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On Race and Redemption
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Part 1: Facing racial prejudice in church, on campus, and in my own heart
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The Church has a window of opportunity to engage in the current conversations about racial prejudice – conversations that are both difficult and so necessary. Ps Heinrich Titus joins the discussion with snapshots from his own journey as a person of colour in South Africa.
In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the deaths of people such as Collins Khosa and George Floyd – both Black men, both in their forties and both unarmed – sparked outrage that spilled over into peaceful as well as violent protests across the globe. Reasonable and seemingly unreasonable demands for change surged and impacted almost every industry. Politics, sports, entertainment, expressions of church and recently, in South Africa, the marketing of hair products, have all felt the cascading effect of the conversation around race, identity, privilege, responsibility, forgiveness, and justice.
As a Christ-follower, who happens to be a person of colour and in his forties, the initial events have taken me on an emotional journey back to, amongst others, my first few months at the University of Stellenbosch in 1994. I first posted these thoughts on Facebook, shortly after the aforementioned deaths, and now feel compelled to add more context in the hope that it will clarify what limited space on a Facebook page prevented me from doing a few months ago.
- My journey at Stellenbosch was certainly not limited to, nor defined by, my challenging experiences as a person of colour at an overwhelmingly White institution. It was simply part of a bigger story God was writing. Life-long friendships were formed, spiritual foundations were laid, and the seeds of destiny were ignited. Not for one moment do I regret that God’s Providence led me there.
- The poems I share come from the heart and pen of a 19-year old struggling to make sense of life. I am not the same person I was then and I hope this goes without saying. I am not the same internally-conflicted young person who bottled up his anger regarding the injustices of his time and who almost gave up on the Church. Christ has healed my heart and He has done so through His Word, His Spirit, and His Church.
- I believe there are many other confused and hurting 19-year olds out there, from all cultural backgrounds, who need safe places to share their journeys within an atmosphere of hope. Who knows, there might even be a confused and hurting 69-year old who needs the same grace extended to them.
For much of the early part of my time at Stellenbosch, I felt like an intruder, an outsider – someone who came up against invisible, yet powerful walls. I studied history and literature. This, coupled with my family’s own experiences of prejudice and discrimination over many generations, set in motion an intense (albeit often unseen) spiritual and emotional roller-coaster journey of anger; disbelief; resentment; introspection; more anger; tough conversations with friends and even tougher conversations with God; loss of some of those friendships; disillusionment with Church; even more anger; acknowledgement of my own human depravity and prejudices; new and lasting friendships; a Cross-centred understanding of forgiveness and justice; renewed love for the Church, and an ongoing process of healing.
This poem, with its spelling errors and all, reflects the inner wrestle of the 19-year old me. It’s raw and unfiltered. I’m thankful for God’s grace that covered me then and covers me still. I am thankful for how these walls were broken down and for how His love silenced that internal rage. I believe His love can still do the same for the rage that is threatening to engulf large portions of the world.
I am equally thankful that I have begun to understand that not all walls are divisive; there are valuable, legitimate walls that give identity, clarity, and protection.
The danger of unchecked revolution, often fuelled by secular media reports and political agendas, is that it sets in motion fires that indiscriminately burn down the good with the bad. Man’s anger can never accomplish God’s purposes. The fires of repentance, forgiveness, and mutual honour have to burn brightly in the hearts of God’s people so that the walls of fear, mistrust, and prejudice can be burnt to the ground, while preserving the good.
These walls are sometimes visible and easy to confront, dismantle, and replace. Often though, especially within a politically-correct environment that is focused on plastering over the cracks, and sadly especially within Church, they can be subtle and therefore much more deeply entrenched and difficult to dislodge and replace. I am encouraged by the many courageous men and women within our own church family who are actively pursuing cross-cultural discipleship relationships. The world is burning and the time for spectating has come to an end.
As Kingdom-minded people, we need to remind ourselves that we are, per definition, builders, and should therefore be passionate, but measured in our engagement with the issues of our day. Let’s not just uproot, but plant as well. Let’s not just pull down, but build as well.
If we want to live meaningful lives, then strong walls – in the context of healthy boundaries – are important.
Walls/boundaries bring definition.
I am not the colour of my skin. I am not my culture. I am not my gender. I am not merely a product of my socio-economic background. I am inestimably more: I am a child of God. Everything else has to submit to that reality, even my cultural loyalties and traditions. I owe my allegiance first and foremost to the King and His Kingdom and not to my culture.
But, in the same breath, I am also a South African and a person of colour, deliberately predestined by God as such. I therefore joyfully embrace and celebrate those aspects of my culture that align with Kingdom values and I deliberately reject those that don’t.
To deny that the colour of my skin has had a profound impact upon the formative experiences of my life would be to live with spiritual and cultural dissonance. A great deal of my healing has come from acknowledging that these experiences have influenced, and sometimes even challenged, much of my spirituality – my perspective on God; His love and justice; His people; my purpose in His Kingdom; my ability to break free from destructive generational cycles and instead leave a legacy for my children. All of this, on one level or another, cannot be divorced from the impact of my cultural experiences and background. They don’t have to define how I view God, but my ignorance or denial of their influence can stunt my growth and healing.
Walls/boundaries give clarity to who I am and who I am not.
They provide clear markers as to what I value and what I do not value, irrespective of outside influences: As for me and my house, we will choose to serve the Lord. As for me and my house, we will endeavour to equally value both the CEO and the petrol attendant, and treat all older people – from the janitor at school to the elders in our congregation – with the same respect when addressing them. We will do our best to give all people the benefit of the doubt and believe them to be innocent until proven guilty, especially when it comes to cultural perceptions.
I will not spend my time brooding on things outside my control, such as what people think of me. I will stay away from toxic people and media. I will teach my kids to be proud of their surname (to respectfully correct others when they mispronounce it) and to appreciate their colourful heritage, whilst at the same time never accepting or conforming to people’s stereotypes of what they think a person of colour should, or should not be.
These are a few of the walls I try to put in place and constantly evaluate, strengthen, and protect in the midst of the volatile multi-cultural landscape in which I live, a landscape still undeniably scarred by the past and often further scarred by the present.
I certainly don’t always get it right, but in the midst of much uncertainty and strong winds of change, they help create safe spaces for my own soul and the souls of my loved ones.
It is my prayer that the conversations we will have during this window of opportunity will help us all to rebuild and strengthen the walls of identity, clarity, and protection, as well as give us the courage to tackle the walls of fear and mistrust within our own hearts, families, and churches.
In the next blog post I will share how walls of fear and mistrust manifested in my own life, and how God used people around me to chip away at those walls.
My prayer is that my story will point the way, however imperfectly, to the One who loves each life equally, offers forgiveness to each one freely, and promises justice to each one eternally.
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Pastor Heinrich Titus is the global leader of Shofar Christian Church and serves as head pastor at Shofar Somerset West.
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