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Church planting sapped my energy to read, so when I came up for air in 2015, I resolved to catch up by reading 50 books that year.

I figured broadening my horizons and catching up on issues and theology would serve our blossoming little multiethnic church plant. I read my 50 books, but not once did it cross my mind to notice what kinds of authors I was reading.

I’m embarrassed to write this for public consumption, but 49 of those books were written by white men – and the 50th was picked by a friend on his turn to choose our joint book to read.

Forty-nine.

Wow, 98% of what I read was by people who looked just like me! Of course, I didn’t realize any of this till someone pointed it out two years ago. That day I was completely shocked. Then, in a moment of reflection it dawned on me that ALL of the theologians I had read in my systematic theology classes in seminary were, you guessed it, white men.

Before that I was unaware of my inherent biases, and without conscious effort I’d simply slid into my own racial and gender echo chamber. And there were real implications. By giving white male culture primacy in what shaped my mind (particularly in how I think about God and ministry) you can guess who I studied in sermon prep and who I quoted when preaching – and who was left out. And that’s not to mention how I protected myself from facing my cultural/racial blind spots and that I didn’t even know how I was using my position and authority as a pastor to choose leaders who looked like me.

Daniel Hill’s own moment of realization of what it means to be white mirrored mine exactly:

Just like all moments of genuine awakening, the discovery was both liberating and terrifying: liberating in the way truth always is, lifting you out of the fog and into the light, and terrifying because this revelation of truth demanded changes. – Daniel Hill, White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White

Something had to change. I’d unconsciously enjoyed the privilege of being able to surround myself with white culture (which is one of the inherent privileges of being part of the majority culture) long enough, and it was painfully clear that Jesus was inviting me into a new way of seeing the world.

Learning To See

In a moment that would lay the groundwork for the lineage of both King David and King Jesus, a poor immigrant asked a powerful landowner “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me—a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:10).

As the book of Ruth unfolds, we soon learn that not only did Boaz notice Ruth, he took time to learn her story. He saw her, really saw her, and the text notes that he mentions some knowledge of both her family and her homeland.

Part of my journey over the past couple of years has been trying to learn the stories of people different than me and then letting those stories change how I act. There’s a lot more to it than reading books, but that’s been a significant part of it. Some authors of color included Archbishop Oscar Romero, Austin Channing Brown, Cesar Chavez’s autobiography, Noli Me Tangere (the Filipino classic), Soong-Chan Rah, Deborah Jian Lee, and the fiction of N.K. Jemisin. They have been my teachers, and there’s been so very much to learn.

I feel like now, two years into my journey, I am just beginning to learn a little bit about how much I have to learn. I’m just beginning to understand the realities of privilege and grasping the slipperiness of white culture. I’m just beginning to see how poorly I’ve done at valuing those different than me. It’s been liberating and it’s been terrifying. I’ve had to grieve and repent more than ever before in my life, and yet I’ve found a richness I never imagined. And I’m just beginning.

So who are you reading these days?

Bill White

Bill White is the lead pastor of City Church Long Beach in Long Beach, California. He enjoys playing board games with his son and watching his daughter play soccer.

4 Comments

  • Tom says:

    Thanks for such a fine piece, and the admission of the white male grip on church life … Ruth’s question to Boaz is a good one … and it would seem that somehow or other you’ve decided to open your eyes, or at least, do so at the prompting of some friends … which is something we all need, because The Spirit rarely comes head-on to any of us, at least to me (too hard-headed), but through friends who seemingly have some capacity to ask good questions and offer sound counsel.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    Thank you for this.

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    One of the best books I’ve read lately is Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns. It tells the story of three African American families during the Great Migration and their stories of moving from the South to the North (NYC, Chicago, LA). It’s excellent, (the book on CD is very well read too) and gave me insight into race issues that I hadn’t grasped even with quite a bit of academic study of race.

    I also recommend feminist theology, books about biblical women, women’s history. So much good material out there!

    • Bill White says:

      Thanks, Lynn. I’ve heard great things about the Warmth of Other Suns. And I’ve been reading a great deal around LGBTQ people in the church which regularly engages with questions of feminist theology.

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