Women were getting up and walking out in twos and threes, and at some point I realized they weren’t all taking a potty break. With eye rolls and grumpy looks, they trudged up the stairs to the balcony exit in the Music Hall at Fair Park. We were here on March 30, at least 2,000 of us, for Sparrow Women, an evangelical Christian racial reconciliation conference aimed at millennials, and at this moment, the reconciliation part wasn’t working so well. All of the dozen or so women I saw shuffling out the door were white like me.
Onstage, a tall, striking Nigerian American theologian named Ekemini Uwan sat in a chair, as self-assured as a lioness in repose, delivering rapid-fire commentary on racism in the church and society while her African American interviewer, Elizabeth Woodson, struggled to get a word in edgewise. Uwan’s words were precise and ultimately persuasive, but gushing out all at once, they were difficult to process. “We have to understand something: Whiteness is wicked. It is wicked. It’s rooted in violence. It’s rooted in theft. It’s rooted in plunder. It’s rooted in power. It’s rooted in privilege,” she said.
I tensed in my seat, battered by the unfamiliar nomenclature. By whiteness, a term she used more than 20 times in her 33-minute Q&A, Uwan meant the racist system of power that keeps white people on top and “blackness … at the very bottom,” even in the halls of supposedly progressive, theologically correct American evangelical churches. But it took me awhile to figure this out, and others clearly didn’t wait that long.
Next to me, a friend was following Sparrow on Facebook. Negative comments about Uwan began popping up. When she checked back a few minutes later, they’d disappeared.
Meanwhile, in the front of the auditorium, in Row 4 or 5, an African American writer and poet named DeeDee Roe was group-texting with the 21 women she’d invited to Sparrow. Feasting on Uwan’s words, they and many other African American women traded emojis and excited messages along the lines of Did you hear what she just said?
Roe noticed women in her section walking out, but the entire mood of the audience seemed to shift when Uwan jabbed a finger at American evangelicals’ hottest hot button: Donald Trump.
“Over 50 percent of you all , and you got to ask yourself why,” Uwan said. Dramatic pause. “Why? When this man said that he grabs women’s vaginas, white women’s vaginas specifically, why? Why? Why? You have to ask yourself that. You have to do some soul-searching, though the stakes are very high for you and for people of color.”
Isolated pockets of applause could be heard among the audience, which was about one-fourth black. Then a few seats away from Roe, a white woman and a black woman busted out in a loud argument about Trump.
Moments later, Roe heard the “ding” of an incoming text. She was close enough to the stage to connect it with the cellphone Woodson, the interviewer, held in her lap for most of Uwan’s presentation. You can follow the sequence on the YouTube video of Uwan, starting at about the 29-minute mark, shortly after the Trump-grabbing-vaginas quote. At least two times, Woodson appears to be glancing at a message on her phone.
Things were hustled to a close from that point, in Roe’s view, and the handoff to the next speaker, popular Bible teacher Jen Wilkin, seemed awkward. At some point Roe took a call from a family member and stepped into the foyer, right outside the VIP section. She saw a woman from the Sparrow organization “trying to calm down a very loud (white) woman who was yelling and saying that they wanted their money back, that Ekemini was a racist.”
A text from a woman working for Sparrow that night removed all further doubt. This woman was with Uwan, and she messaged Roe that it was “a mess” backstage.
A full-on millennial social-media meltdown would ensue.
Uwan’s words and image were withheld from Sparrow’s Instagram and Facebook accounts, which featured photos and highlights for every other speaker. A few days later, when Roe posted her own cellphone video of Uwan’s Q&A to her YouTube channel, Sparrow leaders swiftly pulled together the legal papers to get it yanked. Uwan says she had to get a lawyer involved to get her own video footage and photos released to her.
Ekemini Uwan had been erased, with the permission of — if not explicit direction from — the white founder and executive director of Sparrow, a pastor’s wife named Rachel Joy, who had personally invited Uwan to speak, knowing her controversial subject matter.
To this day, with the aftermath of Sparrow still playing out in articles, podcasts, Instagram Stories and local gatherings to “lament” the injuries caused by Sparrow, Joy and the Sparrow organization have maintained their silence, apart from a cryptic apology posted six days after the event that satisfied no one.
For many of the African Americans who attended Sparrow, it was an all-too-familiar scenario. For decades, they had been marginalized and silenced in evangelical churches that wanted a few brown faces to grace their congregations, worship teams and online profiles, but never showed any interest in their history, much less their pain. Sparrow’s outcome proved their suspicions going in: This conference was about them, but it was never for them. As more African American worshippers choose to walk away from white evangelical churches, the implosion of a majority-manufactured event like Sparrow exposed the deep rift between white and black Christians that is nearing a point of no return in the age of Trump.
Sharifa Stevens, a black writer who has worked for several well-known evangelical ministries and attended Sparrow, tried to explain why it cut so deeply. “So many of us were secondarily traumatized by the ill treatment that Ekemini received, because we’ve all been in that situation where we’re hired to do something so that our faces could be used, our bodies commodified, our message minimized or undefended. We take hits, and the same people who hired us don’t protect us. This is a reoccurring story. It hurts.”
The Dallas Observer spoke with several theologians, ministers and proponents of racial reconciliation, most of whom participated in Sparrow, and they agreed on one thing: The days of white-organized, white-controlled racial reconciliation initiatives are over.
“Conversations like this can be supported by white people, but they do not need to be led by white people,” says Latasha Morrison, the African American founder of Be the Bridge, a respected Christian racial reconciliation organization, who tried to broker peace between Uwan and Joy when Sparrow crashed. “It’s because of the harm that can be done. (Joy) caused more harm in her silence than anything else.”
Together, But Apart
Everyone the Observer interviewed who knows Rachel Joy spoke well of her, describing her as a kind and gentle soul, quick to listen and eager to learn. Her many friendships with women of color formed a reservoir of trust that allowed Sparrow to draw in a large and diverse group of speakers, musicians, volunteers and attendees.
That trust is not easily given. Jemar Tisby’s 2019 book The Color of Compromise helps explain why. Simply defined, evangelical Christians are theologically conservative, born-again Bible-believers, a description that applies to most black American churchgoers. Yet African American Christians are increasingly abandoning the label evangelical. They’re fed up with the evangelical churches’ long history of upholding the status quo by remaining silent on the most urgent matters affecting African Americans, from the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s to police brutality and the criminalization of poverty in 2019.
When pressed to take a stand, white evangelical leaders have often said the right things in hand-wringing expressions of public piety, but actions rarely followed. They even developed code words to marginalize anyone who pushed for societal change. Such agitators were peddling a “social gospel,” instead of Christ’s pure message of salvation, or they’d become “political,” shifting their focus from the Kingdom of God. Add to this the extreme individualism of American evangelicalism, which focuses on personal conversion experiences and personal responsibility for sin, and you find churches that have struggled mightily to care at all about systemic ills and communal sins, such as racism.
Then there is the history of the black church, which came into being solely because white people refused to worship alongside black people. It wasn’t a matter of preaching styles or a Hammond B-3 versus a pipe organ; it was slavery and Jim Crow and murder that forced black Americans to create their own houses of worship. Racism divided the American church, and while most white evangelicals would agree in theory that white and black Christians are stronger together, their lives don’t reflect it. They remain content to self-segregate on the Sabbath.
“We are sitting on a gospel of comfort, and that gospel of comfort feels good,” explains Dieula Previlon, a Haitian American pastor and licensed counselor who was enlisted by Be the Bridge to help clean up Sparrow’s mess. “We sing about the glories of a happy Christianity, but we don’t talk about the pain. … Everything is about greatness.”
The dual forces of Barack Obama and Donald Trump were necessary to expose the chasm between white and black evangelicals that had been deepening for years.
“Barack Obama being elected as our first black president really set a new stage for the conversation,” says Markus Lloyd, an African American member of the pastoral staff at a predominantly white church and founder of the Christian racial reconciliation organization Threaded. “This new generation got a boost of confidence that they could have a place at all the tables … and now we’re going to say what we’ve been wanting to say.” African Americans looked at their nation and saw enormous disparities in education, income, arrests and rates of incarceration, and at the same time they felt emboldened to make a difference.
Then, with the prominent support of white evangelicals, America elected a “clearly misogynistic racist who talked bad about the physically impaired,” Lloyd says. When people chose Donald Trump, “they exposed themselves. It’s how the Bible talks about dividing the wheat from the chaff. People of color became very aware of who their friends and supporters were.”
And who they weren’t. The result in the majority-white evangelical churches? “It’s been a mass exodus,” Lloyd says. “People of color are exiting all the time.”
Dr. David Cole, the dean of graduate studies at The King’s University, an evangelical college and seminary in Southlake, is involved in national unity initiatives between black and white church leaders. Cole, who is white, believes it is “very sobering for us to look at where we’re at. … (Black and white Christians) don’t spend enough time with each other to even know how to behave around each other.”
Tracing Sparrow’s Origins
The way Rachel Joy describes it, Sparrow Women grew organically from a Bible study group of five women who gathered in a Dallas-area living room. Over time it involved “25 ethnically and socioeconomically diverse women who shared the common bond of Jesus Christ.” As the women’s relationships deepened, they “shared their stories of reconciliation,” and the “walls of division” began to break down — language that echoes the Apostle Paul’s famous declaration in Ephesians that Christ had forever destroyed the barrier between Jew and Gentile.
Somewhere along that road, Joy got a vision for bringing together millennial women of all backgrounds in a visible exercise of love and unity that would “catalyze the next generation of reconcilers,” according to Sparrow’s promotional materials.
Joy, whose husband is a pastor at The Village Church, a large and predominantly white Flower Mound-based church, declined an interview through Sparrow’s director of operations, Kristen Rabalais. But she chronicles the birth of Sparrow on its website and in a handsome, well-edited magazine that was distributed at the conference. From its small beginnings as an outreach to millennial women, Sparrow morphed into an organization that hosts an annual conference where women unite to learn about the Bible from a “multi-ethnic group of speakers.”
It was this dazzling array of speakers and musicians — not to mention the focus on racial reconciliation — that caught the eye of so many African American Christian women.
It struck me too, because I’d seen so many promos for evangelical conferences, and they were virtually identical: You’d have headshots of the marquee speakers, and all of them were white, with the exception of one African American. He or she was never the headliner, and the same brown faces got recycled, because these were the speakers who could be counted on to stick to the script and never veer into politics, social justice or any area that rocks evangelicals’ confidence in their own goodness. White evangelicals might not get race, but they’ve learned enough to Photoshop their prejudices.
That’s why Sparrow was so refreshingly different. Women of color appeared to be the substance of Sparrow, entrusted with teaching what evangelicals hold in deepest reverence: the Bible. True to its millennial origins, Sparrow’s marketing materials were sharply designed, with one particular image standing out, a photo featuring young women of every hue scrunched beside each other in a joyous conga line, posing in the same shallow squat that millennial women are so partial to because it makes for a slimmer profile. Elizabeth Woodson, Sparrow’s African American “resources coordinator,” is sandwiched between the executive team of Joy and Rabalais, who are both white. All of them flash big smiles and perfect dental work. Diversity is a blast! the photo seems to say. Join in the fun!
The photo is eerily similar to an image from the groundbreaking “United Colors of Benetton” advertising campaign of the 1980s. The Italian casual-clothing line portrayed multiracial teens entwined in jaunty poses, mugging for the camera in Benetton’s bright shirts, sweaters and trousers. The color wheel of skin tones was revolutionary for its time.
It’s easy to say in retrospect that Sparrow Women’s racial reconciliation conference went about as deep as Benetton’s fabled ads, but on the eve of Sparrow 2019, Dallas’ future reconcilers were full of hope, and Rachel Joy was looking like a visionary.
Goodwill Before Truth
Women streamed into Sparrow on March 29 and 30, greeted by a multi-ethnic cast of conspicuously friendly ushers. During the sessions, which focused on the biblical book of Ephesians, volunteers were posted throughout the auditorium, ready to offer a personal word of prayer. I did notice that while the audience was diverse, they seated themselves in homogeneous clumps. A group of white people here, a couple of black friends there. I didn’t see any close interaction between them. You’ve got to start somewhere, I thought.
On Friday night, an African American preacher named Jada Edwards brought down the house with a stirring message on the gospel and justice. And on Saturday morning, a time of “lament,” led by Woodson, gave voice to the suffering of people of color and allowed white people to reflect on their own complicity in racism and injustice. The first memorably discordant note came afterward, when a ministry that has become hugely popular with Christian millennials, International Justice Mission, gave a presentation on their work combating police brutality in Kenya. Sharifa Stevens and many others took note that neither Sparrow nor IJM had anything to say about police brutality right here in America.
But Sparrow still sailed along on goodwill, because there was one particular speaker that many African Americans were especially eager to hear, a young Nigerian American theologian from the Northeast, Ekemini Uwan. Billing herself as an “anti-racist truth-teller,” Uwan co-hosts a podcast called Truth’s Table that’s followed keenly by black Christian women. She has a reputation for boldness and brilliance, and in her very first trip to Texas, she came locked and loaded with hard truths.
If you search for Uwan’s writing, you’ll find a moving piece she wrote for Christianity Today on singleness, in which she confesses she’s never been in a serious relationship with a man. But that’s about as vulnerable as Uwan gets. At Sparrow, she made zero effort to connect with her majority-white audience — no lame jokes or self-deprecating anecdotes about family life, which are the stuff of evangelical speakers everywhere in America.
Uwan declined an interview with the Observer, saying in an email, “I’m not interested in revisiting nor rehashing the traumatic event at that conference in Dallas.” She referred me instead to a podcast addressing Sparrow and an essay she wrote with the memorable title “The Blood of Jesus Is the Bridge, Not My Back.” In the Pass the Mic podcast, which first aired April 9, Uwan said about her session at Sparrow, “I knew it would be a heavy word, because God always gives me a heavy word. … I usually don’t get to talk about unicorns and cotton candy.”
Uwan also makes clear that she is not a “racial reconciler.” Her focus is anti-racism, and her role “is about disrupting.” At Sparrow, she says, she entered into a “racist white space,” which she deems an “act of love … I’m putting my life on the line every time I do that.” And being in Texas, there was no way she wasn’t “gonna challenge 45,” referring to President Trump.
Conservative bloggers, however, are wrong to dismiss Uwan as a radical. She always brings the message back to Jesus Christ, espousing a solidly evangelical gospel, albeit one spiced with continual mentions of “whiteness,” “white supremacy” and so on.
“Everything that I am saying is all for the sake of love,” Uwan said at Sparrow. “Truth stings sometimes, but I hope you hear its love and grace. I don’t hate you. I love you. I want everybody to be free.”
At this point in her message, the walkout was underway. To me, sitting in my whiteness in the upper reaches of the balcony, Uwan’s protestations of love came off as disingenuous, like someone who draws a smiley face on a missile before hitting the launch button. When I took the time to research Uwan’s words and concepts later, I appreciated her arguments. Whether they changed any hearts among my white sisters at Sparrow is open to question.
Essay Goes Viral
When Sparrow wrapped on March 30, Sharifa Stevens picked up that something had gone wrong. She missed Uwan’s presentation while having lunch with friends, but she saw people gathering around Uwan in a protective huddle in front of the stage. Though Uwan put on a brave face while greeting numerous women, both white and black, Stevens could tell that the speaker had been slighted in some way.
The Sparrow didn’t hit the fan until later, when Uwan’s absence from all Sparrow social media got increasingly noticed and DeeDee Roe published an essay in The Witness that went viral. “So what happens to whiteness when black theology confronts its idols and takes up room in its sacred spaces?” Roe said on April 2. “It claws for its purse in the darkness, storms quietly out of the theater and asks to see the manager because it demands someone pay for failing to protect it from conviction and discomfort.”
Roe nailed Sparrow in words that were echoed in many subsequent posts and podcasts, and she got trolled hard for it. She noted that the subject of racial reconciliation got dumbed down and diluted into a soft concept of reconciliation, with no modifier. “Though there were a diversity of leaders, the message was white-centered,” Roe said in her essay. “Race was intentionally avoided and dismissed … the sermons skimmed.”
When Uwan tweeted on April 5 that she was fighting to get her own videos released, Dallas’ black evangelicals locked arms behind her. Sharifa Stevens posted an Insta Story in which she looks straight into the camera and pleads with Joy to give Uwan what belongs to her.
Her words serve as an eloquent indictment of the conference. “I hope that those of you who are seriously interested in reconciliation will pause and pray for actual reconciliation to take place here,” Stevens says. “Reconciliation isn’t a purse or a pair of earrings; it is not an accessory. It is blood, it is sweat and it is tears.”
Behind the scenes, Latasha Morrison was asked by a friend, popular author and Bible teacher Jennie Allen, if she’d be willing to talk to Joy. “Definitely — she’s my sister,” Morrison said.
At this point, Joy had said nothing publicly. She neither condemned nor supported Uwan, whom she invited to Sparrow. Right after the conference, Joy lost her grandmother, Morrison says, which might have contributed to her reticence, though DeeDee Roe notes that Joy still had the presence of mind to get Uwan’s unofficial video pulled off YouTube. Whatever the case, Joy ended up calling Morrison, and they spoke for about 45 minutes.
“I could tell there was brokenness,” Morrison says. “She’s read a lot of books, so she knows that the reaction was out of (white) fragility, but I don’t know who she’s been advised by.” Morrison asked Joy to release Uwan’s pictures and video, and Joy said “no problem.”
Though Morrison speaks kindly of Joy, she doesn’t let her off the hook. “This is her organization,” Morrison says. “This is a big thing — this went national really quick. It went wide, because Ekemini’s circle is really wide. If we can pick the worst way to handle this for someone who promotes reconciliation, this is the worst way to handle it. People were shocked by the erasure (of Uwan).
“This is a conference on reconciliation, and you’re tiptoeing around it? When you’re addressing it in this long-handle-spoon way, that makes people mad.”
Morrison had assumed that Sparrow was a partnership of white and black leadership, but the organization’s response persuaded her otherwise. “People of color were alongside (Joy), but they were up there as figureheads. They had no power. But it was presented in pictures and in conversation like she’s partnering and letting them lead.”
Sparrow, Morrison concludes, was “one of those feel-good things.”
The day after Joy and Morrison spoke, Sparrow broke its silence, emailing and posting an apology that read, in part, “We publicly apologize to Ekemini Uwan and the conference participants for not handling such a complex subject with more care and therefore putting everyone involved in such a difficult place. …We will learn from this and are praying for healing and peace for everyone that participated in this year’s conference.”
A Time for Healing
The blood, the sweat and the tears poured liberally at a private home in Duncanville in April, where some 70 African American women who attended Sparrow gathered in a living room to seek healing on their own. To many of those present, Sparrow was a trigger for their own traumatic experiences in white evangelical culture, where they were tokenized, marginalized and silenced while told repeatedly by white churchgoers that “we’re so glad you’re here.”
There were people involved in Sparrow, including singer and worship leader Ashley Irons. Elizabeth Woodson, Sparrow’s most prominent person of color, was out of town but FaceTimed in, apologizing for the hurt and trauma Sparrow had caused. (When asked for an interview, Woodson referred the Observer to the “executive team” of Joy and Rabalais, who were handling all media requests, she said.)
The Duncanville gathering wasn’t the first or the last post-Sparrow. African American women voiced a wide range of reactions to Sparrow early on at a nighttime meetup on the porch of southern Dallas County’s cool coffeehouse, White Rhino. Be the Bridge would later offer online trauma counseling for Sparrow attendees, led by licensed counselor Dieula Previlon. But Duncanville was on another level. The home resounded with what Irons describes as “guttural cries,” travailing prayers and loud laments for what these women experienced not only at Sparrow but every day of their lives in the land of whiteness.
“Hearing their stories was heartbreaking,” Irons says. “People in evangelical spaces that are fighting for racial reconciliation in their superficial way don’t realize how much it costs black bodies to be in those spaces. Those black bodies are carrying so much hope, and they are met with such shallow effort to really fight against white supremacy.”
Patching It Together
Talk to anyone who has an opinion about Sparrow these days, and you’ll hear that it’s a cautionary tale, but the reasons are opposite. For white people: Don’t invite a “disruptor” like Ekemini Uwan to your racial reconciliation conference. For black people: Don’t get on board with white people’s ideas about racial reconciliation.
Even so, several women pointed out ways that Sparrow could have handled the fallout constructively. A few walked out, after all, but many more stayed. “This would have gone completely differently if Rachel Joy just said, ‘Hey look, we’re not gonna walk out. We’re gonna walk in love. Let me shepherd you through this moment,’ ” DeeDee Roe says.
Instead, there was silence. “So you think silence is just neutral,” Irons said in comments about Sparrow on the podcast she co-hosts, We Talk Different. “But it’s actually saying things to the black people in that space. It just kind of escalated from there.”
Sparrow is still lying low. The “Contact Us” part of its website has a message that says, “Sparrow Women will be taking an indefinite ministry sabbatical to consider, reflect, pray, learn and grow as a ministry.” In a sign that the soul-searching is real, it’s worth noting that the “Donate” part of Sparrow’s website has been taken down.
Long after Uwan left Texas, her words reverberate in Dallas’ small circle of Christian racial reconcilers. There were the white woker-than-thous, including several men, who piled onto Sparrow via Instagram long after the tide had turned against the conference. But Uwan’s words provoked a thoughtful response from others, including some 200 white women who signed up to learn more about “whiteness” in a Zoom call hosted by Be the Bridge.
Irons was my last interview, and she spoke about a desire to refocus her ministry on oppressed people here in Dallas instead of evangelicals who seek diversity as a badge for their own rightness. Irons was onstage at Sparrow, singing on its worship team, and calls Rachel Joy a “dear friend,” but she’d rather work in obscurity than participate in cheap reconciliation.
When pressed, though, she admitted she holds out hope — that Sparrow will emerge from its silence and do the right thing. African Americans are a forgiving people, she said, and she is willing to forgive Sparrow. “It is my desire that they don’t quit — that they jump back in the game and stare white supremacy in the face and commit to the long game of tearing it down,” Irons said. “And I’m willing to partner with anyone who’s willing to do that.”