The editors of Faithward recently invited Joe Graham, a white millennial who is convicted about the work of dismantling racism, into a conversation about how his faith moves him forward to action. Joe is multisite director for Harbor Churches, a family of churches in Michigan within the Reformed Church in America that is committed to helping people find their way back to God.
Is the work of anti-racism something that is new to Harbor Churches?
About two years ago, Harbor Churches went through the process of reorganization to realign some staff structures and certain ministry areas to strengthen our existing churches and to help start new ones. At that time, we named diversity—embracing God’s full vision for a beautiful, diverse congregation—as an aspirational value. We’re a predominantly white community, so naming that as aspirational—not yet there—was helpful. We’ve been living in that space a little bit, but not as intentionally or right in front of us as we are in this moment.
So what prompted the renewal and strengthening of that work?
Particularly after the murder of George Floyd and the social unrest that started to exist all across the country, and particularly after the peaceful protests in Grand Rapids and the small riot that became a little destructive, as a pastoral leadership team, we wanted to respond because that’s what we pledged our lives to—to teach and preach justice. That’s essential to the covenant we have as pastors.
In response to racial injustice and unrest, our pastoral leadership team drafted a letter shaped around confession, lament, and the commitment we hope to make. In the spirit of the prophets, we felt we needed to speak truth.
What was the response to the letter?
Initially, there was quite a bit of affirmation from folks connected to our churches. Additionally, there was some disruption. It’s uncomfortable to talk about racism and people getting killed by the police.
It was challenging for our staff and a number of our pastors [when the letter was shared publically]. The assumption was that we were aligned politically with different camps or organizations. We seek to be fundamentally Christian and apolitical, but we recognize that the gospel does have political implications. The life of Jesus was not void of politics. He spoke directly to the culture he lived in and belonged to. As pastors, we’re called to do the same. Sometimes you have to speak confession, repentance, and lament. Weep with those who weep; rejoice with those who rejoice.
Members of our churches no longer felt comfortable being part of our church because of our response. That’s been difficult, but we also feel the conviction that you have to speak the truth to power. There are consistently stories in the Bible of people disagreeing and going different ways. We have to be comfortable with that in some ways.
When you’re a pastor or a church, if you take discipleship seriously, it means asking people to do things that make them uncomfortable. It’s the role of the church to call people to become more like Christ. That requires sacrifice, change, transformation, and confession. That’s difficult to do sometimes.
How do you handle that difficulty of being uncomfortable and having challenging conversations?
We wrestle. As concerned as we are about position or party, we have to be more concerned about our posture and our practices. One posture that we have at Harbor is thinking about the fruit of the Spirit. If the posture of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control is how we respond to everything, we get a sense of that posture of discipleship.
Practices have to come from a place of love, regardless of your conviction. You don’t really get an option when you’re a disciple of Jesus; you are to be a person of peace, love, and forgiveness. We are called to call people to a higher way.
We have to have a posture of humility that we don’t know everything. We have to do the work of uncovering systems that have been tolerant or kept certain people out. It’s in all of us; it’s systemic. So the work of the church is to speak truth to power.
What convicts you and motivates you to do the work of racial justice, even when it’s hard?
It’s the right thing to do. It’s not that simple, but it also is. I need to see differently and be transformed. I can still remember what it felt like to discover that the denomination I was a part of [growing up] had two conferences for students: one was for white students and one was for Black students. In response to that, a group of students got together in Washington D.C. That’s where I first remember being in a diverse environment and talking about how racial reconciliation is part of discipleship.
As a leader, I have often been quiet and sought to listen more than speak. Somewhere along the way, I realized that I represented the voice that is always speaking. We need more women and non-white people speaking. And you can’t just fix that. You have to sit in the pain and difficulty of that.
And, I’ve realized my silence becomes complicity. I have to do the hard work of confession and repentance of what I have inherited. Regardless of what you’ve earned, you are accountable for what you’ve been given. So there’s an inner turmoil for me personally. I use my privilege in a weird way if I’m silent. We have to speak up and be willing to put things on the line. It will cost us because more people are willing to choose power than integrity.
You’ve just alluded to the fact that racial reconciliation is part of discipleship. Most people would say it’s more of a justice issue. Where do you see discipleship and anti-racism come together?
They go hand in hand. I don’t think there is discipleship work without that vision of anti-racism and multiculturalism. When you find Jesus, you commit your life to following him. You ask, what does it mean to follow Jesus? Convictions lead to practices, certain actions, and what you participate in the world. As disciples of Jesus, we have to do the hard work. Our allegiance is much bigger and better than what we participate in now.
In Revelation, it’s not that everyone is the same in the end, but every tongue, tribe, and nation is there at the end. That is the full vision of the reconciliation. We sometimes forget that the view at the end is really diverse and beautiful. There is this scope from Genesis to Revelation of God trying to move humanity back to this beautiful mosaic. Our social constructs sometimes prevent us from seeing that.
In the story of Cain and Abel, the father weeps. What have you done? The blood of one of my children is in the ground. When we see the blood of Black people on the ground, we need to weep. We need to own that repentance as a white majority people.
How do you welcome everybody into this vision, even if they might be initially resistant?
I think it starts with the question of how we create communities of belonging that are centered on Jesus. How do you create environments, spaces, and relationships that make people feel safe, like they can belong, and that they can be pointed to Jesus?
There is a posture to how you do this relationally. The church is people. When you’re relationally connected to people, how you discuss something that people might disagree on fundamentally changes. It’s an actual person that breathes. You have to be a person who can speak other people into belonging and hospitality, which is at the heart of the message of Jesus. When you see your neighbor hurting, it’s your role to come alongside that and speak up. Love your neighbor.
In Genesis 1, God creates humanity and blesses them and calls them very good. That’s where we draw the imago Dei theology. All life is sacred, beautiful, and meant to be protected. That sometimes gets narrowly defined. God didn’t say to rule over each other; he said to rule over the earth together.
So, how do we have these conversations relationally? We have to find a way to talk with our family about what we disagree about. We’re also called to participate in the cultivation of that big, beautiful kingdom. The fundamental call of a disciple is to love your neighbor as yourself. If we are not loving our neighbor with humility and fairness, we have to confess and lament and then go to work to make that right.
What about having these conversations across generations? How do you cross that bridge?
There are definitely generational challenges. Part of the struggle I see is that baby boomers came of age in the ’60s; we as millennials and Gen Z celebrate the Civil Rights Movement, the life of Martin Luther King—we celebrate the movement of just and equitable society—but we didn’t live through it like the older generations. One of the struggles I’ve had when I say I’m passionate about empowering women and diverse voices is that older generations just think it’s cute, and they don’t take me seriously. Millennials can come off pretty strong, and we have to do the work to earn the trust. But this is not just a specific thing that we’ve chosen to be part of; it’s central to who we are in Jesus.
Part of the Christian call to leadership is to raise up other leaders. Millennials and Gen Z have not been empowered. We do need to do the hustle of earning credibility, but baby boomers often resist giving power to the next generation. It’s about power and control.
So it’s challenging because we’re so different and have radically different upbringings. You have to find ways to give and take, and you have to realize it’s about power and control. That can be as challenging as any theological issue. But if we are committed to be disciples of Jesus, we start from a place of self-denial and serving each other. Do nothing out of vain conceit. This is the way of the cross. We are meant to rule the earth together, as Genesis 1 says.
How is Harbor Churches moving forward?
Following the letter, we developed a team of staff, including our non-white staff members, to decide what a year of learning about racial injustice could like at Harbor at multiple levels. If leadership doesn’t go, it’s hard to move anything. We have to first do the work of repentance, confession, lament, commitment.
The team presented a proposal for what a year of learning could look like so we could develop specific goals and strategies. There was strong affirmation to the proposal and encouragement to take this one step at a time, check in, and really do the growth work. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
In October, we’re doing TED-talk style justice labs for the congregation, partnering with InterVarsity. And our staff started reading White Awake by Daniel Hill. It’s the first time we expected everyone on staff to read a book. There’s been intentional learning through the book, helping people who are culturally white see how whiteness tends to win and is viewed as normal.
In a few months, we’ll check in and see: what are we learning? What are we seeing? Do we need to go back and do something over? We also want to do unconscious bias training, but to do that in person. So much of this conversation is about power dynamics, and it’s hard to understand power dynamics over Zoom. We want to be attentive to the moment, but not push too fast so that we don’t actually do the transformation work.
And there’s that question of stamina. Can you stay in this work when it becomes uncomfortable? But we have to do the hard work, even if it’s uncomfortable, even when it’s divisive, and even when it costs us.
As you move forward, what is your hope and vision for Harbor Churches—and for the larger church? What future are you working toward?
At Harbor, our hope is that after a year of learning and growth, we can begin to implement new strategies and goals. We hope to be faithful to each step, knowing it could change.
And, I hope that the good news can be good news for everyone. “On earth as it is in heaven”—that is our work. The church in America has work to do. I’m hopeful that we can do the work. I’m hopeful because the vision is hopeful. The picture that is painted for us in Scripture is really hopeful.
I am convinced that if we take seriously the work of creating communities of belonging centered on Jesus to be people of good news, we can get at the bigger challenges and struggles because we are being formed to the likeness of Jesus. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s going to be difficult. We have to be comfortable with having really difficult conversations and making sacrifices that will cost us.
We’ve been asked to lead in 2020. If that means we’re leading so a new thing can be born and God is leading us toward something better, I want to celebrate the good work that’s been done and give keys to the next generation. If you read Scripture and look at our experiences, the story always moves toward change. It might be really slow, but God is doing a new thing. That’s what it means to be reformed and always reforming. Leaders need to commit personally to that and cultivate the things we’re called to lead to also be transformed and transforming.
Joe Graham is the multisite director for Harbor Churches, a family of churches in Michigan within the Reformed Church in America.