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‘Structures which can be traced back to slavery need to be destroyed’

12 July 2019

Ben Lindsay tells Madeleine Davies why a conversation about race in the Church is long overdue

Ben Lindsay

Ben Lindsay

AT THE age of 14, while travelling to a football match in a taxi, Ben Lindsay was dragged out of his seat by two men who repeatedly pummelled his head on the bonnet of the car while calling him by a racist epithet. Nobody came to his aid. Eventually, he managed to slip out of his coat and sprint home to his mother.

Three months later, and just a mile away, Stephen Lawrence was murdered.

Aged seven, Mr Lindsay recalls, he witnessed a brick that had been thrown through the window of his home, racist graffiti daubed on the house, and dog excrement left on the doorstep. Among the family’s neighbours were members of the National Front. Monkey noises and other forms of racial abuse became a “regular occurrence”.

It was not easy to revisit these memories, he tells me. “I think it’s safe to say that I am probably still traumatised by some of this stuff. . . But I think it was necessary just to show a bit of a human side. This isn’t just theory: this is lived experience.”

Mr Lindsay’s first book, We Need To Talk About Race, is an attempt to get people talking — not just about these overt forms of racism, but the large layer of “covert racism” which exists beneath the surface, from people denying that racism exists, to staying quiet when racist banter is overheard. It is a conversation that the Church desperately needs to have, he says.

“The best hyper-diverse multicultural relationships I’ve got require real work and real depth. It’s not just a given. . . The Bible talks about every tribe, every tongue. For me, as much as I agree with Reni that having this conversation can be really painful, I think it’s something we should be fighting for.”

RENI is Reni Eddo-Lodge, whose 2017 book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (Bloomsbury) made such an impact on Mr Lindsay that he bought copies for every member of the predominantly white leadership team at his church.

“I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates their experience,” Ms Eddo-Lodge wrote, in the blog that inspired the book. “You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals. It’s like they can no longer hear us.”

Mr Lindsay’s book argues that it can no longer fall to BAME people to do the hard work of educating the majority culture about the realities of racism and striving for racial reconciliation. “You’re the majority culture, and you are part of the power structure, whether you know it or not,” he tells white readers.

“For racial reconciliation to be achieved, for radical solidarity to be realised in the UK Church, black forgiveness of white racial wrongs cannot be the only answer. White confession and repentance also need to happen.”

THE book has been a long time coming. Now a pastor of Emmanuel Church, in New Cross, a white-majority New Frontiers church, he recalls encountering an “awkward racial dynamic” at the Baptist church that he attended as a child. On one occasion, he witnessed the silent, deep hurt of his mother when white church members described Nelson Mandela as a terrorist who ought to be locked up. The church included some of the most loving people that he had ever met, he writes, but it was also where he learned that “there is a huge difference between churches being diverse and churches being inclusive.”

As an adult, he has observed “othering”, including “sly jokes” about a black man’s muscular appearance, and a black woman greeted at a church meeting by a white woman who wanted to touch her hair. He has “lost track of the number of times I have been greeted in church with an awkward ‘Yo’, or an elaborate handshake, fist-bump high-five combination, by a white person attempting to be ‘down’ with black culture”.

“Being black in a white-majority church can be a bit like the first day of a new school on repeat,” he writes. “Your natural insecurities come to the surface. Will I be included? Will I be noticed?” Over time, repeated slights, verbal and otherwise, can lead to “a deep feeling of isolation and exclusion”.

A chapter is devoted to first-hand accounts from black women, featuring stories of stereotyping, exclusion, and alienation. One of them, Temi, describes white male leaders who “fear either meeting a Grace Jones or a Beyoncé”; Eleasah observes how often black Pentecostal Christians are “the butt of theological humour”; and Vivienne records the tendency to stifle expressions of worship (“saying ‘Amen’ under our breath quietly, stop bringing words of knowledge”).

“It’s not necessarily obvious stuff, but I think if you are a person of colour you would have experienced a subtle dig, this subtle abuse, and it builds up and builds up,” Mr Lindsay tells me. “You’re like ‘What do I do with this? Where do I go?’” He wants to reassure black readers, he writes, that “You’re not imagining the issues, you have not got a chip on your shoulder, you have the right to call things out, and, when you do, you’re not being aggressive.”

The fastest-growing denominations in the UK are black African churches — a sign, he speculates, that minorities may have grown tired of trying to integrate.

THE book is not meant to produce “white guilt” or a “them-and-us” mentality, Mr Lindsay emphasises.

“My white friends who were in my year at school when Stephen Lawrence died, it’s not like they didn’t see that, or it didn’t impact them,” he tells me. When I talk to one of my closest friends who’s white, who was in my school — when we talk about Stephen Lawrence, we are saying the same stuff.”

He praises the solidarity shown at New Day, the annual New Frontiers youth event, at which thousands of young people prayed for the family of Leoandro Osemeke, a black teenager stabbed to death in Peckham in 2016. At King’s Church, Catford, where 70 to 80 per cent of the 900 people who have joined in the past five years are black Caribbean/black African, there is annual teaching on diversity.

NEW DAYThe Christian hip-hop artist Guvna B on stage at the youth festival Newday

But he is honest, too, about difficult conversations, and the need for concrete actions to “dismantle racist structures” in the Church and beyond. In the past, attempts to talk about race with white people came up against “defensiveness or dismissiveness”.

“You talk to most white people, and if there is even a hint that they are seen as being racist, it’s the worst thing,” he says. “You can see their face: it’s shock, horror, ‘I’m not racist. My best friend is black,’ or whatever it is. So we definitely know that it’s painful; it’s a hard conversation, but it’s a necessary one. If we don’t engage with it, if we don’t try and allow different narratives to have the space to breathe, you are only ever going to get one perspective.”

Given the prevalence of the “Guinness effect” (white-majority leadership at the top and black-majority congregation below), how did his own journey to leadership develop?

“I never thought I would be a leader, which probably says it all,” he says. “With some of my friends and peers, it’s almost like they knew that they were going to be church leaders from the moment they came out of the womb, and it’s like, ‘Wow, where did that confidence come from?’ Because I didn’t think that, and that’s a lot to do with relationship.”

He cites as pivotal the influence of Owen Hylton, another black New Frontiers leader, who encouraged him and his wife to lead small groups. “Would that have happened if I was in another church where I didn’t have a black advocate who had already smashed down certain doors? I don’t know, if I am honest. . . For black leadership to flourish, we can’t just have it on the same level of white leadership. There are some things we might need to do to encourage black leaders in white spaces.”

Attaining a leadership position does not put an end to experiences of racism, Mr Lindsay observes. He has endured “the presumption of incompetence” from white church leaders, and remains conscious of the “fine line” between assimiliation and tokenism. Black leaders, he writes, “tend to be presented as either Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, or Malcolm X”.


AMONG the most powerful interviews in We Need to Talk is Mr Lindsay’s conversation with a British rapper, Jahaziel, who, in 2015, announced that he was leaving his Christian faith. Jahaziel described encountering a “colonial mindset” in black congregations, and, in particular, a church on a north-London housing estate with a predominantly black congregation and white leadership, where “the [black] elderly people had this automatic deference around the leadership: they would lower themselves around [the leaders], and I was looking at these women who have been flipping soldiers: ‘Why are you bowing to him?’” He traces this behaviour to “slavery and a post-traumatic impact”.

“There were questions he had where it wasn’t so much like you couldn’t answer them, as people weren’t even prepared to have the conversation,” Mr Lindsay observes. “Things like, ‘So, can you explain to me about why we have this depiction of white Jesus?’ Or ‘Can we talk about the roots of scripture, Bible, church in Africa?’ And what he would say is, ‘Let’s talk about slavery.’ This is quite a big thing as a black person to deal with, and he just he wasn’t getting the answers.”

These were no questions that Mr Lindsay hadn’t heard before: “For me, Jahaziel’s voice was a voice which many of my friends have: the type of conversations that I will have in barber shops all the time; so it was a real drive for me. Well, what about the transatlantic slave trade? If I’m brutally honest, there was a moment when I was writing this book when I said ‘I’m not sure I will even be a Christian at the end of this process,’ because I had to go to some very dark places. Chapter three on slavery was a very difficult chapter to write.”

© Mazur/catholicnews.org.ukMembers of congregations in London at the Standing Together rally against knife crime, at Trafalgar Square, in April

The conclusion that he came to was: “It’s not God, it’s not Jesus, it’s humankind’s interpretation which is the problem.” But he retains an empathy for Jahaziel, having asked himself, too, whether he had been “duped into taking on a white man’s religion”.

“I am unapologetically black, and I am unashamedly Christian; yet, if I’m honest, I have struggled over the years to see how these two identities can be compatible,” he writes.

Does he agree that financial reparations must be part of the answer to reckoning with the legacy of slavery, as is being explored in the United States (Features, 7 June)?

“It’s a complicated question. We can whittle it right down to finance, and, I think, when people have tried to do that, they have worked out the cost of the transatlantic slave trade is in its trillions; so, unless we are looking to cripple our financial system, that’s not going to happen, is it?”

But he agrees with those who say an apology, such as that given at the General Synod in 2006 (News, 10 February 2006), is insufficient.

“I think we should have a conversation about finance, but also we should have another conversation about what can the Church also do to give back in a different way? What can the Church do to give back to the poorer communities in the UK? What can the Church do specifically around encouraging church leadership for people of colour? What can the Church do specifically around social action for issues which disproportionately impact black communities?

“If you take the race-disparity audit, and you look at people of colour — particularly where black Caribbean people fall in those issues, whether it’s education, exclusions, the criminal-justice systems, Stop and Search, mental health, all these things — we understand that, when we talk about racism, we are not just talking about ‘You called me the N word,’ we are talking about structures which can be traced back to the Transatlantic slave trade and need to be destroyed. So, therefore, can the Church actually pay back in the sense of standing for justice?”

WE NEED TO TALK is dedicated to Emmanuel Odunewu, Nicholas Pearton, Shakilus Townsend, and Myron Yarde: four young victims of youth violence.

“I knew these kids before they were headlines,” Mr Lindsay tells me. “I saw them smiling, I saw them being children, and what the world may know of them is just headlines and statistics. . . It’s also a reminder that the Church can do more than we think. Jesus Christ can do more than we can possibly imagine. But, for that to happen, we’ve really got to dig deep in understanding what the community is suffering and dealing with.”

Having worked for almost two decades with young people at high risk, including a stint at the Lewisham Youth Offending Service, where he developed a ground-breaking knife-crime-prevention programme, he believes that the Church has been slow to respond to youth violence.

He draws on the African proverb about the village that keeps pulling children out of the river but fails to ask what is happening upstream, and struggles with “the continued fascination with, and fetishisation of, black children in Africa, but the lack of interest in black children suffering in the UK”.

PANicola Dyer, the mother of the murdered teenager Shakilus Townsend, speaks to waiting media outside the Old Bailey, in 2009

The Church, he points out, “has three things which this UK Government does not have: volunteers, buildings, and resources. So, if we can somehow get everybody on the same page, train and equip [them], we could be a massive answer. . . The most dangerous hour for a young person, or hours, are the direct hours after school. We know that there is no youth service there — £1.6 billion has come off our Government in the past five years. Wouldn’t it be amazing if our churches were equipped and trained, and opened their doors to be part of the solution?”

In January, he launched Power the Fight, a charity that seeks to empower communities to end youth violence (News, 23 November).

DOING the work to dismantle racist structures takes its toll. “I get tired of being the black pioneer in a predominantly white church space,” Mr Lindsay writes. “At times, I feel exhausted by the struggle of racial integration.” There is a pressure to be “all things to all people”.

We Need To Talk contains advice for readers who need to avoid burn-out, to protect themselves in “immersive spaces”. It’s not only in the United States, Mr Lindsay says, that social media is exposing brutality against black people, bringing with it the risk of trauma.

There is “no excuse” for those who claim that they do not know where to explore black narratives, he says. And the plural is important here: “Jordan Peele can tell his story, and other people can share their stories; some of them may well contradict each other, that’s OK. . . Even my book is not the complete experience. . . But it feels like, now we can talk about this stuff, and have that conversation in a way that I don’t think was available before. Talking to my family members, they would say: ‘You have to write this book because we couldn’t talk like you’re speaking 20 years ago, ten years ago. So you’ve got to go and tell those stories.’ That was nice to hear.”

Each chapter of Mr Lindsay’s book ends with questions for three types of reader: the person of colour, the white church leader, and the white church member. Writing it has given him hope, he says.

“It’s given me a clearer perspective on the unity which church can bring. I think we are in such a polarised time: the far-Right growing across Europe, confusion around Brexit, youth violence, poverty rates that are ridiculous. And, therefore, to really create something which I think is hopeful, and to say, ‘No, there is light,’ and ‘Guess what, we have the vehicle to be part of that solution,’ . . . is really important.

“I think it was important for me to write this book, because I’ve got children, and I don’t want them to go through the same stuff I went through. . . Finally, we get to have a conversation which I believe needs to be had, and, if we can just have the conversation, that’s the beginning, really, isn’t it?”

In his book, he quotes St Augustine of Hippo, a black North African bishop: “Hope has two beautiful daughters: their names are anger and courage. Anger that things are the way they are, and courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

We Need To Talk About Race is published by SPCK on 18 July (£7.99). Ben Lindsay will be speaking about the book at a free event at St Paul’s Cathedral on 29 October.

Listen to an extended interview with Ben Lindsay at www.churchtimes.co.uk/podcast

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