God Loves Diversity
About the Guest
God is no respecter of persons, and neither should we be. Author Trillia Newbell talks about growing up as an African American in a white community and being the target of racism. Trillia talks about the circumstances that led her to Christ, and the predominantly white church that nurtured her new-found faith.
Trillia NewbellTrillia Newbell is the author of Fear and Faith: Finding the Peace Your Heart Craves (2015) and United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity (2014). Her writings on issues of faith, family, and diversity have been published in the Knoxville News-Sentinel, Desiring God, True Woman, Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, and more. She has spoken at numerous conferences, churches, women’s retreats, colleges...more
God is no respecter of persons, and neither should we be. Author Trillia Newbell talks about growing up as an African American in a white community and being the target of racism.
God Loves Diversity
Bob: As a young, single black woman, attending a mostly white church in the South, Trillia Newbell remembers thinking to herself, “Is this really where I belong?”
Trillia: There were times when I would feel out of place. And then, before my husband became my husband, I was concerned—“Okay, is there going to be someone in this church?”—I just was curious—“Could there be someone that I could marry? Would they accept me? Would their family accept me?” I had a lot of things to really be thinking about and praying about. There were times when I did feel out of place.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, February 26th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. The Bible says that in Christ we are all one. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female—we are all one. So, what should that unity look like in a local church?
We’re going to explore that today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Thursday edition. You know, we are going to be tackling a subject today that, honestly, has become an emotionally-charged subject in our culture over the last several months. And here, you and I are two guys who grew up in the Midwest—two white guys—going to be talking with our guest, Trillia Newbell, about racial tension, and race relations, and churches, and what that should look like for us, as Christians.
And I remember, Dennis—I was, I think, 12 years old; and I was reading a book that was probably too mature for me to be reading at the time.
It was the book, In the Heat of the Night. I don’t know—
Dennis: Oh, yes.
Bob: —if you remember the movie that came out.
Dennis: I do. I do.
Bob: And the reason I remember it was because I was stunned in reading this book to read about the main character, who was a black detective from California, who was in the Deep South, travelling from one location to another. A murder occurs in the town. He is brought in as a suspect because he is a black man at the train station. They figure, “He must be the guy.”
In reading the story, I learned that there were, in the South, separate drinking fountains and separate bathrooms for blacks. I went downstairs to my mom; and I said, “Is this true, or did the author just make this up?” And that was my first exposure to the level of racial bigotry that had existed in our country before I was born.
Dennis: And I’d have to say, Bob, I was pretty clueless about racial bigotry, and hatred, and much of what was going on in the South when I was growing up as a boy. That’s what makes today’s topic, I think, relevant for families. I really do want—not only individuals to be listening to this today but, also, families—and ask the question, “What can we do, as a family, to address the issue of diversity?”
And we have with us the author of United, which is subtitled, Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity. Trillia Newbell joins us on FamilyLife Today. Welcome to the broadcast.
Trillia: Thank you for having me.
Dennis: She and her husband have been married since 2003. They have two children. They live near some of my grandchildren in Nashville.
Trillia: Oh? [Laughter]
Dennis: Oh, yes. I have four grandchildren over there in Nashville.
Trillia: That’s great.
Dennis: She writes for the Knoxville News Sentinel; also, The Gospel Coalition, Karis; and she, also, works—and this is really sad—but she works for Dr. Russell Moore. [Laughter]
Bob: Why is that sad?
Dennis: Well, I just think about that. You have to have something that allows your grin to stop every day. He has to be one of the funniest people I’ve ever met but, also, one of the best followers of Christ—so anyway.
Trillia: I agree.
Trillia: He’s great.
Dennis: Let’s talk about where Bob and I grew up. Was that your experience, growing up as a little girl? Where did you grow up?
Trillia: I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee. So, I was in the Southeast. My experience—I grew up in the 80s/the 90s. So, I definitely experienced racism—probably not to the degree / well, not probably—definitely not to the degree of my parents; but I definitely had situations where—one time I was walking down the street and somebody yelled the “N-word” out their window toward me. I’ve had different situations where parents would not allow for me to come to their kid’s home.
Then, we had a country club in the 80s that would not allow African-Americans or blacks to come and join. So, we’ve experienced it—not “separate but equal,” as my parents may have—but definitely racism.
Dennis: You know, Barbara and I—neither one—feel like we have ever struggled with racism. Maybe, it’s because of where we grew up—perhaps, the families we grew up in. I don’t ever remember my father or my mother ever uttering any kind of judgment of people of a different race. I grew up in a home that didn’t embrace diversity because there wasn’t a lot of diversity in our community to embrace as such. There was only one African-American family that—
Dennis: —lived in our community out of about 12/13 hundred people. But still, if there had been an attitude there, it would have shown up. I think that made a big impact on my life, as a boy, and ultimately, me, as a man.
Trillia: Yes. So, if your parents love people, and you see that love for people, and they don’t speak ill of others, it will—it will have a good impact. So, when you do meet someone of a different ethnicity, it’s not something that is strange but something that is exciting—you can delight in it. You can get to know your neighbor or friend and get to know people because we are all made in the image of God and we can learn from one another.
Bob: Do you remember, as a young girl, being awakened to the reality of racism—being aware that there were some people who were looking down on you because you were black?
Trillia: Absolutely, my father taught me, really early on, about the Civil Rights Movement. So, I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know.
Bob: You were always aware that this had been an issue in the land you grew up in?
Trillia: I was always aware. I can’t remember a time not knowing.
I’m sure when I was five didn’t know—
Trillia: —but I just understood that the world was divided, as my father would teach me.
Bob: But do you remember experiencing it for the first time—when it kind of first hit you, “That person doesn’t like me because I’m different”?
Trillia: You know, I don’t remember the first experience. All I remember is always feeling different, and I think it was because I grew up in a white community. So, I can’t remember the first time where I felt like someone thought they were superior to me. I can’t identify that; but I grew up with curly, curly hair—so I just looked different with brown skin. In my community, I just knew I was different.
Dennis: But you are made in the image of God—
Dennis: —and valued equally—
Dennis: —and you’re a joint heir of the grace of life with us.
Dennis: And the body of Christ ought to be unified.
I was just chatting before we came into the studio about a man who was old enough to be a grandpa, who was really the first genuine bigot I had ever met—I mean, he was a racist—and I was 24 years old. That may sound like I grew up in some kind of bubble; but even though I had been to junior college and I had played basketball with other young men from different races, all across the country, on a nationally-ranked junior college basketball team, I didn’t see any racism. Again, maybe, it was because I was naïve because of the home I had been raised up in.
Dennis: Nonetheless, when I encountered him, this grandpa was a guy who went to a Bible-teaching church. I mean, his theology about the second coming was excellent / the authority of Scripture; but when it came to accepting people of other ethnicities, he didn’t have it—he was clueless.
How would you explain something like that other than just the darkness of man’s soul?
Trillia: I would ask him, “What was he taught?” because a lot of churches used to teach that there was a curse on black people.
Bob: The mark of Cain.
Bob: Being African-American/being black meant that you have the mark of Cain; right?
Trillia: Right; and that is a misunderstanding and a misinterpretation of Scripture.
Trillia: So, I think that would be my first question. The next one would be—to be racist, there is a root of pride in your heart—and so, I would just wonder if he understood creation—understood that, in Genesis / the beginning, we are all created in the image of God. We are all born of Adam.
Trillia: I just think there is probably a lack of teaching and a lack of understanding of the Scriptures there; but because of the sin in our hearts, we are prone to pride and arrogance.
I think that he—it sounds like it could have been a major blind spot—that one of those things that he just—that’s what he was taught / that’s what he knew.
Dennis: I think you may be right. How else could you explain somebody who would grow up in this era?—who watched the Civil Rights Movement occur / who had to listen to a large percentage of the South ask to be treated as human beings. Back to Bob’s illustration of water fountains for two different groups of people / bathrooms for different people—I’ve seen that—but I didn’t see it here. I saw it in South Africa—
Trillia: Right; right.
Dennis: —when I travelled over there. And when I saw that, it helped me to understand what took place here.
Trillia: Yes. Yes. I think it would have to be a blind spot for someone in that age and era. I mean, when I was speaking with a woman, she—I believe she was maybe in her 80s—she referred to me as a colored girl.
Was I offended?—I was not! In her time and day, that’s what they called people of color; so I wasn’t offended.
But when you take someone and you say that they are not equal, that’s the different thing—that’s racism, and that’s sin. It’s sin, ultimately, against God; and we need to take that sin where it rightly belongs.
Dennis: And tell us how you got really connected to Jesus Christ and when you became a follower of His. You didn’t have what we would call a Christian upbringing. You refer to your family as kind of a holiday church family.
Trillia: Yes, we would get dressed up and go on Easter and Christmas. We were like—you know, the pastors who get really excited about the visitors? We would be those visitors, except for we would only go once; and then, we’d turn around and—
So, when I was about 19, I was leading a cheer camp; and the assistant was a Christian.
We ended up in a hotel room together, and she broke open her Bible and started to read the Word. I got defensive because I was not a Christian, and I actually was probably anti-Christian. I got defensive and said, “What are doing with that Bible?” And she said, “Oh, I’m having my quiet time.” She was just a real sweet girl. Before we know it, I’m on the bed and I’m crying.
But it took two broken engagements before the Lord humbled me really—I was humbled. I went to the same church that she was going to, and I heard the gospel again. They prayed with me—became a Christian and haven’t looked back since. So, yes, I was about—I think I was 22—
Bob: Okay, you kind of scooted through that story.
Trillia: I did. [Laughter]
Bob: So, I’m going to back it up a little bit because I want to know some of the details. Why were you hostile toward this girl at cheer camp—having a quiet time in your hotel room?
Trillia: When I was in high school, I was involved with a church that preached a works-gospel.
So, I was involved, but I think that’s where I would have been introduced to the Lord; but I didn’t become a Christian. I really battled fear with church people and Christian people. So, that is probably why I was hostile—I was afraid. I didn’t know what she was going to say to me, and I was afraid that she would be unkind.
Bob: So, what did she say that had you bawling on the bed?
Trillia: You know, I don’t remember. I just remember that she knew the truth, and the truth will set you free.
Trillia: So, as I was listening to her talk about God’s grace, and the gospel, and Jesus who loves people, I just remember crying. I think it’s because, maybe, it was one of the first times I had ever heard the truth about God’s grace—it was amazing!
Bob: And you scooted right past two broken engagements. I mean, how did those impact your understanding grace and coming to faith?
Trillia: Well, I met this guy in—I think I met him when I was 16, but he was older. When I graduated from high school, we started dating. So, we dated off and on. Then, we got engaged; and then, we had a broken engagement. Then, in between that time, I met Elizabeth, the girl who shared the gospel with me; but I didn’t want to give up this relationship. So, we were off and on; but then, we got together again and we had another broken engagement. At that time—that is when the Lord broke me.
I went to the church—became a Christian / moved on—but I still had a heart for the guy because I knew that he was not a Christian and I was on fire for Christ.
I invited him to come to a thing we were doing at the church and hooked him up with another guy named Stuart. Stuart shared the gospel with him—the guy gets saved. We don’t talk to each other for a good two years because we were protecting each other, and we just barely talked.
Well, a couple of years later, he asked me to be in a “courtship”; and I said, “No!” because I was really—I was serving the campus of the University of Tennessee and did not want to be distracted—kind of like Paul—I just didn’t want to be distracted / I was really excited. A year later, he asked me again. I said, “Yes.” One month later, we were engaged. Three months later, we were married and, now, we have two kids. We’ve been married for 11 years! [Laughter]
Bob: So, the two broken engagements were with your husband.
Trillia: Were with my husband. [Laughter]
Trillia: And not only that, we were—it was just really encouraging because of—yes, it’s a great story.
Dennis: I’m sorry people can’t see her face—[Laughter]—that’s what I hate right now.
Trillia: Yes, it’s really amazing because God is so good to reconcile us to, first, Himself and, then, to each other—so, it’s amazing.
Bob: That’s great.
Dennis: Tell us about this church you went to. Was it diverse?
Trillia: No, it was not diverse at all; but I was hungry for the gospel. They preached the gospel and the truth of God’s Word. I loved this congregation because of the people and because of the pastors who were preaching the Word to me.
Bob: Did you feel out of place?
Trillia: Yes, at times, I really did. They had things like The Cowboy Olympics and like really—yes—things that just—[Laughter]—didn’t really fit in my personality or anything about me. So, I just—so, yes, there were times where I would feel out of place.
Then, before my husband became my husband, I was concerned—“Okay, is there going to be someone that I could marry?
“Would they accept me? Would their family accept me?” So, I had a lot of things to really be thinking about and praying about. And there were times that I did feel out of place.
Bob: So, going to a predominately white church, as an African-American woman, thinking about marriage—were you thinking, “I’m open to interracial marriage,” or “That’s not what I’d prefer, but I’d settle for that”? What were your thoughts on that?
Trillia: Okay, so, my father taught us to love people. So, I never considered—ever, in my whole entire life—that there would be a problem with dating outside of my ethnicity—never. And so, when I joined the church, my fear wasn’t “Well, would I find anyone who I could marry?” but “Would they find me acceptable?”
Bob: “Is there a white guy, here in Knoxville, Tennessee, going to fall in love with a black girl?”
Trillia: Yes. Yes.
Bob: I mean, that’s bottom-line what you were wondering; right?
Trillia: Well, bottom-line—“…Christian white guy?”—yes.
Trillia: Because I knew—I mean, I dated people; and I knew that people were open—but marriage is a different / it’s different—it’s a commitment. I think I was probably just as fearful with their family accepting me because I felt like there were people in that church, who were willing and openly loving and could see me as their sister in Christ—therefore, they would see me as equal—but would their family accept me? So, there were things like that that I’d have to think through.
Bob: Did you and your parents ever talk about that as an issue—whether—what would happen if Trillia brought home a white guy and wanted to marry him?
Trillia: No, as a matter of fact, my father—before he passed away in ’97—met Thern, my husband, and loved him. So, there was never an issue.
I was raised in a family that loved people/accepted people. We just never had any issues of racial prejudice or racism—ever. So, it would never have been an issue, and it wasn’t an issue when I got married. What I was always warned, though, is that I might not be accepted. So, that is something that I had to consider and realize.
Dennis: The whole subject of interracial marriage has really changed over the past 30/35 years. Back in 1980, it was like a little over 6 percent of all marriages were biracial. Today, it’s 15 percent.
Dennis: I mean, America’s attitude has changed toward that, I think; don’t you?
Trillia: I do; but just last year, or the year before, a church in Kentucky would not allow an interracial marriage to happen in their church; but they reversed it because of the outcry.
Trillia: So, yes, America’s attitude has changed; but there’s still work to be done.
I wouldn’t say that, across the board, every person would accept this. I think, when we get to the root and we ask someone and sit them down, “Okay, would you accept it if your daughter brought home someone out of your ethnicity?” I think we would be surprised by the answer. That, I think, is still a tricky question.
Bob: And I have to ask myself, as you are bringing this up: “Would we be more likely to embrace someone from a different ethnic group, as a son-in-law or daughter-in-law, if we are active in our church?” or “Would we be less likely to do that if we are active in our church?” I’m a little concerned that we church folk may be more cautious than our secular neighbors are.
Trillia: You know, it’s unfortunate; but I think you are right. I think there could be more of a resistance to interracial marriage within the church, which is an unfortunate thing—which is why I dedicated this book to my kids.
In the dedication, I wrote, basically, that I hoped that they would ask their mom, “Why would Mom write a book?”—that’s my prayer. My prayer is that I hope, in 40 years, it’s less needed.
Dennis: I agree with you. And I think, if it is going to be less needed, families, who are followers of Christ, need to be intentional about reaching out to people of other ethnicities and training their children in knowing how to love. I think your book would provide some great dinner table discussion for any family who is really wanting to show the love of Christ to the world.
Bob: Yes, if we are going to be transformed by the renewing of our mind on a subject like this, then, we’ve got to have those kinds of conversations because the culture is going to conform us to the culture’s way of thinking. We’ve got to be thinking about: “What honors God? What would please Him?” And that’s the tact that Trillia takes in the book that she’s written called United:
Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity, which we’ve got in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center.
Let me encourage listeners: Go to FamilyLifeToday.com. In the upper left-hand corner of the screen, where it says, “GO DEEPER,”—if you click there, it’ll take you right to the spot where you can find out more about Trillia Newbell’s book, United. You can order copies of the book from us, online, if you’d like; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to request your copy of the book—again, the website, FamilyLifeToday.com, and the toll-free number, 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY.”
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And we hope you’ll join us back tomorrow. Trillia Newbell is going to be here again. We’re going to continue our conversation about unity, diversity, and our faith. That comes up tomorrow. Hope you are here.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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