DEATH BY A THOUSAND MICROAGGRESSIONS
By Kelly P.
DEATH BY A THOUSAND MICROAGGRESSIONS:
DESPITE CLAIMING TO BE A "MULTI-ETHNIC COMMUNITY," WHITENESS WAS SEEN AS THE DEFAULT AND SOMETHING THAT NEEDED TO BE ADOPTED BY THOSE WHO WANTED TO BE ACCEPTED IN COMMUNITY AT JOSHUA CHURCH
- Author: Kelly P. | Member, Church Plant Team
- Network Church:
- Joshua Church, Austin, TX | 2018-2020
- Stoneway Church | 2020
- This story was published December, 2021
Note: Joshua Church explicitly claims to be a "multi-ethnic" church seeking to "heal the wounds... of racism."
From the Joshua Church "Our Values" page:
"MULTI-ETHNIC - [Joshua Church is] a church committed to love and unity among people of many cultures, races, and nations together in Christ. Our command from Jesus is to reach “all nations” with the gospel so we seek to heal the wounds caused by the sin of racism and division. The church best represents Jesus’ intention when made up of every race and ethnicity in one unified family."
HOW I FOUND THE NETWORK
In 2018, I moved from California to Austin for an internship with a nonprofit that did cultural and historic preservation in Austin’s historically Black district. I’ve moved around a lot, and whenever I’m in a new city I try to find a church as soon as I arrive. That’s how I found Joshua Church (also referred to as JC) through Google. The plant was still fairly new at the time. I believe the church plant members moved down in June of 2017 , and I first attended the following February.
Because I was in a new city and didn’t know anyone in Austin yet, I was drawn to JC by the large number of events the church hosted to attract new attendees. I remember in the early days, the church hosted chili cook-offs, lake days, birthday parties, small group parties, movie nights, volleyball in the park, as well as holiday parties and the annual Lunar New Year party. As I started getting involved, we were all encouraged to invite others to these events to get them to come try out the church.
The only prerequisite to being a leader seemed to be just being a man with qualifying characteristics preferred, but not necessary.
What most attracted me was seeing how people my age (in the “young professional” bracket) were worshiping Jesus and following Him in a way that I had never experienced in any other church I attended. I truly believe that most of the people I encountered in my time at JC were genuine in their love for God and growing in their relationships with Jesus, and passionate about how to help others in their journeys. I was most impacted by the awesome and authentic women that I was able to meet and befriend through small group. They led me better and cared for me in a more meaningful way than most of my official “leaders” ever did. (I put leaders in quotes because in my experience the only prerequisite to being a leader seemed to be just being a man with qualifying characteristics preferred, but not necessary.)
DEATH BY A THOUSAND MICROAGGRESSIONS
I experienced specific instances of racism over a period of two years that chipped away at my patience and made me do a double-take on whether or not I wanted to belong to a community where I would have to second-guess my value and presence.
Whiteness was always seen as the default and something that needed to be adopted by those who wanted to be accepted in community at Joshua Church
- One of the first times I attended small group, there was a conversation about a group member’s ex-girlfriend who was coming to visit Austin. As they were talking about her, one of the women pulled up a picture on her phone and showed everyone the ex-girlfriend’s photo. Another woman in the small group was visibly taken back after seeing that this (White) man’s ex-girlfriend was Black, and after stumbling over her words a bit, she said, “Oh! Well I didn’t know that was his…type…”
- A woman whose children I babysat every Wednesday mistook me for someone else and called me by the name of a different Black member of the church.
- At my membership meeting with my small group leader, I was told that Joshua Church is “not a social justice church,” which rubbed me the wrong way because Jesus is absolutely a social justice Jesus. I went along with it because I presumed that my definition of social justice must not be the same as the Network’s definition of the phrase. Why else would they describe themselves as specifically not a “social justice” church?
- One Sunday, Steve Morgan shamed ethnically-homogeneous churches for being exclusionary and specifically mentioned the Black Church for being insular, insinuating that those in these churches should join “multicultural” churches like Joshua Church. The next Sunday he apologized from the pulpit and said he didn’t know that Black Churches were birthed out of segregation. That is a level of ignorance from a fifty-something year old man that is inexcusable to me. He was also insensitive to ethnically-homogeneous churches that incorporate native languages to help others understand the Gospel better and communicate with God in a way that would be more difficult if they were to attend a majority English-speaking church. This occurrence demonstrated how Whiteness was always seen as the default and something that needed to be adopted by those who wanted to be accepted in community at JC.
The stage was set for conversations, reckoning, and repentance in the church, but those conversations were actively shut down with calls from leadership for “unity” and to avoid “divisiveness” within the congregation.
- During the social justice uprisings of Summer 2020, I went to my pastor and cried out of fear about what happened to Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. I told him that I didn’t feel safe leaving my house and that I had altered the way I went about my everyday life in fear of being killed by a white supremacist. His response was, “Well that probably won’t happen to you,” which is something that was absolutely callous and not comforting at all, especially considering the way in which Breonna Taylor was murdered.
- Whenever I tried to initiate a conversation about racism within our church, I was told multiple times that the solution to racism in our Network was to get more Black men in leadership. To me this meant that the majority White “leadership” was not willing to do any work to understand how Black people struggled with systemic racism in the Network. In my opinion, their refusal to do the work continued the Network’s pattern of burdening already worn out Black people in the Network with the task of “solving racism” ourselves, which isn’t up to Black people to solve in the first place. There were maybe only five Black men who consistently attended JC in the two years I was there, and based on those odds, I wasn’t going to hold out for change to happen any time soon within the church.
- Another time I was talking to my DC pastor about racism, and I mentioned Philando Castile. He said he didn’t know who that was. This encounter made me consider how for a lot of people, it is a choice to opt in to topics of race and systemic inequality in this country, and how for Black people it is required reading that can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.
- When the small number of JC’s Black people hung out amongst ourselves, it was viewed and vocalized as exclusionary by some in leadership; I had never heard that message relayed about any other ethnic group spending time together.
I was looking for honesty from leadership about a blind spot the church had, and humility in asking for help, but what I got was silence and apathy.
- During the Summer of 2020, when a lot of the world was coming to terms with the racism that people of color had been calling out for centuries, I sent a list of books, podcasts, and sermons to my DC pastor. He passed it off to the Stoneway Church plant pastor (as I had joined the plant by that time, but no progress was being made with it, so I still considered myself a member of JC). I met with him, and his response was, “Thanks for the resources, but we don’t do programs.”
- The very few times I decided to attend service in-person during 2020, everyone acted like nothing was happening! By their behavior you would have no idea an entire global reckoning was going on. It was so jarring and felt like there was an opaqueness hovering over the place that I needed to be the most transparent at that time in my life. It seemed like the stage was set for conversations, reckoning, and repentance in the church, but those conversations never came and were actively shut down with calls from leadership for “unity” and to avoid “divisiveness” within the congregation. I was looking for honesty from leadership about a blind spot the church had, and humility in asking for help, but what I got was silence and apathy. My friends and I were able to have emotionally raw conversations about everything we were experiencing in the church and what we needed from leadership, but we ultimately turned to each other when we vocalized our concerns on multiple occasions and were not taken seriously.
VIEW NETWORK CHURCHES' CLAIMS OF BEING "MULTI-ETHNIC" COMMUNITIES
STONEWAY CHURCH PLANT
I have always been the type of person to not stay in one physical location for too long, so when the church plant to Reading, England, was announced, I felt compelled to join. After speaking to my DC pastor, I committed to going and was excited to be part of the team. The first weekend in March, we had a joint retreat in Dallas, and the Seattle members of the plant came down so we were all able to meet each other and build some team unity. The next weekend, the world shut down. When COVID first started changing life as we knew it, we were met with radio silence about the plant for weeks.
The leadership gave us no guidance about one of the biggest decisions most of us had made in our lives. Finally, once the plant pastor reached back out, he told us to keep looking for jobs and trying to “get over there.” This surprised me, because I assumed we would put the plant on pause and regroup when things were safer and borders opened back up. But I guess that made too much sense. The Network seemed oblivious to the pressure of finding a job in another country that had literally exited the European Union to hinder immigration, a sentiment that was only compounded in the midst of a pandemic. Not only was I expected to find a job overseas in those circumstances, but I was also looking for a job in Austin, as I had been laid off because of COVID. I couldn’t understand why the plant pastor was acting like things were normal, with seemingly no consideration of these added pressures. It was anxiety-inducing, and my mental and physical health took a toll.
I couldn’t understand why the plant pastor was acting like things were normal, with seemingly no consideration of these added pressures.
Another aspect of the plant that did not sit well with me was the ignorance surrounding the cultural climate we would be entering once we arrived at Reading. They seemed oblivious to what was happening in the UK in terms of Black Lives Matter, Brexit, and the racial demographics. All we were told was that Reading was “diverse” and their LGBTQ+ population was “more severe than ours.” I spoke up about it, but the plant pastor assured me that the cultural issues would be addressed soon. Imagine my dismay when we spent half an hour on the next team Zoom meeting talking about what snacks were and weren’t acceptable for small group. It became all too clear to me that knowing about the people we would encounter in our new community in Reading was not a top priority.
I realized that if I were to move to Reading, England, I would not want to attend a church like the one I was supposed to be planting.
After a while we started having our church plant team meetings in-person again. I remember looking at my Fitbit walking into the building and my heart rate was sky high. Between the stress of finding a job to not having any “positive news” to share, to no social distancing in the room and people pretending that the movements of the Summer of 2020 were not happening, I realized that if I were to move to Reading, I would not want to attend a church like the one I was supposed to be planting.
THE HANDLING OF COVID-19
In my opinion, the way Joshua Church handled COVID was irresponsible and inconsiderate of the people the church was supposed to be loving and caring for. At the start of the pandemic, the church was resistant to putting sermons online or providing a video feed. Their rationale was not getting people used to the idea of attending church online, which I understood, but the circumstances were different than pre-pandemic times. The times that my friends and I were worshipping, listening to the sermons, and praying in our homes together were so fulfilling and rich that I didn’t even miss being in Sunday service. The Holy Spirit was going to move regardless of us sitting on the living room floor or inside the church building. That is one reason why it was difficult for me to understand the rush to open the church back up and not invest in doing small home church gatherings around the city.
Their poor decision-making endangered entire congregations throughout the Network, and the wider communities to which those churches belonged.
Another instance that influenced my decision to leave was when three leaders caught COVID at the Leadership Conference in Dallas, then returned home and infected a bunch of people at JC. The fact that the conference even happened in 2020 was disrespectful to the people these men were supposed to be “leading.” Their poor decision-making endangered entire congregations throughout the Network, and the wider communities to which those churches belonged. Also, after Steve Morgan recovered from COVID, he returned to the pulpit and spread disinformation by saying you can only get the virus once, which is objectively false.
SINGLE WOMEN WERE SIDELINED
For most of my time at Joshua Church, I lived with women who went to the church. I loved my time in our house, and I still talk to most of my previous housemates today. But when some of the women started getting in relationships and marrying men from Joshua Church, I was able to see up close the value the church put on partnered women. It was jarring for me to see the schedules of my friends go from 0 to 100 once they started dating someone at church. They were invited to dinners with the older married couples, along with double dates, dinners, and game nights with other couples and pastors’ families. In my two years at JC, I had never been invited to a married family’s home if it didn’t involve watching their kids. To me, it seemed like the value of a woman increased in the church once she was partnered.
In my two years at JC, I had never been invited to a married family’s home if it didn’t involve watching their kids.
There is a specific instance that made me question if what I experienced happened to a man, would I have been treated differently. One night after small group, I had a really bad panic attack about some issues I had been dealing with for a while, and a friend suggested I talk to James Chidester, an overseer with counseling experience about it. I sent him an email about what I was going through and he responded: “Unfortunately, I don’t have any time outside of my practice hours like on a Sunday to discuss as I’m so busy helping people.” This made me feel subhuman and like I wasn’t worth the time. I wondered, if I had been a small group “leader” (aka a man) would he have made the time to speak to me?
EMAIL TO JAMES CHIDESTER, OVERSEER AND NETWORK COUNSELOR
MY DECISION TO LEAVE
The decision to leave felt like it started as a drizzle, then went to a steady downpour, then finally a typhoon. I was wary of starting over and having to build new relationships and trying to build trust with new people, but I thought the labor of starting over outweighed the labor of trying to improve church dynamics in an environment that thought it didn’t need any help, especially from a Black woman. Jesus provided me with a very clean exit through the house I was renting in Austin being put on the market, which gave me an excuse to leave the church plant, Joshua Church, and eventually leave Texas. When I left the church, I chose to omit all of the detail I have provided in this story, as I didn’t want my reason for leaving to be twisted into something untrue. It was easier for me to leave the State of Texas than to explain why I was leaving and be labeled a “social justice warrior,” or a “contrarian.”
I don’t believe that the stress of trying to get people to value me as a human being was worth the astronomical amount of effort I had to put in.
Since I left Joshua Church, I have been wary of seeking out another church in my new location. I know that no church is perfect, but I believe that there has got to be something better than American Evangelicalism in the United States. In my opinion, the thread of racism is too tightly tied to the Church in the US. I shouldn’t have to assimilate to the Church’s ideal of Blackness in order to be accepted in community. It has been healthier for me to take a break from church spaces and take on the process of rebuilding my confidence in my faith and reestablishing the core foundations of the Gospel outside of the context of toxic church culture I encountered in the Network.
I still keep in touch with the friends I’ve made through Joshua Church, and some are still members of JC. Most of my friends left a few months after I did and we are all better mentally, emotionally, and spiritually for having left. There were some great things that happened during my time at JC, but I don’t believe that the stress of trying to get people to value me as a human being was worth the astronomical amount of effort I had to put in. I’m hoping that putting this on paper will help me to move on from this part of my life with the lessons I learned and the people that came from it in tow, while leaving the experiences and hurt I suffered in the past.