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At the Table

Interview by Hannah Notess | Illustrations by Rafael Lopez

Brenda Salter McNeil became a Christian when she was an undergraduate student at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Part of a group of African American students who studied the Bible together, she knew of other groups of Christians on campus as well. “But none of them came together,” she says.

Ten years later, as a graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary, she worked for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Occidental College in Los Angeles and noticed the same thing. “There were students of color who prayed and held Bible studies in their dorm rooms,” she remembers. They didn't join her InterVarsity student group, however.

That's when Salter McNeil began to ask a question that has captured her personal and professional attention for two decades: “What is it about race, ethnicity, and diversity that so baffles the church?”

Through her ministry at InterVarsity, and now, as a Seattle Pacific University faculty member, author, speaker, consultant, and president of Salter McNeil and Associates, she has continued to seek answers and the transformation of universities, churches, and Christian organizations into reconciling communities where people of all cultures gather at the table.

“At InterVarsity,” she says, “we had to go back to the drawing board and ask: ‘How do we train our staff to be more culturally competent, so that they can engage the campus in all its ethnic diversity with the gospel of Jesus Christ?'”

Brenda Salter McNeil“My hope is that SPU would become a flagship institution for reconciliation in Christian higher education,” says Brenda Salter McNeil, associate professor and director of reconciliation studies.

Salter McNeil is the author of two books The Heart of Racial Justice: How Soul Change Leads to Social Change with Rick Richardson (InterVarsity Press, 2009), and A Credible Witness: Reflections on Power, Evangelism, and Race (InterVarsity Press, 2008) and was recently named by Christianity Today as one of “50 women to watch” for her work in shaping the church and culture.

In 2011, she joined the Seattle Pacific faculty as an associate professor and director of reconciliation studies. She leads the reconciliation studies minor for undergraduates and teaches master of divinity students at Seattle Pacific Seminary, helping equip them to minster to a multiethnic society.

She also recruits and mentors students; partners with SPU's John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership, and Community Development to create community-based partnerships; and oversees internship opportunities for students so that they can gain practical reconciliation experience.

On February 9, 2013, Salter McNeil spoke at a conference, “Racial Reconciliation and the Church: Crossing the Credibility Divide,” hosted by SPU's Center for Biblical and Theological Education. Response spoke to her about the work of Christian reconciliation.

How do you define reconciliation?

I see reconciliation as an ongoing spiritual process that involves forgiveness, repentance, and justice, that restores broken relationships and systems to the way God intended them to be.

Many people say that the phrase “racial reconciliation” is an oxymoron. They say, “You can't reconcile something that was never together in the first place.” And from a sociological perspective, that's true. There has never been a time where race relationships in this country have been good. It started with slavery and the mistreatment of Native Americans. We've got a very difficult past.

But the reason that the School of Theology at SPU is the home for the reconciliation studies minor is that we believe that reconciliation starts with God.

What we're trying to restore or reconcile is not the way we were, but the way God intended us to be. At SPU, we start from the very beginning declaring that reconciliation is God's work. This is not tangential to being a Christian. This is not an elective that you get to choose, just because you happen to be interested in the subject.

This is something that Christianity was all about from the very beginning. God always intended that this would reach every tribe and every nation.

What is the biblical mandate for reconciliation?

It's all through Scripture that God intended the expression of the image of God to be a multifaceted representation. In the Old Testament, when God said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth,” missiologists call that the cultural mandate. Do you know why?

Because culture would form just by the very act of encountering different environmental climates. There would be certain foods that would grow here that wouldn't grow there. People would eat certain things here that they wouldn't eat there. They would have to wear certain clothes in certain places. That's culture. So what missiologists and I believe is that God called us to be culturally diverse, even from the beginning in Genesis.

And so, on the day of Pentecost, when the church is born, and everybody from every nation under the heavens is gathered, and they hear the word of God being proclaimed in languages from all these multiple nations, that wasn't by accident. I believe that was God reaffirming, “It's my intention that the whole earth be blessed. It's my intention that people from every tribe, every language, and every ethnic group be a part of this family of God.”

That's what I believe is the mandate. I believe that's what Jesus died to come and bring back together. That's what I call the vertical and the horizontal truth of the cross, that in Jesus Christ we were reconciled back to God, and we were reconciled back to each other. If we don't preach both of those things, we're not preaching the cross.

How would you describe the difference between diversity and reconciliation?

Diversity is bringing together people from diverse backgrounds who have diverse stories, who have been shaped by diverse cultures rural and urban culture, national and international culture, and so on.

There is something good to be said about making sure that diverse people have the opportunity to interact with each other, because you can't develop intercultural skills and sensibilities if you don't know anybody who comes from a different culture than yours. That's one of the reasons why we need diversity on university campuses.

But just because you bring a lot of people together, it doesn't necessarily mean that they learn how to relate well to each other. Companies and organizations can go after diversity. But diversity doesn't necessarily mean that we've become a community of people who know each other, who advocate for each other, who identify and share stories with each other, who feel like we're connected to each other.

I think that kind of connection is what Jesus came to bring. Jesus is the person who says through Communion, “When you do this, remember me. Remember that I came to create a new household of God, a new humanity one new humanity that includes all of this diversity. I came and died for that.”

Our goal is to create a family who comes together through the blood of Jesus Christ and who one day will worship at the throne, as in Revelation 7:9, and who will be a testimony to the image of God for all eternity.

We may never see it in our lifetime, but that's the mission of the church. We've been entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation. That's not a political message. That's not a sociological message. That's a Christian message.

We just came through an election cycle that made it seem like our society and even the church is more divided than ever. How can we find healing from these divisions?

I think people's religious beliefs and political beliefs have become married in a very unhealthy way. And we have used those beliefs as dividing issues to polarize and demonize each other.

We have got to re-examine our culture and figure out when culture is bleeding into faith. We need to study Scripture, listen to sermons, and read books with people who are not just like us. We can't help but see things through our cultural lens, because it's the only lens we know. But if we don't seek out different perspectives, we keep creating homogenous communities of folks who limit what the gospel means to them.

The only way to get out of our cultural silos is to understand that the church needs the voices that we don't hear from, even if we disagree with them, to expand our views and the possibility of seeing a fuller picture.

How can we intentionally make room at the table for people who are different from us?

I think we've got to ask ourselves who is not at the table, and I think we've got to feel frustrated, eager, and anxious to find them.

Think of a puzzle. Imagine each person carries a piece of a puzzle that's the full image of God. If we had 36 or 37 pieces of a 40-piece puzzle together, we wouldn't just look at the 37 pieces. We would be under the table, and saying, “What happened to that piece?” We'd be shaking the box, because we didn't feel finished. We'd focus on those pieces that are not there.

I can't be a credible witness of reconciliation with only my limited perspective. And if more of us started thinking that way, more of us would start searching for who is not at the table.

We should do it because it's in our best self-interest. We should do it because without them we can't see and don't know the full picture of God's intentions. So I need Native Americans. I need Asian Americans. I need Egyptians. I need folks who don't look like me.

And if we start thinking that reconciliation is only about people of color, we're in trouble. You might look at someone and say, “That's just a white guy,” but you would meet that person and find out that they live for reconciliation. They are culturally competent, and they really give their lives to make it happen.

What does it mean to be culturally competent?

It means having the attitude, knowledge, and skills to interact meaningfully with people who have been shaped by other cultural backgrounds, or who are from other cultural backgrounds.

I don't know if you're ever completely competent. I might become more competent with Latino culture, but Brazilian culture is different from Mexican culture, and Mexican culture is different from Puerto Rican culture. So I need an attitude of humility, of teachability, of being able to be trustworthy.

As far as knowledge, there are certain things I ought to know that show I'm informed about other cultural backgrounds. I should know about the incarceration rate and how race impacts that. I should know what “redlining” is, and I should understand how “white flight” also changes communities.

The skills we need are communication skills, conflict-resolution skills, and community-building skills. I'm working on these skills so that I can have better credibility. What we're trying to do at SPU in the reconciliation studies minor is to develop university graduates who have these attitudes, knowledge, and skills.

How do you teach reconciliation in the classroom?

I want my class to be part lecture and part participation, so that students have an opportunity for experiential learning because in order to develop skills, you need a chance to try them.

Students have to do an internship to come through the reconciliation studies program, because they need to go out and meet people who are practicing reconciliation. We partner with the John Perkins Center at SPU to allow students to make that leap from the classroom into the real world.

We have a multidisciplinary approach that allows students to be informed by various schools of thought, which is extremely helpful in becoming culturally competent.

We do case studies. We do simulations. I have my students keep spiritual discernment journals, where they look to see what God is doing on campus regarding reconciliation, because if, in fact, reconciliation starts with God and not with us, then we need to ask the question: What is God doing? How do we see signs of God working? And how do we then participate in God's work?

Our students noticed that they see more and more people at SPU being led to pray about reconciliation and revival. This is powerful. They compared notes and said, “Wow.”

One of the reasons why I'm here at Seattle Pacific is that I believe that my purpose in life is to raise up the next generation of Christian leaders who become practitioners of reconciliation.