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Sunday, January 26, 2014

My Journey Past Racism: Multi-Ethnic Community

I grew up in the inner city of Philadelphia, “the city of brotherly love.” Of course, “brotherly love” in the South Philly of my youth was rather exclusive, reserved only for people who looked like me. All others were considered enemies, not brothers. People stuck to their own kind in their own neighborhoods. I stayed within the bounds of my Italian neighborhood. The Irish, Polish, Vietnamese, Hispanics, and African Americans all stayed within their boundary lines also, at least they were supposed to.

On a warm summer night, an African American male about 25 years old walked onto my Italian turf. I had consumed enough alcohol that night to intoxicate a horse. Smoking pot on top of it exacerbated my warped perception of reality and my typical hell-raising behaviors. My friends dared me to take on this offender of South Philly turf rules. Without much thought, I accepted their “triple dog” dare. So, for no other reason but the color of this man’s skin, I walked across the street and punched him in the head. He rolled over a parked car and ran up the middle of the street, in fear for his life. My pals stayed behind laughing, while I chased after the perpetrator. To my surprise, and delight, he stopped in the middle of the road and put up his hands for a fight. In a dead run I threw the hardest right hook I could throw. I missed. But he didn’t. I was so drunk I failed to see the knife in his left hand that he drove deep into my right side while ducking my punch. He ran again, but this time I didn’t chase. Blood filled my shirt as my lung deflated fast. I was going to die before my 18th birthday. My racism, coupled with alcohol, was going to kill me.
Thankfully, one of my drunk but level-headed friends quickly secured a ride for me to the hospital. We got there in minutes and my life was spared. I would live to see my next birthday. But this near-death experience, as you may have guessed, proved to be a much needed wake-up call for me. I was ready to seek help to overcome my alcohol addiction. I needed God, and I knew it.
Off I went to Teen Challenge in Syracuse, NY. Teen Challenge is a Christ-centered drug and alcohol program. I wasn’t a Christian at the time, but I saw how Teen Challenge was helping my parents overcome their addiction to drugs. So, I gave it a go.
When I walked into Teen Challenge I discovered that I would be living in a house with 25 other guys, all of them different from me in so many ways. Most of the guys were African American or Hispanic. I was the minority. What! You mean I have to share life with people I have been taught to despise for most of my life! I have to share a house, meals, a toilet, a shower, and a bedroom with people who always have an angle, with people who will stab me in the back (or side), with people who are not nearly as civil as me (self-awareness was not my strong suit)?
Needless to say, I had my guard up. You can only trust your own, right? But it didn’t take long for my defensive posture to soften. African American and Hispanic men took me under their wings. I was rough around the edges and, frankly, racist but their love was equal to my anger. They forgave my offenses, prayed with me and for me, and modeled the grace of God in tangible ways that I could see and appreciate. In time, I had experienced a rare depth of friendship I didn’t know existed. And I experienced it with the sorts of people I had judged and disregarded for most of my life. 
My first taste of Christian community occurred in this multi-ethnic context of Teen Challenge. If I had a choice I would never choose a community of people who were different from me in most ways, including ethnically. But that “church” did more for my soul than most churches within which I have participated. As a began to read the bible for the first time I discovered that one of the best tools God used in the first century to reveal Christ was the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles in the context of Christian community. God was doing the same thing with me. I experienced the presence and power of Christ most profoundly in a community of diverse people with whom I shared the ups and downs, the joys and challenges of life.
In the context of a multi-ethnic Christian community, God tore down the walls of racism that were erected and reinforced from my childhood. One of the signs of God’s limitless power, if you ask me, is his ability to reconcile racists with the object of their former scorn. I am completely convinced that multi-ethnic community was a key to the vitality of the Early Church and to my early Christian development. So I pastored with the same conviction. The local church I most recently served as lead pastor existed in a homogenous town that, post 9/11, was becoming ethnically diverse. Most churches did not reflect the increasing diversity of our town. The church I served was convinced God was calling us to reflect the diversity of our community. We were convinced that if racial reconciliation was going to happen in our segregated community, the Church was going to have to take the lead. A Political agenda can impose anti-discrimination laws but only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can empower reconciliatory love. Our church went after it- not because we were compelled by political correctness but because we were compelled by Christian convictions.
In time, our church became one of the few multi-ethnic churches in an increasingly multi-ethnic community. What is perhaps most fascinating and ironic is that the church was once known as “racist” in our community. Back in 1991, a white pastor of the church refused to marry a couple because they were mixed races. The story made national news and was addressed on popular TV shows like Good Morning America, Phil Donahue, and Sally Jessy Rapheal, to name a few. Fifteen years later, this church once known as racist became one of the only and most vibrant multi-ethnic churches in her community. Only God could pull off something like this! In a community of growing racial tensions, it was a local church that took the lead in racial reconciliation. Jesus Christ was revealed and God-stuff happened.
I realize that nowadays multi-ethnic ministry is explored as a potential church growth strategy. However, there are easier, less-painful ways to grow the church. Multi-ethnic ministry cannot be pursued merely as a strategy for church growth or it will be abandoned when resistance comes- and it will! The pursuit of becoming a multi-ethnic church must, instead, flow out of core convictions concerning the Trinity and the Incarnation. When the Church begins to grasp the implications of worshiping a Triune God who exists within a diverse community of love (Father, Son, and Spirit), we will seek to also become a diverse community of love. When the Church wrestles with the reality of an incarnational God who participates as a human to be reconciled with the humanity he created, we will seek to build bridges of racial reconciliation too.

This is the Gospel of our Lord, Jesus Christ. And we say, thanks be to God!                  


Vickie said...

What a great article! Thanks for sharing your story that is His story through you. Praise be to God!

Lenny Luchetti said...

Thanks Vicki! To God be the glory.

Unknown said...

I appreciate your transparency Lenny. Thank you for the article and your leadership

Lenny Luchetti said...

Thanks for the kind words, Wayne. I appreciate it from one of the most transparent leaders I know.

Mr. Butler said...

Awesome piece.. We all have possibly have certain stereotypes towards different races because of our environments but God. Great struggle

Unknown said...

Still enjoying your writing, Pastor. Hope you are well.

Lenny Luchetti said...

Wow, Tim- great to hear from you. We think of you and wonder what's going on. Shoot me an email sometime so we can connect. PEace