Dr. Derwin L. Gray didn’t grow up particularly religious, but when he did find Jesus at age 26, something confounded him: “The nightclubs that my wife and I used to party in were a lot more diverse than Jesus’ club — the church,” he says.
At the time, it felt like he needed to chose between a white church or a Black church. Nearly 25 years later, the former BYU football star and NFL safety hasn’t finished his sermon that the body of Christ is for believers of every race and background .
“Why do you talk about race so much?” is a question he sometimes receives from parishioners at Transformation Church, an intentionally multiethnic congregation that Gray and his wife, Vicki, began more than a decade ago.
His answer is simple: “Because the Bible does.” Gray points to examples from both Christ’s teachings and countless others in the Old Testament.
His is a vision of the gospel shared by many African American worshippers. Pew Research Center data shows a full three-quarters of Black Americans say opposing racism is essential to their faith or sense of morality.
Gray is a passionate speaker, and talking with him on the phone about these issues feels like a window into one of his Sunday sermons. During our time together, Gray emphasizes an important principle: Not only should Christians oppose the sin of racism, they should see matters of race as central to the gospel of Jesus Christ itself.
If America is going to overcome its prejudices, he theorizes, it won’t start with legislation — although he assures me that has its place. It’s going to start in chapels and cathedrals and spill out into the streets.
“Racial reconciliation in Christ is not peripheral to the gospel, an optional ‘nice to have’ or a fad issue, but central to Christ’s mission and God’s plan,” he writes in his forthcoming book, “How to Heal Our Racial Divide.”
Over the phone, he poses this question: “If God’s people are not unified, what hope is there for the world?”
Gray knows it can come from a place of genuine goodwill, but hearing the claim of being “colorblind” when race is concerned doesn’t make the grade for him.
“The image of God is located in every ethnic group and culture,” he says, “and so when we say that we don’t see color or a person’s culture, we’re actually muting a part of God’s creative genius.”
He makes a straightforward argument for recognizing the value of race as it relates to Christianity: Without race or ethnicity, Jesus wouldn’t have been a Jew. There would have been no woman at the well or parable of the Good Samaritan. It wouldn’t have mattered that Pharaoh was an Egyptian or that Jonah was called to preach to the Assyrians.
Rather than ignoring cultural backgrounds, Gray wants people to see themselves as “color-blessed” — celebrating each other’s unique traits while unifying in Christ.
And he knows what it’s like to be on the opposite end of that ideal. One story he recalls happened when he was around 8 years old. He and his mother sat down to eat at a Mexican restaurant when a disheveled man stood up across the room and spouted off at the Black diners around him. Using a racial slur, he said he remembered a day when African Americans weren’t “allowed to eat at restaurants with us good white folk!”
Gray’s mother remembers that day, too. She had to eat in separate establishments and drink from “colored-only” water fountains. For her, it wasn’t too long ago.
And when I ask if the racial tensions of the past few years have increased the intensity of his ministry, he kindly redirects my thought process. The feelings of 2020 aren’t something new for Black Americans, he says. “We’ve always felt that.”
So from the beginning, he made reconciliation one focus of his church, adding, “It’s almost like America has caught up to what we’ve been preaching in the past decade.” That also means he has mostly escaped backlash from members of his church in the past couple of years; for them it was familiar, not a sudden pivot to a political lightning rod.
Racist to ‘graceist’
Gray stepped off the stage after preaching one day to greet congregants when something from the back of the auditorium caught his eye. A white man was running down the aisle at a full sprint, tears in his eyes and a string of snot slipping from his nose. Gray stood firm, keeping his cool while mentally calculating a plan for his safety. Before he knew it, though, the man was in front of him, reaching out to pull him in an embrace.
“I can’t believe I’m in church,” the man cried. “I can’t believe you’re Black. I don’t even like Black people. But I want Jesus and I want change.”
The man’s girlfriend had been inviting him to attend church for a year, but he didn’t want to hear a Black person sermonize. When he finally agreed, he said the more he heard Gray preach the more he wanted to hate him, but that he couldn’t.
Gray ended up officiating at the couple’s wedding in South Carolina — the first state to secede from the Union, he reminds me.
He uses the story to illustrate his message: A gospel that teaches its followers to love God and love each other as themselves should smash prejudices.
At another time, Gray had brought together the chief of police of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, a young African American who protested with Black Lives Matter and a Black judge to discuss issues of the day and the implications of the gospel in their respective arenas.
The result was, as Gray put it, a difficult and beautiful conversation. “You can have followers of Jesus who peacefully march,” he said. “You can have a white police captain that loves the Lord and is doing his job, and we had a Black judge who was a former NFL player.”
His new book is meant to be a practical, actionable guide to foster the same concepts. The process starts, he says, with the fundamental acknowledgement that Jesus died for every human being, which makes every person a neighbor under the same command to love each other. Next is a personal introspection of prejudices. Then, he says, comes a commitment to the reality that God has always wanted a family and that he wants his family to be colorful.
He also assures his white audiences that when people of color point out the injustices in the country’s past and present, it doesn’t mean they don't love America. “It actually means we want America to reflect what the flag says: liberty and justice for all.”
And the path toward that ideal is clear for him: “Jesus has the answer to the racial divide.”