In the spirit of Black History Month and the year-round realities to which it draws our attention, I want to share a story from a book I read recently. I highly recommend the book– The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (2010), by Willie James Jennings, a theologian and Baptist minister who teaches at Duke Divinity School. Just two months ago came the announcement that Jennings has received a 2015 Grawemeyer award for the book, a distinction well deserved. His book takes the reader through centuries of history, searching out the subtle but powerful ways that theology shaped and was shaped by the emergence of race. Jennings says that our Christian imagination continues to be distorted and constrained by the ways we have been formed to relate to one another by colonialism and its pervasive effects.
He tells a story in the introduction that quite literally hits home for me. Willie is a native of Grand Rapids, and attended Calvin College. Years before that, however, when he was a young boy, he and his mother had an encounter in their backyard garden that Willie recalls as a concise example of the distorted Christian imagination. It resonates with encounters that no doubt continue to happen today in Grand Rapids and in plenty of other communities where well-intentioned Christians of different backgrounds are simply unfamiliar with each others’ lives.
Jennings and his mother were outside in their garden at their family home on Franklin Street on the southeast side of Grand Rapids, when two white men from the nearby First Christian Reformed Church approached them and began talking at length about the programs and ministries offered by their church. The men operated out of more assumptions than I can count. Jennings recalls how incredibly stilted and strange and awkward the encounter was, especially since it never occurred to the men that they were talking to neighbors who were already deeply devout Christians, pillar members of the Missionary Baptist congregation down the street. “I am already a Christian. I believe in Jesus,” his mother finally explained to the men.
“Why did these men not know me…not know the multitude of other black Christians who filled the neighborhood that surrounded that church? I am not asking why they weren’t familiar with us, and I am certainly not asking about the logistics of their missional operations. The foreignness and formality of their speech in our backyard signaled a wider and deeper order of not knowing, of not sensing, of not imagining. The most common way to narrate this historical reality of Western Christianity displayed in my backyard is to speak of different Christianities, white and black, or different cultural expressions of Christianity, (European) immigrant and (African) slave, or even of a sinful division by faith formed from the historical realities of slavery. However, such narratives draw away too quickly from the strangeness displayed at the edge of my mother’s garden. In the small space of a backyard I witnessed a Christianity familiar to most of us, enclosed in racial and cultural differences, inconsequentially related to its geography, often imaginatively detached from its surroundings of both people and spaces, but one yet bound to compelling gestures of connection, belonging, and invitation.” (p. 4)
Jennings diagnoses the brittleness of our imaginations and exposes the enduring potential of Christian imagination to help us see and think and act differently. I agree with him that the forces of history have stifled our imaginations, and with him I hope for the enriching, transformative power of a renewed imagination to enrich our encounters with each other in the dazzlingly diversity around us.