Our participation in the present humanity of this world drives us often toward distinctions, separations, bigotry, and racism—even in the church. That was powerfully brought home to me during our time as missionaries in Nigeria. We were received with openness and love by our friends in the Church of Christ in the Sudan among the Tiv.
But one of their practices really bothered us: on Communion Sunday, everyone was expected to wear white. Now, in itself, wearing white to symbolize purity before God is a great idea. But if a person in those neighborhoods didn’t wear white on Communion Sunday, regardless of her spiritual condition, she was physically directed to the back of the church building. And when the Loaf and Cup of communion were passed, those whose shirts were yellow, or whose skirts had pink designs on otherwise white backgrounds, or those who were too poor to buy a white blouse—these were served the bread and wine last, as if they were second-class citizens in the kingdom or inferior members of the church.
That experience taught me the meaning of the old spiritual, “I Got Shoes.” While the richly dressed White folks in the old South of the United States marched off to their churches wearing their polished Sunday shoes, the Black slaves, with their bare feet, were left to gather for worship as they could. And while White folks were singing about the worldwide church of Christ, Black folks were singing:
I got shoes! You got shoes! All God’s chillun got shoes!
And when de angel Gabriel calls us home, Gonna walk all over God’s heaven!
For they knew that God takes care of God’s children, and when God brought them finally to glory, God wouldn’t check to see the color of their skin, or the whiteness of their clothes, or even the place where they were born. Instead, God would simply ask them if Jesus was their brother. And then, like the only begotten Son, they too would receive a pair of shoes, the sign of people who were no longer barefoot slaves of others but cared-for children of God.
In our world of brokenness and radicalized tensions, one of the most powerful testimonies of the church is the singularity of the family of God. We who have become many in the nations and communities of this world are reunited by the Spirit (Acts 2), restored into the fellowship of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12-14), and given a vision of the day when all will share the common citizenship of the Kingdom of God (Revelation 7). Leaders who speak this testimony are fighting against the prevailing winds of culture, but are decisively in step with the Spirit.