The Ministry of Reconciliation: Brenda Salter McNeil
Interviewed by Glen Kinoshita
Across the country today, the ministry of Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil is touching lives and challenging Christian institutions significantly. An ordained minister and passionate communicator, Brenda has been traveling the nation speaking about racial reconciliation to a wide variety of audiences. Her ministry background includes serving as the Regional Coordinator of Multiethnic Training with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, being the founder of Overflow Ministries Inc, and currently the President of Salter McNeil and Associates, a reconciliation training and consulting company based in Chicago. Brenda is the coauthor of The Heart of Racial Justice: How Soul Change Leads to Social Change (InterVarsity Press, 2004). She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Rutgers University, a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary and Doctor of Ministry from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, now Palmer Theological Seminary. In this interview, Brenda shares her insights and vision for globalization and biblical reconciliation.
Let’s get to know you some, tell us a little about your background.
I am originally from Trenton, New Jersey, born in a working class family. My parents had the expectation that my siblings and I would get a good education and uphold high moral values. We were raised to be honest and to love our family. We grew up in an urban environment with cultural and ethnic diversity around us though my primary social circles consisted of African Americans. Though going to church was a part of my upbringing, it wasn’t until I went off to college that I came to a personal faith in Jesus. I was a nineteen-year old sophomore at Rutgers University where a friend of mine who lived in the same dorm that I did, shared her faith with me. It was there that Jesus became more than just someone I acknowledged on Sunday morning; He became someone I lived for on a continual basis.
You are known for speaking on racial reconciliation. Was there a turning point in your life where you embraced reconciliation as a value and ministry calling?
Being that Rutgers University is a very large campus, almost every known campus ministry was active there. These campus ministries were predominately white. The interesting thing is, rather than get involved in one of these campus ministries, I started to attend a small bible study that met on Friday nights in another student’s dorm room. Those of us who met regularly every Friday night were almost exclusively African American. One of the values we shared was a strong commitment to evangelism. As a result of this, the bible study grew to be the largest ministry on campus during my time in college. We were not trying to start a movement or a separate ministry. This was just our alternative to partying on Friday nights. Why did a group of African American students do this? Couldn’t we find a ministry on campus that we could fit into? I didn’t ask these questions then, I was just a young college student trying to grow and remain steadfast in the Lord.
Fast forward ten years later. While completing my Masters of Divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary, I also served as an intern with the chaplain at Occidental College in Eagle Rock, California. While there were 200 students participating in the chapel program there at Occidental College, only 2 were students of color. This scenario brought me back to my days at Rutgers University. I wondered, are there students of color meeting somewhere in a dorm room having a bible study, just trying to remain steadfast in the Lord and yet not participating in the campus chapel program? I asked myself, “Where are those students like me on this campus who love God but are not coming to chapel? Why can’t these groups come together? What can we do to bridge this gap so we can grow from one another?” Here is where my turning point came to embrace the calling to the ministry of reconciliation.
You have been traveling to and speaking at a variety of Christian colleges/universities lately. What have you been seeing and hearing?
As I visit Christian colleges nationwide, there are several things I’ve noticed. One is that there are a growing number of students who come from a background of what I call “emotional brokenness.” More students are coming from families that are struggling to stay together, where their parents are divorced, or who have a background of being abused. This is not limited to any one ethnicity. There are a greater number of students bearing emotional brokenness to the degree that it is disturbing.
The reason I bring this up in relation to diversity is when people feel safe and secure, they have more of a capacity to care for others. It has been said that one of the reasons why Dr. Martin Luther King was successful in motivating people to the civil rights movement was because it came at a time when the country was economically stable and hence people were openhearted to the underprivileged. We are living in a time where students are experiencing more and more diversity, multi-ethnicity and globalization. With this comes the necessity to be more understanding and compassionate.
I believe students do have a desire to embrace others. The capacity to be compassionate, however, is being limited by the personal pain they are experiencing. These two realities are beginning to collide with each other. Hence, when students come together, they have conflict over who is in more pain. Many have been socialized to believe that multi-ethnicity is a core value but we also are in conflict with who has been hurt the most. Students are lacking the emotional capacity to engage more and it has created a complexity for those of us in Christian education. We have to recognize the pain of the populations we serve as we challenge students to move into multi-ethnicity.
What are some of the biggest barriers to Christians becoming reconciled?
In addition to the emotional brokenness previously mentioned, students have seen a lot of talk and little action. We have to move beyond the talk of racial reconciliation as an ideal and move to the practicality of how to do it. Students today need to see authenticity. They have seen too many politicians or leaders from their parents’ generation and fore parents generation be less than honest. They are not going to listen to us unless they see authenticity. They don’t want to hear of reconciliation as a theoretical concept, they want to move beyond theory into significant action.
In addition, I see major trends colliding. Along with a greater degree of globalization there are more people competing for resources. This causes tensions between different ethnic groups. For instance, the increase of immigrants creates the notion that more people are coming into the U.S. to take resources that are already limited. The perception is by embracing the immigrant population, the result is there will not be enough for my household. This leads us to a spirit of fear. Well-meaning and sincere Christians can do very mean things to others when they are afraid. I used to think racism stemmed from hate, I am now beginning to feel it is coming out of fear. The bible says that God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of love, power and a sound mind.
Your book addresses spiritual warfare as a major issue in the ministry of reconciliation. Could you speak some as to how principalities and powers are also barriers?
In our western worldview we often don’t believe in supernatural realities, we believe in what we can touch, quantify and control. Paul says we don’t wrestle with flesh and blood. Underneath the issues we deal with, there are spirits. As I mentioned previously, it is my belief that the spirit of fear is one we wrestle with. The spirit of mammon is another. The spirit of mammon is when people are controlled by greed and money. In our book, The Heart of Racial Justice, Rick Richardson and I write that the spirit of mammon is when people will do anything to make a buck including oppressing people and turning them into means of profit and gain.
An example is when we know certain things are killing people but we will continue to let it happen because it will make money for us. This does not just mean selling drugs on the street, it also refers to what Madison Avenue or Hollywood sells that is destructive. These are the things that make our jobs very difficult because we are trying to produce Christians of moral uprightness in a society that goes counter to that.
As I mentioned in the previous question, we have people dealing with global issues but perceive that our resources are slim. I think this is opening us up to the influence of principalities and powers that capitalize on our fears that there won’t be enough. As a result we hoard our resources and are greedy. With the spirit of greed and mammon come destructive practices such as ethnic cleansing. Ultimately it is all spiritual warfare.
Where do we go from here? Can you offer some practical steps?
We have two models how we go about this: one is the older model or the civil rights model which basically asserts “how guilty can I make white people feel so that they will restore justice to me the way I deserve.” It is true that people of color have been wronged in this country and have never been healed from the scars of injustice. The civil rights model has had its day and was rooted in a truth that must be heard. However, it is a model that is not getting the same attention. Guilt has not been effective in motivating people into doing right. They are not listening to those who say you were wrong and thus you need to do justice.
I am starting to believe that we need to show people that globalization is a reality that cannot be denied. As opposed to the civil rights model I am now beginning to speak about a global model. The world around us is changing. Corporate America has already declared that any company that does not take seriously the demographic shifts taking place will be irrelevant in this world. I am concerned for the Church. It is in our best interest to be a people that understand the ministry of reconciliation if we are going to stay viable as Christian institutions. If it is true that the white population in America is shrinking and this is the primary pool from which we draw from as Christian colleges, as time goes by we are going to be limited. We have not cultivated trust in diverse communities. This global model is about understanding the context in which we live and taking it seriously so that the church can continue to be a viable institution. We need to produce graduates that can be relevant to a world around them.
Our goal with Salter McNeil and Associates is to help Christian organizations gain clarity and take practical steps in engaging a reconciliation process that is horizontal. In other words a process that seeks to reconcile people to one another. We have done a good job with the vertical process in being reconciled to God and giving practical steps on how to do that. I think the church has been limited on having practical steps on how to reconcile people horizontally so that we are able to preach the whole truth of the cross that we have been reconciled to God and to one another through Jesus Christ.
Salter McNeil and Associates has developed a four-stage model of the reconciliation process. Those stages are realization; identification; preparation and activation. First, we need realize what is happening in our institutions, what is happening in our own personal lives; and what is happening in our world around us. We have to come to an awakening of what the problem really is and our participation in it. Secondly, when we come to that realization we need to identify with those people in our past that we saw as foreigners and strangers. We have got to see that we have more in common as opposed to differences. Our identifying with others who are different will empower us more than if we were to stay in our mono-cultural enclaves. Our differences are significant and I believe that God created our differences. There is richness that our differences bring.
However, there is much beyond our differences that connect us with one another. When we connect in those places we empower each other in ways in which we can prepare to take action. Preparation is where you begin to go public with the things you are ready to take seriously. We cannot continue to be dependent on a few dedicated people who carry the work of reconciliation. When these people leave the momentum declines. We need to prepare to sustain momentum. Once we formulate what our sustainable plan will be, we then need to activate that plan. We have to decide the strategic steps to begin living our plan. I believe these four steps will help move institutions like Christian colleges forward in the ministry of reconciliation.
The ministry of reconciliation is a long and hard road. Many have quit along the way. How do you stay focused? What keeps you going?
Reconciliation is hard work, very hard work. I do get tired. In the midst of doing this work, we constantly hear of people who have been hurt, institutions that have failed, incidents of racial injustice, over and over and over again. You can’t keep hearing this and it not begin to damage your spirit. There is a tendency for those who do this work to hold onto or contain all the burdens we hear from others. There seems to be a need for a scapegoat, someone who contains the burdens of others so they can go free. I believe those who do the work of reconciliation have to find a way to not take the pain on themselves. We are not big enough to hold it. Only Christ can hold or contain the sins of others.
What keeps me going? First and foremost, I spend time in the presence of God. He lifts that pain and burden. The presence of God cleanses and renews me. Secondly, I am motivated by the vision of the Kingdom of God. Revelation 7:9 states that around the throne of God stands all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues. I believe this is what the Kingdom looks like and to have anything short of this is missing the Kingdom. I believe the ultimate goal of the people of God is to be a people made up of every language, nation, and ethnic group. Thirdly, I believe in this generation of college students. I believe if this generation ever got passionate they could change the world. If they caught the vision of the Kingdom they could make choices that could have life long effects.
To contact or learn more about the ministry of Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, go to www.saltermcneilandassociates.org.