David Bailey: Christians and the work of reconciliation

David Bailey

David Bailey, founder of the nonprofit Arrabon, onstage at the closing concert of a songwriting internship. Arrabon's programs provide leadership opportunities to minorities, women and others who don’t normally have a leadership development pipeline. Photo by Mike Morones

We underestimate the brokenness brought about by racism -- and the creativity needed to reverse it -- but Christianity offers a way forward to healing and reconciliation, says the executive director of Arrabon.

Most people today don’t know or understand the story of racism in America, nor do they have the emotional tools to lament and mourn its evils, says David Bailey. And even when people take the time to study and learn about racism, the work of reconciliation can seem overwhelming.

“The more you get attuned, you’re like, ‘Wow! I don’t even know where to start. This thing is so fractured, I don’t even know how to put these pieces back together,’” said Bailey, the executive director of Arrabon, a Richmond, Virginia, nonprofit that works with Christian leaders and communities.

Yet the Christian faith is a way forward, with Jesus offering a model for healing and resurrection, Bailey said.

“Fusing the reality of a broken world with the reality of what’s in our texts, we as God’s people, the body of Christ, can have hope, if we’re willing to have the courage to journey in this difficult way,” he said.

Arrabon among 2018 winners

Leadership Education at Duke Divinity recognizes institutions that act creatively in the face of challenges while remaining faithful to their mission and convictions. Winners receive $10,000 to continue their work.

In many ways, the church has been a significant contributor to the problem of racism, but it is also called by Scripture to be “liberators of this problem,” Bailey said.

“We’ve … got a significant role in undoing the mess that we and our Christian brothers of the past have created,” he said.

Established in 2008, Arrabon works with Christian leaders and their communities, equipping them with the tools and resources they need to participate in the work of reconciliation.

Bailey spoke recently with Faith & Leadership about Arrabon and the challenges of racial reconciliation. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What is Arrabon? Give us an overview.

“Arrabon” means “a foretaste of things to come.” We endeavor to help the church be a foretaste of heaven by equipping Christian leaders and their communities with the tools and resources to be a reconciling community.

When we use the word “reconciliation,” we’re using it as a theological term, meaning that the world is broken and that Christ is reconciling all things and has given us the church through the ministry of reconciliation. It’s not a question of, “Is the world broken?” It’s, “How? And how is God reconciling all things?”

We have a niche in race, class and culture. We help establish a theology and practice and posture of reconciliation in Christian communities, equipping leaders with tools in those areas.

Q: Speak more about what you mean by “reconciliation.” I gather that for some, it’s become a problematic term.

The phrase “racial reconciliation” sometimes can be used as a term of appeasing, like an appeasement of tension. Like many terms in negotiation, “reconciliation” can be [premised] on white normativity, where it sits in white people’s comfort, as if to say, “Let’s do racial reconciliation so we all can get along.”

Often, people assume that America or our world is equitable and gives everybody a fair chance -- “We had slavery and Jim Crow, but now it’s all fine and all we’ve got to do is just be friends and love one another and pray and sing ‘Kumbaya.’”

That’s problematic.

But there’s also a technical issue. The notion of reconciliation means that both parties were equal at one point and then something got broken and they’re trying to reconcile to get things back to equality.

Well, if you understand anything about racial social theory or the history of our country, [you know that] Europeans and people of African descent and indigenous folks were never here as equals. So the most you can have is conciliation, not reconciliation. From a racial social theory standpoint, I agree that the best we can do is to have conciliation, because we never have been on this soil as equals.

But the reason we still fight for the word “reconciliation” is because we fight for our theological meaning. The story of what’s going on in our country didn’t start on North American soil. It started in Genesis 1, where the world was whole and good and beautiful and there was equity and flourishing for all. Then in Genesis 3, it got broken. And we’re in the midst of the redemption, reconciliation and restoration of all things.

Q: What are the challenges of reconciliation? Why do so many efforts at reconciliation stay on a surface level?

One, there is a lot of ignorance, and it’s not even necessarily a willing ignorance. People don’t really know. It’s the way we’ve been taught in school. We get a distorted story of Thanksgiving and colonization and Manifest Destiny, and we’re like, “It was cool for Europeans to come and steal land -- like, discover land -- that didn’t belong to them.”

Which we don’t call stealing. We don’t call it genocide. We don’t call it the stealing of human bodies for economic progress. The way we’ve been taught in school is challenging. When you begin to realize how evil stuff was yet we’ve been told our whole lives everything has been good and great, it’s hard to swallow.

Also, we haven’t been given the tools to deal with how that makes us feel. These things are lamentable. We should feel sad and angry and mourn, but we often don’t know how to do that. The more you get attuned, you’re like, “Wow! I don’t even know where to start. This thing is so fractured, I don’t even know how to put these pieces back together.”

I actually think that the Christian faith is the way forward, because “where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more” (Romans 5:20). Jesus’ death and resurrection covered all kinds of sins -- not just personal sins but systemic sins.

Jesus was a person God chose, an embodiment of somebody from the margins, under the oppression of the Roman government, a Jewish man in a Jim Crow-type context, a second-class citizen, unjustly executed by the state. They were waiting for a messiah -- not just a spiritual messiah but a political, economic and sociological messiah who would make things right for their people. Jesus walked as a powerless person with a lot of power but chose to use his power to empower other people.

Jesus offers a model for healing and reconciliation. For Christians, that’s to have the final say as people of the resurrection. Fusing the reality of a broken world with the reality of what’s in our texts, we as God’s people, the body of Christ, can have hope, if we’re willing to have the courage to journey in this difficult way.

Q: What is Arrabon’s approach to reconciliation? What are the steps to reconciliation?

Part of this is, what’s our goal?

We work with Christian leaders and their communities, and the goal isn’t necessarily to make them diverse communities. There could be many reasons why a Christian community might not be diverse, and you can have diversity without having reconciliation.

Diversity doesn’t guarantee reconciliation. Diversity guarantees conflict. The more diversity you have, oftentimes the more conflict you have. So our goal isn’t necessarily to make diverse communities. Our goal is to help every Christian community -- they might not be a diverse community -- be a reconciling community.

You could be a church in the wealthy part of town, which the city designed that way, and there probably aren’t a lot of poor people at that church, because of geography. It might be hard for them to become an economically diverse church, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a reconciling community. What we do is give Christian leaders and their communities the tools to explore that.

One thing they might ask is, “What are we missing? What are the deficits we have because of our homogeneity?” We often, particularly those of us who have privilege, don’t think about our deficits. We look at our assets and ask, “How can we bring more diversity to this awesome place that we already have?” We rarely ask, “What are we missing, and how should people speak into that space?” One step that helps people toward becoming a reconciling community is understanding the gifts of people who are missing.

The second thing is to look at the gifts and the story that you do have and ask, “What does it look like for us to engage in a ministry of reconciliation?” A lot of times, we don’t know the story, and we don’t know other people’s stories. So we give people tools to learn how to hear other people’s stories.

Often, there’s a lack of cultural intelligence or cross-cultural engagement skills. I know my culture, you know your culture, and we talk and think we’re saying the same things, but we could really be missing each other.

We help Christian leaders and their communities realize there are different cultures even in the same city, the same generation, the same ethnic or racial group, and realize that they’re crossing cultures. We offer skill sets to help them engage in cross-cultural relationships and increase their cultural intelligence.

Last, as we help people understand the stories, we lead them in a process to figure out how to do something with what they’re learning -- to engage in culture making. We’re here today because of the culture that was made yesterday, so if we want to create a new culture, if we want to see something different tomorrow, then we’ve got to create a new culture today.

Q: Explain that. Tell us more about culture making and its role in reconciliation.

It’s not enough for us to have a shared knowledge and a shared language to have better conversations. It’s not enough for us to be friends across racial and cultural lines. Nothing gets done outside relationships, but the reason why we’re in the mess that we’re in today is because of the culture that was made yesterday.

A lot of people for hundreds of years created laws, economic tools, policies, businesses, athletic leagues, networks, country clubs and all kinds of things with the purpose of keeping people segregated, and to make sure that poor people were associated with a particular race that could never be equal with white people. Then when it became not OK to be overtly racist, we wanted to keep poor people separate from affluent people and make sure our schools and our neighborhoods were separated and segregated.

A lot of people used a lot of creative energy to make that happen. God could go through with a magic wand and change every single heart overnight so that the next day there isn’t one racist or classist person in the world. But so many systems are in place that even without one more racist act, we would still have the same compounding interest from all these racist things that have been put in place.

We underestimate the systemic brokenness that’s there and the creativity that we need to reverse the damage that’s been going on for centuries.

Creating culture is a way to understand what the problems are and to ask God through the power of the Holy Spirit to give us creative solutions to engage in the work of reconciliation. That’s ultimately where we try to lead Christian communities and their leaders.

Q: What is the role of the church in bringing about reconciliation, and how well has it done that?

When we get into the history of racism, the church is a significant contributor to the problem.

I got this idea from Willie James Jennings that it was the merchant, the missionary and the soldier who created the new world that made colonization possible. The church, both Catholic and Protestant, has been a part of that, both before and during slavery. We still carry a lot of those same consequences. We helped create some of the mess in particular ways.

But I believe that Scripture encourages the body of Christ to be liberators of this problem, so we’ve also got a significant role in undoing the mess that we and our Christian brothers of the past have created. We’ve got a significant role just doing what Jesus gave the church to do.

Q: What are the greatest needs in the work of reconciliation? Can you point to models that have done it well?

One of the greatest needs is opportunities for empowerment and access. Another is helping folks understand the story and the narrative.

It’s important for us to understand that we have a very distorted and whitewashed view of history. A lot of people don’t understand how messed up stuff is and don’t really understand the story, so helping folks understand the narrative is key.

Then the next step is generative and imaginative: What do we want the new story to be? What do we want to see in 10, 20, 50, 100 years? How can we start to live the best story and create culture into that?

I’m grateful for the Kellogg Foundation, which is helping communities understand a broader story by listening to indigenous people and Hispanic people. They work with 13 cities, helping folks understand the narratives of their cities from different perspectives. They’re doing great work.

The Forum for Theological Exploration has been doing great work giving access to minorities in theological spaces.

The work we’re doing [at Arrabon] with Urban Doxology and the songwriting internship is helping change the language of worship and giving leadership opportunities to minorities and women and others who don’t normally have a leadership development pipeline.

We need more stuff like that. It’s not just about having great conversations. It’s about, “How are we trying to change culture?”

Q: What’s your advice for those who want to do the work of reconciliation, especially those with limited resources?

I have more influence now, but when I started this work, I was not a highly resourced person. I’ve lived in Richmond, Virginia, my whole life. I didn’t grow up poor, but it was a working-class family.

I saw a real need, and I couldn’t wait until somebody gave me money to fix some of the challenges in my community. I’d go to the library and read and learn and be like, “Oh man, this is messed up; let’s do something about it.” I basically tried to do one thing at a time, taking one step of faith then the next step.

I tell people all the time that if Dr. King and Gandhi and Mother Teresa and Russell Simmons and N.W.A. and Jay-Z and anyone else who has influenced culture had waited until they had money, we would still be waiting, and these things wouldn’t exist. So I encourage people not to feel like you have to have money and power in order to do something significant in the world.

Second, make sure that you become a student. Evaluate what your biases are and read the best arguments on both sides.

People often just read books that affirm their own biases. Before I make a decision on anything, I try to read the best arguments on both sides and be able to argue either.

I recommend that people become students in that way. Read a laissez-faire economist on issues of race and read a democratic socialist. I read Thomas Sowell and Cornel West, and I let the two of them argue in my head. Read John Stott and James Cone. Read liberation theology and mainline theology and Asian and African theology.

It’s important to have these different spaces and perspectives so that you realize that the world is very complex, with a lot of different perspectives.

Third, after you’ve done some work, try to engage in conversations with folks and go to them. Don’t ask somebody to come to your space and educate you, but go to them and learn, observe and talk.

Last, there’s only so much you can do learning concepts. You’ve got to do something. So much learning happens from action.

Q: Where do you see hope?

I see hope in Jesus, through the fact that death and resurrection is real.

I don’t feel like God is OK with this stuff. This isn’t something we’ve got to wonder about. We’ve got to pray about how God wants us to help bring healing. That’s not an “if” question; it’s a “how” and “what.”

I have hope in the Spirit. I have hope that the Spirit will lead and guide us to all truth, and that will bring healing and illuminate our paths on how we can make the world a better place.