The Journey continues
Finding a way to increase the number of Black and minority ethnic (BME) ministers and leaders is a challenge faced by most mainstream denominations, not least Baptists. By Wale Hudson-Roberts
Answers still evade us, despite copious research. Negative institutional memory is one of the reasons behind the reluctance of some people of colour to commit their talents to our colleges, associations and churches.
This reality was highlighted in a recent conversation I shared with five African and Caribbean professionals. Despite their abilities, when at secondary school they were put into the lower ‘bands’, and as a result some left school with few qualifications and some with none. At great cost to themselves and their families, they were forced to carve out their own career paths. Negative institutional memory - formed by their secondary education, solidified by subsequent institutional experiences - has discouraged them from engaging their leadership skills in communities they have been forced to become suspicious of.
These friends are not alone. Their stories are replicated many times over in many different parts of the country. Among many people of colour there are understandable concerns about sharing their God-given talents with communities that have historically invalidated their humanity, be it in the plantation fields of the Caribbean, educational institutions, corporate or charitable organisations, local Baptist churches or our structures. Negative institutional memory evokes suspicion of the institutions and remains an omnipresent reality, refusing to diminish.
There are clearly other reasons for reluctant engagement, a propensity for fatigue being a second. It is not easy to be the only person of colour in the meeting challenging white privilege, and helping others to consider a wider landscape beyond themselves. It is not easy to be the only person of colour challenging inappropriate use of language, use of stereotypical images and apparent ‘normality’ – or one of the few people of colour ‘recycled’ on the meeting circuit. With this as a backdrop, engagement can be regarded as too high a physical and emotional price to pay. As for those already serving, either fatigue or disillusionment (sometimes even both) set in. It should come as no surprise that few people of colour are willing to make the necessary sacrifices involved in sharing their leadership abilities with Baptists Together.
Deep wounds, serving as a reminder of the past, are a deterrent to participation.
An inspiring future?
In an attempt to address these concerns our Union’s Racial Justice Group proposed an Inspiring Leadership Programme targeting young people of colour between the ages of 18- 25. Part of the idea is to nurture the young people’s leadership abilities in Jamaica and, if possible, address negative institutional memory, and a range of other barriers that challenge healthy participation.
Tailormade together with young people by the Faith and Society Team and Jamaican Baptist Union (JBU), the Inspiring Leadership Programme aims to inspire young people to explore their Christian calling or business opportunities in either the United Theological College of West Indies (UTC) or a respected Jamaican business.
Dion White, 21 and of Brixton Baptist Church, is the first person to participate in the Inspiring Leadership Programme. She travelled to Jamaica in January (2017) for a six month internship. She is being mentored in three stages – before flying out, while in Jamaica, and on her return. She has high hopes.
“It will be a theological adventure which is bound to serve me well for possible future ministry in the UK,” Dion says. “Away from the pressures of life in the UK, shaped by JBU practitioners, activists, pastors and theologians, I am sure I will return to the UK with an appetite to share my gifts with my local church and wider Baptist body.
"I am so praying that this programme will begin to develop a new crop of BME young leaders who are able to invest their God-given skills in making our Baptist Union a far more mission-centred community. The programme’s strong emphasis on a three-prong mentoring approach should lay some of the foundations for me to become an effective leader - both in and out of church."
Preparing young people of colour to participate more fully in Baptist life, catching them before they have become disillusioned, is a good way forward. The hope is that the likes of Dion White and subsequent members of the Inspiring Leadership Programme will be equipped and sufficiently encouraged by their internship to participate in Baptists Together. However, it will be important that on their return they are buoyed by networks and mentoring to ensure that history is not repeated.
‘A massive relational effort’ still needed
As a person of colour, ‘navigating white spaces’ can sometimes be very challenging. Negotiating the structures that people of colour have had little, if any, part in creating and shaping is demanding. Add to the mix ethnicity, and an intrinsically British way of doing God’s business, people of colour can feel trebly disenfranchised. Regrettably there are no easy solutions. Contrary to popular narratives there are many people of colour ready and able to invest their leadership talents into the Baptist pool, but there is an understandable reluctance. Wearing various hats, being seen as a representative and spokesperson of all black and Asian British Baptists, adds to the spiralling list of reasons for reluctant engagement in Baptist life.
Having reflected a pretty pessimistic picture, where do we go from here? Nothing can replace the strenuous and sometimes painful work of developing healthy relationships with BME church leaders. This is not a secondary option. The prerequisite for diminishing negative institutional memory and gradually breaking down the walls that divide us requires a massive relational effort. Developing justice-orientated relationships with BME leaders, young and old, has become a matter of significant importance.
This long-term strategy might mean that I (and my colleagues of a similar age) may not witness the full benefits of unconditional relationship building. Future generations will. It is with the present, but even more so the future, generations in mind that Baptists Together launches the Inspiring Leadership Programme on the tenth anniversary of our Union’s Apology for the Transatlantic Slave trade in the hope that this relational expression will encourage an increasing number of leaders of colour to declare “yes we can” to Baptists Together.
Picture | Photos Ryan McGuire | Gratisography
The Revd Wale Hudson-Roberts is the Justice Enabler of the Baptist Union of Great Britain
Lest We Forget - Studies to equip Baptists to reflect on the 2007 Baptist Union Apology and explore ways to address the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, ten years on.
The Journey report - text of the paper from the Faith and Unity Executive outlining six recommendations for our Union to address and overcome the sin of racism. This was unanimously approved by Council in March 2011.
In November 2007, our Union passed an historic resolution to mark the anniversary of the passing of the Slave Trade Act abolishing slavery. The resolution apologised for our part in the transatlantic slave trade.
This has led to the development of an ongoing programme of work known as The Journey. The aim of The Journey is to ensure that our Union develops into a fully multicultural Union.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of Baptists Together magazine, which focused on leadership