white. And the two Church ladies are white. Yet these men were screaming hatred purely because of our Church’s reputation as a multicultural and multiethnic Church. Driving home I confess that I struggled to stay sanctified. Part of me really wanted to turn the car around, to confront those young men and to administer the sorely-needed clip round the ear that their mothers evidently neglected to give them. But I kept on driving. After all, pastors beating up young men on the street doesn’t generally bring good publicity to a Church. But I found it difficult to sleep that night. I’ve been subjected to abuse before, but somehow racism has a viciousness that disturbs my spirit. Then a sobering realisation sank into my heart. If racist abuse has such an impact, even when it’s from a white person directed at other whites, then how must it affect the black members of our Church? A few evenings later I was in another prayer meeting with about a dozen black friends from our Church. I shared what had happened. I began to say, “I’m sure this is nothing new. Some of you have probably faced worse abuse sometimes…”

Every single day

I got no further. One guy just about exploded. He said, “Pastor! Not just ‘sometimes’ – make that ‘every day’!” He related how, as a bus driver, he had been subjected to racist abuse every single day of his working life in Dublin. One day, the abuse was so nasty and vindictive that my friend’s patience snapped. He started shouting back at his tormentor. As a result he has now lost his job. My friend is a large imposing man. And I’m sure his outburst was upsetting for some passengers. But as I listened to him I realised that a whole section of our Church is experiencing stuff of which I have little or no concept. I’ve recently been reading “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America” by sociologist Michael Emerson. It has almost become a cliché that 11am on a Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in American society. But, more disturbingly, studies reveal that Evangelical Christians’ attitudes tend to perpetuate rather than to diminish racial divisions and injustices. It’s not that they are overtly racist – but their worldview leads them to ignore inequalities in society. So, are we headed towards a similar scenario in Ireland? Is the future of Evangelical Christianity in this land to be one of white Churches and black Churches with little interaction and little understanding of the problems each other face? Don’t misunderstand me. I am not so naïve as to imagine that every Church should be multicultural and multiethnic. Our histories and different people’s preferences in worship and preaching style mean we will always have white-majority Churches, Churches composed predominantly of immigrants and every conceivable mixture in-between.

Part of the problem or part of the solution?

But, and this is a huge ‘but’, studies from the US also demonstrate that where black and white Christians form relationships with each other, then Evangelical Christians become part of the solution to racial tension rather than being part of the problem. Nick Park Nick Park is the founding pastor of the Solid Rock, a multicultural Pentecostal Church comprising 34 nationalities in Drogheda, County Louth. This article originally appeared in Vox magazine and is used with the author's permission.
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