When I was in seminary, a professor once opined that it takes three years for a church to trust a new pastor. I politely told him that his information was out of date. It takes about six years nowadays.
This was in the early years of the new millennium and, since then, I have experienced a growing deficit of trust in many sectors of society. We no longer trust church, government, neighbors, and, in some cases, first responders.
We tell people that trust must be earned, but then we continue to label people according to stereotypes. Distrust multiplies exponentially as a result.
In the last six months, we have seen how distrust can have a detrimental–even fatal–effect in community. Protests, violence, and the killing of innocent citizens and police officers bear horrific testimony to the lack of trust, trust that people once took for granted.
In honor of Black History Month, this and next week’s column explores creative ways to enact reconciliation and collaboration in our own neck of the woods. To do so, I have asked our Associate Pastor at Trinity Baptist Church, Karen Woods, to help write these columns.
Our question is a simple one: How might we be the “ambassadors of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:20) in a time when distrust breeds disharmony and violence in community?
We believe that Rockdale County is effective at building harmonious communities, so we are already at an advantage.
We’ve seen collaboration among churches, nonprofits, and governmental agencies come together. Family Promise of Newrock, for instance, is a non-profit ministry that effectively bridges various divides by combating homelessness in our neighborhood.
We also had many conversations with clergy and lay leaders who value peacemaking over and against fear-mongering and exclusion, like the one on race relations hosted by Discover Point Church last month.
Even in the midst of this hard work of bridging racial, religious, and economic divides, however, there is more work to be done.
Ambassadors of reconciliation are in the business of “truth-telling” and “truth-listening”: The events surrounding Ferguson, Staten Island, and Minister Woods’ birthplace, Cleveland, demonstrate that more effort is needed in our communities to foster mutual conversation that encourages understanding and level-headed dialogue.
Trust cannot become a community’s most cherished value when people insist on keeping one another at arms length and talking over each other. For far too long, neighbors have stereotyped one another and formed opinions based on those caricatures. Truth-telling based on reality, not vitriol, breaks down barriers.
Listening sows seeds of understanding and respect.
Dialogue deals with how we describe changes in our community; which, when done so negatively, perpetuates division between neighbors who are more alike than they think.
For instance, we have heard it said, quite negatively, that Rockdale County is becoming like Dekalb County. These comments have racist undercurrents that unfairly connects a growing minority-majority population in our community with random crime and controversy we read about in the newspaper.
The assumption is that the more African Americans move into the county, the higher the crime rate. This assumption is unfounded; in fact, crime is lower now than in years past.
A false perception is based on stereotypes that damage people of color and cast a shadow of fear and distrust on hard-working families who are buying new homes, opening creative businesses, and participating in a wonderful school system.
It increases fear among the entire populace and sows seeds of discord even in the midst of valuable relationships. We simply fear what we do not know, and the fewer relationships with have with our neighbors, the more violently we will react based on stereotypes rather than facts.
An effort to enact biblical reconciliation, however, overcomes this temptation and provides truthful ways of deepening–not widening–relationships in a local community.
Trust, therefore, begins when we tell the truth about evil actions that include: (1) stereotyping people who are different, (2) spreading vitriolic beliefs that have racial undertones, and (3) perpetuating fear by promoting falsehoods that do not honor all people who are made in God’s image.
Karen Woods is associate pastor of missions and outreach at Trinity Baptist Church, Conyers.