Black History Month ~ An Alumna's Perspective: Growing in Grace and in “Race” - Gordon Conwell

Black History Month ~ An Alumna’s Perspective: Growing in Grace and in “Race”

Michelle T. Sanchez (MDiv & ThM ’09)

Discipleship has long been my passion. By “discipleship,” I mean walking with Christ-followers to help them more faithfully follow Jesus, be transformed by Jesus, and participate in Jesus’ beautiful mission in our world. I began my discipleship studies in earnest at a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary where I was blessed by a number of formational classes and experiences including the Pierce Center for Disciple-Building. After serving for a number of years as a discipleship pastor in a local church in the Boston area, I could hardly believe it when I was invited to lead discipleship for an entire North American denomination of churches. As it happens, I also happen to be an African-American discipleship leader.

Does that matter? What does race have to do with discipleship, anyway? I’ll be honest. For most of my life, including while at seminary, I did not make many overt connections between race and discipleship. I have always been for Jesus and against racism, and most disciples I know would say the same thing. So . . . aren’t we good? Racism is such a fraught and depressing topic. I’d much rather talk about Jesus!

But that’s just it: what I’ve come to discover is that race and discipleship aren’t in completely separate categories, like apples and clementines. They are profoundly interrelated. In fact, one of the most meaningful ways for us to get to know Jesus better in this generation is to go deeper with him into our racial challenges, such as the documented racial disparities that persist in areas such as education, employment, healthcare, wealth, and so many others. Our generation has a unique invitation to strengthen our connection with Jesus through the adventure of racial discipleship.

Racial discipleship is about honoring Jesus as Lord in all things when it comes to race and ethnicity. It’s about following Jesus more closely as we engage our racial challenges; being transformed by Jesus as we remove sinful racial tendencies and put on healthier ones; and embarking on mission with Jesus as we foster shalom between all peoples and multiply disciples who do the same.

This brings us to what might seem like an unconventional idea: Actually, you have already been racially discipled. We each have already been shaped and formed by the racial dynamics of our society. We have all been subtly conditioned by the culture, practices, and perspectives of the family we were reared in and the era that we find ourselves in. The question is not if we have each been racially discipled; the question is how.

That is why what many disciples need now is to embark on a different kind of racial discipleship journey. It is different in that, rather than focus upon societal and culturally-defined themes, this time we will orient ourselves as disciples of Jesus Christ to engage effectively with the racial challenges we face, in Jesus’ name. When it comes to race, most of us need to be “re-discipled.” What’s more, on this journey we will discover that racial discipleship is not just about resisting racism or transforming the world. Racial discipleship is also about being personally transformed so that you can experience more of Jesus. And that is what has been the most exciting part of the journey for me.

This invitation to racial discipleship is for everyone, whatever your racial background. As fallen creatures in a fallen world, we have all been infected with sinful inclinations and wedded to imperfect perspectives on race whether we realize it or not. We all need awakening, transformation, healing, and fresh vision for a new day. Although our individual racial discipleship journeys will have different starting points and milestones, in our racialized world, I believe the journey itself is universal. For each person, this journey might involve engaging Scripture and church history in new ways, learning to prayerfully lament with brothers and sisters of color, going on pilgrimage to Civil Rights sites of significance, or giving sacrificially to support Christ-centered racial reconciliation ministries – just to name a few examples. As disciples of Christ, we are all invited to awaken to the broken racial realities of our world and to see how we may have contributed to them. Rather than unintentionally perpetuate existing problems, we are all invited to courageously discover and advance God’s solutions.

For example, I am thrilled by new initiatives that Gordon-Conwell has launched since my graduation, such as the Michael E. Haynes Center for Black Christian Leadership for Gordon-Conwell! What a beautiful step forward to becoming a seminary community that even more beautifully reflects the full kingdom of God and more powerfully disciples and equips our students to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).

Will you and your ministry say yes—with me and so many others—to Jesus’ invitation to the adventure of racial discipleship?

Portions of this piece are adapted from Color-Courageous Discipleship: Follow Jesus, Dismantle Racism, and Build Beloved Community by Michelle T. Sanchez. Copyright © 2022 by Michelle T. Sanchez. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Used with permission.

Michelle T. Sanchez has served in various discipleship and ministry leadership roles for more than a decade. She is the author of several books including Color-Courageous Discipleship (Waterbrook, 2022). She lives in the Chicago area with her husband Mickey and their two children.