When the media reports on evangelicals, it often refers specifically to “white evangelicals.” The reality, however, is that one in three American evangelicals is a person of color.
I am proud to be a Black evangelical leader. I have experienced discrimination firsthand, but I have also seen how readily segments of the evangelical community — regardless of skin color — have stood up against racism. Recent events of racial injustice in the U.S. have renewed a call to racial justice and equality in our country, and many evangelicals are connecting their desire for justice with a deep understanding of Scripture.
I have been a pastor for more than 30 years, but neither that vocation nor tenure grants me immunity from treatment that white members of my vocation and position would rarely if ever experience. One Sunday morning, on my way to church, I was pulled over by a white police officer who came toward my car with his gun drawn and aimed at my head. I wasn’t speeding. I hadn’t run a stop sign. I was on my way to pray and worship.
Of course, many of the people I interact with act out of love, not anger or fear. The Bible consistently teaches the essential dignity of all humans, and the evangelical community I know — composed of people of all races — upholds that all individuals are created in God’s image, that diversity is divinely designed and that our churches have a special responsibility to model good relationships (Romans 10:12). Evangelicals believe that God will ultimately form a new humanity from “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9).
Racism is the practice of elevating one race over others, in belief or actions. When accompanied and sustained by imbalances of power, prejudice moves beyond individual relationships to institutional practices. Such racial injustice is the systemic perpetuation of racism. Its existence has unfairly benefited some and burdened others simply due to the color of their skin. The U.S. has made progress against racism and toward social equality for Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics and others who have been persecuted in our country over its history. However, the country — and the evangelical church — still has work to do.
The National Association of Evangelicals included a special section on racial justice in its guide to civic responsibility, “For the Health of the Nation,” which details the principles that should guide our public leadership. The guide urges “followers of Jesus to engage in serious and sustained efforts to combat racism” and encourages American Christians “to understand more fully the historical and contemporary facets of racism in our country.” The NAE, along with World Relief, has also recently published a statement that calls on Christians to pursue racial justice and reconciliation as a path toward “faithful evangelical civic engagement” at this critical time in our country’s history.
Poverty, incarceration and educational inequity disproportionately impact people of color, and while Christians have long been active in fighting these inequalities and serving those affected, the church can do more. Christian organizations from missions and community development organizations to ministerial support groups are uniting the church and its members to lift people out of poverty, help them find jobs after incarceration and educate children, both in America and around the world. The American church can and must follow the example of these groups choosing to love their neighbors around the world, starting with those in their own communities. And we must support public policies that advance racial justice.
Evangelicals are not monolithic. Neither are Black evangelicals. We care about a wide range of policy issues, from the sanctity of human life and religious liberty to poverty and racial justice. We celebrate leaders who champion a biblical understanding of compassion and justice.
John Jenkins Sr. is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Glenarden, Maryland, and the board chair of the National Association of Evangelicals.