Revive Our Hearts Podcast

We Are One in Christ

Leslie Basham: In a day when racism still affects the church, Dr. Venessa Ellen has a message for us all.

Dr. Venessa Ellen: I need you, and you need me; we are sisters in Christ. I don’t think that we can get this work done without each other. Let’s get over ourselves, and let’s get busy about God’s business!

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, co-author of True Woman 201, for August 22, 2019.

Look at your hand right now. You’re aware of your own skin tone. Many of us don’t wonder how we might be treated simply because of the lightness or darkness of our skin. We’re also often unaware of ways we might unintentionally treat someone differently based solely on their ethnic background. But for some in our audience, that’s an everyday reality.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn’t magically fix racial tension in the U.S., and our local churches don’t automatically become racially inclusive just by singing, “Let every kindred, every tribe on this terrestrial ball, to Him all majesty ascribe, and crown Him Lord of all!” (“All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name)

We find racism on our streets and in our pews because we still find pride in our hearts! Our guest today understands racial discrimination firsthand. Dr. Venessa Ellen is a pastor’s wife and the chair of Women’s Ministry at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston, Texas. 

Recently, she was here at Revive Our Hearts to help record some episodes of our new podcast, Women of the Bible. Nancy sat down with Dr. Venessa to discuss this issue. Let’s listen to their conversation.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: Venessa, I’m so thankful to have had the chance to meet you and to have a brief conversation here on Revive Our Hearts. Thank you for participating with us in this ministry this week, behind the scenes, and here on the broadcast as well.

Dr. Venessa: Thank you for having me! 

Nancy: I’m so intrigued by many of the things that you’re involved in, the way you’re counseling women and mentoring them. You’re teaching at the college level, teaching women’s ministry. So you’re dealing with a lot of the issues that women wrestle with. 

For someone who may not be able to see us here, you are African-American; I’m not. If you’re just listening to the audio, you might not know that. I think one of the first things I hear often when I meet women for the first time and they’ve only heard me on audio, they say, “You’re so much shorter than I thought you were!” They say, “You sound so much taller on radio!” On audio we’re not looking at visuals. 

Dr. Venessa: Yes. Right.

Nancy: We are sisters in Christ. We’ve found, even in just the short time we’ve known each other, so many things in common. I feel like we’ve known each other a long time, and we could talk for a very long time!

Dr. Venessa: Indeed!

Nancy: You’ve blessed me. I think our conversation’s been a blessing to each other. So I’m going to just go “where angels fear to tread,” and ask some questions that I think many of my friends are asking, many of our listeners. African-American, white, women of color, we’ve had a Hispanic on earlier today doing the podcast with us.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know today—especially if you’re following anything on social media or you watch the news—that there are tensions. I don’t want to say “at all time highs,” because I don’t know that that would be true.

But certainly within the last recent memory, it seems that there are tempers flaring, tensions really high as it relates to racial issues. I hear this even within the body of Christ. I hear a lot of people who love the Lord and love His Word taking very different tacks and approaches on the whole issue of racial reconciliation—what that looks like, what it should mean. 

I want to just provide a platform for you, because I know you’ve dealt with this, you’ve taught on it. Speak to me to help me get a better understanding what women of color may be thinking, feeling, wanting to say, wanting somebody to understand.

As you think about being a Christian black woman in our country, in our society, I’m particularly interested in . . . Where do you start on this and is it even possible to . . .? It has to be, right, because we’re Christians! It has to be possible to navigate a love for each other. I’m not talking about you and me because I think it was “love at first sight” for us, right?

Dr. Venessa: Right, right.

Nancy: But it doesn’t seem to be for a lot of people in this space. What’s causing the tension? Let’s talk about that first, and then maybe move toward some practical ways we can—as Christians—really not have the gap that seems to exist.

Dr. Venessa: Racism is not new; it’s very, very old. We’ll go all the way back to the point where Moses killed the Egyptian.

Nancy: Thinking that the Egyptians were harming his people and he was wanting to defend his people. You have the racial animosity there.

Dr. Venessa: Yes, you have the racial tension there. And then his marriage, where he married the Cushite woman, whom we would say was probably a darker-skinned woman.

Nancy: And he got criticized for that by some of his people, his family members, right?

Dr. Venessa: Yes. So this is not new; it goes way, way, way back. However, I think what is new is the climate of accepting some types of communication—some forms of communication—as the norm, as acceptable behavior.

Nancy: Tell me what you mean by that. I’m just going to ask some questions here, because I just want to unpack this for us.

Dr. Venessa: No problem.

Nancy: What forms of communication?

Dr. Venessa: I think that now it’s becoming acceptable to say certain racial slurs; it’s acceptable to speak to people in ways that maybe had died down for a little bit over the last fifty years. But now in our current climate, it seems a little bit more acceptable because we have people in high places doing it.

So here’s where I start: I start as a Christian. I say, “I’m a Christian first.” I’m not an African-American first, I’m not a woman first, I’m a Christian first! That should guide everything else that comes after that. Now I won’t say it’s harder for women. My husband is an African-American man; he might say it’s harder for men.

But I will say that since I’ve walked this journey as an African-American woman, I find that there are places where we still encounter much discrimination. I graduated from a prominent school. I was just sharing this with the president of that school the other day . . .

Nancy: This was a Christian school, right?

Dr. Venessa: It was a Christian school, and remember sharing with him, saying, “You know, I can remember many nights where I was asked to get sheets for others. I had to say, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t work here.’” 

Nancy: But there was the assumption that you were on the janitorial staff or whatever.

Dr. Venessa: There was the assumption that I worked there, exactly. I would say, “No, I’m a student here.” 

They would ask me, “What kind of a student?” 

I explained it to them. And they said, “Oh, huh! I don’t see how you got in that program.” 

I was told I wasn’t good enough: “People like you shouldn’t be in this program!” So, it’s acceptable behavior that is driving a lot of this.

Now, going back to being a Christian, here’s what I say. You’ve got to love everyone! I think if love ruled the day, a lot of this would not be happening. We don’t love as Christ loved, so we think life is expendable. We think that we can say things and do things that are harmful to others because maybe they are a different hue than we are. Love doesn’t function like that from a Christian perspective.

So I would say we have to drop back as Christians and stop trying to fight the “race war”—although I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist, because it still exists. But I’m saying, “How about we do this in a more loving way?”

Nancy: What would that look like? And, again, let’s talk about Christians, because we can’t control or manage what’s going outside the church. People who don’t have Christ aren’t going to have the ability to have His love for each other or the motivation or the power of the Holy Spirit.

Dr. Venessa: Exactly. 

Nancy: But among Christians . . . You’re saying at a Christian school you encountered being thought less of or disregarded or having wrong assumptions made about you because your skin is dark.

Dr. Venessa: Correct.

Nancy: So help us think through, and when I say “us,” I mean as Christians of whatever hue. How do we face and acknowledge and deal with wrongdoing in that area, and then how can we start to change that?

Dr. Venessa: Well, some of it is generational. You have your generations—probably over seventy-five years old—that this is common practice, this was common practice for them. If you’re looking at a millennial right now—someone who’s probably twenty—they don’t know a lot about racism. They’re not raised in the same era that an eighty-five-year-old person was raised in.

I always say, “So then, they had to be taught this.” Now, one clarity to that: murders and evil and all this work comes right out of the heart.

Nancy: Whether you’re young or old.

Dr. Venessa: Whether you’re young or old. I’m not discarding the fact that this comes out of the heart, but it is fueled along—I do believe—by teachings from people who come out of that generation. I think the first thing we need to do is to start to teach biblical principles of love and do away with some of the other things that we are taught.

I think it has to do with education. We have belief systems about each other. We may believe that African-Americans do certain things, or if they have on a hoodie, they are certain things. We may believe certain things about Hispanics. We need to deal with these erroneous belief systems instead of acting on them and generalizing this and applying this to everyone.

Now, because these generalizations are there . . . I have four grandsons. I don’t allow them to walk down the street wearing a hoodie, because those generalizations are there.

Nancy: For those who may not be clear, what you’re talking about that makes you fear?

Dr. Venessa: That they will be treated in a harmful way, because they will be viewed as a black man that’s up to no good. That’s a bad generalization, but it’s a reality for some of our younger black men.

Nancy: So you’re having to say to them . . .

Dr. Venessa: “No, you cannot wear that walking down the street. If it’s cold outside—legitimately cold—you may do so, but other than that we’re not doing that.” Because I don’t want them to encounter a situation where they are shot or they are harmed or something just because they are black and wearing a hoodie.

Nancy: Do you live with fear? I know you’ve got to bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ; we’ve talked about that. But do you live with fear for the black men in your life?

Dr. Venessa: Yes, I do have a concern, even for my husband, in certain places. We pray and we trust God. But because these stereotypes are out there, these generalizations are out there . . . and we live in a wicked, fallen world. I don’t know that I would say (now, many others may disagree with me) that it’s any one person’s fault. 

I think that we could all do better by learning to love one another better.

Nancy: When you say “one person,” do you mean any particular . . .

Dr. Venessa: Yes, I mean any particular race. I’m not going to say it’s all one race’s fault. That’s just me. Some might say that; I’m not going to say that. I say sin runs prevalent in this world.

Nancy: In every demographic.

Dr. Venessa: Yes. It doesn’t matter what age, what color, what race. It doesn’t matter. Sin is prevalent. And, yes, some races are driving some things in one way more than others, but I think that Christians need to act like Christians . . . not be black first, not be a woman first. Be a Christian first.

Now some may push back on me and they may say, “Okay, so you’re denying the reality of racism.” I’m not denying the reality of racism. I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist. It is horrible, and it’s out there. I’m just saying, “What’s our biblical response?”

Okay, it’s true, it’s there, but so are we going to walk around mad and accusing, or are we going to try to love one another out of this situation?

Nancy: Okay, let’s get practical. What would that look like? Is your church multiethnic?

Dr. Venessa: Yes, our church is multicultural.

Nancy: So you have people have people from different backgrounds, that like different types of music. And not to generalize, but they have different cultural preferences that they bring with them. So how do you that in a church context?

Dr. Venessa: We have learned to learn of one another: ask questions that make sense. Before we did this church plant, we were in another church plant, where the questions that some people asked didn’t make sense. Like I was asked, “Do black people ever wash their hair?” Okay, that doesn’t make sense. 

You know what I’m saying? Let’s ask questions that make sense if we’re trying to learn from one another. I think that’s what our church has done. We’ve learned to live with one another, appreciate the differences, understand one another.

We may have different political views, or whatever, but we teach, “Can you vote the Scriptures?” We’re Christian. We’re not Republican; we’re not Democrat; .we’re Christian. Vote the issue! 

Nancy: What kinds of questions would be helpful for somebody who is not accustomed to being in a multicultural setting? Because it seems to me that people who struggle with this maybe don’t even have relationships or friendships with anybody who looks different than they do. And that may be the color of their skin or their age. 

If all millennials just hang out with each other or all seventy-year-olds just hang out with each other, then you add these other ethnic and cultural dimensions . . . If we just are with people who are like us, we’re not going to grow, we’re not going to be challenged.

Dr. Venessa: Yes, right.

Nancy: We’re not going to be anything like heaven, which is people of every tribe and tongue and nation and people together around the throne. That’s what we’re aiming for, right?

Dr. Venessa: I agree.

Nancy: So as we come together and we want to have friendships and relationships that are godly and healthy, what kinds of questions can help us to get to better understand and love each other well?

Dr. Venessa: Someone can say, “Well, my grandfather taught me that most black men go to jail or they can’t get a job. This is what I was taught. I don’t see that happening in our church. Why would he say that?” Instead of coming with your belief system and saying, “Oh, I believe that all . . .”

You see the difference?

Nancy: So asking questions for starters.

Dr. Venessa: Right! Determine if what you’ve been taught, or what you believe in your heart, is actually true before you make the assessment that it is true.

Nancy: Yes.

Dr. Venessa: And it’s not just about African-Americans; it’s about every race. We could have particular views of Asians or whatever the case may be. Let’s ask! What I love about our church is, it’s not even about race. We really don’t even talk about race at our church; we really don’t. We really stick closer to what God says about loving one another.

Nancy: So people in your church, when they’re at each other’s homes, having meals and whatever and they’re having vigorous conversations about politics or whatever, does it ever get, like, heated?

Dr. Venessa: No!

Nancy: Really?!

Dr. Venessa: Yes.

Nancy: Wow!

Dr. Venessa: Because we talk about the Bible. We go at it from the perspective, “Well, what does the Bible say? Oh, I know what you believe, but what does the Bible say? I know what you were taught; I know what’s tradition, but what does God say?” And then we go from there to, “Okay, well that’s how you interpreted that. What’s the true hermeneutic behind that?”

I think being a Bible-based church makes the difference.

Nancy: I’m sure that it does, absolutely! That’s our commonality, right? That’s our plumbline for truth, and yet I see in the Christian social media world—Christian books, authors—some people and leaders who really, as far as I know, love Christ, love His Word, have a heart to serve people but who come down in very different ways, very different perspectives.

We can kind of lock horns with each other on issues that relate to culture and race and, “What’s the best way to deal with systemic injustice?” That is such a contentious subject in the Christian world, as in the broader world. Is there a pathway to move forward on that?

Dr. Venessa: I think you have to agree to disagree. There are some things we’re just not going to agree on. You know, do you believe in affirmative action? Where do you stand on that? Some things we’re just going to have to agree to disagree, but does that break our fellowship? Is the issue more important than our love for one another?

Nancy: Wow.

Dr. Venessa: I think that is where we as Christians have to stand. Now, there are still some harmful realities that are out there, especially being an African-American woman with my theology. I have a conservative theology as an African-American woman. So we often say, “Sometimes I’m too white to be black, too black to be white.” It’s a hard reality for some to stand in.

Nancy: Well, especially if you feel like (which seems to be the way of thinking today) you have to have a “tribe,” you have to fit in somewhere. Actually, as children of God living in this world, we are of another world anyway, already. And so maybe it’s okay that we don’t really fit in somewhere.

Dr. Venessa: But I will say, if I’m being honest, it can get lonely! There are times when my husband and I have said, “We feel like the oddballs!” 

Nancy: Just unpack that for me. What makes you feel that?

Dr. Venessa: Because with our training, most of what we believe about the Bible is different than most people we run into that may look like us.

Nancy: So you feel like you’re swimming upstream all the time?

Dr. Venessa: Yes, and then we don’t look like the others that we believe some of the things they believe. So we’re sort of an outcast. That can get hard at times.

Nancy: You know, this “agree to disagree” thing . . . and we’re talking about people who love the Word, who love the Lord. I think that’s in rare supply today, at least on social media. It’s like, “I’m right! You’re wrong! And if you don’t agree with me, you’re wrong, and off with your head!” It’s kind of what you feel.

Dr. Venessa: Yes, it’s like, “I’m coming for you!” Right?

Nancy: “I’m coming for you!” And maybe another part of that would help us to agree to disagree on some points, because we’ve got to remember: the things that matter most, we do agree on, if we’re true believers in Christ.

Dr. Venessa: Right!

Nancy: But another thing I see in short supply that impacts us is the ability to assume the best of others.

Dr. Venessa: Yes.

Nancy: I’m talking about people who love Jesus—to assume positively, to assume that they’re wanting to be constructive and biblical. If I can’t do that about you, and you can’t do that about me, then we’re going to be threatened more easily in areas where we may differ about something.

Dr. Venessa: Yes. But I think we also have to recognize the wrongs that are happening. Some people even thirty-five, forty years old may not have experienced the type of racism, and so they don’t see it per se. They say it doesn’t exist anymore. We need to be clear that it still exists, even though you don’t see it.

Nancy: Do you think there are really some people who think that it doesn’t exist?

Dr. Venessa: Oh, I’ve been told! Yes, for sure.

There was a national organization that said that they needed to apologize, their members needed to apologize, because they were predominantly white and had been that way for awhile. They didn’t realize that that’s really what they were doing. We had a young man say to us, “I don’t really understand that. I didn’t do anything wrong! Why are they asking me to apologize?”

One of the things that I encourage people to say is, “You know, you may not have been there, but what you also do is continue to permit it by not looking around and saying, ‘Hey! Something looks off here.’” You just enjoy the benefits of the country club.

Nancy: So when you say, “Something looks off here!” tell me . . .

Dr. Venessa: “Everyone around me looks the same. There is no one in here of color.” We don’t even stop to ask the question, because we have our reserved parking spot, so we never stop to ask, “Why are we the only ones here?”

Nancy: So how would you encourage—whether it’s a church (and I know, we’re not pastors; we’re not leading our churches, but . . .) a pastor, a ministry, a group of friends—what does it mean in a healthy way to proactively seek a biblical type of . . .

Does it mean we should make sure there are people of color in our whatever kind of group? How would you want us to think about that? How should we think about that?

Dr. Venessa: I would say, first take the blinders off, and let’s not act like it doesn’t exist. It does exist. 

Nancy: “It” . . . is?

Dr. Venessa: Racism or disqualification by color. Even omission, commission, meaning we’re not actively being racists, we’re just not actively being inclusive either. You see, it works both ways, and people will say, “We’re not trying to exclude.” Yes, but you’re also not trying include. So it’s harmful in both ways.

Or you make the bar so high that inclusion is almost impossible! Be aware of the policies you have and the policies you’re setting. Be aware of your surroundings.

Nancy: Can you think of an example of setting the bar so high that inclusion is not possible?

Dr. Venessa: You need five doctorates to get in and ten certifications and ninety years in ministry . . .” You know, making the bar so extremely high that most people are not going to manage that . . . and you know that.

Nancy: So what would it mean for a church that is (and I know, there are so many tentacles of this, because you have neighborhoods) . . . It goes to a lot of policies that have been around a lot longer than we have. But if you have a church in a neighborhood of predominantly one color—whatever that color is—and the church is pretty homogenous, what would it would mean for that church? What is the responsibility of that church? What would it look like to be inclusive?

Dr. Venessa: Well, I think—this is probably a preference issue—but our belief system at our church is that if you are going to have a multicultural church, you need to have a multicultural leadership. The people need to see others that look like them that are in leadership. Otherwise, you’re really not multicultural. Your leadership structure needs to represent . . .

If you’re serving in a particular community, if it’s an all-black church in an all-white community, are there no leaders there? What are you saying? So I would say, yes, we need to make sure that leadership represents the congregation.

Nancy: Which makes sense. Are you comfortable with the concept of all-black churches?

Dr. Venessa: I am.

Nancy: Are you comfortable with the concept of all-white churches?

Dr. Venessa: I am.

Nancy: That seems a little different than what you were just saying a moment ago. Tell me . . .

Dr. Venessa: Yes, because I think every church is different, and every church has its own little culture and style. You might be a hymnal church, and some people don’t like that. You might be a gospel church (in terms of the music), and some people don’t want that. 

Nancy: And when I say all white or all black, I’m not saying that they close their doors to or put up barriers to those who aren’t like them.

Dr. Venessa: No, no, no. It just is. You gravitate to what’s comfortable to you. But if you’re going to be a multicultural church, you need to make some differences there, especially in children’s ministry. Your pictures and your books and things like that shouldn’t be one race if you are intending to do so.

Nancy: Most of the pictures of the Bible stories look a way people did not look in that period for sure.

Dr. Venessa: Yes, and that’s a hot button, because a lot of times people want to present Jesus to us as a blond white guy. It’s a bomb to start talking about. Which is why most of us, we don’t talk about it. And when I say I’m comfortable with that, I’m comfortable if you’re not excluding.

If you’re teaching God’s Word and that’s what He’s sending, and you’re not trying to keep anyone out, that’s fine.

Nancy: So how much responsibility do you feel there is to be proactively inclusive, to seek to become multicultural?

Dr. Venessa: We don’t feel like you should seek that. I think that, if you’re just being loving and that’s what God sends you, then it is. I don’t see a difference. But I think you have to make sure that you’re not being exclusive.

My husband and I visited a church that was a very large, predominantly white. When we walked in, they didn’t say, “Hello,” and “Good morning!” They said, “How can we help you?” I’m at a church. What do you mean how can you help me?

Nancy: So what did that say to you?

Dr. Venessa: It said, “What are you doing here? Why are you here?” And the look on their face was of shock! 

Nancy: “How can we help you?” Like, “You don’t belong here!”

Dr. Venessa: Yes. “Why are you here? Did you make a wrong turn?”

Nancy: Wow.

Dr. Venessa: So that’s what I’m saying. It doesn’t matter if you are, but let’s not be exclusive in our practices.

Nancy: What kind of responsibility do you feel like Christians have? I’m talking about people like you and me, not the people who are in charge of everything, to deal with issues in the culture of systemic inequality or injustice, to speak on these things?

You asked me earlier, before we were recording, if I ever feel (and we weren’t just talking about this subject) a responsibility or an expectation of others to speak out on social media about a whole plethora of issues . . . which you could do that all the time.

And we talked about how I do feel sometimes that . . . because I tend to, mostly on social media, quote dead guys. That’s pretty much my social media.

Dr. Venessa: They can’t come back at you!

Nancy: Well, they are just timeless. I don’t deal with a lot of cultural, contemporary “hot potato” issues. It’s not because I’m afraid of it as much as I’m not sure that social media is the best place or the most effective place to litigate those conversations. I think they take place better, sometimes, in relationship.

But do you feel like Christians—of whatever ethnicity—have a responsibility to address systemic evils in the culture? Some of which go back multiple generations?

Dr. Venessa: Right, yes. Here’s what I believe: I believe the church needs to do its job. Whatever community you’re in, whatever that community is, I think the church needs to do its job. Meaning, we are to farm that area, we are to minister to the people in that area. Whatever your radius is (ten miles, twenty miles, a hundred miles), you need to do your job based on what’s in that area.

I think that it doesn’t matter, if you are loving the people and serving the people, you’re going to care for their social ills. You’re going to meet their needs according to where they are. I think the local church needs to get back to doing its job.

Nancy: You’re talking about loving people.

Dr. Venessa: Yes. Loving people. It doesn’t matter who they are; they’re God’s people. Love people.

Nancy: If you could say one thing as an African-American woman to white women who are listening to this conversation that you think would be helpful, provocative, encouraging . . . I’m putting you on the spot here, because I didn’t give you a chance to think about it. But what comes to mind?

Dr. Venessa: I think I would say, “I need you. I need you, and you need me. We are sisters in Christ. I don’t think that we can get this work done without each other.” I think that we need to lock arms and get in the trenches and do whatever it is that God has called us to, and that we should watch out for our heart and the evils of our heart when we sojourn together.

But let’s get over ourselves, and let’s get busy about God’s business! I need you; you need me. Let’s do this to the glory of God!

Nancy: Amen, amen. I’m so thankful for you Venessa, and it’s a conversation I hope we’re going to be able to continue in the days ahead. Thank you for loving well, thank you for serving well. You’re a gift to the Body of Christ, and a gift to this ministry, and I’m just so grateful.

Dr. Venessa: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Leslie: Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has been talking with Dr. Venessa Ellen about the ways we can love each other in the Body of Christ. You can also hear Dr. Ellen on a podcast produced by Revive Our Hearts called Women of the Bible about the biblical story of Esther.

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Tomorrow, Nancy will address a number of practical questions, including Scripture memory and social media. Please be back here on Revive Our Hearts.

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