When I walked into the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, I was excited to find an exhibit focusing on southern art.
After spending some time in the exhibit, I stumbled upon a piece titled “High Yella Masterpiece: We Ain’t No Cotton Pickin’ Negroes.”
The painting depicted two light-skinned black men staring pensively at the viewer, dressed in crisp white suits, holding pink balls of cotton candy.
I could see myself in those two black men. For most of my life, I have been called “high yella” by family members and other black people.
This phrase is derived from slavery in the U.S. and is situated around the idea that slaves with lighter skin, those who looked closer to their white masters, were allowed to work in the house.
He or she obtained better food, worked more preferable jobs and received opportunities that the darker-skinned slaves did not.
The opportunity to live in the master’s house did not change the gruesome reality of slavery but serves as a reminder of the deep-seated history of colorism – the preference of lighter complexions – in the black community.
If I’m honest, being “high yella” has some privileges. I was my grandmother’s favorite grandchild because I was the lightest. The color of my skin represented opportunity to her.
Although being light-skinned is steeped in certain privileges, it has its awkward moments.
I’m often caught between two extremes: spaces where my blackness is perceived as a risk and spaces where my light skin is perceived as “not the same struggle.”
Navigating these spaces means understanding the different languages each space requires.
One who proves he too has lived amid the same inequality and injustice of his ethnicity, fighting against it. Yet, also proving that I am just as good as my white counterparts.
This tension, of course, occurs in the navigation of predominately white or predominately black spaces.
And I honestly thought living in this awkward space would change. I must say that I was foolish to believe that “a calling” or the title “reverend” would pull me out of this awkward middle space.
I was foolish to think race/ethnicity would not factor into the way I live out God’s calling on my life.
I never thought people would say I could not be a pastor to a certain group of people because I was black and would be unable to lead or care for folks because of it.
It seemed that race became a limiting factor above the calling on my own life because of how people view race in our world.
For many years, I have been open and honest about my calling to be a black pastor in a predominantly white church. I joke and say it is because I would not know the first thing to do in a traditional black church, which is true.
But my calling is toward building reconciliation – not because of something I feel I have done or an offense I have made, but because of what the world has done, and actions people continue to make.
But as children of God, we are to live into the gospel story – to know God in Christ is reconciling the world and us unto God because the Holy Spirit lives in each believer.
When we realize that we are a gospel work from God, we are able to more clearly comprehend how the gospel cultivates our personal life, our shared community and the world – through the working of the true and living triune God.
But in order for that to happen, we actually have to be together. Reconciliation cannot happen until we are in each other’s spaces and faces. Yet, in most of our moderate Baptist churches, this is unseen.
During my search for a pastorate, many ministers in my fellowship tried to convince me that I should serve black denominations and assured me that it is “what I really want,” as though I had not assessed the risks and hardships of a calling such as mine.
From black ministers I often heard, “You’ve been around white people too long because that won’t preach here.”
And from some church search committees I heard, “You are different. Our church just isn’t ready for this difference yet. How will our senior adults handle having a black pastor?”
It’s fascinating how these congregations can accept salvation from a person of color, but are hesitant to receive direction, sermons and pastoral care from a person of color.
Systematic theologian, Allan Bosak, once stated, “Both white and black churches have to confront the false innocence they tell themselves.”
He continues, “[This innocence occurs] when people face issues too horrendous to contemplate, they close their eyes to reality and make a virtue out of powerlessness, weakness and helplessness. This innocence leads to a helpless utopianism.”
Through my time in predominately white churches and denominations, it seems the false innocence that exists in many of these spaces is the promoted diversity – the spoken desires to be diverse, the advocacy of diversity in communities – but the unwillingness to face the realities of the challenges and personal biases that stand in the way of making real change for those who exist in the in-between.
Advocating for difference has often looked like still having power over the “other.” Diversity has often been deemed a success as long as the other person conforms to the rules that are set by those in power.
The problem with this innocence is that it is not only innocence but ignorance because the longer we play into this idea, the more minds we shape by this falsehood.
Maybe it is time we start believing and leading by example. The message we often preach is, “There is room at the table for all,” and not, “There is room at the table as long as you bring the right mac and cheese, deviled eggs and country ham biscuits with spicy mustard.”
It is time we look deep within our churches and ask, “Do we really want to be a diverse body of Christ?” Not just diverse in race, but gender, socioeconomic status, age and so on.
And if so, it starts by confronting our congregations with the innocence and ignorance we use to console ourselves because of the lack of pluralism in many of our churches.
And after we have wrestled with this truth, we must then move toward creating a space for those who live their lives in the “awkward in-betweens.”
So, as I stood in front of this High Yella masterpiece, struck by the truth in the faces staring back at me, I realized I too must confront my own false innocence.
Calling does not make my race invisible. But it is my race that helps my calling of reconciliation redeemable.
Timothy Peoples is senior minister at Emerywood Baptist Church in High Point, North Carolina.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series focused on racism and the local church.
Another article in the series is: