3 Steps White Christians Must Take to Fight Racism and Intolerance

This article was originally published in Time Magazine November 20, 2017

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Once again, America is having a discussion about race and faith the exact wrong way.

The recent news that the head of the Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships made disparaging comments about black and Islamic communities showed an attitude that is unacceptable and wrong.

Among other things, Rev. Jamie Johnson said that the black community had turned America’s major cities “into slums because of laziness, drug use and sexual promiscuity” and that “all that Islam has ever given us is oil and dead bodies over the last millennia and a half.”

Johnson resigned, stating that he regretted his remarks, and a Homeland Security spokesman said they don’t represent the agency.

End of story, right? Sadly, that’s where most of the dialogue ends within the Christian community. But white Christians in particular need to take some important lessons from this moment to focus on better ways to combat inaccurate, racist and harmful ideologies.

Here are three takeaways.

White Christians need to do more

Disasters disproportionally impact racial and religious minorities who are more likely to suffer greater losses and isolation amidst the recovery process. Overcoming cultural barriers, stigma, and racism during an emergency response is an already difficult task.

The nation witnessed some of these cultural hurdles in the response to New Orleans, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, and more recently when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. The dilemmas already inherent in disaster relief, and compounded by cultural barriers, have now likely been made even more challenging by Johnson’s remarks, which followed President Trump’s “both sides” comments after Charlottesvillepardon of controversial former Sheriff Joe Arpaio and claim that the people of Puerto Rico “want everything to be done for them.”

White Christians must refuse to accept the disparities our country has taken for granted for too long. Before, during, and after disasters strike, it’s our responsibility, as people of faith, to address and work toward dismantling the systemic disparities that negatively impact racial and religious minorities in our nation.

 

Christians’ words about race and religion matter

Whether we like it or not, Jamie Johnson represents the negative, and all too familiar, stereotype of evangelical Christianity in America. And if we do not pause to take issue with his remarks, we implicitly lend our support to inaccurate, racist and harmful ideologies. Being very clear in our rejection of Johnson’s sentiments is important for all of our relationships, and that includes our relationships with those impacted by disaster.

Disaster response is relational at its core: aid is delivered and received through human interactions. Social bonds are important to the recovery process. Disaster survivors are already subject to receiving aid from “helpers” who may be “other” in any number of ways. Often those who arrive to assist in the wake of disaster are from out of state, and they may also be people whose race, religion, class, and privilege are different from those in need of assistance.

 

Aid that is truly Christian will reflect the dignity and value of every individual created in God’s image.

Christians must refuse to dilute the Gospel with nationalism

Minority communities are already less likely to trust disaster messaging if they don’t trust the messenger. As a result, those who are conveying the message can be just as important as the message itself.

Though little has been reported thus far, Johnson occasionally leveraged his position as a faith-leader and his disaster relief platform to promote a religiously guised political agenda. On the popular blog site Medium, Johnson wrote, in September, after addressing the annual United Pentecostal Churches International Convention:

“Once I started speaking, it didn’t take long to sense the high level of support that these pastors have for President Trump and his ‘Make America Great Again’ agenda.” Johnson seemed to equate spiritual vitality with support of right wing politics when he wrote, “The atmosphere in the convention hall was electric. At times, it seemed more like an old-fashioned revival service than a denominational business meeting. It was clear during my remarks — and in the half-hour following, when pastors rushed to speak with me about their support for President Trump — that domestic and international events of recent months have strengthened support for the President among these faith-based voters.”

 

In fact, many Christians of all cultures and ethnicities who are “faith-based voters” do not support the President’s “Make America Great Again” agenda. In response, we must refuse to participate in the dangerous conflation of Christian faith and nationalist ideology.

Sadly, the ugly comments of Rev. Jamie Johnson not only misrepresent the values of many Christians, they also negatively affect disaster recovery by inflicting harm on those who are impacted disproportionately by disasters. As a result, it is incumbent on people of faith to renounce Johnson’s un-Christian assumptions and remarks so that we might be about the necessary work of dismantling the disparities that make minority communities most vulnerable to disaster.

I've Dedicated My Career to Disaster Ministry. Here are Three Ways Churches Can be Prepared

This article was originally published in Sojourners November 14, 2017

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COMMENTARY

By Jamie D. Aten 11-14-2017

The horrible tragedy at First Baptist Church in Texas has sent ripples of fear through churches across the United States. Along with grief and concern over gun violence, the attack also resurfaced an idea: Should we increase security at — or even arm members of — our own churches?

I’ve dedicated my career to helping churches prepare for disasters, including mass shootings. And I believe that responding to the Texas church mass shooting with an arms race does more to protect fear than it does to protect our churches.

As founder of the country’s first faith-based academic disaster research center, I’ve written extensively on "disaster ministry” and collaborated on the first in-depth studies ever conducted on the psychology of religion and mass shootings. I've also provided psychosocial support for humanitarian aid workers serving in armed conflicts, and created tools and resources that have helped communities like Newtown, Conn., heal after mass shootings.

 

From this perspective, here are three suggestions I want to offer the U.S. church now:

1. Any changes in church preparedness and security are only part of the equation to making our churches more safe.

I’m encouraged by how seriously some churches are thinking about security issues and taking safety steps. These include training their congregations how to seek shelter and evacuate dangerous situations. (FEMA has active shooter courses and other resources that can serve as useful guides.) Other churches are training church teams to recognize potential threats. Security experts also recommend that churches reach out to local emergency managers and law enforcement for guidance. These types of solutions recognize the reality of the risk without compromising the nature of what a church is created to be: an open and welcoming community while also being wise.

But in the aftermath of the Texas church shooting, I’ve struggled in discussions about church preparedness tools. Increasing church security will help save additional lives — but as long as a mass shooter is able to approach our church doors with an assault rifle or similarly modified weapon, we will have failed to fully prepare.

Everyone wants to believe that in active shooter situations, they’d be the “good guy with a gun.” This myth protects our fear more than it protects our churches.

Preparedness isn’t just about being ready to respond when the worst happens. It’s about doing what we can to try to reduce the likelihood of the worst from happening at all. There are a number of measures that experts and public opinion agree would address the underlying causes that lead to recurring gun violence. These include tighter background checks and restrictions on gun sales, expanded mental health treatment, and bans on certain high-capacity and semiautomatic weapons.

Until sensible gun laws like these are passed, I’m afraid our preparedness efforts will more often than not resemble trying to fight a house fire with a garden hose. 

 

2. We have to change our affinity for gun culture.

I recently appeared on Moody Radio’s "Equipped with Chris Brooks" program to discuss how people can help in the wake of the Sutherland Springs church shooting. Numerous callers expressed a desire to arm members of the congregation. And in an interview with Fox News, Dallas evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress said his church members — of which he estimates “a quarter to a half…are concealed-carry” — would prevent a mass shooting from occurring in his church.

READ: Should Christians Own Guns?

There are a variety of factors that contribute to such a view, wrote Sarah Pulliam Bailey ofThe Washington Post, including political affiliation, high rates of personal gun ownership, and an understanding of gun violence as a result of human sin. Everyone wants to believe that in active shooter situations, they’d be the “good guy with a gun” who takes down the shooter. (This may be particularly true of Christians — a 2013 Public Religion Research Institute survey showed that 59 percent of white evangelicals oppose stricter gun laws — seven points higher than the nation as a whole.) But this myth protects our own fear more than it does our churches. Shooters often walk into these situations wearing vests or carrying much heavier artillery. And untrained bystanders shooting guns can create more chaos and confusion.

“How do we balance the relative risk against the very nature and the purpose of a house of worship?," former FEMA head W. Craig Fugate asked me recently. "We can make our house of worship secure, but does that compromise our primary mission? …To what degree must we deal with this at the front door of a house of worship, versus looking at this more holistically across the community?”

3. If we truly want to mitigate and prevent harm, we have to be willing to have difficult conversations with each other about gun issues.

Over the years I’ve side-stepped heated topics like gun laws because I thought staying away from hot-button issues would allow me to reach more people with a message of preparedness. But I’ve come to realize that silence only makes schism wider between Christians, in public and in our pews. It’s not disrespectful to the memory of the victims and the suffering community to do what we can to prevent this from happening to more people and more communities. It’s what we owe them and each other.

"We can make our house of worship secure, but does that compromise our primary mission?"

It’s time we come together to support reform of sensible gun laws that would minimize access to the kinds of firearms that make attacks of this scale possible. In an international comparison of mass shootings, the New York Times reported that the very presence of guns appears to directly lead to more gun violence. “A New Yorker is just as likely to be robbed as a Londoner, for instance,” Max Fisher and Josh Keller wrote, “but the New Yorker is 54 times more likely to be killed in the process.”

 

In this moment, we must help our churches better prepare for mass shootings. But if we really want to prioritize church security, we have to address our gun problem, too. It is good to be ready for the worst. It is better — and shows more love of our neighbor — to do all that we can to prevent the worst from happening at all.

Jamie D. Aten

Dr. Jamie D. Aten is a disaster psychologist and disaster ministry expert. He is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois. His latest books include the Disaster Ministry Handbook and Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy for Trauma. In 2016, he received the FEMA Community Preparedness Champion award at the White House. You can follow Jamie on Twitter at @drjamieaten, or see his work at jamieaten.com.

How Churches and FEMA Can Work Together

This article was originally published in Christianity Today November 13, 2017

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The former head of the agency on churches’ important role in disaster response.

Interview with W. Craig Fugate by Jamie Aten

Over the course of his eight-year tenure as head administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), W. Craig Fugate led FEMA’s responses to numerous major disasters: the Joplin and Moore tornadoes, Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Matthew, and the 2016 Louisiana flooding. I spoke with him about how church leaders can come alongside government agencies and serve their community together amidst disasters, from mass shootings to wildfires to hurricanes.

How would you recommend churches and congregations go about improving collaboration with FEMA?

Pick up the phone and call your local emergency manager. They’re good folks, but they tend to be more focused on their government functions, and they may not know there’s an interest in participating.

I grew up in north Florida, so I learned a long time ago that some of my fastest, most capable responses—particularly in the rural areas—were our churches. Where I’m from, churches always respond when there’s a crisis in the community. I learned early on that if you give churches a seat at the table, and include them in your plans, it gives everybody a better ability to coordinate. It’s better to work as a team than to work as individual pieces and hope we each get to where we need to go.

You helped usher in the “whole community” approach to emergency management. What does that entail?

It’s a recognition that the bigger the disaster, the more likely the first assistance is really coming from your neighbors. What I have found is that the more widespread the impact of a disaster, the more that the government by itself is going to fail. You really have to take a step back and look at the community on a day-to-day basis—who’s providing the services and really meeting the needs of people before a disaster—and then after disaster strikes, recognize that the government’s not going to be able to step into those roles. In fact, it’s actually counterproductive [to think that]. It’ll be government, plus volunteer organizations in the faith-based community, plus the business community, plus the people who will naturally be helping their neighbors and looking for a way to support their community. If that’s how a community works day to day, why do we expect it to change when there’s a disaster? We need to really focus on how to build those relationships ahead of time.

I’ll tell you the most important thing we need to do: Recognize that the public’s part of the team. And we’ve seen this in the churches. Church members don’t have to be told to go help somebody in the congregation. We’re not individuals; we’re part of a bigger family. Even if we’re not physically related, we still come to each other’s assistance when we’re needed.

What’s one thing you wish every church leader of a local congregation knew?

You never know when a disaster is going to strike, but you don’t have to be somebody you’re not. What I mean by this is that sometimes we set the bar so high that church leaders think they have to have specialized training or that it’s just not practical for them to engage.

I like to go back to an early event where I saw the role of churches as a first responder. We had an ice storm hit much of north Florida back in the early ‘90s, and it caused the interstate system to ice over. Thousands of motorists were being stranded. The government resources in Florida couldn’t drive on ice; they couldn’t get to these people. But all up and down the interstates, churches started recognizing what was happening, and farmers got their tractors, hooked up wagons, threw on some hay, went out on the interstate, and started picking up stranded motorists. They took them to the closest church and opened up the fellowship hall, making hot coffee and soup. That didn’t require any training.

Think of the things churches do every day—sponsor daycare services, provide counseling services, work with food banks, or get out with the elderly and support Meals on Wheels. There are so many different things churches excel at in their communities, and those are pretty much the same things people are going to need in a disaster.

Sometimes I hear from pastors who want to get involved in the disaster response activities on the community level and are turned away. What advice would you have for someone in that case?

That goes back to building relationships before disaster so you’re known by the local officials, so you’re known by the folks who run the shelters. Go become a Red Cross-trained volunteer so you go in there as a counselor, and you can reach out to your flock and anybody else who needs that attention. We tend to put on our uniforms and identify ourselves by our faith. But survivors are just looking for a helpful word, a hot meal, a roof over their head, and somebody to talk to.

What would a holistic approach to preparedness look like for a church that is concerned about mass shootings?

Having the pastors and the ushers and the other lay people trained in what to do if there is an active shooter may be our first best step. Just like when the fire alarm goes off, know what the evacuation routes are. Teach the people who are watching the kids and the daycare center during the services how to lock and secure their locations.

We’re not going to be able to lock churches down, but we should know what to do if an active shooter situation occurs. And the steps are: If you can run, run. If you can’t, hide. And if you can’t hide, you’ve got to fight back any way you can. Most of these events are carried out in very short periods of time. The shootings are usually over before any outside help gets there, and it’s the initial response that can mean the difference.

The Department of Homeland Security and FEMA have put together some active shooter courses online—take a look at those, get back to FEMA and with any tweaks or additional items that would be appropriate for houses of worship, and then get that out to the community.

In coordination with interagency partners, the DHS Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) established a website for faith-based organizations that serves as a “one-stop shop” for information on available Federal tools, resources, and assistance.

To contact the active shooter preparedness team or to get more information on Active Shooter Preparedness workshops, please send an email to ASworkshop@hq.dhs.gov.

Dr. Jamie D. Aten is a disaster psychologist and the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois. His latest books include the Disaster Ministry Handbook and Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy for Trauma. You can follow Jamie on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit his website jamieaten.com.

Observing Refugee Sunday When Your Church is Divided

This article was originally published in CareLeader on June 22, 2017.

Dr. Jamie D. Aten discusses three ways Scripture and scientific studies of humility can help your congregation navigate the refugee crisis.

Many congregations stand divided on how to respond to the refugee crisis as we approach World Refugee Sunday. I personally have felt this tension; I am pro-refugee, and yet I know some Christians who disagree with my stance of welcoming refugees into the United States. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, chances are you’ve witnessed similar divides in your congregation if you are reading this.

The World Evangelical Alliance and The Refugee Highway Partnership are encouraging churches to dedicate either June 18 or 25—the Sundays on either side of the United Nation’s World Refugee Day (June 20)—as a day to “demonstrate their common concern for the welfare and protection of the world’s forcibly displaced people.”

The complexities and tensions surrounding the refugee crisis continue to mount, which appears to have made it more difficult for pastors and churches to engage with the refugee crisis. The schism among Christians exists not only in the public square, but also in church pews all around the US. As a result, some pastors are struggling to help their congregations come together in civic discourse around the crisis for World Refugee Sunday.

Yet, a recent study led by Dr. Joshua Hook at the University of North Texas which I collaborated on found that humility is particularly helpful for engaging religious disagreements like the one at hand. In this article I share Scripture and scientific studies on humility that can help your congregation navigate the refugee crisis.1

Humbly accept limitations

Humility is contagious—pastors can help their congregation more humbly approach the refugee crisis with one another by modeling humility in their own walk. Acknowledging what you don’t know makes you more authentic, and it allows your congregation’s dialogue to be more real, too.

Humility requires that your church members cultivate a willingness to view themselves more truthfully. This includes owning their limitations and admitting when they don’t have an answer or aren’t sure of what they think (Prov. 18:1315). People tend to be overconfident about what they think they know.

Research has shown that people’s understanding and view of the world is limited by their own cultural worldview, background, and experiences. Humility ought to make people pause and question the confidence they’ve placed in their “rightness.”

Therefore, encourage your congregation to pause and reflect on the accuracy of what they think they know about current events surrounding the refugee crisis. The unprecedented surge in fake news has made it more challenging to navigate what is truthful. This means more people in your congregation are likely getting duped. Also be aware that some in your congregation may not realize they’ve let their political views overshadow their religious convictions and understanding of Scripture.

Humbly listen

Teach your church members to truly listen to one another—as well as to refugees and those who intercede on their behalf (e.g., World ReliefWorld VisionInternational Association for Refugees)—with humility. Even more so, urge them to listen for God’s prompting more, not less.

Humble listening is not an easy task in this age of immediate social media responses and hot takes. With a click of the mouse people are tempted to form, consolidate, and defend opinions in an instant.

More people are also getting news curated to their interests, which is likely to reinforce their biases and limit their openness to new ideas and alternative views. People tend not to open themselves up to new information that might change their opinion. Instead, they are quick to reject or rationalize any new fact or perspective that doesn’t fit the narrative they’ve already embraced. With all of these distractions it is easier than ever for congregation members to drown out God’s voice. This is not the way to bring about kingdom change (Prov. 18:2).

Remind your congregation that humble listening means beginning not with a position, but with a posture. Speaking louder than and over others rarely sways minds (or hearts). The more superior people try to position themselves, the more likely conversations will shut down (James 1:19).

Asking questions, recognizing imbalances of power, and seeking first to understand someone else’s position are a few other ways you can help your congregation learn to humbly listen.

Humbly love others

This is a time to focus on helping your congregation build and strengthen relationships between people within the congregation who may not see eye to eye, and to build relationships with the broader community. One way you can help your congregation engage with more humility relationally is by creating opportunities to serve refugees.

Serving others as a congregation nurtures the growth of humble relationships, which in turn reduces fallout when disagreements occur. Scientific findings suggest that humility helps strengthen relationships and reduces relational friction. According to Drs. Don Davis and Joshua Hook, the Social Bonds Hypothesis suggests: “Commitment promotes a sense of ‘we-ness.’… Viewing others as humble should facilitate greater commitment.”

Research has shown that helping others creates a shared sense of meaning and purpose. Serving others has also been found to help people cope with and reduce stress, according to several research studies. Not only has your congregation been called to love your neighbors, it turns out that doing so makes loving others with humility more probable.

The Bible beckons God’s people to use their time, talents, and treasure to help others (Lev. 19:1033–34Luke 10:25–37Acts 10:4 MSG). Findings from a recent study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology imply that humility might also make people more welcoming of religiously different individuals. The study suggests humility makes people less aggressive toward one another in situations where they felt their cherished beliefs have been challenged. This doesn’t mean that participants gave up their convictions, but rather that humility seemed to help people perspective shift, to see things from someone else’s point of view.

By acting as the hands and feet of Christ to refugees, your congregation is more likely to see refugees as their neighbors, as Christ commands (Luke 10:25–37 MSG), and they are less likely to be fearful of them.

Conclusion

Scripture reminds us that all people—including refugees and people we disagree with politically—are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) and that we are to care as Christ cared (John 15:12). More than ever we need to recall the wisdom of Micah 6:8 on this coming World Refugee Sunday: “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly” with our God. For it’s through the command to engage with humility that God often shows us a better way forward. Overall, we could all use a good dose of humility.

 

Editor’s note:

For more information on the trials faced by refugees, see these CareLeader.org articles: Helping the Traumatized and How to Increase Your Concern for the Victims of Racism.

 

Dr. Jamie D. Aten is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and is the Rech Endowed Chair of Psychology at Wheaton College in Illinois. His latest books include the Disaster Ministry Handbook and Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy for Trauma. Follow Jamie on Twitter at @drjamieaten or at jamieaten.com.