Musician David M. Bailey is the music director at East End Fellowship in Richmond, Virginia. In this edited conversation, he talks about becoming aware of power dynamics in multicultural congregations and neighborhoods. He lives in Church Hill, a neighborhood hard hit by economic decline.
How do your worship services inspire worshipers to commit to their neighbors?
The big thing we try to keep in mind is about power, and being discerning in how we use it. We deal with the reality of social hierarchies in this country, usually with white males at the top.
Are power dynamics the same in church as in a neighborhood?
We have to be aware and have conversations about how things are. We’re in a majority black neighborhood where a lot of civic associations are run by white people. Yet, when you look at the neighborhood block by block, there’s generally one person who keeps things going. We know a black guy who’s called “the mayor” on his block. More often the leader is a black woman who’s a maternal figure. Yet if that black woman walks into a church with a Western white male dominance, she won’t fit into the power structure.
Do the power dynamics mainly depend on gender and race?
Education and socioeconomic class make a big difference too. I grew up in the suburbs but have always worshiped at inner-city churches. I grew up with white people. So, in college, if something was wrong with my financial aid, then I’d go talk with somebody about it. Bucking against the establishment wasn’t that big a deal to me. But when my neighbors and I are at a civic association meeting where a white person in authority comes in, a lot of neighbors seem intimidated. They don’t look the white people in the eye.
Why is that?
I used to think, “What’s the big deal? These white people are just people.” Gradually I realized that I had a different social narrative. Many of my neighbors went through the civil rights era. Bucking up against the establishment back then for them might mean getting hit with a fire hose or lynched.
How do you get to know neighbors who have a different social narrative?
It takes time. We have a family in our church and neighborhood where the guy is a doctor. He’s Sri Lankan. His wife is white. When they moved in, they would invite neighbors to their house for dinner, which is a common way to build friendships in a certain socioeconomic class. But nobody would come. People said, “I don’t know what to wear to a doctor’s house.”
Here it’s more common to have a cookout or sit on the porch and talk. Having people for dinner in your house seems like something you’d just do with family members. At first our neighbors didn’t know how to categorize me and my wife because they see so many white people go in and out of our house. I’m a musician, Joy is a photographer, and we work from home. Neighbors wondered whether we were rich, and whether we looked down on them.
How did you learn all this?
We deal with it all through face-to-face conversation. This awareness shapes our worship and church culture. We’re very aware of who is up front in worship, because there is something to the idea that “the medium is the message.”
I also get chances to practice being uncomfortable at church. We do a meal together every week after church. About 200 people come. We get a lot of homeless people. You and I can have a conversation about anything, because we’re in relatively the same socioeconomic class. But if we sit down with someone who is homeless, we will struggle to have a dinner conversation. It’s humbling, because a lot of stuff I talk about would seem pretentious to a homeless person. Crossing those barriers is easier for someone with the gift of mercy.
What else have you learned from being uncomfortable at church dinners?
There are power dynamics that are hard to break. When I see what’s being served, I have a choice whether or not to eat it. A homeless person often doesn’t have the economic freedom or mobility to say, “I don’t like that,” because he or she doesn’t have any other food.