Finding common ground takes time, talk and the humility to admit when you’re wrong
October 24th, 2018 / By: Bonnie Pritchett | TEXAN Correspondent / comments
As political and racial tensions appear to increasingly divide the nation and even Christians, two Central Texas pastors—one black, one white—have chosen conversation over hashtags and difficult dialogue over indifference. Protests, kneeling, signing national faith-based statements have their place in a free society, but the long slog of dismantling racial barriers begins at a table. And, preferably, over lunch.
Dante Wright, who is black, and his friend and fellow pastor Ben Wright, who is white, don’t see eye to eye on some important cultural issues—their disparate upbringings frame their points of view. They have the humility to admit that. A shared faith tempers their conversations. A desire to see people of all races not merely coexist, but to know and appreciate one another, keeps the two men coming back to the meeting table.
On a late September afternoon, that table was in a conference room at Sweet Home—Pinnacle of Praise Church in Round Rock, where Dante pastors a congregation of 2,500. Ben pastors a fledgling church plant, Cedar Pointe Baptist Church in Cedar Park, about 12 miles west.
“I wanted to develop a relationship with a brother of another color because we have been intentional on becoming brothers in Christ,” Dante said. “We just had great conversation. I don’t think we left the table agreeing, totally, with one another. But I do know we left the table knowing there’s more work to be done.”
Agreement was never the goal. This is a conversation, not a debate, they said.
As SBTC pastors from the same region their relationship had been little more than business related. But when Ben heard a pastor admonish a room full of white pastors to develop meaningful relationships with theologically like-minded pastors of other races, he called Dante to see if he knew anyone in Cedar Park who fit the bill.
That phone call led to a lunch with Dante. More than two years later the two are still talking, though not often enough, they say. Their visits have been fruitful but not without tension.
Both men grew up in communities that looked like them—Dante in the mostly black neighborhoods of south Dallas and Ben in “mono-ethnic” (his term), rural northwest Ohio. Since Dante could not avoid being immersed in a wider culture, he learned at an early age to productively navigate within the racial tensions, challenging white friends and co-workers to broaden their frame of reference on the human experience.
Before taking up the mantle as a third-generation pastor, Dante coached college football, where he was a minority among the staff but not the players.
“What I did learn from my white coaching guys that I worked with was that they had what I defined as ‘intercultural competency,’” Dante said. “They knew their world but they also knew the world of their players.”
And that awareness cultivated more conversations about race, Dante said.
For Ben, like many white Americans, being in the majority stymied that “intercultural competency” development. Growing up Ben cringed at racist slights. Learning about how blacks have been treated throughout America’s history repulsed him—but not enough for him to act. He ascribes his reticence, in part, to his spiritual state; although he was raised in a Christian home and professed belief in Christ all his life, Ben did not become a Christian until after college.
During the 2000 GOP presidential primaries pitting George W. Bush against John McCain, an email awakened him to latent racism among those calling themselves Christians. A professor at his alma mater, Bob Jones University, alleged that McCain’s interracial adopted child was actually the product of an illicit affair by the candidate.
“When I learned how it was used to smear McCain, I think that was sort of the moral breaking point for me. I realized enough is enough,” Ben said. “That event increased my awareness of the subtle racial prejudice that had been in my own heart.”
He became more attuned to racial disparities, especially when speaking with non-white believers whose perspectives he valued. One story he repeatedly heard recounted by those friends, including Dante, was the experience of “driving while black”—being pulled over by police without having violated a traffic law.
Dismissing media reports allowed Ben to ignore an egregious example of racial prejudice.
“But talking to four different guys I know and trusted and that I know love the Lord—at some point you’ve got to wake up and believe this is a real thing,” he said as Dante nodded in affirmation. “It doesn’t mean any time there is an accusation I have to assume it’s true. But I have to believe there’s some kind of real pattern when people who I trust say that this is a normal experience.”
Dante added, “The way he views the police and the way I view the police are different worldviews. People are like, ‘That’s crazy!’ But his experience and my experience are different.”
They bring to the conversation a shared faith but different perspectives on how that has been and should be applied in their communities.
But there are also points of agreement. The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, released last summer, was intended as a caution against elevating social justice causes above proclaiming the gospel. The declaration, issued by lead author and pastor John McArthur and signed by some 7,000 evangelical pastors, didn’t sit well with some of their peers, including Dante and Ben. They won’t sign it.
“It has not fostered Christian unity,” Ben told me in a follow-up email. “While time may prove that the authors’ concerns are legitimate, the way the discussion has unfolded has undermined the likelihood of constructive, respectful, unifying dialogue.”
And that is antithetical to what the pastors want for themselves and what they hope to encourage for their congregations.
Unanimity on every issue isn’t the goal, they insist. The two have never argued, Dante said. Even in difficult conversations they have learned, in humility, to at least accept that the other person see things from a different vantage point.
“It was always civil, loving,” Dante said. “It’s always been a great, positive and productive discussion.”
“The point,” Ben said, “is to love my brother in Christ, to edify my brother in Christ, to learn from my brother in Christ. I’ve got to want those things more than I want to prove myself to be right.”