BRENDA SALTER McNEIL, an ordained minister, national speaker and founder of the church leadership coaching network, the VIBE Alliance, is associate professor of reconcilation studies in the School of Theology at Seattle Pacific University.
CONNECTION TO OUTREACH MAGAZINE: The March/April 2010 issue of Outreach magazine features McNeil on the cover and inside the pages in a feature-length article: The Outreach Interview. Read the complete interview »
On the two sides of reconciliation: “You should have been told when you first came in that this is about being reconciled to God and being reconciled to others. It’s like having gone to school and never been taught multiplication, and now you’re in college and they’re saying, ‘You don’t know the fundamentals,’ and you’re wondering, ‘Why didn’t someone teach me that way back then?’”
On planting multicultural churches: “Part of the problem is that so many church planters are in isolation and need to be part of a community. I think the day of the individual superstar church leader is over, and we’re moving toward a day where collaboration is going to make these multicultural churches work.”
On why we are called to be reconcilers: “I think we were supposed to be a countercultural community. In a world that’s divided, where people tend to group themselves with people like them, the Christian community was supposed to be this group of people that by their very existence made the world take notice of a God who could bring this kind of unity.”
Please tell us a story of racial healing and reconciliation you have experienced in your life.
My first summer job was as a counselor in a summer camp program in Pennington, N.J. This recreational and tutorial program was designed to bring children from urban schools in Trenton, N.J., to Pennington, an affluent, rural community. The program helped these children to improve their basic academic skills and also exposed them to music, art and fun activities like riding horses, playing tennis and swimming. Twelve counselors were hired to staff the program. Six of the counselors were African-Americans from Trenton and six were white Americans from Pennington. Two of the white counselors were the sons of the program’s founder, Mrs. Dorothy Katz.
The counselors were asked to arrive one week prior to the children. On the first day of orientation, all of the counselors segregated along racial lines. The African-American counselors felt intimidated by the wealth and affluence of Pennington, so we decided that the philosophical premise of the program was flawed. We felt that it was unfair to expose poor black children to experiences that highlighted their poverty and could not be duplicated in their home communities. To express our displeasure and to intimidate the white people in the program, all of the African-Americans came the next day dressed in cultural clothing and wearing Afro hairstyles. We tried to look as militant and menacing as we could! The white counselors were afraid of us and further withdrew and separated themselves. The atmosphere was tense, and neither group made any effort toward dialogue or reconciliation.
I believe Mrs. Katz knew that her program was in jeopardy of being destroyed before it ever got started! She decided that she had to build a team out of this racially divided group. To do this, she contacted an adventure learning organization and instructed all 12 counselors to come the next day prepared to go camping. She arranged for us to be taken into the woods for a wilderness survival weekend.
We were driven to an undisclosed location and given food rations for two days. A man dressed in hiking gear met our team and took us into a very dense, remote wilderness area. I was afraid and felt out of control in this unfamiliar territory. I kept to myself and didn’t even try to participate with the rest of the group. I brought my own snacks and wouldn’t eat the freeze-dried rations that were given to us. I was not a good team player!
On the next day we had to climb a steep rock face to reach our destination in order to be picked up. I had never been camping before and did not have proper camping gear, hiking boots or climbing attire. After several failed attempts at trying to scale the face of the rock, I almost gave up because I was exhausted. My fingers were bleeding, and my legs were cut and bruised. I needed help. One of the counselors, Danny Katz, saw me in crisis. Everyone else had gone on ahead. Instead of leaving me, he reached down his hand, stretching to grab me, and he pulled me up with all of his strength to the top of that rock. When I was safely on the rock, our eyes met, and I looked him right in the face. We didn’t speak, but in that moment, I saw him in a new way. I was too young and dumb—and probably arrogant—to know how to properly thank him, but I knew that I could never hate him again. I had a real need, and he reached for me and met it. As a result, he was no longer just a “white boy” to me. He was a real person with a name—Danny Katz—and I have never forgotten him since. That truly was the day that my reconciliation journey began. I wasn’t a Christian yet, but God used that moment and my real need to start the process of transforming my life.
Excerpted from A Credible Witness: Reflections on Power, Evangelism and Race by Brenda Salter McNeil (InterVarsity, 2008)
What has been the most successful, rewarding experience in your ministry to date?
It’s hard to choose, however, I would say that the most successful and rewarding experience in my ministry thus far was being the first woman to officiate the communion service in the history of the Urbana missions convention. When I came out on stage dressed in my clergy vestments, I became a symbol of spiritual leadership and hope for women and men from around the world. I used an Episcopalian liturgy from East Africa, which demonstrated my ecumenical and global heart. I was also true to the passion and prophetic nature of my African-American, Pentecostal heritage. In that moment, I was my most authentic and congruent self, using my gifts to lead people from every tribe and nation, being exactly who God created me to be.
What has been your most fantastic mistake? What did you learn from it?
I preached at the Urbana missions convention in December 2000. During my message, I talked about Mr. Ricky Byrdsong, the former head basketball coach at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who was tragically shot and killed by a white supremacist college student. While I spoke, I neglected to say the name of a young, Korean graduate student who was also shot and killed in Indiana, by the same gunman, while he was standing in front of his Presbyterian church. I didn’t say his name because I was afraid of mispronouncing it in front of all those people—so I omitted it. Later, after I finished speaking, it was brought to my attention that some Asian students were upset with me because my omission made it seem like I valued and mourned the life of one man more than the other. That was never what I intended to do at Urbana! The next morning I sensed that God spoke to me and said that I was to be a “symbol of repentance.” Once again my first response was “I don’t want to be a symbol of repentance!” But when I spoke with my husband about it, we both knew that I had to apologize. … After much internal debate and struggle, I asked the convention leaders for time to go back onstage and apologize. They agreed and gave me two minutes. As I spoke, I was broken and humbled. I felt weak and vulnerable in front of thousands of people. As I ended my remarks, I said, “I now understand what it feels like to be white—to try so hard to get it right but feel like you always get it wrong.” That was the first time that I honestly identified and empathized with white people. There was an immediate reaction throughout the assembly hall. The worship leader standing on stage began to cry. One woman told me that she watched the service on closed-circuit television in her hotel room, and when she heard those words, she gasped and began to weep.
Many would say that that apology was a turning point at Urbana. The positive responses I received were overwhelming. As I left the stage, Dr. Ken Fong hugged me and said he was proud of me. Since then, we have become close colleagues in the ministry of reconciliation. International delegates from Korea bowed and greeted me with honor. Asian-American, Native American and Hispanic students welcomed and greeted me warmly when I visited their cultural specific meetings. I was invited to speak in Africa and other countries. God used that two-minute apology more powerfully than he used the entire message I preached at Urbana! I was indeed used as God’s “sacrificial lamb,” and in the process, I learned about the power of weakness. I learned that humility is one of the most important characteristics in the ministry of reconciliation, and that it is the power, which is revealed through our weakness, that breaks down walls and unites people together.
Excerpted from A Credible Witness: Reflections on Power, Evangelism and Race, by Brenda Salter McNeil (InterVarsity, 2008)
What has been your biggest ministry disappointment so far?
My biggest disappointment was when my first nonprofit organization, Overflow Ministries, did not succeed in the way I’d hoped. I believe that God called me to start this ministry and gave me the name for it. It broke my heart when it failed because my husband and I poured all that we had into it. We both made huge sacrifices and were disappointed with God when things didn’t work out. We learned a lot about ourselves and we grew from this experience, but our faith took a hit. It took some time for God to heal and restore our ability to dream again.
What areas of growth or development have you experienced in your personal spiritual life in the last year?
I have grown in my ability to consistently practice sacred rhythms that restore me so that I can be effective in ministry and in life. I have a greater appreciation for what it means to love the Lord with all my heart, mind, soul and strength and to love my neighbor as I love myself.
What has been the greatest obstacle to spiritual growth for you in the last year? How have you overcome it?
Travel presents a huge challenge to being able to maintain my normal spiritual rhythms and healthy practices of exercise, eating right and resting. I’m learning to overcome the challenges of travel by limiting the number of times I travel and by taking the things I need with me in order to be successful in maintaining my disciplines on the road.
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BRENDA SALTER McNEIL: A powerful preacher, evangelist and a thought-leader with over 30 years of experience in the field of racial and ethnic reconciliation, Brenda Salter McNeil is the president and founder of Salter McNeil & Associates, a Christian company that partners with organizations to transform them into reconciling communities by producing inter-culturally competent leaders on college campuses, in churches and in organizations around the world. Dr. Salter McNeil earned her Bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University, a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a Doctorate of Ministry from formerly named Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, now Palmer Theological Seminary. She is the founder of the church leadership coaching network, the VIBE Alliance and author of A Credible Witness: Reflections on Power, Evangelism and Race.