I went to the Story Chicago Conference this past week. The theme was A Sense of Place but I felt anything but.
The 1st evening of the conference, conference creator Ben Arment gave us a brief welcome and an introduction to the 2013 Sundance-award-winning documentary, Blood Brother. The film follows a white American, Rocky Braat who gives his life serving AIDS orphans at a hostel in India. The film was amazing, touching & inspiring. The next morning, we began with a very lively all-white, all-male band, Paper Route. That was followed by a very good mini talk by Ben and a white Australian dude, Tom Thum a professional beat-boxer. And something Tom the beat-boxer said hit me.
Tom mentioned Doug E. Fresh and when he did I yelled out “Doug E!!” Y’all. I had a very large Doug E. Fresh poster on my childhood bedroom wall. Tom’s off the cuff Dougie comment spoke to my Sense of Place for the first time since the conference started. During Tom’s 2nd act he laid down some dope beats. Obviously, having no power to resist a dope beat, I got up to dance. I noticed a few dudes laughing at me -the spectacle- the sheer audacity that I’d get up to dance when no one else was. Are these white folks being disrespectful to the entertainer? I wondered. Or are they merely self-conscious/unwilling to let loose? Or sadly, just can’t bust a move, even a bad one. After all, nary a head bobbed during the Paper Route set.
Equation: red-colored-skinny-jean-boat-shoed-v-neck-black-rimmed-glasses-wearing hipsters + “relevant” Christian culture + white conference creator + white dude who saves Indians + white band + white dude who started charity to Africans + 3 white male speakers + one female white speaker + different white dude who started a different charity to Africans + white women giving announcements + 2nd all-white, all-male rock band + 3rd all-white, all-male rock band = disillusionment.
I see white people.
I saw minorities too. They were the help. I saw maybe 5 black volunteers. I saw a black dude helping cart stuff on and off of the stage. I saw 5, maybe even 8 black attendees. On the 3rd day, I met two dudes with a larger group from Switzerland, which was pretty sweet.
‘Grace, why on earth are you so jaded? Why are you presenting such a bleak, horribly specific picture?’ you may be wondering especially considering I had a GREAT time. Given time, money & vacation time I’d go to Story again. I point these problems out to hopefully begin a healthy dialogue towards ongoing solutions not just for Story but other white-led conferences as well.
There’s a problem when an entire day passes without seeing or hearing from anyone else other than whites let alone without mention to the word “welcome,” or without acknowledgement of the racial, cultural or ethnic disparities in the room. There’s nothing more unwelcoming as a person of color to walk into a place and feel completely ignored and unacknowledged.
I have been a part of planning Christian conferences and have directed 3 myself. You can’t control who registers for your conference. You can target groups, but you can’t control registration. You can try to push scholarships and incentives in certain directions but it’s still a crap shoot. That there weren’t many minorities at Story is fine…not as fun for me, not as life-giving for me, but fine. What conference planners can control is who’s on stage and the messages sent by those pivotal choices.
When a whole conference goes by and the only black man I see on stage is on the third day for 2.5 minutes to introduce someone else what that says to me is:
There were no black people we could find worthy of this stage…
There were no Latino people we could find worthy of this stage…
There were no African people we could find worthy of this stage…
There were no Native-American people we could find worthy of this stage…
There were no South Asian people we could find worthy of this stage…
There were no __________ (fill in the blank with any one non-white) we could find worthy of this stage…
You get my point.
When you bring in a beat-boxer from Brisbane, Australia (whom, I loved & am now slightly obsessed with) we all know you’ve got the clout to grab folks from across the world. When attendee’s are attending from doggone Switzerland we know both attendee’s and speakers alike are globally privy to Story’s reach. The world is your oyster, Story! If all else fails, there’s YouTube. Every one & their Mama has a website. Take advantage.
End of Day 2 – 11:30pm. I am feeling frustrated. Mostly sad –what a lost opportunity! Yet, I know how to live & breathe here. I was born and raised in white christian culture. I know how to manage my emotions, keep functioning, get out of it what I need to. I make do. I code switch when I need to. I take notes. I pull out inspiration. I got to hear Nike’s global creative directors for crying out loud. Tom Thum! Cirque De Soleil’s creative director. The Google guy! A dude who works with Kanye West! Tom Thum! Only a FOOL would waste that opportunity. I’m from Detroit y’all. I don’t waste food and I don’t waste opportunities. During the 2nd white boy band I even got up to dance while the rest of the crowd sat and looked bored. Gimme a beat & I will rump shake. Bottom line. But forget about me, what about the white people?
It troubles me for white conference Directors to present to a mostly white audience, a mostly white presentation of mostly white men doing, thinking, wearing, rocking out to mostly white stuff. The message sent to said white folk attendees is very similar to the message sent to white people EVERYWHERE ELSE…
…Hey, we’re the shizz, the friggin’ cream of the crop!
…Hey, we’re the top of the heap!
…Hey, we’re the ones who rescue the black babies!
…Hey, we’re the coolest!
…Hey, no one else’s voice actually matters!
…Hey, we’re IT.
This subtle underlying message is the stuff of legend, it’s what white privilege is based on. It’s the only conclusion you come to when you see every one but whites left out of influence & leadership. One *may* conclude: African-Americans, French Canadians, South Asians, Brazilians, Native Americans, etc. must not have much to say to us white people otherwise they would be here.
With all that we know about white privilege it’s sad -sometimes maddening- not to see white led conferences go out of their way to delineate themselves from this troubling American trend.
After all, at Story we saw three white men (Rocky Braat, Scott Harrison & Dan Haseltine) who serve brown people but we all know, right, there’s lots of African Americans serving the poor? But if those stories aren’t told or welcomed at a place like Story where on earth will they be? Fox news? Unlikely.
Thankfully, the 3rd & final morning welcomed two Asian-American men with amazing stories & gifts.
When I was a Campus Minister with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship I admit, I was thrown when we first began introducing worship songs in Spanish when there were either no Latino staff or students present or just a few. It seemed to me an uncomfortable inconvenience seeing as how I failed to actually learn the language in my 6 combined years of Spanish high school + college education. Thankfully, I engaged and overtime what I saw floored me: A Sense of Place was created for our Latino brothers & sisters and after some years they showed up. At every level they showed up. This same thing held true all over the country as I’ve attended various InterVarsity conferences and been blessed/challenged/convicted by doing worship with, preaching, teaching & learning alongside speakers of many different languages, tongue, tribes and nations. Yes, there were difficulties in those transitions, but what a gift.
I wonder if what we have is a vision problem. There are people like Kathy Khang a Regional Multi-Ethnic Ministries Director, a gifted teacher, trainer, preacher one of my good friends & hilarious to boot who is based out of the Chicago area. Even a 15 minute consultation with someone like her would have unearthed a great deal. Or my husband, Dave who is admittedly an internet ghost but is a 15 yr. veteran at teaching, training, preaching, discipling, mentoring, living, breathing, consulting, practicing racial reconciliation & successful multi-ethnic ministry & conferences at the local, regional & national levels of InterVarsity. Or me. I’ve done all that too PLUS training in multi-ethnic & diversity management. The point is, there are people out there who know this stuff…who effectively bring a tremendous amount of insight to folks who aren’t privy to as much training. We are here. We are hire-able. Shoot, I’d even consult for free if one presented me a big enough vision with a small enough budget.
A conference with the magnitude, reach & influence such as Story should have someone say, “wait, wait, wait a doggone minute. Is this accurate that there’s only one African-American visible on stage besides the stage hands & that there are several black volunteers? If so, let’s figure out a way to address this. Let’s figure out a way to be sure our black attendee’s feel welcome & invited here.” Yet, that’s the last minute response. What I’m suggesting is a more thoughtful approach before you have a black attendee writing a 2,600 word treatise on this very same observation.
Again, it’s a simple -entirely forgivable- oversight, but not a good look. The onus must be on a Conference director/planner/team to be sure to represent a global vision of what God has for us far beyond what has been traditionally shown to a watching, waiting audience. It is irresponsible to communicate -intentionally or unintentionally- anything else. Does a conference like Story need to do this? Yes, if it wants to be a viable witness. Yes, if it wants to care for more than just whites. What would happen -could happen- if a conference like Story decided to create A Sense of Place for African-American men?
This is what I know. What I know is that black men are still being sent to prison at alarming and unjust rate, black men are still being killed for no good reason, we are receiving no no justice for our murdered teens and our abortion rates are sky high.
Those of us trying hard to break away from all that drama are also staring down the issues with hyper caricaturized fundamental black Christianity OR a ridiculously un-theologically sound, wildly inappropriate name-it-claim-it wack-job version of faith OR the heavy pursuit of wealth ala Jay-Z OR fending off our own amidst claims of “yessir massa,” & visions of Uncle Tom.
Those of us looking to be a relevant and beautiful version of Christianity to a hurting world cannot even find a glimpse of honor of our culture in a conference whose whole purpose was to establish A Sense of a Place. Not only was there NOT A Sense of Place there was not even A Sense of Welcome. Not even so much of a “we are glad you are here black people.” I, for one, would have really appreciated something, anything.
I know it’s tough for whites to swallow this. I.E. “Grace Biskie there you go again bringing in prison, murder, Trayvon and abortions! Get a hold of yourself, woman!” I cannot. I will not. I don’t really care who doesn’t like me or read me. If you think I care about a popularity contest you’ve missed the point of the post (and my writing life in general). I cannot separate how much blacks need A Sense of Place other than prisons and really weird Churches and I’m hoping to help you understand why you should stop trying to get me to.
The cost to my community is too damn high.
I, we need A Sense of Place more than you.
I firmly believe that God’s intent for humanity was shown in His creation of diverse cultures and ethnicities. If we see this truth right there, plain as day in Genesis shouldn’t we assume this is still true today? Shouldn’t we WORK to celebrate a diversity of cultures, ethnicities and voices? If, from the beginning God has called us to “fill the earth and subdue it,” then the obvious implication is that the earth will fill separate from each other- with many differences: everything from agricultural methods to language. Everything that makes up culture is a part of God’s desire to give us a rich cultural expression. And it is all very good.
The beauty of a diversity of global voices and cultures is that we reflect our creator. I believe our diversity -language, food, skin color, everything- was not a mistake nor an evil by product of the Babel fiasco but a fulfilling of God’s original purposes and should be celebrated in any & every context especially Christian conferences. This is why I so often stress that racial reconciliation needs to focus on our differences because in and through them we see a full reflection of God’s image. And if we can see that corporately at a conference like Story we need to try.
More than anything, y’all I firmly believe Jesus’ work on the cross has the power to remove the barriers that exist between warring (bickering, ignoring) racial, cultural and ethnic groups. When we address this, it becomes a powerful testimony to the power of Christ’s work. Addressing it though is where I find people get all jacked up.
When it gets hard: the celebrating, the confessional aspects, the listening it out, the sacrifices necessary to address grievances, or even one lone blogger unhappy with a few things, folks usually start throwing up their hands in frustration at a faster rate than Americans divorce. ‘Ish gets hard. In that way, I understand why many of us we are still waffling around essentially ignoring one another, pretending the cross has nothing to do with reconciling ALL things to God, pretending there are just a few things that don’t fall under Christ’s Lordship, pretending that reconciliation isn’t really a thing, pretending a few things about life suck therefore can be left unaddressed or delegated to someone else. Jesus didn’t destroy that wall of hostility FOR ME, after all. It’s a likely excuse believe me, I get it. BUT IT’S STILL TRIFLIN’. Know that. The cross has and always will have implications for everything as huge as world hunger to everything as seemingly too inconsequential to consider as what black folks may feel at a conference like Story.
As much as we can, we should mine our individual cultures for the absolute riches available to us and spread the love around. In that, we will find a celebration of multi-ethnic unity and cultural diversity. This is where we are headed, people! For eternity! It’s friggin’ exciting -or at least it should be. We are headed towards a Kingdom of Heaven where we will enjoy -possibly know- hundreds of thousands of languages, foods & peoples in their distinctive beauty all for one communal purpose: to worship God. This is our eschatological reality –ALL the peoples, yo! So treasure it now, so much as we can control, HELP OTHERS TO TREASURE this small, beautiful glimpse of our eternal reality.
If we follow the examples of the early Church and several modern day ministries who are doing this well, it’s pretty easy to see that both ethnic-specific, culturally sensitive and multi-ethnic fellowship and worship experiences are needed to lower barriers, contextualize the Gospel, target certain groups and to form multi-ethnic, racial & cultural partnerships.
At least that’s how I see it.
Story Chicago, you rocked. I’m with you. I’m here.