Is it the job of a church to be entirely objective, or does advocacy call for something else?
The question of being a “one-issue church” came up in my interview last July with the search committee.
Because the issue of race and policing was thrust upon Falcon Heights Church in 2016 with the Philando Castile shooting, the church has named racial truth and reconciliation work as a priority.
But the church is also a lot of other things, as most churches are: It’s LGBTQ-Open and Affirming, with a strong focus on hunger issues. And as a church, we’re primarily in the faith business, striving to be “seekers and servants, growing in God’s transforming love.”
Add to that being an intergenerational church with a focus on families with children and youth, and an emphasis on the arts…well, you get the picture. “One-issue church” is a valid question.
That’s why artist Alexandra Bell’s work caught my attention.
Sunday’s online version of the New York Times had an essay in its “Race/Related” series, “The Times Under a Microscope,” that focused on “Counternarratives,” Bell’s series of paste-up installations in three different Brooklyn neighborhoods in New York. In them, she deconstructs the Times’ coverage of stories ranging from the Michael Brown shooting death in Ferguson, MO, to the racially-volatile marches in Charlottesville, VA, August 12.
Her artistic aim is to display counternarratives in poster-sized accounts showing how the Times presented its main news article about a race-related event. I was taken by her work because she walks the border between art and media, two worlds in which white men dominate. And to her surprise, fellow artists caution her about focusing so much on race.
They want her to diversify her work, not get pinned as the “race girl.” Or be a “one-issue artist.”
Explaining her motivation to reporter Sandra Stevenson, she said, “I choose a story because there’s been some kind of violation to me…to show how a turn of phrase or a misplaced photo has real consequences for people at the margins who are still suffering under the weight of unfair and biased representation.”
She’s done similar works about coverage of tennis stars Serena Williams and John McEnroe, and Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte’s robbery claim in Rio and a photo of sprinter Usain Bolt, both of which appeared in the same issue of the Times. “I’m creating a narrative that goes against the dominant narrative put forth by the news.”
Her goal is to expose the message sent about race by the dominant narrative. “I’ve been told that maybe I shouldn’t focus so much on race…But everything is about race. It’s tough not to say it’s about race.”
In the church where I serve now, I think there’s less danger of us becoming a one-issue church if we make race and reconciliation our Main Thing, because in America in 2017, I’ve come to see race as something more than another item on a list of social issues. It affects everything.