Racial Reconciliation Series: My Personal Experience - Gordon Conwell

Racial Reconciliation Series: My Personal Experience

Racial Reconciliation Series: My Personal Experience

As part of the release of fall 2017 edition of Contact Magazine, the Office Hours Faculty Blog is proud to present a 6-week series on racial reconciliation featuring articles written by experts, scholars and ministry leaders from Gordon-Conwell. The weekly release each Friday and will include articles A Conversation with Dr. Emmett G. Price IIIBeyond ColorblindMinistering to Families in the Urban ContextHow Do We Learn to Love Our Neighbor, Racial Reconciliation: My Personal Experience and Can We All Get Along.

Racial Reconciliation: My Personal Experience

Prof. Dean Borgman

During the 1930s most New England Congregational Churches were admittedly Modernistic, essentially Unitarian and Universalist. But Black Rock Congregational Church in Bridgeport, CT, was an exception. This church moved from Modernist to Fundamentalist (or from “liberal” to “evangelical,” to use today’s terms) in the 1920s under the leadership of Rev. Charles Haddon Spurgeon MacDowell. His daughter, Winifred, became a leading evangelist, and (not without a dash of romance) she converted a local agnostic, Arnold Borgman.

Charles MacDowell was my grandfather; Arnold and Winifred, my parents. Black Rock was almost entirely “white,” but it bordered projects that were predominantly Black. As dispensationalist Christians, we were interested in the salvation of black souls, for eternity’s sake, but seemingly unconcerned about their present worldly dilemmas. World concerns God had entrusted to Israel; the Church was made up of God’s heavenly people, who were simply waiting for the Rapture.

Through a childhood friend, God opened doors for ministry to Black youth, as busloads of youth joined our Black Rock Teenage Group. It was great, but I never took the time to hear their full stories. While teaching high school and leading a Young Life Club in New Canaan, CT, I spent time with Black students. But despite my enthusiasm for their presence, I never got to hear their stories or understand their deeper issues. Around 1960, I began doing graduate studies at Columbia University and had a roommate, a Brazilian American who identified as Black and gay. He engaged me in deep conversations and introduced me to the notion of systemic racism. My dispensational theology began to weaken, and its individualism was giving way to a more holistic theology with the strong corporate emphases of Scripture.

I became involved in an urban youth ministry with Young Life in an Anglo-Catholic Church on the Lower East Side Manhattan. Systemic obstacles were apparent all around us: in housing, education, and criminal justice; the hopelessness of dreams, pressure to join gangs and powerful incentives to chase adventure and relief through drugs.

In his old age my grandfather came to live in my parents’ home while I worked with black leaders and youth in New York. He turned to me one day and exclaimed: “Remember, Dean, the Civil War was fought over the Union—not over slavery!” I also remember being in the kitchen one day when my mother and grandmother explained: “Remember, Dean, sparrows mate with sparrows and robins with robins.” I remember no malice behind these remarks; they just hung in the air and in my mind. God knew how far I needed to go, through my own failures and pain, to fathom the significance of the Great Commandment in racial reconciliation.

I began to see that my understanding of love and compassion had been generic and superficial. We were not trained to understand communal and trans-generational trauma back then, but the compelling wounds and anger of these youth led us to empathy and a deeper understanding of privilege, power and disadvantage. A year with the Street Academies of Harlem brought us into hard confrontations, emotional encounter groups, and late night discussions with the followers of Malcolm X and others.

My learning curve also included years in Africa. The stories of African supervisors, friends, and servants pointed to the racist aspects of colonialism and our country’s economic imperialism. American aid would bounce once in Africa and then back to the U.S. But the American inner-city was the same: outsiders—landlords, teachers, police, and shop owners—profited from money pumped into such neighborhoods.

In 1975, Dr. Wesley Roberts asked me to team-teach (eventually solo-teach) a new course requested by Black students at Gordon-Conwell. All I had was my privileged perspective; I had to become a humble and receptive learner, receptive to stories of pain. Surveys I conducted as we laid the foundation for an urban Boston campus contributed to my learning curve, as did countless deep encounters with students and colleagues for 40 years at the Boston Campus. As a practical theologian, I listen to the secular world and social scientists. A shelf-full of books on the African-American experience and systemic racism helps educate me to some degree.

The triumphalism of my early theology has faded. Even now I seem to be committed to a cause that will never fully win until our Lord brings God’s final triumph of justice. We seem to be called to faithfulness until final success, knowing that it may not come in our lifetimes.

I recently listened to dismissals of white privilege by young women who see charges of privilege as racism against whites. Their perspective must be part of any discussions leading toward reconciliation. But when our interchanges are characterized by arrogance rather than humility, rhetoric rather than earnest experience, and anger rather than vulnerability, we are pushing polarization rather than seeking beloved community and God’s Kingdom among us. Ears must take precedence over mouths, real listening before even considering a response.

In our academic communities, churches and cities there are deep wounds that result in a lack of trust and hinder genuine community. Too often, we just “don’t get it.” We don’t realize how we, as those with subtle but real social power, come off to those who have always experienced less.

I am called by Jesus Christ to be childlike, to understand the total mystery of ethnic identities and social strata involved in secular society and in God’s Kingdom. Only as a vulnerable, learning sinner can I truly open my arms to relationships with all others.


Dean Borgman, long-time Charles E. Culpeper Professor of Youth Ministries, joined Gordon-Conwell in 1976, bringing valuable expertise in urban and cross-cultural youth ministry and the changing youth culture. Recognized as a leader in youth ministries, he established Young Life in New England, founded its Urban Training Center and worked to integrate youth into Young Life and St. Christopher’s Episcopal Mission in Lower Manhattan, NY. He also taught at New Canaan (CT) High School, New York City Community College, Cuttington College in Liberia, and served as Educational Director of Street Academies for the New York Urban League. An Episcopal priest, he was on the Youth Board of the Episcopal Diocese of New York and the Youth, Urban and Spiritual Renewal Commissions of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. In addition, he was the Youth Ministry Consultant at the 1998 Lambeth Conference.


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