By Elket Rodríguez
The voice speaking through my phone carried me to the side of a brother in the faith. He is Cuban, black and seeking U.S. citizenship. He called to ask a sad question that reflects our times: “How can I protect myself from police intervention?”
His question provoked tears as I reflected on the curse of classifying people by the color of their skin. I was born in Puerto Rico where people’s skin tones reflect the palate of possibilities.
Growing up, I had three great friends—Juan Sostre, Daniel Vega and Nelson Túa. We loved wrestling, and that brought us together. Daniel looks Asian, Juan is black and Nelson is white with brown hair.
As a teenager, my best friend was blond, and his family was from Cuba. I never thought about it until today. One of my two groomsmen is black, and the other is the son of a Dominican immigrant. I always was the whitest, but I never thought I was superior because of my skin.
Then I moved to the United States. It was unimaginable to see housing, schools and churches divided by skin color. I still have a hard time understanding it.
Although the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, servitude and discrimination did not end then. Almost a century later, the fight to eliminate racial segregation—the residue of slavery—began.
Still, racism did not end in the 1960s. Racists hid behind social systems and institutions. The criminal and judicial system infringes, restricts and violates rights. It imposes longer sentences on people of color as compared to whites. Likewise, the electoral system dilutes the vote of racial minorities, resulting in less representation in government. The financial system has been structured to prevent people of color from accessing mortgages and finding a way out of poverty.
Similarly, the U.S. government criminalized its immigration system when Hispanics began fleeing their countries, escaping the onslaught of globalization and the erosion of capital. So now, the U.S. immigration system separates thousands of families, expels children vulnerable to human trafficking, and brings about the deaths of people subject to persecution in their countries.
Sadly, the most segregated and, therefore, the most racist system in the United States is the Church. Despite efforts to the contrary, the Church has become the last refuge and strongest bastion of U.S. segregation. That is the most tragic stain on the pages of our history.
Almost 60 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. observed the most segregated hour in the United States is church time on Sunday morning. His words echo true today. In the shadows of religious segregation, Christian Nationalism corrupted large segments of the U.S. Church, wickedly blessing racial segregation, as well as creating idols of power, comfort, complacency and economic security. What do these idols we worship say about us?
A century and a half ago, white U.S. Christians received an opportunity to atone for the mistakes of our past, ask for forgiveness and reconcile. Instead, across many generations, we justified our church segregation by claiming we were divided by “culture” or “worship culture,” a perfect euphemism for hiding racism and segregation. Baptists perverted our legacy—respect for the autonomy of local congregations—as an excuse to continue segregation.
Many church-going people wonder why younger generations are not interested in visiting congregations on Sunday morning. The answer is simple. Church is different from—and poorer than—what we experience in our schools, in our parks and at concerts.
My generation and the rising generation are becoming more inclusive. It is no surprise your son Cody is a great friend of Carlos, Antoine and Chen. To them, the Church seems highly discriminatory. And strange.
It is grievous and humbling that sports can bring together African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and Americans of all colors, but the Church cannot. Has our God failed to reunite his children? Are the devil and the entertainment industry more powerful in bringing people together than the worship of our God?
This will not change until we expose White Christian Nationalism for what it is—a false racist gospel of prosperity, power and comfort, a cult of classism and segregation.
Let’s stop using the Church to justify our sins, but rather to confess our sins and to find redemption with the help of our brothers and sisters. Now is the moment for redemption. Either we repent of segregation and racism and heal our wounds, or we perish in separation.
Have you wondered how God feels about the church’s deliberate silence on racism? Jesus cried out for unity, but we seek to hush him to silence when we remain silent. We must confess our own sins in order to be catalysts for unity. To be the presence of God in the world, we need unity in truth and not the lie of prejudice. That is bold faith.
You may ask: What does this have to do with my Cuban friend? At the end of our conversation, we observed that, in this country, he already has two strikes against him: He was born outside the United States, and he is black. One wrong step, and he could be beaten, killed or deported. One more strike, and he strikes out.
In Cuba, he used to go house to house, sharing the gospel with his neighbors. That was his ministry, and he loved it. Here, he is afraid to go out. He knows the names and stories of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery—black people who died simply because they were black.
For the sake of my friend—and for the sake of our souls—let us shake off the chains of Christian Nationalism and create a land where all people are free and safe.
Elket Rodríguez is the immigrant and refugee advocacy and missions specialist for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Fellowship Southwest.