By: Jason Robinson & Tyson Somers
It’s a hot day outside, and two friends step onto an outdoor basketball court. The competition is intense; neither player wants to lose. When all the sweating and shooting is done, they share a handshake and brotherly hug as they head to the sidelines to talk.
The discussion is not a surface conversation; they are discussing a book that they are reading on race and culture. It’s not your normal conversation, but because they’re in a mentoring relationship and both come from different cultures, it’s a topic that is relevant to the both of them.
In discipleship, if you don’t purposely teach lessons, you shouldn’t expect the person you disciple to learn it. The very nature of discipleship has everything to do with intentionally teaching someone what it means to be a follower of Christ. The problem when it comes to issues like race and culture is that many of us don’t make the conscious decision to teach about it.
Reconciliation Through Relationship
My approach through the years has been a simple one. When I embark on a discipleship journey with someone, I simply invite them into an adventure where both of us can grow together. I endeavor to step into their world, and I let them into mine. When it comes to race, I could choose to teach lessons from books (and sometimes I do), but I first and foremost allow my life to be a lesson on the topic. Because of who I am, race has been (and always will be) a part of the discipleship process.
I recently assumed a new post with the Navigators Collegiate Ministry at The University of Minnesota. After a 20 year adventure in local church ministry, I was offered an amazing opportunity to return to my roots on the college campus. It didn’t take much to convince me that this was what the Lord had for me.
When I was asked to join the staff team in Minneapolis-St. Paul, there were two areas I was asked to focus on: sports outreach and multicultural development. My 25 years of ministry experience were centered around these two areas. Having built multicultural ministries in some of the hardest places to develop such ministries, I was up to the challenge of doing it again.
What I have learned through the years is that the most effective way to bring about true reconciliation is through relationships. The best lessons that I have taught about race have been through relationships. The U has proven to be no different, and I have had the honor of developing some amazing relationships in the short amount of time I have been on campus. One of those relationships has been with Tyson, one of our student leaders. I asked him to share about the relationship that we have and what it has taught him.
Brotherhood, Ball & Bible
My first interaction with Jason was on Facebook, of all places. Early in 2019, our Navigators Campus Director told us about an incoming staff member who used basketball as a ministry tool, and my interest was immediately piqued. A few days later I received a friend request from Jason, and it took only a few messages back and forth to set the foundation for a great relationship. By the time we finally met in person a couple months later, we had exchanged faith stories, talked plenty of basketball, and became great friends.
We stayed in touch throughout the year, and in December of 2019 Jason moved to Minnesota full-time. God’s timing had my discipler transitioning to a new ministry the same month, so Jason and I quickly started a discipleship relationship. Every Friday morning we would drag ourselves out of bed and meet at the Rec, where we’d play basketball, spend time in the word, and talk about life.
What’s struck me about my relationship with Jason is his consistency and persistence in shepherding me. He is proactive, intentional, and relational, always asking questions in order to know me more deeply, and always walking by my side. There is a mutual openness that has enabled us to dive into taboo topics, have tough conversations, and foster mutual accountability, which is essential for any discipleship relationship. And above all else, he is a great friend.
In late May of this year, our community was rocked by the police murder of George Floyd, a mere three miles from campus. Both Jason and I were deeply shaken by the event, as have been so many. As Jason said shortly after the killing, “George Floyd was a 6’5” black man in his 40s, who played basketball, loved the Lord, and lived in Minneapolis. I meet all those same criteria. That could have been me.” This quote is sobering and true. If a black man can be murdered for a dispute over a small corner store transaction, he can be murdered for anything. And it could have easily happened to my friend Jason.
This tragic event has resurfaced the need for a FAR overdue reckoning with racism in America. The reality is that hatred and white supremacy have been prevalent in our country since the first settlers came here, and it has motivated the enslavement of millions of African-Americans, Jim Crow laws/segregation, lynching, mass incarceration, police brutality, and economic inequality, among many other injustices. And the white American Church has been complicit in much of this oppression.
Since George was murdered, Jason and I have spent quite a bit of time unpacking our thoughts and emotions together, and a common conclusion has consistently surfaced: the Church needs to act, and it starts with us. You, me, and each and every Christian is responsible to fight against racism, both personally and systemically. Micah 6:8 says this: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” This verse makes it clear that in order to do justice, we have to take action.
As with all things (especially this one) God’s timing is perfect. Before the murder of George Floyd even happened, Jason was planning to lead a Navigators Summer Bible Study based on ‘The Third Option,’ a book by Pastor Miles McPherson. Pastor Miles founded and leads The Rock Church, which is a megachurch in San Diego that has bucked the nationwide trend of mono-ethnic churches, boasting a church membership that is 49% white and 51% non-white. This is what we basketball players would call a unicorn. As Miles writes in the book, “87% of church services in America are made up of over 80% of one ethnicity.” And it extends beyond the walls of the church. Miles explains in detail that every person has a natural preference for people in their “in-group,” which is defined as those similar to us in any way, such as religion, socioeconomic status, and (especially) race.
Our study of this book has been fantastic, and it has pointed us to the answer to racial strife in America: The Third Option. The Third Option is choosing “We”, as opposed to “Us vs. Them”, and ascribing to those different from us the unalienable honor that God has granted to each and every one of us.
Achieving The Third Option starts and ends with relationships. We need to have deep connections with people who are different from us, and we need to let them tell us their stories. We cannot overcome our unconscious biases without understanding the real-life experiences of others, and we cannot honor them without knowing them personally. We also often cannot recognize these biases without someone else revealing them to us, and this can only be communicated well by someone with whom we have mutual care, who can speak the truth in love. As Ephesians 4:15 says, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” When we seek to honor God by honoring all who he created, we become more like Christ.
In my own life, this type of connection has become deeply rooted in Jason and I’s discipleship relationship. My eyes have been opened as Jason has shared with me his experience as an African-American man living in America and ministering in the Church, and my heart has been broken by many of the things he has faced. I’ve been able to step into his shoes and begin to understand what it’s like to come from a culture very different from the one I grew up in. In a similar vein, I’ve been able to share with Jason the life I’ve grown up with, and it’s given him a strong understanding of how my upbringing has informed my interactions with those different from me.
One of the coolest experiences we’ve had together was when I asked Jason to point out my “blind spots.” A blind spot is defined as something about myself that I fail to recognize, which is clear to others. We were tasked by Pastor Miles to ask someone close to us what some of our blind spots are, and Jason was a natural person for me to ask. He pointed out a couple things to me that I would’ve never guessed myself, actions and attitudes that I thought were beneficial in my interactions with others, but were not always perceived that way. They made total sense, but I wouldn’t have realized them without Jason speaking into my life. This is what discipleship is all about: allowing others to speak into our lives, leading us to become more like Christ by correcting our faults, encouraging our strengths, and helping us know God better.
Jason and I’s relationship has been deeply transformational. We’ve become great friends, partners, and brothers in Christ, and we’re both better for it. This Fall, we will be pioneering a Navigators ministry built around the game of basketball, using our mutual love for the sport to connect with guys at the Rec. We will be studying the Bible with both believers and nonbelievers alike, with a focus on relationships. The plan is to meet guys where they are at and get to know them on a personal level, which will enable us to share the Gospel with them through the lens of their life experiences. I am confident that the connection we’ve developed will enable God to do great things through us, and I can’t wait to get started!
The relationship that Tyson and I have has been one of the best experiences I’ve had in my time at the University of Minnesota. What makes this work is that the both of us are willing to learn and be open to what the other person has to say. We don’t fight to be understood, but we have fought to understand each other. He’s helped me to get settled here in a different world from the one that I knew in Chicago, and he even took me to my first hockey game (which was an experience). It was a blast to learn about something that I had limited knowledge of. His patience and willingness to explain everything to me helped me gain an understanding of a game that I didn’t know much about. Okay, so hockey may not be a big deal, but it’s a great example of something that’s set us up to be able to go deep on the issues of race and culture. When it comes to the hard conversations, we trust the depth of our friendship to go there. We are developing the lost art of empathy.
Empathy: A Lost Art
Matt Chandler, Pastor of The Village Church in Dallas, Texas, and one of the leading voices of the Acts 29 movement said this at a conference in 2016, just days after the murder of Philando Castille: “Our progress will go as far as our empathy carries us. Where there is no empathy, there will be no progress. I’m not saying there aren’t things to be done, but i’m saying that things that will be done and should be done will come out of empathy. Not out of ‘white guilt,’ but out of empathy.”
He says empathy requires three things:
Humility - not always being defensive, dismissive, and needing to be right.
Presence - being in genuine relationships with people who are different from you.
Sacrifice - being willing to lose a part of yourself.
For Tyson and I, these three things are always present in our relationship. As we meet every week, we both come with the attitude that we don’t have to be right. We both recognize that we are intelligent individuals, but we know that we don’t know everything. I love the level of humility he speaks with. We’ve had to learn that the only competition we need in our friendship is the competition that we engage in on the court. Many people feel that they have to be right all the time, and have no willingness to be wrong. It is only when people are able to get over themselves and enter into every conversation from a posture of learning that there will be room to grow.
Presence is something that can be difficult for many to have when in a relationship. Let’s face it, we live in a busy world. With all the things that we need to get done in our daily lives, it can be hard to find time to include other people. Discipleship, however, requires presence by its very nature. From getting up early during the school year to meet at the gym to spending summer Saturdays at my home, we have made it a priority to keep our standing appointment. By him coming out to my home, he is stepping into my world.
He even took it a step further when we went on a road trip to my hometown in the Chicago area. He got to see some of the places where I grew up and lived over the years. It was fun to share that part of my story with him, and it was a welcomed change from the normal routine.
Over the years, many of my discipling relationships have involved me consistently going to wherever the person I was discipling wanted to meet. What I have learned is that you have to physically step into a person’s world in order to understand them. Let me ask this question: How often have you stepped into the world of someone who is of a different race or culture than you?
The final area Matt Chandler mentioned is sacrifice, which is probably the hardest one for most people to do. It requires that you give up any advantage you may feel you have in order to relate to the other person. Jesus talks about sacrifice in John 15:13 when he says “greater love has no man than this that he lay down his life for his friends.” Although he was making reference to himself and the physical death he was about to encounter, he was also talking about the level of sacrifice that we have to make in order to live up to the prior verse, when he commanded that we “love one another as I have loved you.”
In Tyson and I’s discipleship relationship, both of us have made sacrifices. We both know that in order for us to make this relationship work, we have to be willing to give up the most valuable thing that men love generally hold onto: our vulnerability. It would be easy to hide behind our roles and our backgrounds, but we have shared things with each other that we’d never share in most surface relationships. We have given up the right to look like “the man” and settled on just being men, good, bad, and all things in between. That is what it takes to build a fruitful discipleship relationship. Are you willing to go there?
What makes our relationship work is that we don’t put the focus on our differences. We are fully aware of them, and we openly acknowledge and talk about them, but we choose to see the man wearing the skin, going beyond the body to the heart. And as questions come up, we address them. It’s not always easy, but we’re committed to the task at hand, which for me is to help Tyson grow into the man that God has created him to be. In the process of that, I grow as well. THAT IS DISCIPLESHIP!
What Does Discipleship In The Context Of Race & Culture Look Like?
The church has set up many systems to teach discipleship, but as we’ve alluded to, the only way that it truly works is through intentional relationships. Jesus modeled what that looks like as he did life with the disciples, taking every opportunity to share what he knew with them. He had no lesson plan, but simply operated out of his love for them, especially through empathy and understanding. When it comes to discipleship, if you don’t purposely teach lessons, you shouldn’t expect the person you disciple to learn it. The very nature of discipleship has everything to do with intentionally teaching someone what it means to be a follower of Christ. But as we mentioned earlier, the problem when it comes to issues like race and culture is that many of us don’t make the conscious decision to teach about it.
For me, the George Floyd murder was personal. I saw myself in George’s position. I had to come to terms with the issue yet again. I didn’t have much time to reflect on it because my white friends began calling me after the protests broke out. Some were checking in on me; others needed to process it with their black friend. I was honored they trusted me enough to open up about the issue, and many apologized for not previously asking for my opinion, perspective, and story on the subject of race in our country. As they were saying this, I was thinking two things:
1. Why did it take all of this for the subject to first come up?
2. Why didn’t I bring it up?
The answer is that race is a blind spot, in both directions. For my white friends, they didn’t know how much they didn’t know. For me, I didn’t know how much they didn’t know. Herein lies the problem.
When it comes to discipleship, race and culture are generally not a part of the conversation. We spend time talking, and teach our disciples how to pray, study the word, and share their faith. But how often do we teach how to love like Jesus did? How to love our neighbor? How to have empathy for others? These topics require a little more introspection, and many people simply avoid it. Why is that?
Most Christians would say that they have love for everyone, but when you look at who many are surrounded by, you will find that most people generally associate with those that are most like them. It’s easy. You don’t have to truly confront issues of culture when everyone you know is of the same one. But when you are in the minority, the issue of race is something that you are constantly aware of.
Welcome to my world. Not a day goes by without being reminded of how different you are. Your friends know you are different from them, but they generally don’t bring up the subject for a multitude of reasons. Some don’t want to offend, and some want to bring up race but don’t know how, but the most common reason is that, because it doesn’t affect them personally, they see no need to even think about these things. It is not until something major happens (such as the murder of George Floyd), that the subject comes up. And when it does come up, people tend to quickly choose sides and talk at each other, rather than with each other. There’s very little listening, but a whole lot of trying to be heard. Empathy is nowhere to be found.
To quote a great verse again, Micah 6:8 says “He has told you, O man, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Act Justly, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly....all these things are part of the Gospel. But are things that we don’t readily teach and disciple people in. We disciple people to read the word, pray, share the Gospel, and live it out, but not to the depths that will cause us to consider matters like race, culture, and how they intersect with our faith. If we are to truly preach and teach the Gospel, then it is imperative that we preach and teach ALL of it! This requires a posture of empathy.So why don’t we go there? Why don’t we bring up the subject of race and culture when it comes to discipleship?
It's not a priority! The reality is that in these situations, the first response to all problems is to just preach the gospel. If people would just find Jesus, then they wouldn’t have these issues. In an ideal world that would be true, however, we don’t live in that kind of world. If all we are concerned with is “getting people saved” then there is no room for the conversation on race and culture. We will just simply “preach the Gospel” and those who choose to believe like we do will get it, and those who don’t will be lost. The problem here is that there is no consideration for the individual, and the lens through which they see the world. It assumes that they see things exactly as we do, so culture issues don’t need to be discussed at length.
When it comes to discipling people in the context of race and culture, you have to be driven by empathy and be aware of the need to pass that on to others. That is what I have done for most of my life. I could spend the whole day telling you about all the injustices that I have experienced in the world (and especially in the church) but it’s important to know that it does not make me eternally bitter. Why? Because I operate out of empathy for others. This means that when I encounter racism and injustice, I first process my frustrations, then let the Lord focus me on the person and how he loves them. This mindset provides the foundation to do something about the injustice.
So how do we get there, and how do we start to make race and culture part of our disciple-making process? Well, I’m so glad you asked!
Start In And Work Your Way Out
To start, you have to recognize where you are. In his book ‘Church Diversity,’ Scott Williams offers seven steps to take in order to embark on the journey of embracing diversity.
Check your heart - Where am I at on the issue of diversity?
Check your head - What is your strategy?
Be prayerful - Give it up to God.
Be intentional - You must be deliberate in order to achieve anything.
Be confrontational - When injustice occurs, you have to be willing to say something.
Be authentic - Do you! Be who you are, not who you aren’t.
Be patient - It ain’t gonna happen overnight.
For me, the success I’ve had over the years is grounded in my commitment to bring up the issue when the opportunity presents itself. I live my life openly as a black man, and I let people into my world. I have done this by first stepping into their world, and being myself in doing so. This has given me a platform to speak to some issues of race and culture.
There have been many times when my perspective wasn’t appreciated. I’ve had my share of people, including those in leadership over me and friends who I've had for years, call my views into question. I was okay as long as I didn’t challenge their views, but the minute I did so, the claws came out.
What I have learned is there are two kinds of diversity: the kind that is embraced and the kind that is tolerated. Scott Williams speaks to the difference between the two: “When you embrace diversity, you welcome people as they are and you don’t force them to change to suit you. When you tolerate diversity, you welcome people who are different, as long as they play your game.” He goes on to say that many churches which claim to embrace diversity actually tolerate it, at best.
This book was an eye opener for me. I have served in both kinds of churches, and it can be hard to tell the difference if you don’t think deeply about it.
There are some key questions that you have to ask of your church/organization:
Is ethnic diversity represented at the highest level of leadership within my church?
Are the recruitment and hiring practices for staff, as well as volunteer placement strategies, sensitive to diversity?
Does someone from the non-majority culture share the pulpit?
Does my church have an overall culture of embracing diversity?
These are just a few of the questions that you need to ask of your organization. If the answer to some of these questions is “No,” then you may have a group that isn’t quite there yet. But this doesn’t mean that you run out of there screaming. What it means is that there’s an opportunity for change. If you are in a position where you can influence that culture, then you can choose to be a part of the solution.
That is the story of my journey when it comes to disciple making in the context of race and culture. In places where I can influence the culture, I’ve jumped in with both feet. Push where you can, pull back where you have to, and pick and choose the battles that you want to engage in. All of this must be rooted in intentionality.
We’ve all had our share of successes and failures, but the one thing that must remain consistent is a commitment to seeing change happen. We are all works in progress, and there is a lot of learning to do. This starts with your heart. You have to be empathetic towards races and cultures that are different than yours. And once empathy is in the picture, it will drive you to do what’s necessary to make true change.
Stay Forever Strong!
About The Authors
Jason Robinson serves on the staff of The Navigators Collegiate Ministry at The University Of Minnesota. Jason has emphasized the call of 2 Timothy 2:2 to empower others who reproduce themselves. He has 25 years of experience building leaders and multicultural organizations from the deep south to the upper midwest. He also has a mentoring/discipling ministry known as "The SportMentor" that has invested in athletes and leaders around the world both in person and online.
Tyson Somers is a student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, studying Management Information Systems. He has been involved with the Navigators’ collegiate ministry at the U since his freshman year. Tyson lives in Minneapolis with six other Navigators, and fills his time by playing basketball, watching all kinds of sports, hanging out with his roommates, and boating on Minnesota lakes with his family.