Starbucks, Communion, and Race Conversations

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Many of us were skeptical and even downright hostile when Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, initiated the idea of “Race Together” to promote conversations about race at coffee shops around the country. Schultz was criticized by those who said “he didn’t understand the complexity of the race issue” and by those who said “I don’t want controversial conversations while ordering my latte.” We can debate endlessly the execution of his idea. But the controversy points to a need to think more deeply about our reluctance to engage in race conversations. It is easy to criticize Schultz, but what are we in the faith community doing to lead the way? Faith communities should be at the forefront of moving us toward fruitful conversations on race, not sitting on the sideline.

What are we in the faith community doing to lead the way? Faith communities should be at the forefront of moving us toward fruitful conversations on race.

Communion

Most communion liturgies begin with confession. Human beings are imperfect, and acknowledging our need for pardon is important. We in the church need to confess that we have not modeled well how to have engaging conversations around race. The reasons are numerous and complex, but we can certainly think of ways the church can become a more positive model.

In communion, we talk about being a part of one loaf. Even as the loaf is broken and given away, we all are still a part of that one loaf. If we mean what we say in partaking of the body of Christ, then our connection to each other should be more than symbolic. Communion requires an investment in one another that moves beyond surface acknowledgement. For example, we may be experiencing hurt and pain in a congregation; but in taking communion together, we commit to a process of healing because we are invested in one another.

Communion is not just about my congregation; it acknowledges our investment with all other Christian believers. This investment means taking on the work of painful conversations that may very well cause us to get angry and to want to walk away. But these conversations are at the heart of what it means to be in communion with each other. Ignoring this investment cheapens our practice of communion.

In communion, we not only share the loaf, but also the cup. In many liturgies we say the cup represents the blood of Christ shed for us. Some express concern that the image of blood connotes violence; yet it is the bloodshed in recent incidents around our country that has renewed the interest in racial dialogue. The juxtaposition of the cup representing salvation and the desire to save lives from further bloodshed should not be lost on us. This juxtaposition is troubling. As Christians, we are the ones who should see with new eyes because Jesus’s blood was shed. We should be true bearers of the cup of salvation bringing healing to hurt and pain.

To be bearers of salvation, we must be willing to enter into conversations where we hear the pain others are experiencing. Avoiding these conversations means we are empty salvation bearers. It means we are not fully living out what it means to partake of the cup from Jesus. As often as we partake of the cup, it should remind us of our calling to be bearers of salvation even when it makes us uncomfortable.

Race Conversations

I am not naïve in believing that congregations who take communion seriously will suddenly engage in deep racial dialogues. I do believe, however, taking communion seriously should make us uncomfortable with the status quo in our congregations. It should give us pause to consider why we claim to be invested in one another but avoid dialogue that can move us toward deeper communion with one another.

There is no magic solution for starting deeper engagement with one another, but these steps may help getting started.

  • Be willing to take a risk. While we may disagree with how Howard Schultz executed “Race Together,” we should applaud his willingness to take a risk and do something. Faith communities must be willing to take the same risk.
  • Partner with another congregation for a year of conversations. Ask people to commit to converse at least monthly for the year.
  • Partner with that congregation around a mission focus. I do not mean the typical model of just going into a disadvantaged neighborhood. There is work to be done in middle class and other neighborhoods. For example, partnering on environmental awareness opportunities can be done in any neighborhood.

Those of us in the faith community probably should thank Howard Schultz. He provided an opportunity for us to model to others what we should do best — communion. It is in taking communion seriously that we can begin to transform the status quo and move toward more fruitful dialogues on race.


Doug recently served as one of the conveners of a Wesley Seminary symposium on “Moving Faith Communities to Fruitful Conversations about Race.” A free, four-part video study resource incorporating portions of this dialogue can be accessed by clicking this link.

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About Author

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC.


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