This blog seeks to window into how OCC is approaching questions of racism, racial justice, and ethnic diversity, at this point in time. I'm writing as one of the elders and Assistant Pastors, but also about my own story.
Full disclosure: I’m a white man of a certain age. I grew up in the UK in the late 20th century. This is a tricky subject to get right. It’s not my ‘lived experience’. It's a current, very live, and controversial topic. Writers, commentators and activists use a lot of terminology that you need get your head around.
But I – and we as OCC – have spent the last several years seeking actively to learn through reading, listening, gathering a working group, inviting advisers to challenge and coach us, adjusting our practices, actively recruiting and training people, empathising and advocating.
In 2017 we invited Anderson and Lydia Moyo to be regular advisors and coaches. They planted and lead an intercultural church in Sheffield UK, which is part of our international Salt & Light family of churches. Their own origins are in Zimbabwe, but on coming to lead a Zimbabwean diaspora church, instead they felt led to lead that church to become truly intercultural. They and other friends from our international family have been real helpers in our journey.
We formed a so-called ‘BAME working group’ in 2019, and although the term ‘BAME’ has fallen out of favour, and some of the people in the group have moved on from Oxford, nevertheless these were very valuable conversations. We sought to understand each other and our differing approaches to ‘doing church’: some of us in OCC leadership and several people from different cultural backgrounds.
As Sanjay (one of our Assistant Pastors) said in a blog in 2020, just after the world-shaking George Floyd murder, “Throughout the Old Testament, God fights for justice for people. The early church followed Jesus’ example, with Paul and James instructing the early church to show no partiality. When Jesus walked on earth, he consistently spent time with, served, and dignified those whom society hated. We are made in God’s image, and God calls us to engage in building towards justice.” I've learned that empathy and a concern for justice matter. It’s not right to think that racial injustice is not my problem.
I’ve learned to push through the awkwardness of conversation about ethnicity and heritage, and the associated fear of getting it wrong, offending someone, and being ‘cancelled’ (not spoken to). I’ve learned that (my) discomfort is not a bad thing – it leads to change (in me).
I’ve learned not to expect every ‘person of colour’ to be an expert on ‘diversity and inclusion’. Rather, I’ve given myself to read, and learn, and engage with the complexities and sensitivities. Just this Christmas, powerful biographies of actor David Harewood and Christian Senior Met Police officer Leroy Logan gave me a real insight into the Black British experience from two men of a similar age to me. I don’t have the same life story, but their books gave me a raw insight into their story and experiences.
You might ask, why are we doing this? Isn't there 'neither Jew nor Greek' (Eph 3:28)? Shouldn't we be 'colourblind' when it comes to life as a church family?
A demographic answer is that our city is changing fast. In the last 20 years it has moved from largely white British, to now having the third highest ethnic minority population in south-east England. We have a missional passion to be a church that looks like our city, so it’s right to learn and engage with a wider range of people in the city. And God has often used migration, even forced migration, for his purposes. As Anderson said to us, “Could it be that God is doing something in Oxford, in OCC?”
A sociological answer might be that Western society is (finally) waking up to issue of racial justice, and surely the church should be at the forefront of the conversation, repenting of its recent past racism (just Google “Windrush UK church”) and seeking to demonstrate the better way of Jesus.
Both of those are true, but a richer and theological answer comes from the Bible. As OCC, our concern for change is first a matter of conviction. As one speaker helpfully puts it, “multi-ethnic is not an elective, it's core curriculum.”
Deep in God’s heart, and at the core of his Son's reconciling mission is a passion for what the Bible calls “one new humanity in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:15). And despite what some think, this is not a removal of cultural difference, or being ‘colourblind’, but an appreciation, celebration and encouragement of diversity. Exploring that fully is a topic for another blog: let me just note that the early church apostles didn't expect new Gentile converts to conform to the existing Jewish culture of the existing church.
My convictions around racial justice – and our convictions as OCC – start with God, and his Word!
Read more of our blogs on this subject by clicking on the tags below - visit our page on ethnic diversity.