How Research Can Help Us to See Someone Else’s Point of View
In the past two weeks, cries for justice following the death of Ahmaud Arbery in February 2020 have risen to the surface of the national media, reminding America that while the onset of COVID-19 may be the first time many of us are facing daily worries for our family’s health and safety in this time of uncertainty, for our black brothers and sisters living in the U.S., fear is a well-known companion.
For instance, I am a runner. I love to jog in my hometown along the beach in Ventura, California. When I am traveling (remember that?), one of the highlights is a long run through places like Central Park in Manhattan or in Hyde Park in central London. But, I’ve never felt any fear when I’ve chosen to run. Then something as heartbreaking as Arbery’s death takes place—and I hear from black men on social media and directly from my friends that they routinely experience fear, or at least think very, very hard, about going outside to run. That their family members tell them every time they leave the house, “Be safe out there.” That their black uncles, brothers, fathers, colleagues, pastors and friends face risks I do not. (This excellent piece from my friend Danté Stewart is particularly helpful to see what he’s encountered as a black runner.)
Yet, it goes much deeper than simply contrasting these mindsets. As we confront the tragic death of Ahmaud Arbery and far too many other black lives, what is the responsibility of the community of Christians who comprise the Church? We can allow space for people to grieve the injustice, to lament our nation’s history of wrongs toward black Americans, to comfort those who are hurting, to spread awareness of what has taken place, to understand the evils of racism and white supremacy and to offer a safe space for open and honest conversations as we work toward justice and reconciliation.
Far too often however, the Church remains silent. It’s easy to say nothing, whether for fear that what is said will draw criticism or be picked apart by those you seek to console. And, of course, I realize Arbery’s death is an open case and that due process is required for the alleged perpetrators. But I’ve been challenged anew, both in my own reflection and in conversations with others over recent days, about the need to say something—especially in terms of understanding the vast gap in lived experience between white and black Americans.
One way to better see that gap—and to say something helpful—is to start with effective listening. To do so, I believe that research gives us a unique perspective for church leaders and Christians to listen, learn and develop empathy. Research can help us see why tragedies like Ahmaud Arbery’s death are so painful and personal to our black brothers and sisters.
For decades and starting with George Barna’s groundbreaking work, our team has focused our studies on issues of race and faith, including relatively recent articles on racial tension, perceptions of police brutality and race and spiritual practices. At this link, you can find 10 different studies and resources available through Barna that we think would help leaders be more effective listeners.
One such report is Where Do We Go from Here?, a study that covers how U.S. Christians feel about racism and what they believe it will take to move forward. This report came out in 2019 and was produced in partnership with the Reimagine Group. The 72 pages are filled with data, infographics and commentary from a range of leaders working in the space of racial justice, inviting them to provide insights and recommendations based on what we learned from interviews from more than 1,500 practicing Christians and more than 500 Protestant pastors in the country.
We hope that this report—the data it contains and the people who gave their voices to it—will strengthen pastors’ and churchgoers’ understanding of one of the deepest divides in our nation and provide some common ground from which to pursue next steps. For white Christians especially, we hope these pages offer a chance to deepen empathy toward black Americans and the challenges they’ve faced, both in the past and present.
We know that research alone doesn’t solve complex problems. But research can be a small step toward understanding someone else’s experience and then working toward true and lasting reconciliation. Weeks like this remind me how far I need to run in that direction.
President, Barna Group