Taking Off The Blinders

6 comments Written on November 2nd, 2016     
Filed under: sermons - messages
nilwona-nowlin-photo4-1Nilwona Nowlin serves as the Administrative Specialist for Governance for the ECC and is on the ministerial leadership team of Kingdom Covenant Church Chicago. She is a proud introvert and a redemptive artist, someone who believes in the power of the arts to bring about positive transformation and God’s shalom in individuals and communities. Read more of her writing at thedreamerspeaks.com.

(The following is an adaptation of a message I recently preached during a chapel service at Covenant Offices.)

One of last week’s lectionary texts was Deuteronomy 34:1-12, when Moses viewed the Promise Land from Mount Nebo. This passage jumped out at me because a year ago last week, I stood on Mount Nebo. As I read the passage, a lot of things jumped out at me; however, there was one part that stood out to me.

The end of this passage, verses 10-12, basically presented Moses as “the GREATEST prophet EVER!!!” Moses is depicted as a one in a million leader, the uncommon leader that everyone wants to be or wants to hire. This description of Moses is so glowing that it causes his meager beginnings to dim in comparison. While Deuteronomy 34 presents Moses the uncommon leader, Exodus 2 and 3 describes Moses the unlikely leader. The Bible presents plenty of examples of why we shouldn’t overlook the unlikely leader, those who don’t fit the “standard” image of a leader. As I was reflecting on the Deuteronomy text, some other examples came to mind.

Leaders: Unlikely to Uncommon
Ambrose, bishop of Milan, was one of the most notable Church leaders of the 4th century, but he didn’t even want to be a bishop! He was a Roman governor who was present at the bishop elections for no other reason than to prevent a riot. He wasn’t trained theologically, hadn’t been baptized and had aspirations of furthering his political career. Yet he gave himself wholeheartedly to his calling as a bishop. It was Ambrose’s sermons that provided the answers that Augustine was seeking as he contemplated whether or not to fully embrace the faith. Speaking of Augustine . . . Justo González calls him “the most influential theologian in the entire Western church, both Protestant and Catholic” (The History of Christianity, vol. 1, 2nd edition, 2010, pg. 252). However, his early days could be described as the full embodiment of “eat, drink and be merry!” Today, we would consider both Ambrose and Augustine to be great examples of an uncommon leader. But again, their earlier years may have suggested a different picture.

There are lots of reasons that unlikely leaders are overlooked; in the present day and age, implicit bias plays a major role. Implicit bias is the term that describes when our perception of/behavior toward a person is unconsciously affected by stereotypes. There are many examples of the negative impact implicit bias has had on people of color; for the sake of this conversation, I’m speaking specifically to the topic of identifying leaders.

Larry Nowlin grew up in the projects on the west side of Chicago. Known for his quick temper and ability to fight, it’s no surprise that he spent some time at an alternative school for “bad boys.” The common practice of overlooking “unlikely leaders” combined with implicit bias means that Larry never really had a chance at earning “uncommon leader” status. Yet, at his funeral, the Illinois General Assembly presented a resolution honoring his lifetime of service on behalf of Chicago Public School students. Similarly, Debbie Blue, a woman near and dear to the Covenant had a number of strikes against her. Blue, a black woman who also grew up in the projects on the west side of Chicago and was a divorced mother of two, wasn’t considered by many to be leadership material – and certainly not an uncommon leader. Yet, as many of you reading this can testify, she has greatly impacted individuals throughout the Covenant in ways that we will continue to discover generations from now. I consider it a blessing to call Larry my father and to call Blue my mentor and friend. What a privilege to have gleaned from the lives of these phenomenal leaders!

Moving Forward
So what does this have to do with the ECC? Deuteronomy 34 opens with Moses looking out at the Promised Land. I think that the Promised Land for the Covenant is the place in time when our identity as a multi-ethnic church is a lived expression and not just statistics in a pie chart. This means that our multi-ethnicity will be reflected in the language we use, the training/resources we provide, the images we project, the analogies we use, the songs we sing and our leadership at all levels (denominational, conference and local congregation). Relationships are the key to moving forward. Most of the people who have acknowledged/called out my leadership gifts have been people of color. I imagine that this is because they learned from their own experiences that no one else would do that for me. However, all of the people who have acknowledged/called out my leadership gifts were able to observe those gifts because they were walking alongside me in an authentic relationship.

While Moses laid hands on Joshua to publicly identify him as the next leader, God chose Joshua as the next leader. There are individuals within the Covenant family whom God has chosen to lead us into our next season, but we are blinded by our implicit bias. We’re blinded most often in the areas of ethnicity but are also blind in the areas of gender, age, class and physical abilities (or a person’s perceived membership in any of these categories). Building authentic relationships helps us take off the blinders and also provides opportunities for us to grow in the area of intercultural competence.

Do you constantly struggle to find leaders of color to serve in various capacities? If so, you should probably evaluate your circle of influence. Does it truly reflect the make-up of the Covenant? If not, why not? What can you do to change that? Who are you seeking to walk alongside in a genuine relationship? And when I talk about relationship, I don’t mean reaching out to someone because you want to know more about their experience as a Latina in the Covenant, or as a Chinese-American man in the Covenant or as a Covenanter with a disability. That’s like meeting someone in an elevator and asking them to share their most intimate secrets. I’m exhausted from well-meaning folks who attempt to start our relationship by asking me to rip open the wounds inflicted upon me by racism and sexism/misogyny. Maybe we could just start by talking about why we both love Pepsi and “24,” then wade into the deep waters at a more appropriate time . . .

Family, we’ve been “trying to be” and “living into” for quite a long time. Now, let’s take off the blinders, round up our leaders and be.

(One existing resource that can support efforts to move forward in the areas of ethnic ministry and diversity is the five-fold-test. For more ECC resources on intercultural development, visit the LMDJ resource page by clicking here.)



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6 comments “Taking Off The Blinders”

Nilwona, I am catching up on my BGE blog reading and am so glad I read your post. My context is different, but implicit bias lives here, too. I encounter gender, age and its accompanying challenges, and background. I see it within the person, too. There are those already convinced they are too old or don’t have the right background or that time is behind them. Someone sold them a bill of goods!
In addition, my Bible study class will soon finish Deuteronomy and you have given me a new lens through which to read it and apply chapter 34. Thank you!
And when we meet – I’m not so big on Pepsi but was captivated by 24. Could be a fun getting to know you kind of conversation.

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Hi Liz,

Thanks for being a BGE blog reader and for taking the time to respond to my post! Yes, one of the worst parts about implicit bias is how it fuels internalized oppression amongst marginalized groups. So you will most definitely come across a 70 year old woman who still struggles with whether or not God really called her into ministry or the teen with a physical disability who limits himself based on how others have limited him. It’s just as painful to see, no doubt. I’m so glad God used me to give you a new lens through which to read this text!

And yes. I laughed at my friends who were fanatic about 24 during the first season. Then I stumbled across an episode during season 2. I’ve been hooked ever since. So, of course, I’m looking forward to 24 Legacy starting in February! 🙂

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Nilwona – May the day come quickly when the five fold test is no longer a needed resource but a best practice for others to consult who need to create a movement of diversity within their contexts. I pray that we can move beyond the sharing of stories and the need to put a face with the evil or have a relationship with someone to recognize injustice for the evil that it is. May God continue to use conversation, stories and relationship as on ramps but the ride on a diverse highway looks and feels much different and offers much more beautiful experiences. May it be so soon Lord, Jesus. 

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Amen and AMEN!

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“Family, we’ve been “trying to be” and “living into” for quite a long time. Now, let’s take off the blinders, round up our leaders and be.” AMEN Nilwona! 

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Thanks, Ellie!

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