I have long looked up to Brenda Salter McNeil. She doesn’t know me at all. But when I was in college, more than 25 years ago, I participate in the college’s urban summer program, working with homeless families in a long-term shelter in Houston for a summer. In part, that experience led me to pursue a master’s in Social Service Administration a few years later, and my entire work career has been non-profit consulting and management. Several of my friends also participated in the summer program in later years. One of those friends worked with Brenda Salter McNeil in Chicago. My friend could not speak more highly about the now Rev Dr Brenda Salter McNeil. But also, as a young White woman working in a Black community in Chicago under Dr McNeil, she felt clearly impatience around racial issues and a strong prodding to ‘get it’.
About the same time, I was attending an intentionally interracial church in Chicago, Rock of Our Salvation Evangelical Free Church. Raleigh Washington led the church, and Glenn Kehrein led the slightly older Christian Community Development Corporation. Together they wrote the book Breaking Down Walls about racial reconciliation. Not too long after I left the church because I moved to a different part of the city for grad school, Raliegh Washington left the church to work for Promise Keepers as their VP of reconciliation. I kept in touch with several from the church and for my master’s thesis, I looked at the different ways that church-based community development work understood the relationship of the non-profit ministry to the work of the church. The Rock of Our Salvation/Circle Urban model was one of the three models I profiled and I interviewed Glenn Kehrein for that thesis a couple of years after Raleigh Washington had left. The Promise Keepers’ model of reconciliation, which I talked about with Glenn, and which has been written about frequently as a step, albeit a limited one, toward racial reconciliation, was incomplete.
I say this as an introduction because while I have very positive feelings toward Brenda Salter McNeil, and I have heard her speak multiple times, I do not think I have read any of her books prior to this. As was pointed out in the book, I had classified her as generally in the model of Promise Keepers reconciliation. In other words, make friends, study the bible together, do church-based ministry together, serve the community, but make the reconciliation palatable to white people, and do not enter into political issues or other issues that get sensitive too often. I both think I had misclassified her, and in some ways gotten it right.
To start at the end of the book in the conclusion:
That’s why I will no longer focus on simply coming together as diverse ethnic groups. Instead, my goal is to activate reconcilers to repair broken systems that are rooted in the evil of racism and resist the kingdom of God. I will not hide behind the mask of niceness or pretend not to be angry in an effort to make White people feel more comfortable with my ministry of reconciliation. I will speak my truth. I will stand in truth, and I will no longer dumb down the truth to help White people feel less guilty. To do so is to be complicit in sanitizing the truth, and I refuse to be complicit in that any longer. Reconciliation happens by repairing broken systems and engaging power, not just by focusing on relationships and feelings.
Or as she said in the early part of the book:
Up until this point, my reconciliation work has been deeply concerned with how my message will be received by white people. I have tried to ensure that offense did not interfere with my message of diversity and harmony. I made my message easy for them to hear. But no more. I have come to realize that over the years, I was used by white-dominant culture, probably not maliciously or intentionally, but unconsciously, to make the conversation about racial reconciliation more palatable, understandable, and acceptable to them.
Esau McCaulley said in an interview (my paraphrase) that the difference between tone in a lot of racial reconciliation discussions is 20 years. You can start trying to be palatable and make people understand what you are trying to say, but after a while, you recognize that regardless of how politely or gently you say something, some White people are still going to take offense and you might as well stop exerting the emotional energy and just say it clearly the first time.
The most encouraging thing that I get out of this book is that Brenda Salter McNeil, a woman that has spent decades working in racial reconciliation work in one way or another has, in her 60s, made a significant change in her method and approach. That change is clear in the book, but also is clear in a number of podcasts like this one with David Swanson or this one on Colored Commentary. I know from their reports, that McNeil has spent years mentoring young White pastors like Daniel Hill and David Swanson. She has a role somewhat like Howard Thurman’s that may not be super visible, but it is important toward a shift in the culture of the movement.
A few days ago I tweeted about John Walton saying that Daniel was not a model for how we should live in a post Christian world, but a descriptive (not prescriptive) model for how one person (Daniel) choose to live faithfully in the world. In Becoming Brave, I think that Brenda Salter McNeil follows that model to show descriptively how Ester ‘became brave’ and descriptively applies those insights not as rigid model for how we all should also follow Ester, but as a method of teaching discernment that can be applied in different situations.
Dr McNeil explores the story of Ester, but also takes the story of her own life and allows herself to see the parallels as a ways of seeing where God is at work. Becoming Brave is a book of inspiration and encouragement. And it is a book that I recommend highly.