The first time I ever laid eyes on Sharifa Stevens she wasn’t even a Stevens. She was a Hayle.
And she was singing at our church.
I can’t even recall the words she sang or the way the band sounded, but I do recall the way my heart swelled in my chest and the tears that rolled down my face. But I do remember her smile and the way she made much of Jesus.
A few weeks ago, I put my big girl panties on and messaged Sharifa about writing a little post here. She graciously agreed and made my whole day. If I were really brave, I would have asked her to upload a couple of videos of her singing something fabulous, but alas, my brave is still small. (Because, really y’all, she can SANG and her face is always covered in a smile as big as Texas.)
So I give you Jesus, by way of Sharifa’s words, and I encourage you to imagine her speaking them with a smile on her face.
“After these things I looked, and here was an enormous crowd that no one could count, made up of persons from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb dressed in long white robes, and with palm branches in their hands. They were shouting out in a loud voice,
“Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!””
Revelation 7:9-10 (NET)
In eternity we’ll all sing together, but here and now? Um…awkward.
Coca Cola Superbowl commercials are more of a reflection of Revelation 7:9-10 than most of our churches these days. Coke ads, y’all. Daily and faithfully, we’re bringing bricks to our churches, our friendships, our jobs and oh yes, social media, to reinforce a wall that Jesus came to demolish. We sing The Church’s One Foundation with our lips, while our hands are sticky with the mortar of comfort mixed with tradition and suspicion.
But IF God is real, then walls of separation within our churches must come down. If we’re following Jesus, He’s marching us around the walls of hostility and urging us to tear them down. The gospel is punctuated by unity in diversity and love. Look in the book of Acts; God rocked the worlds of Paul and Peter with a constant refrain of, “those who were formerly far off have been brought near because of Christ Jesus.” Not just close to God, mind you, but close enough to one another that Peter could smell the chitterlings. Awkward. And God-ordained.
IF God is bringing us near to Him and to each other, it’s time to put down the bricks.
Allow me to share a story. One Sunday, my bestie and I walked into a Dallas church where I was invited to sing. We had never been before, but I adored the worship pastor and his wife, and didn’t hesitate to accept their invitation.
(Here’s my bestie, the gorgeous redhead, and me)
As we crossed the threshold, my throat dried up and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I searched the sanctuary for my friends’ faces, but my eyes consistently landed on people scowling at me. SCOWLING. No one greeted us. The more polite people averted their eyes as I attempted to connect with them.
The church had two other people of color, of about 500. Most members were over 65. I struggled. “Is this because I’m black? Is it my afro? Is it because I’m a stranger? Am I being too sensitive?” My internal doubts found voice in my friend who said, “We can leave, you know. You don’t have to sit through this. They’re looking daggers at you. Or…we could just kick their asses.”
I took a seat at the very front, to keep my eyes on the Cross, and so no one but my bestie could see my eyes well up with tears.
The service was lovely. The kind-eyed pastor had a heart to match, and he warmly invited me to sing His Eye Is on the Sparrow.
I forced myself to lock my gaze on those who scowled at me, reluctantly singing the truth over them as I encouraged myself:
Jesus is my portion
A constant friend is He…
His eye is on the sparrow
and I know He watches me
Something strange and wonderful happened through the course of the song. You know the passage from Ephesians 2:
“For [Jesus] is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, when he nullified in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed.”
On stage, in the midst of worship, I saw the destruction of a hostile wall. It tumbled down faster than Jericho in the wake of corporate praise. Those who previously scowled at me had the softest, most attentive eyes. Not because I’m such a fabulous singer, but because Jesus is true to His word. Jesus kills hostility and destroys walls.
After service, my bestie and I held hands nervously as members began approaching me. Smiles filled their faces and they took my hand and pulled me into hugs, offering encouragement and stories of mothers and sisters who sang His Eye Is on the Sparrow over them.
I was floored. My friend was relieved that she wouldn’t have to judo-chop our way out.
IF God is real, then walls can and will come down.
But it takes willingness from us all.
Willingness to show up and stay—which was all I could muster after crossing the threshold. My heart was full of suspicion and anger even as I sang, and somehow God still used my paltry offering. Thankfully, though, it didn’t end with me.
The very people who scowled at me were also conduits of God’s great grace towards me. They were willing to be open to the Holy Spirit, they were malleable, and they threw away their bricks in order to embrace me. That grace is irresistible and transformative.
And my bestie. She was willing to be a friend, to stand with me in uncomfortable circumstances. Her hand in mine (and her pugilistic tendencies, not gonna lie) helped me to be brave. Never underestimate the power of friendship to be used of God to change hearts and history (Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, Jesus and the disciples, Paul and Silas…kinda influential).
We have a better bridge to unity than a mere soft drink. God’s heart is to reconcile us to himself and to each other. If we follow Jesus, we are devoted to building bridges and destroying dividing walls. Why wait until the scenes in Revelation are fulfilled if we already know God’s desire for our community? What are we waiting for?
Are you willing?
IF God is reconciling, we ought to imitate Him by building bridges in our own communities.
Here are some suggestions:
Two things will always, always cause relationships to bud and blossom: Shared meals and shared worship. Communion with saints of all sorts will lead to friendship and a more beautiful, robust Body. Be the one who invites.
Be open to new friendships (not the cheesy “missional” ones, but the beautiful, deep, honest, vulnerable and equal type) with people who live outside on the fringes of your “normal.”
Read up on history, economics, culture.
Invite friends to your church and try to view the experience from the eyes of a new person: what’s welcoming? Who’s welcomed? Who’s not?
Remember Jesus’ words in John 17 as he supped with his beloved disciples right before his crucifixion:
“The glory you gave to me I have given to them, that they may be one just as we are one—I in them and you in me—that they may be completely one, so that the world will know that you sent me, and you have loved them just as you have loved me.”
Our motivation to bridge racial divides isn’t mere political correctness. Our motivation is that the world would look at our communities and know the love of God and the veracity of Jesus.
Sharifa Stevens, a Bronx native living in Dallas, TX, earned a BA from Columbia University in New York and a ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary. She freelances, sings, and prefers to spend her time giggling, noshing or traveling. Sharifa is married to Jonathan. They have two sons.