During my time in New York City, a little over a month ago, I had the privilege to spend some time with Pastor James Roberson of The Bridge Church. James planted The Bridge Church in Brooklyn, NY, which is the largest of New York’s five Burroughs. James is also a coach with the REBUILD Network. Our time together focused predominately on the question “How does a church engage diversity?”
Who are you?
My name is James Roberson and I was born and raised in Westchester, NY. Though I grew up in church, my relationship with God was defined more by praying for wins in football and passing classes in school. I graduated from Yorktown High School (this was a miracle), and left New York to attend college at Valley Forge Military College in Wayne, PA. While at Valley Forge, I was captain of the football team and graduated with an A.A. in Liberal Arts. I was granted a full athletic scholarship to attend James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, Va, where I played defensive tackle, and graduated with a B.A. degree in Speech Communications and a minor in Theater. It wasn’t until college that I was introduced to a consistent lifestyle of living for God through Campus Crusade for Christ. Once my collegiate football career ended, I helped start a campus ministry called IMPACT, geared toward reaching out to the African American community. This experience was a turning point in my life, and I realized the most influential way to change the world was to preach The Gospel. In that moment, I committed my life to ministry.
How do you create space for people who are different to come together without being overwhelmed?
You have to create a controlled environment of the uncontrolled environment you’re sending them to. If people who are ethnically or economically different within the church don’t sit-down and have a meal together; they won’t do it with non-believers. As a pioneer in pursuing diversity you have to be willing to lead out in bringing people who are different together. There is going to be awkwardness. The goal is not to create a “sanitized” comfortable environment, but to learn to embrace the differences and continue to pursue the relationship.
What is essential to engage in diversity?
- Authenticity: The greatest apologetic for Christians today is authenticity.
- Proximity: You need to build bridges and create environments for people to begin building relationships. If where you work, live, and play are filled with people who are basically the same, where can you change your environment to engage people who are different? Could you shop at a different grocery store? What if your children played soccer for a city league instead of a club team?
- Humility: This is accomplished by consistently taking on the posture of a learner. Always be willing to ask questions even if you look silly or awkward for doing so.
What kills diversity or stifles it?
The worst way to engage in diversity and reconciliation is through “racial reconciliation” circles.
It begins the relationship with deeply rooted issues.
When you sit-down with someone and begin the conversation with Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, your experiences with prejudice, you start a relationship in the most negative explosive way possible. If you want to understand the reality of an African American, Hispanic, Asian, etc. start with building a relationship. Those deeper rooted feelings and emotions will come to the surface naturally as you begin to enter into one another’s lives. Furthermore, because a relationship is being developed there is trust that is being grown.
It creates clicks that give short term results but kills long term progress.
The unfortunate reality with reconciliation circles is that it often leads to more division. The majority of circles that see diverse relationships develop tend to become closed off and hostile to outsiders. Because people were willing to be vulnerable and they overcame highly sensitive issues, they now want to protect what they’ve worked so hard for. In order to see long term progress you have to de-program reconciliation and learn to make it a lifestyle rhythm.