Betrayed at the Polls, Evangelicals of Color at a Crossroads

(L-R) Soong-Chan Rah, Ra Mendoza, George Mekhail, and Lisa Sharon Harper

Some names and other identifying information have been changed in this story. 
He seemed drunk and ready for a fight. The man, mid-fifties, towering and broad shouldered, shouted over the other partygoers to his wife, “Honey, have you seen my jacket? It has my gun in it.”

George Mekhail, a pastor in his early thirties, tried to ignore the man for most of the party. That is, until he staggered toward George, amped for a confrontation.

George’s friend Jeff had invited him to this family friend’s Christmas gathering in Arlington, WA, a rural, predominantly white town outside of Seattle. Jeff and George hail from different worlds—Jeff is a white truck driver from a blue-collar Christian family, while George is an Egyptian-American pastor from an immigrant family. Despite their differences, a bromance had bloomed.

The drive into the country echoed the setup of the critically-acclaimed horror movie Get Out, in which a black photographer accompanies his white girlfriend to her family’s estate. As the landscape gave way to highways flanked by thickets of conifers and low-slung warehouses, Jeff reassured George that his brown body would be safe at this white party.

Enter to win a $50 Amazon gift card!
 Click HERE to take our 2-minute reader survey.

Of course, as a tall, striking, Egyptian-American man in a room of about eighty white, rural Christians, “I stuck out like a sore thumb,” George recalled. But it didn’t faze the affable pastor, who says he thrives outside his comfort zone. He worked the party like a pro, bouncing between conversations and laughing at jokes. Jeff said he’d be fine. But George was more than fine. He was having fun.

But then the grumpy drunk stumbled over, pointed at the beanie on George’s head and barked, “Why don’t you take that hat off. You look like a fucking terrorist.”

The white partygoers grew silent and waited for George to react, which he eventually did, diffusing the conversation with politeness. Though he lowered the heat a few notches, the man continued to call him a terrorist so many times that George realized something that hadn’t occurred to him, “He was concerned that I might have actually been a terrorist.” Still, nobody came to George’s defense, leaving him alone with this angry, potentially-armed man. “I didn’t feel like he was going to kill me,” George says, “but he wanted to intimidate me.”

This, and the fact that it happened one month after the election of Donald Trump, was a clarifying moment for George. Up to this point, he had spent over five years as the executive pastor of Seattle’s EastLake Community Church, a mostly white evangelical megachurch. His congregation adored him, but he had recently begun to realize the ways his own self-erasure might just perpetuate xenophobic evangelical culture. He rarely brought up his Egyptian heritage or the fact that he spoke Arabic, and he distanced himself from Egypt’s Muslim-majority population by going “out of my way to make sure people knew I was a Christian.” George acknowledges that he has been “complicit in every aspect of the (white evangelical) system.”

“I was working on a book that was marketed toward evangelicals and I’m no longer doing that because I think it’s a waste of time. I don’t think they’re ready. I’d rather work with folks who are ready.”

But this new administration has changed everything for George and evangelicals of color across the nation. The fact that 81 percent of white evangelicals supported a candidate who channeled white nationalism is not lost on minority believers. Nor is the unending news of travel bans, appointments of white nationalists, mass deportations and racial hate crimes. It has forced a reckoning.

Today, believers of color are redefining their relationships with white evangelicalism in ways that could dramatically shift the landscape. Already, people of color make up a larger portion of the entire American Christian population than before, and church growth experts predict they will make up the majority of the Christian population after 2042. And their values are largely at odds with the white evangelical support for Trump; pre-election surveys showed that nonwhite evangelical Protestant voters, which included black, Hispanic and Asian-Pacific Islander Protestants, supported Clinton over Trump by a very wide margin (67% vs. 24%), according to the Public Religion Research Institute.

So while white evangelicals captured the election, they may have lost their fellow believers, the very people who could keep their churches, denominations and institutions from the attrition that has many Christian institutions and leaders genuinely worried for the future. These days, evangelicals of color are talking next steps. Their endeavors run the gamut, but the ones gaining steam include leaving evangelicalism altogether, reframing the evangelical world as a mission field as opposed to a place for spiritual nourishment, creating ethnic safe spaces or staying firmly planted in evangelical community to combat racism from within. It’s too early to tell which will prevail, but the urgency and organization happening within communities of color point to a fundamental shift in the evangelical landscape.

Like these evangelicals of color, in the aftermath of the election and that party, George began to question everything.

“The final nail in the coffin”

For one attendee of a California megachurch, the questions began after her pastor made a sermon joke about how King Nebuchadnezzar’s Median Wall was built because he “got the Mexicans to pay for it.” The audience roared with laughter, but “Jan,”* who is Korean American, and her Mexican-American husband, ushered their children out of the service. Jan asked her pastor for a public apology. When he shrugged off her request, she was shocked. He had been a spiritual guide for years. He officiated the funeral of her son. But now it was as if they didn’t know each other. She resigned from her role in the children’s ministry, and her family has left that church for good.

Jan is one of many evangelicals of color choosing to depart from white evangelical spaces. For some, that means leaving churches and communities while for others, it means not supporting evangelical conferences or organizations that are predominantly white. Many describe these moves as “divestment” from white evangelicalism: they’re moving money, bodies and souls elsewhere.

Social justice advocate Alicia Crosby, who actively works with evangelical organizations, says divestment among her colleagues of color means finding spaces that foster healing for marginalized people. Her organization, the Center for Inclusivity, does just that giving Crosby, who is black and a former evangelical, a front row seat to how “marginalized people feel betrayed” by white evangelical support for Trump.

“For some people, the divestment began before the election,” says Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, associate professor of practical theology at Mercer University and author of Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength. “One friend said the election was the ‘final nail in the coffin of my relationship with the evangelical church.’”

Walker-Barnes added that among the prominent minority evangelical leaders she knows, forms of divestment vary, from declining speaking invitations from evangelical colleges and conferences to turning toward organizations led by people of color, even if they are not explicitly Christian, such as Colorlines or the National Urban League.

Personally, “I don’t know if I’m doing a full divestment from evangelical spaces, but I’m definitely pulling back,” says Walker-Barnes, who is in the process of getting released from a book contract with an evangelical publisher. “I was working on a book that was marketed toward evangelicals and I’m no longer doing that because I think it’s a waste of time. I don’t think they’re ready. I’d rather work with folks who are ready.”

“Like it was all for nothing”

These forms of divestment come after a four-decade-long evangelical initiative many call “racial reconciliation,” something I write about in depth in my book Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism. The movement gained traction in the mid-1970s when black and white evangelical leaders tried working together. At the seminal Thanksgiving Workshops, annual meetings in which evangelical luminaries tried forging a progressive coalition, black leaders like John Perkins and William Pannell advanced conversations about combatting racism within white evangelical culture.

Discussions flourished momentarily, but support from white evangelicals eventually waned. (The same pattern played out with women.) White male evangelical neglect of issues concerning black evangelicals and evangelical women prompted these groups to turn to their own coalitions. As a result, the progressive movement lost its minority and female constituency and faded into the shadows just as the religious right was born. It wasn’t until the late 1980s and 1990s that the “racial reconciliation” movement gained momentum again. Animated by a new generation, mainstream leaders embraced the movement, which prompted, in 1997, the Wall Street Journal to call evangelicals, “the most energetic element of society addressing racial divisions.”

Despite this drive, two key problems stood in the way of truly bridging the racial divide. First, conversations about race made many white evangelicals uncomfortable, which often led to disengagement. For example, after Bill McCartney, the white leader of Promise Keepers, made this subject a focal point at his stadium-packed events in 1996, he reported that about 40 percent of participants reacted negatively to the theme, likely leading to the drop in attendance the following year.

I got more out of these three tweets than I did out of sitting in church for two hours.”

The second problem: white evangelical “racial reconciliation” lacked rigor. It focused on building personal relationships between races, not addressing the systemic inequalities that devastate communities of color. This led minority evangelicals to question whether “racial reconciliation” was simply a convenient vehicle for white absolution and, given the long history of white oppression within the church (using the Bible to justify slavery, supporting Jim Crow segregation, condemning the Civil Rights Movement, to name a few), to what exactly were they “reconciling” in the first place.

But that didn’t always lead to disengagement. To this day many evangelicals of color have continued this work in white evangelical spaces, including the very leaders who prompted the movement in the 1970s and those who gave it new life in the 1990s. That’s why the exit polls showing widespread support of Trump by white evangelicals felt like such a devastating blow to them.

“For those of us who have been doing this for a while – making the circuit, speaking to crowds – it almost feels like it was all for nothing,” says Soong-Chan Rah, a professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary. Rah, who is Korean American and a frequent speaker at evangelical institutions, adds, “It was a blatant ignoring of everything we’ve been trying to teach for decades now. Maybe I was being naive; I thought after the election people would have a little more remorse…this is white evangelicalism revealing itself in ways that are deeply dysfunctional.”

Their mission field, not their church

This is the context that has prompted so many evangelicals of color to change course. But not everyone is leaving.

As a growing number of minorities redefine their associations, many have chosen to see white evangelical spaces as their “mission field,” but not their source of spiritual nourishment.

These days, SueAnn Shiah just gets angry during church sermons. Still, the Taiwanese American congregant at a conservative, white church in Nashville, remains committed to serving on the church’s racial justice committee because she believes she can help dismantle racism within her community. She just goes elsewhere for spiritual development.

One Sunday, she left the sanctuary mid-sermon, upset because her pastor was not addressing current injustices impacting vulnerable communities. She scrolled through Twitter, where most of her spiritual discussions have migrated. There she read some revelatory tweets about a friend’s Sunday school conversation about how the slaughtered lamb in the prodigal son parable represents the oppressed. “Someone else screws up and I’m the one who has to pay for it,” she recalls reading. It gave her a new perspective on the familiar passage and she thought, “Oh wow, I got more out of these three tweets than I did out of sitting in church for two hours.”

“Some think it’s an anomaly that a black lesbian can be a Christian, but there are many out there like me, not just gay but those who are pro-choice and Christian, anti-Trump and Christian and interfaith and Christian.” 

“Evangelical space has been a continual place where the tensions around race, gender and sexuality exist all the time,” says Ra Mendoza, the recruitment, academics and diversity coordinator at Mission Year, an urban ministry with evangelical roots. Mendoza, who is Mexican-Latinx, says that in most evangelical communities, people looked to her to “call things out, but I wasn’t part of creating the new thing.” That is, these groups never invited her to create something that actually corrected the problems she called out; they listened to her critique and they thought that was enough. Mendoza has instead planted her spiritual life in non-evangelical communities of color, but she remains committed to Mission Year because it’s actually “trying to create a new space that doesn’t perpetuate whiteness and sexism and all the stuff that was built into our DNA for the last 20 years.”

Many feel compelled to compartmentalize their personal spirituality and missional calling for the sake of survival and emotional health. “People of color [have been] willing to fit themselves into these white evangelical spaces even when it was uncomfortable,” explains Walker-Barnes. The expectation that minorities—especially women—do the emotional labor in conversations about race takes a psychological and physical toll, she argues. They hope to “move the conversation forward in small gentle ways,” but that approach is “not necessarily gentle for themselves, [but instead] very self sacrificial.”

Finally “seen and heard”

The hunger for healing in the wake of the new administration and white evangelical collusion has led to the sprouting of ethnic safe spaces focused on healing and activism. In recent months, Mendoza has been overwhelmed by the people of color-led communities for spiritual nourishment that have come her way. In Chicago, she has seen and participated in the launch of multiple spaces for women of color and queer people of color to heal from trauma experienced in the church and society. On Facebook, she was added to a group formed to mobilize churches to protect trans and non-binary people of color and to a book club exploring Latinx feminist liberation theology.

Social justice activist Crystal Cheatham is developing an app for people on the margins of the church. The Our Bible App launches this June and will offer gender-inclusive Bible translations, a library of progressive devotionals that are pro-women, pro-LGBTQ and inclusive of other faiths and other forms of engagement. “I’m black, I’m a lesbian, and I’m tired of feeling like my faith doesn’t matter,” says Cheatham. “Some think it’s an anomaly that a black lesbian can be a Christian, but there are many out there like me, not just gay but those who are pro-choice and Christian, anti-Trump and Christian and interfaith and Christian.”

Recently, a Facebook group called “Progressive Asian American Christians” launched, gained more than 3,000 members and formed local chapters. Soong-Chan Rah helped host the first Chicago meeting, which I attended as a reporter. Two dozen people gathered in a classroom to discuss launching a new movement, which included addressing racism within and toward Asian communities; coalition building with justice movements like Black Lives Matter; planting progressive Asian American churches; and approaching justice work with a lens of intersectionality, which recognizes that identities (race, gender, sexuality, ability, etc) and the oppression of those identities are interconnected.

“If you start something new and you still have these kinds of dysfunctional patterns and systems where the cultural expressions of Americanism are still in it in some form or another, and it is led by former white evangelicals, then what’s going to be different about it?”

These affinity groups are addressing the dissonance and trauma of communities often neglected in the evangelical world. In 2015, when Angie Hong attended a retreat, organized by a team including Walker-Barnes, that was exclusively for women of color, Hong says she finally “felt seen and heard.” Hong is the creative director of Willow Chicago, a satellite site for the megachurch Willow Creek, and has spent the bulk of her life in evangelical communities in the South.

At the retreat, Hong remembers “this weight coming off.” When the emcee invited the women to “take off our sharp edges…the tears just started flowing,” she says. “We didn’t realize how burdened we were. It was an amazing day.” This sentiment has been echoed repeatedly by participants involved in the variety of affinity groups that have formed in the wake of the new administration. And it’s offering strength to both those just trying to survive and those committed to staying completely invested in the evangelical world.

Evangelical tradition: “I will not give that up”

When Jazzy Johnson attended the retreat for women of color, she immediately sensed “that folks are just very tired and that there’s a lot of pain.” Johnson met people decades deep in work, many so crippled by the contortions it required that they could no longer go on. At 25, she could empathize, but sensed God calling her to abide. “I still feel like I have the health and capacity and wiring to stay in those spaces now, which I know is not true for everyone,” she says. Johnson works as the director of an urban justice program within InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, one of the nation’s largest evangelical campus ministries.

While Johnson believes that folks in her circles “didn’t necessarily vote for Trump,” they are part of a larger culture that made widespread white evangelical support for Trump possible. By staying in this environment, she hopes to attack one of the root causes of this problem: “An impoverished theology where people don’t understand a ‘God of the oppressed.’”

Whereas, “as black folks, we’ve always had to hold onto this God of the oppressed…a God who interacts with the systems around us.” Even though Johnson recognizes that some InterVarsity donors or supporters might back “the same things that Trump says that speak directly against my own body,” she believes remaining in cross-cultural dialogue and doing the work of developing the next generation will move the needle. If anything, white evangelical support for Trump has prompted a “big ideological shift” in her work, from an interest in producing “do gooders” to a generation of Christians willing to work for the liberation of other people.

“White evangelicals are a shrinking population and people of color will soon make up the faith’s majority. But even if a demographic shift seems inevitable, the question is: will the power shift be inevitable? Do white evangelicals have the capacity to share power at scale?”

Lisa Sharon Harper, Sojourners’ chief church engagement officer, began her evangelical journey in 1983 and plans to stay, despite feeling the fangs of tyranny dig deep. When Trump mounted the podium to give his acceptance speech, Harper recalls her body shaking and her cries ending in a primal scream. “I felt like permission to flourish in this world was being ripped from my body as a black person and as a woman.”

Harper travels internationally to train clergy and community leaders in racial justice work and to promote her book The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right. She sees firsthand how nearly “everyone is reconsidering whether or not they want to remain under the moniker ‘evangelical,’” including minorities, white people, the young and the old, “because the word ‘evangelical’ has been truly hijacked by a movement to maintain the political, economic and social supremacy of whiteness.”

Harper’s commitment to the label and the community comes from her desire to reclaim “a movement that was about the coming of the Kingdom of God and the flourishing of the image of God on Earth,” as well as the release of the image of God from captivity, she says. “I will not give that up.” Harper also won’t give up her responsibility for evangelicalism. She won’t deny “the reality that because my faith was deeply shaped and formed in those places, that at times I was part of the problem.”

Soong-Chan Rah says he is wary of the impulse to jump ship, which he sees more prominently among progressive white evangelicals. “If you start something new and you still have these kinds of dysfunctional patterns and systems where the cultural expressions of Americanism are still in it in some form or another, and it is led by former white evangelicals, then what’s going to be different about it?” Rah actually sees more people of color committing more firmly, asserting their humanity and saying, “Hold on, there might still be something redemptive here [within the evangelical community].”

Challenges

For those staying, they must contend with a dominant white theology, shaped in the cauldron of privilege, which suggests that a successful life springs from an individual’s good, moral choices alone. It fails to recognize how unfair policies and societal structures harm the economic and social wellbeing of those subject to those systems.

Those who stay must also contend with a politicized evangelical movement fundamentally shaped in the late 1970s by a desire to preserve segregation. As documented by historian Randall Balmer, the religious right galvanized evangelicals into a political movement when the IRS threatened to revoke the tax exempt status of racially discriminatory Christian schools. Today, evangelicals of color staying to “combat racism from within” are working against a deeply entrenched culture.

Demographers frequently say that the balance is tipping: white evangelicals are a shrinking population and people of color will soon make up the faith’s majority. But even if a demographic shift seems inevitable, the question is: will the power shift be inevitable? Do white evangelicals have the capacity to share power at scale?

Many minority evangelicals agree that this would require a cultural and strategic overhaul. History points to cyclical race discussions within evangelicalism, with progress advancing and retreating in the face of white resistance. History also points to robust conservative political organizing that supported that resistance and effectively politicized it. “I don’t know if there’s anything corresponding” for progressive evangelicals, says Soong-Chan Rah. After all, progressive organizers typically don’t see evangelicals as a constituency, as evidenced by Clinton’s anemic evangelical outreach efforts. Along those lines, progressive evangelicals lack the decades-long relationships with powerful political operatives that conservatives utilized. To further complicate things, baked into the culture of evangelicalism is a distrust of non-evangelical voices, even those who have been doing the work of social justice for decades. But the threats of this new administration might change all that.

After the Chicago meeting of progressive Asian-American Christians, Rah thought, “I would love to organize that group. I’d love to have an organizer come in and say, ‘This is what you can do.’” Rah saw the talent and drive in that gathering, and he knows they could do a lot with some concrete guidance. Right now, he says, “It seems that we’re kind of shooting in the dark here.”

Flipping tables

Throughout his conversation with the grumpy drunk, George Mekhail struck an invitational tone in an attempt to “figure out this guy’s deal.” Sure, George felt “humiliated” by the man’s insistence that his hat made him look like a terrorist, but what could he say? Only a white partygoer could rebuke the man because, “as the brown guy in the room, I can’t be that voice [without coming across as] the agitator.” In a final act of submission, George yanked the beanie off his head and asked, “There, is that better?” The man took a good look at George, his youthful brown eyes, his thin trail of a beard and his short black hair unwinding from hat head.

“No,” the man replied. “You still look like a terrorist.”

Shortly after the party, George resigned from his post as the executive pastor of his megachurch. After seeing the white evangelical role in electing Trump and after that toxic party interaction, George knew it was time for a change. His departure wasn’t a rebuke of his church, but of a faith culture that denies its brutal legacy while indoctrinating its followers to perpetuate it.

“Three years ago, I was really bought into the evangelical narrative and I didn’t even see it,” he admits. That began to change when, two years ago, his church transformed its policies to fully include the LBGTQ community. The process awoke George to the many evangelical policies that “were not loving toward marginalized groups.” First he saw its impact on LGBTQ people, then on himself, and then on a litany of other underrepresented groups.

George decided to leave evangelicalism, though he remains firmly in the Christian tradition, working to hold the faith community to a higher standard. Transitioning to the historic Riverside Church in New York City, he will focus on building bridges between the mainline Protestant and evangelical worlds. One part of his vision he hopes to advance: bringing church policies out of the shadows.

Ambiguous church policies hurt congregants, George argues. For example, most churches claim to “welcome everybody,” but quietly hold policies that exclude particular communities. For the gay person who devotes his life to a church only to discover years later that their pastor won’t baptize him or marry him, “just create[s] so much humiliation and shame,” says George.

He has seen this play out repeatedly in Seattle because these wounded congregants end up on EastLake’s doorstep “and we’re sort of picking up the pieces.” The same pattern plays out for women who are called to leadership only to be told that their church prohibits women from teaching. And, for people of color, any rhetorical claims to inclusion are betrayed by white leadership teams, tokenism of minorities or the discrediting of theologies from other cultures.

George’s solution: Demand clarity without judgment. He’s not trying to convince anyone to change their policies, even if he disagrees with them, George says. He simply wants churches to provide clarity around their policies for the sake of congregants seeking a church home. His long-term vision includes a database that houses the policies of churches. “If we can do that, then we let people vote with their feet.”

For George, this transition, “was connected to Trump getting elected and me becoming more aware of the systemic problems within the evangelical church that we’re seeing play out practically now.”

Though George left evangelicalism, he understands that some are called to stay “to push the envelope as far as you can.” He thinks of his friend who just started working for a non-LGBTQ-affirming church to help it on its journey toward becoming fully inclusive. He thinks of his friends at EastLake. “We need people on the inside to push things,” he says.

But those who stay should see how far their influence moves the needle and then reevaluate, says George, who has lately been asking, “if there is anything redeemable about evangelicalism.”

“I think evangelicalism is the empire that’s about to fall,” he says. “It needs to be dismantled because it’s too powerful and it’s all about money.” Rather than centering the needs of the marginalized and justice work, George sees a toxic faith system that platforms capitalism, unsustainable growth, a prosperity narrative, flashy services and pastors who hang with celebrities. To George, “everything” is at stake.

“We’re at the part of the story where Jesus goes into the temple and flips over tables.”