Plenty Good Room—Joining in the Emergent Conversation

Posted by Melvin Bray on July 20th, 2006 filed in Useful Perhaps

So I've been down with this Emergent thing for almost 1 year now, and I gotta say, I'm really feelin' it. Now I may not be your typical Emergent-type (as soon as I say that I recognize I potentially stereotype many of my new friends: I beg your pardon)—I'm Black. The significance of which in this instance is that I did not have the white-American, middle-class, suburban up-bringing common to most Emergents. Being raised in an integrated, socioeconomically-advantaged church and attending it's schools did, however, give me a window into that world, although I was often reminded that it was not my own.

My experiences have taught me a lot about the ideals like equality, justice, morality and love that we tout—particularly in the church—but can't ever seem to embody. And perhaps that's why I've enjoyed my brief time in the Emergent mix. Much to my delight, it has proven to be a conscientious attempt to move beyond all the yada-yada to test whether "kingdom come" is even possible. You know, a life beyond racism and sexism and absolutism and all the other I'm-better-or-righter-than-you–isms. I don't know about you, but I'm sick of all that stuff (having lived on the losing end of most of it). Even if we don't get there, I'm game for any meaningful effort that way.

If you've been debating whether the Emergent conversation is for you, or even if you've been down with Emergent for a minute but wondering if and how all this chatting is getting us any closer to the kingdom, allow me to share with you how I began to feel at home in the Emergent exchange. Who knows? It just may lay to rest some of the questions floating around inside.

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To begin, I was certain I didn’t want to be a part of any so-called "movement". In fact, I was frightened by the thought. It’s one thing to be personally committed to following God wherever He leads—even if it has meant traipsing gingerly out on what appears to be the most fragile of limbs. It’s quite another to turn around to take stock of one's surroundings only to discover the added weight of an entire "movement" compromising the structural integrity of one's already precarious perch. And to add insanity to uncertainty, the "movement" has a name that initially I couldn't make a lick of sense of—"Emergent," what's that?!

I was introduced to Emergent as somewhat of an aside. An old friend of mine, Keith, who pastors in Philly, shot me an e-mail one morning with a link and a note that simply read, "Look at the article on 'Emergent' churches. Sounds kinda like what you were talking about the other week." I could easily have overlooked it: you can't read everything, you know. In retrospect, it's ironic that Keith would be the one to turn me on to Emergent: he still sees it as just some alternative worship style or something. I read the article and was touched by the answers these "Emergent" folks were giving. What they were talking about sounded more than cosmetic; it really resonated with me. So I set myself to find out more.

I contacted the author of the article, and he directed me to EmergentVillage.com as well as gave me the e-mail addresses of some of the folks he had interviewed. I wanted so much to connect with one of them right away, but I felt weird contacting folks out of the blue with, "I know you don’t know me, but would you mind spilling your guts to me about your spiritual journey? I'd love to know how you got to this—what did you call it again, 'Emergent?'—place that smells so much like the kingdom to me." I was certain they'd think I was some kind of lunatic (I later found out I could have... e-mail probably wasn't the best medium though). I even gave some thought as to how else I might approach them so they would take me seriously. For a moment I thought, "Well maybe if I led with, 'Hi, my name is...I'm director of thus-and-such, principal-emeritus of who- gives-a-crap, "emperor of the Lone Isles," etc, etc, gag, up-chuck,'" but that was too obnoxious to pull off with a straight face. So I went with Plan B and just visited EmergentVillage.com.

The first thing that jumped out at me was the way they described themselves. They weren’t a "movement" (at least not yet). They weren’t a "church" (a term the author of the article had used repeatedly), a group separate and distinct from other Christian denominations. They described themselves as a "conversation," at most a "village". I could dig that. Although the determination as to whether they were who they presented themselves as could not yet be made, I was loving the language. So I kept reading.

I digested the entirety (minus downloads) of EmergentVillage in one night. From there I knew I had to connect with a person. That would be the real test. You see, I already knew that Emergent was predominately beige (if you didn't know, white-folks aren't really white), and I have zero interest in collaborating with yet another transfiguration of the status quo designed to profit the dominant culture. The thing about white-privilege is that it has the luxury of exploring all manner of self-deprecating fancy because in the end its resources are not depleted and its advantage is in nowise diminished (the true power-brokers see to that). So as tempted as I am to believe the best in people—even the privileged—I am not so naïve to believe that their best intentions are automatically of benefit to those unlike themselves. Nevertheless, I had been truly impressed up to this point, and my metaphoric bough wasn't feeling quite as crowded.

All this was happening late summer of 2005. The Atlanta-area Emergent cohort was on summer hiatus so there was no one to meet yet. I had to cool my heels for a few weeks, which just gave me more time to read. I read anything I could download of someone mentioned on EmergentVillage. Of all I downloaded, one piece stuck with me, "Response to Our Critics". I was captivated by the refreshing humility I found there. In addition, I was able to find one book written by a notably Emergent author in my local library, A New Kind of Christian. Since I had seen a picture of the author, Brian McLaren, my interest was immediately peaked to discover that the central character of the story is a black man. Furthermore, though penned by a beige guy, this NEO character is written with such respect and dignity and remains throughout the story, surprisingly, Black (proud of his cultural uniqueness). This was huge for me. In fact, before this encounter, I would have thought it impossible that a white person could give empathetic voice to a person color, but that someone had, opened my heart to re-imagined possibilities.

If you're not a person of color, you may be tempted to dismiss all this reticence on my part as prejudice, but take a moment and try to understand from the vantage point of my experience. The Western world has taken great pains to make itself the absolute frame of reference for everything (think about the use of the terms majority and minority in a world where people of color make up more than 80% of the earth's population, or consider the spring '06 contention that European sensibilities regarding freedom of speech must automatically trump Arab sensibilities about the prophet Mohammad). Western society has made itself—its aspirations, its perspective, its way of doing things—the standard beyond which anything else is unessential, aberrant or less than. Colored (in the global sense) history, literature and art are electives, if available at all in Western schools, whereas I had to pass year after year of Euro-American history (only the beige side of it, mind you) to be finally considered moderately intelligent. One segment of American society (I'll stay away from more specific labels) seems to find it easiest to simply disregard most that is not Euro-American. Another seems to think it is somehow better to find ubiquitous labels by which to categorize everyone and everything into neat, innocuous groups so as to avoid having to engage real, live, often messy individualities. Whether at either extreme or somewhere in the middle, the privileged life marches on unmolested by the manifest inhumanity of ignoring the differently valid aspirations, perspectives and ways of doing things of the other persons with which they share the planet. Needless to say, I was heartened that McLaren had chosen otherwise. I had to see if it were true for more in Emergent than just he.

With more than a few things to investigate, I went to the Atlanta cohort meeting. The conversation proved invigorating. Everyone was extremely smart, but most strove to wrestle their ideas to the ground so the ideas could live. About half of us were just there to check it out and see what it was all about—very non-committal. Still, everyone was heard, and everyone was validated (men, women, black, yellow, white, Catholic, Protestant... and some in abstentia). The most memorable thing for me—other than the people—was Troy Bronswick's affirmation that we first-timers were not just witnesses to the Emergent conversation, rather in our participation that night we were the Emergent conversation and were helping to shape it through our contributions. I thought, "Man, how gracious."

When my wife asked me later that night how things went, I responded, "I think they've done the requisite work to get beyond this race thing [racism]. For one thing, they seem to have gotten over the need to be right [or the need never to be or have been wrong]. For another, they seem to have let go of the need for power [or the need to be in control]. I think I can hang with them."

Thus began my involvement with Emergent. The conversation is no longer "them;" it's "we". Beyond the thrill of intelligent, progress-oriented, life-affirming conversation, I've made some great new friends. Most prominent has been the development of kinship with that Troy Bronsink guy I mentioned (and I didn't even have to use the "I'm the director of so-and-so" line on him). He and I have been able to start creating together a bit (keep your ears open for Life Across the Tracks, a little sumpin'-sumpin' we've been working on for folks who love good music). I'm even making plans to go to the next big gathering in New Mexico to see how deep the genuineness runs (at this point, I have no doubts). However, it is getting lonely in here being one of the few holding it down for the diversity crowd. I would love—I believe I'm safe in saying everyone whose truly representative of the Emergent spirit would love—to hear the voices of more people of color, more women, more handi-capable, more homosexuals, more non-Westerners... more of the heretofore disenfranchised masses. As strange as it may sound to the ears of the previously colonized, marginalized or exploited, for once there's room enough for all of us.

I am often left in awe of the wisdom of my American black ancestors once I finally grasp it. In their songs they spoke of a time and space where there would be "plen'y good room" for "all God's chillun" (note the grace expressed). They may even have been the first (dating back to the 1600's) to practice a post-modern/post-colonial theology. They just didn't have all the fancy academic terminology to explain it. They simply imagined a place where all God's children—even those who meant them harm—would have shoes, a robe, a song and could just (exhale)... be. With wonderfully subversive intent they sang of a sweet "by and by" on "the other side" where there would be "a great campmeeting" just "over Jordan" in "Canaan Land," also known as the "Beautiful City," sometimes called "Heaven," because this was the common language they had. No doubt they looked for "a city whose builder and maker was God," but we have learned (from those brave men and women who chose not to treat this history as elective) that their hope wasn't just for pie-in-the-sky. Many believed this reality—God's reality—was "at hand," just waiting to break through, whether back home in Africa, in another country, in the American North, out West or even on the Southern ground on which they stood.

It's taken a good 200-300 years, but Emergent seems to have caught this same vision. Still I'm sobered by my fathers and mothers' forewarning that "ev'rybody talkin'bout heben ain't goin' dere!" Nonetheless, it's good to be talking about it. And it's even better to be embodying it, for if we can't find embrace (racial reconciliation and justice) in the church, what chance does the world have? I may not know "what the end's gonna be", but I do welcome the company... even out here, on this rickety branch of ours.

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i All quotes from this point on (except "at hand") are from Negro Spirituals or old Gospel classics—"Plenty Good Room In My Father's Kingdom," "Get on Board Lil'Chillun," "I'm Gonna Walk All Over God's Heaven," "By and By When the Morning Comes," "Sing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Deep River," "I'm on My Way," "Oh, What a Beautiful City," "I Open My Mouth to the Lord," etc.

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5 Responses to “Plenty Good Room—Joining in the Emergent Conversation”

  1. Will Says:

    Melvin,

    Excellent article. Thank you for these thoughts.

  2. Jeff Kursonis Says:

    Wow, I’m sure this post is a dream come true for many in the conversation.

    Sometimes knowing that you want everyone at the table, and knowing that you don’t want to have the power (ie. signs that the gospel is succeding) doesn’t mean that you know how to successfully invite or give up power. Maybe there are unknown walls you have up, or impedances to reaching out you don’t see, or ways of holding power you are ignorant of…so it is encouraging to hear that there is some success in these dreams as felt and observed by you Melvin.

    One detail question to help me…how did you sense that they had given up the control of power??

    Thanks, Jeff

  3. Arlene Kasselman Says:

    Fabulous article, thank you. I have posted the link on my blog because I want my small circle to read this.

  4. John Says:

    This is great! Thankyou for sharing your story!

    I am a pastor of sorts in an “emergent” church in Pittsburgh PA. We are in the inner city, an area called East Liberty. It’s a very mixed neighborhood between white and black, we though are very white still. We’re trying to figure out what it means to be a neighborhood church in our context.

    http://www.pghopendoor.org

  5. Melvin Bray Says:

    Thanks Arlene, Jeff and Will for your comments; you encourage me. And thanks to those who have also reached out via email after reading my Emergent essay.

    In answer to Jeff’s question… The great thing is that I didn’t just have to “sense” it. Troy immediately put it out there by surrendering the need to protect the ‘good name’ of Emergent and assuring us of our place in the conversation before we had had done anything to ‘earn the right’ to be there or to be heard. The fact that the dynamic of the conversation continued that way even when we broke into small groups (no one sought to dominate by virtue that they knew what it meant to be Emergent and us newbies didn’t) sealed the deal for me.

    So often we say we want a certain thing, but put no resource into creating dynamics, structures or systems that invite, nourish or protect the thing we swear we want.

    I intentionally pressed the issue later that night to be assured that what I had experienced was true. I had written a manuscript and had been in search of a publisher. Having just the week before read about the Emergent partnership with Baker Books, that very first night I asked Troy how and to whom I would go about making a manuscript offering. He could have shut me down with a very valid rationale:”Wait your turn.” He could have been unwisely indulgent. Instead, he mapped out for me the relational path to where making a manuscript offering would make sense, offering of his own accord to befriend me and make introductions along the way. Sure it would take time–I couldn’t meet everybody in Emergent in a day; folks live all over the country, you know!–but that time wouldn’t be a “Get-in-line-buddy-there-may-not-be-enough-to-go-around” penalty. My whole thing was to see how deep the things I was noting ran. I think people have a right to test what we say we’re about.

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