By Alan Stein
In the movie Hidden Figures, Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, a mission director of NASA in April 1961 when the Soviets launched the first man into Earth’s orbit. Harrison (a composite character) had a single-minded mission: successfully launch an American into orbit and safely return him to Earth.
NASA was just beginning to transition into the computer age, and so they had some uncertainty about the trajectory calculations provided by the agency’s IBM computer. Astronaut John Glenn, preparing for the Friendship 7 launch that would send him into orbit in February 1962, asked for mathematical genius Katherine Johnson to verify the computer’s numbers before the mission.
In the 2016 movie, Taraji Henson plays Johnson, who worked for NASA. Like me, Johnson is African-American.
In that era and place—Hampton, Virginia—Johnson had to walk, and sometimes run, across the NASA campus to use a segregated bathroom. When Harrison realized why she left her post for long spells, he tore down the “colored” sign outside the restroom in the hallway. After hitting the sign with a sledgehammer, he said, “No more colored restrooms, no more white restrooms, just toilets. Here at NASA, we all pee the same color.”
The Church’s Role in Healing
Look at that story through the lens of leadership. I hear people refer to the black church, the white church, and the Hispanic church, but I’ve never found a verse about such things in the Bible. I hear commentators say in the midst of crises, regardless of differences, we can come together. I think the church is specifically designed to facilitate that. Christian minister and author Tony Evans addressed this a few days before the October 1, 2017, concert shootings in Las Vegas, Nevada, that killed 58 and injured more than 500. Evans said:
We have become the divided states of America rather than the United States of America. And one of the reasons for this division is the failure of Christians and the church to show the comprehensive rule of God in both the moral arena and the social arena. This divide in the church has facilitated division in the culture. Psalm 89:14 makes it clear [that] from God’s kingdom throne comes righteousness and . He has a moral standard for life and for the definition of marriage. But he also has a social standard and that social standard includes justice and equitable treatment under the law across racial and cultural boundaries, and we must not allow the divisions of men to overrule both aspects that have come from the kingdom of God. And that means that the church must address the whole counsel of God and stop picking and choosing which issues they’re comfortable with and which issues they’re uncomfortable with as though our God is divided when he speaks to both clearly.
We should be known to take a strong stand for the moral principles of Scripture, but we must equally and simultaneously be known to take a strong stand against any kind of injustice, wherever it is found, when it is based on illegitimate criteria that is against the standards of almighty God and how his kingdom is designed to operate. God is not going to skip the church house to fix the White House. He is going to check with the church, and based on what he sees happening with us, address the society at large.
So if you want to see America healed . . . if you want to see the wounds salved with the goodness, mercy, grace, and justice of God, it’s got to start [at] 11 o’clock on Sunday morning with the church adopting a kingdom agenda, not a cultural agenda, demonstrating to the world what God looks like when he addresses both the social and the moral issues in society through his people based on his Word.
The church I serve is widely considered to be one of the most diverse in the Restoration Movement. Frankly, until recently, I didn’t know our church was in the Restoration Movement or what that movement was. It was just the place where I was saved and God started working in my life. It used to be called Arlington Christian Church, and 20 years ago it was an almost completely Anglo church.
It became my church because its location was on my wife’s shortcut to Walmart. I was Catholic because my father’s best friend was Catholic with 15 kids; since I had only a sister, I would hang out with that family and would go to their church. I went through the catechism with my parents’ approval.
When I was 27, I married a Catholic girl and we attended church in New Orleans. We had the best choir anywhere because Aaron, Cyril, and Art Neville were in it . . . we were jammin’ it up in Catholic church! I liked the Catholic church because I’m a fisherman: I could find a convenient Mass to attend and leave plenty of time for my favorite pastime. When our jobs took us to Dallas, we couldn’t find a similar church, so we quit going.
My wife was drawn to the Christian church she would drive by on her way to Walmart and started talking about going, but I wasn’t interested. One Sunday morning, she got dressed, dressed our 18-month-old son, and said she wanted everyone to go to church together. While I was trying to think of an excuse, she made this offer, “If you’ll go to church with us, I won’t talk to you while the Cowboys are on.” I was up, dressed, and ready to go before they were!
When we arrived, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me. My second week there, it seemed like the pastor wasn’t preaching to any of the white people, he was preaching to me. He said, “If you were killed in a car wreck on the way out of here, do you know for sure you would go to Heaven?” That was problematic for me because I thought I would go to Heaven . . . I believed I would . . . but I was a corporate guy and I had to know. I listened to him preach the next 14 Sundays in a row. The Holy Spirit wore me down, and I told my wife that I needed to go forward and give my life to Christ. After I made it to the front, the pastor whispered, “I’ve been waiting for you, and I’m going to put you to work.”
My wife and I started in kitchen ministry, moved into hosting the new believers class, and were surrounded by people who loved us and taught us the Word of God. After a while, I was approached to teach a Sunday school class—the one that most of the church leaders attended. I wanted no part of that, but people kept encouraging me to do it, saying they were praying for me. Finally, I lifted up a prayer. I said, “God, I’m a moron. You know it and I know it. I would like you to keep that circle of knowledge just as small as possible!” That is still my deal with God.
The Church’s Choice: The Right Thing or the Easy Thing
The racial tone of our church began to change before my arrival there. On his first week, senior pastor Barry Cameron walked in on a discussion about whether or not a lady could teach a women’s Bible study, since her husband was not a believer. Cameron asked if anyone had shared the gospel with the woman’s husband. The answer was no, so Cameron called him up and asked if he could. The husband accepted the Lord and was baptized that Sunday. The applause for his decision was unusually light. You see, he was black and his wife was white. Cameron told the congregation that if the man’s decision was a problem for them, they should find another church. That was the catalyst God used to set the church on a new path, and it was based on a choice between doing the right thing or the easy thing.
We all have an opportunity and responsibility to go out to a lost and hurting world, and God doesn’t care what color we are. We must recognize we are all part of the human race and the church of Jesus Christ. So how do we accomplish that?
Diversity doesn’t need to be the goal; the goal is to be like Jesus. At our church, we don’t hire people on the basis of their skin color or nationality, but on the basis of their Christlikeness, character, and competence. Our church and staff should reflect the community we live in. When people walk into our church and see people who look like them, they are more comfortable and more capable of hearing from God. When we love people like Jesus does, we’ll attract everyone, especially lost people.
The goal is unity, not uniformity. We’re never going to solve the race issue in our world—Jesus alone can do that—but the Lord equips us and positions us to do his work toward that end. Saying we’re color-blind is naive, immature, and ignores the fact that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. A friend in my small group approached me one day to ask a question. He said two African-American coworkers told him that on January 1 they celebrated the new year by eating chitlins, and he wanted to know what they were. When I explained it, he wondered why anyone would want to eat that! He’s on the right track. We have to talk to each other and learn about each other; that is the beginning of solving this problem God’s way.
We don’t need to ignore our past or try to bury our racial history, but neither should we live there or punish people for the sins of others. Tony Evans says, “If you drive down the highway looking in the rearview mirror, you’re going to run into something. You drive down the highway looking through the windshield, and every now and then, you glance at the rearview mirror just to keep your perspective.” We, as a church, need to focus on the future.
We need to help those who haven’t been given opportunities, and we must realize some people will waste those opportunities. That’s just the nature of human beings. I was taught this acronym for RACE:
R: Reach out to others who don’t look like you.
A: Accept everyone for whom God made them to be.
C: Commit to love your neighbor as yourself.
E: Every day, do something to help solve the problem.
The Church: It Changed My Life
My last name is Stein and I’m African-American. Of course, there’s a story behind that. My grandfather told me that his grandfather was owned by a Jewish man just outside of Memphis, Tennessee. When Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, the Jewish man, being righteous, gave his slaves their freedom. He gave my great-great-grandfather $10 and his last name, Stein. My great-great grandfather then walked to Texas where he met a white man, a Christian man, who treated black people like human beings. He purchased from that white, Christian man 10 acres of land for 10 cents an acre, and he used the other $9 to buy seed and a plow, and he started farming.
When I was 7 years old, my grandfather told me that his grandfather said to him, “Now that we are free, no matter what happens in our life, we can no longer blame the white man. As long as we keep God first and work hard, God is gonna take care of us.” That has been our family’s motto for more than 100 years.
I never would have dreamed that just by walking through the door of a church, I would become a Sunday school teacher, a deacon, an elder, chairman of the elders, and the executive pastor of that church. There is an ugly part to my story, but I only glance in the rearview mirror, because God has a plan for my life and that plan is not back there, it’s in front of me.
Alan Stein serves as executive pastor with Crossroads Christian Church in Grand Prairie, Texas. Formerly, he served in leadership with a major airline.