How Black Lives Matter Is Changing the Church

Brenda Salter McNeil used to think that it was not the place of a pastor to talk about systemic racism. Ferguson changed her mind.

One December evening, in 2014, Brenda Salter McNeil, a pastor and Black evangelical leader, descended into a church basement in Ferguson, Missouri, to meet with young activists from a broad-based group called Ferguson Action. In the four months since Michael Brown, a local eighteen-year-old, had been fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a police officer, Ferguson had become the national center of protest against police violence and the proving ground for the new Black Lives Matter movement; some of the activists running Ferguson Action went on to lead the B.L.M. movement nationwide. Salter McNeil, who is in her fifties and wears thick-rimmed glasses, had come with a handful of other evangelical leaders on a pilgrimage sponsored by Sojourners, a progressive evangelical organization, to ask the activists what role the church should take in addressing police brutality against people of color.

Several of the religious leaders who came that day were proponents of a church movement called racial reconciliation, which seeks to end racism by addressing it as a sin in individuals that can be eradicated through Biblical study, confession, and prayer. Salter McNeil—who became Christian at the age of nineteen and went on to receive a master-of-divinity degree at Fuller Theological Seminary, where she began to identify as evangelical—was one of the most prominent figures in the racial-reconciliation movement. For the previous thirty years, she had touted reconciliation around the world, often addressing tens of thousands of listeners, mostly conservative white evangelicals, at conferences and megachurches. When she spoke, she explicitly avoided talking about aspects of structural racism, such as the racial wealth gap, or the high death rate of Black mothers during childbirth; she sought to insure that her sermons were rooted in the Bible and not, as she saw it, in politics. She also stayed away from topics such as sexuality and abortion, for fear that she’d be labelled a liberal with a hidden agenda. Her workshops focussed on inspiring personal stories but left listeners with few practical tools to root out racism in their communities.

To the young activists in Ferguson, the church’s failure to address systemic racial injustice in the United States rendered American Christian leaders like Salter McNeil part of the problem. In addition, they took issue with what they saw as the church’s culture of homophobia and misogyny. That evening, when Salter McNeil and others asked the activists how the church could support them, the young activists expressed their rage. “They told us that they hated the church’s misogyny and hypocrisy, and how we treated L.G.B.T.Q. people,” Salter McNeil told me recently. “They said, ‘It seems like you work harder to keep people out of the church than to let them in.’ ” The more she listened, the more Salter McNeil began to think that the activists had a point. “It was that night that I really understood how disappointed young people of color had become with the church. They experienced us as not simply irrelevant but on the wrong side of justice.” The next day, the activists sent a text to the evangelical leaders. “We are meeting on the steps of the municipal court building at 4 p.m. Are you coming or not?” it read.

“The message was put up or shut up,” Salter McNeil said. Although she was accustomed to preaching before thousands of listeners, she was terrified to take part in a street protest: she worried that she would get trapped in a crowd and attacked by the police. She didn’t know the basics of preparing for such an endeavor: that, for example, she was supposed to carry a driver’s license in case she was arrested, to scrawl the number of an emergency contact on her arm, and to have a cloth mask to cover her face in case the police shot canisters of tear gas. She decided to attend anyway. When she arrived at the courthouse, she was startled by the diversity of her fellow-protesters. She saw older white Mennonites dressed in bonnets holding a white sheet that said “Black Lives Matter.”

The police had put up barricades to stop the protesters from reaching the courthouse steps, and some of the protesters began to shake them, trying to pull them down. Salter McNeil watched as a young white protester with spiky hair rushed ahead and climbed the fence. “I thought, This little white guy is going to cause the police to react, and they’re going to react with violence against us Black people,” she said. Overwhelmed with terror, she knelt in the street and began to pray as the swirl of bodies pressed around her. One by one, although she didn’t notice, the other faith leaders knelt nearby, and so did some of the young activists who, the night before, had expressed disgust with the church’s failure to take a meaningful stand for Black lives. McNeil told me that, in that moment, she felt the nearness of God in a way that she never had from the pulpit or stage. “It changed my life,” she said. “That day, Jesus came into the neighborhood.”

Salter McNeil is one of a growing number of leaders in both evangelical and mainstream churches for whom Black Lives Matter has prompted a crisis of moral conscience. “What Black Lives Matter did was highlight the racism and white supremacy that still has a stranglehold on much of white Christianity,” Jemar Tisby, a prominent church historian and the author of “The Color of Compromise,” told me. “You have this phrase and this movement that is forcing people, essentially, to take sides.” In her new book, “Becoming Brave,” which came out in August, Salter McNeil writes, “I began my journey sincerely believing that if I could convince evangelical Christians that reconciliation was not some politically motivated agenda but a Biblical calling rooted in Scripture, they would pursue racial justice.” She now believes that this has proven naïve, and that religious leaders must begin more actively campaigning against systemic racism if they are to effect change.

Black Lives Matter has created this reckoning in part by prompting a backlash against the racial-reconciliation movement, which has held sway in evangelical circles since the nineteen-nineties. In 1996, Bill McCartney, a former football coach and the founder of Promise Keepers, an influential evangelical men’s organization, helped to launch a wide-scale effort to “disciple” a million men in the project of undoing racism through Biblical teachings. The project was idealistic: in 1997, as Chanequa Walker-Barnes writes, in “I Bring the Voices of My People,” the organization “declared a lofty goal of eradicating racism in the church by 2000.” At its inception, the movement’s aims were intensely practical: it funded efforts to rebuild Black churches targeted by arson, agitated for the hiring of more racially diverse staff in evangelical organizations, and developed curricula around racism. But early efforts to spur broader policy changes fizzled. At the Promise Keepers conference in 1996, when conversation turned to practical ways of dismantling racism through programs like affirmative action, white evangelicals became upset and derailed the discussion. As McCartney told the authors of the book “Divided by Faith,” “Of the 1996 conference participants who had a complaint, nearly 40 percent reacted negatively to the reconciliation theme.”

Over the next two decades, racial reconciliation moved away from efforts to combat institutional racism and focussed instead on addressing personal feelings about race. This focus sits more easily with the theological underpinnings of evangelical Christianity, which emphasize a believer’s personal relationship with Jesus and portray sin and salvation as matters of personal choice. Today, the reconciliation movement centers around gimmicky one-off events, like pulpit-swaps, in which Black and white pastors switch congregations. Conversations abound race are reduced to “relational” confessionals, often one-sided chats in which white Christians share the ways in which they’ve committed the sins of racism, and Christians of color are cast in the role of confessors, required to hear and then to absolve their white counterparts. Subjects such as mass-incarceration or economic inequity are written off as outside the purview of the Bible and tainted by politics.

The Black Lives Matter movement has pushed the church toward a more urgent confrontation with racism. Austin Channing Brown, the author of “I’m Still Here,” a memoir about her childhood as a Black girl in a white church, told me, “Black Lives Matter has forced the church to move beyond an easy rhetoric of ‘togetherness.’ ” Salter McNeil put it more bluntly. “People are sick of the kumbaya party,” she told me. “The idea is that if we can sing in Spanish and eat with chopsticks, we are somehow reconciled. But young people know that’s hollow.” The problem, as they see it, is that racism is often a function not of personal malice but of the way systems are built: white people can profess love for racial minorities, but if their school system remains segregated as a result of decades of policy that benefit those in power, Black people will remain disenfranchised. “If you still support policies that cage up children, or that cause people of color to die of covid-19, that’s not reconciliation.” she said. “It’s a smokescreen for racism, and you’re not going to put my face on your pamphlet.”

Salter McNeil told me that, for decades, she didn’t talk about racist policies, because she thought it would make her seem overly partisan. Now she sees these issues as beyond squabbles between Republicans and Democrats. “Partisanship is what party you choose,” she said. “Politics is about the policy that impacts people’s lives, and we should all be talking about that.” She finds inspiration in the Biblical scenes that depict Jesus as a radical figure—a man of color—flipping tables in the temple to point out economic injustice and agitating for the dignified treatment of lepers and prostitutes. Christ sought to upend corrupt social hierarchies, not to reinforce them or to look the other way; Salter McNeil now sees this as the heart of her own work.

Others have called upon the church to examine its own history of racism. In 2014, Jennifer Harvey wrote a book called “Dear White Christians,” which argued that racism has pervaded the white church in America since the days of slavery. In 2015, Michelle Higgins, a Black pastor and organizer, stood up before tens of thousands of people at a popular evangelical conference in St Louis, Missouri, and told them that, as she put it to me, “mission work was really an exercise in exporting racism, and that evangelicalism was a moral protection for white supremacy.” The backlash against Higgins was swift: by the next morning, she’d received numerous death threats. Today, her criticisms are gaining ground. “For the last five hundred years, Christianity has been influenced by Martin Luther’s effort to decentralize the church,” Lisa Sharon Harper, the founder of a progressive evangelical religious group called Freedom Road, told me. “For the next five hundred years, the principle effort will be decolonization.”

Since the killing of George Floyd, Salter McNeil has been busy agitating against police violence and speaking about the role that Christians can play in ending injustice. Before the pandemic, she might have addressed her listeners in person. Today, her audience is largely virtual: she speaks on podcasts, and preaches at Quest and Cornerstone, evangelical megachurches where she works as a pastor, via Zoom. She often critiques the shortcomings of reconciliation, as she and others have practiced it. On a recent episode of the podcast “Churchleaders,” she prayed aloud with the host.“These children are in these streets around the world saying ‘Black Lives Matter,’ because they can see the hypocrisy and the disparity in how one group of people are treated by police,” she said. “Let’s stop making excuses.”

There are some indications that these new leaders are gaining ground in religious communities. Lisa Sharon Harper has gained tens of thousands of followers on social media. Austin Channing Brown’s book was added to Reese Witherspoon’s book club; and Jemar Tisby’s book, which was published in 2019, recently hit the Times best-seller list. Some conservative churches are also beginning to engage with movements for social justice. “Black Lives Matter has forced Christians to do some actual social-change work,” Drew Hart, a professor at Messiah University and the author of “Trouble I’ve Seen,” told me. Recently, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where Hart lives, Pentecostals and evangelicals hosted rallies against racial injustice, an effort that was unprecedented for the community. Despite considerable blowback, InterVarsity, a campus evangelical organization, has supported Black Lives Matter since 2015. “The example of Jesus’ life and work among the dispossessed, and his call for radical equality, serves as a blueprint for taking apart unjust systems,” Hart told me. “The gospel is actually powerful enough to transform our society if we take Jesus seriously.”

Of course, not everyone is listening. Recently, on Facebook, a white man chided Salter McNeil, writing to her that people liked her better when she didn’t speak about social justice and just quoted Bible verses. “Did it hurt? Yep, it did. I deleted him,” she told me. “But he made a telling statement. What white-dominant culture has said is that if you would just show us it’s in the Bible, if you wouldn’t be angry, if you wouldn’t bring up politics, we’ll listen,” she went on. “Most of us said, O.K., I hear that you don’t want the Angry Black Woman. If we could be intellectual enough, Biblical enough, gracious enough—if we could do it in a way that didn’t make white people feel guilty and shamed, then things would change,” she told me. “My sister, that just isn’t true.”

In her workshops, Salter McNeil still encourages participants to try to reduce racial prejudice in their own hearts, and she believes that the church offers helpful spiritual tools in this regard: confession allows an individual to recognize the harm he has caused through racism; lament creates a space for grieving that harm; repentance is a means to undo the harm in practical ways. Now, however, Salter McNeil also speaks out against U.S. policies that she sees as racist—for example, the cruel treatment of undocumented immigrants in detention, or policies that are causing people of color to die of covid-19 at a higher rate than whites. She turns down speaking engagements when she fears that she will simply be used as a token Black presence, but won’t really be heard. When I spoke to her, in July, she had just declined an invitation to speak about race to a group of wealthy, white Christians in Florida, whom she feared just wanted a person of color to headline their event. “When I say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and they respond, ‘Don’t All Lives Matter?’ there’s someone to answer their question, but it isn’t me any longer,” she said. “I don’t want to answer questions that I’ve answered for the past thirty years, nor will I. The time is way more urgent.”

Eliza Griswold