A Review of “United” by Trillia Newbell

UnitedI am so glad Trillia said it first:

Talking about race and racial reconciliation can be downright terrifying. No one wants to offend, and in our politically correct society, who would blame you? If you say the wrong thing, ask the wrong question, or call someone by the wrong name, will they be angry? Are you black or African American? Chinese or Asian? Hispanic, Latino, or Mexican? This is an explosive topic, and sometimes it seems that the wisest course of action is to avoid it at all costs. (16)

The truth is I think about race often these days, but I am often not sure how best to think about it, write about it, or dialogue about it. It’s scary because a wrong move could take you miles away from diversity and reconciliation. That is not what I want for myself or my church. Trillia knows this, but she believes that this is still an important conversation to have in the church today. In her new book United she has entered where many of us are fearful to tread and she sheds some light onto the path ahead. United offers the insight and inspiration many of us need to forge ahead in having these important conversations about race and diversity.

United is not merely a call to embrace God’s vision for diversity, as the subtitle suggests. It actually has a much more personal touch. It is Trillia’s own personal story to be “captured by God’s vision for diversity.” The general language of diversity is important, then, because this is not simply a book about black and white relations. As Trillia tells her story she reveals what diversity has looked like in her own life and how God has shaped her understanding of it. As we consider the subject through the lens of her life God can reshape our understanding of it too.

As Trillia walks us through her story readers can see both the nastiness of racism and the beauty of grace. She describes coming to terms with her identity as a black female and yet encounter a “reverse racism” in which many of her black peers saw her as a “white girl.” “Why do you act white?” Some people asked her. She writes:

Some of my black peers had accepted and adopted a stereotype for black Americans and then pressured and bullied me to fit that stereotype. It was absurd, and it communicated to me that I could not be black, smart, and articulate at the same time. It was awfully confusing for a thirteen-year-old. (24)

Trillia describe her continued wrestling with identity, wrestling with what it meant for her to be a black woman, but all of that changed as she encountered the “irresistible grace” of God. “God wrecked my identity crisis,” she says (31). “Being black is part of my identity. But it isn’t my entire identity” (32). Trillia consistently reminds us throughout this book that matters of race are important, but there is so much more to people and to situations than simply issues of race.

But there’s no denying that ethnic diversity is important. Throughout United Trillia continues to press us to see how our churches can and should reflect the future Kingdom of God. As one of a few minorities in her church she was increasingly aware of the ways in which she was different. She loves her church, she says, but “the longer I remained a member, the more I sensed the cultural differences” (38). She describes the first time she was given the chance to sing gospel music, and how much the genre resonated with her (42-43). She recalls the awkward questions she was often asked, and the uncomfortable women’s activities she was invited to participate in. The cultural differences were very evident to her. She wanted to be surrounded by more black women, but God had something different in mind.

One of the really neat things about United is the way in which Trillia draws us into her narrative. I longed right along with her that God would give her more black girlfriends in whom she could confide and be encouraged. But that wasn’t what she needed at that time. After all, she was praying for “diversity.” So, in lieu of that prayer, God gave Trillia dear friends who were White and Asian. She writes:

Diversity doesn’t mean “more of the same.” Maybe that’s obvious. But for me at that time, my longing for diversity was being fulfilled not because God had brought in more black people (though I would have been thrilled if that had been the case), but because He had united me with people who were unlike me. (67)

Trillia’s relationship with Amy and Lillian becomes a key part of her story. The depth of their friendship and diversity is beautiful and inspiring to read about. Trillia uses it as a means of helping readers see “different as a gift” (75). She explores race in the Bible, and the realities of the new heaven and the new earth where God will have a people for Himself from “every nation, tribe, and tongue” (Rev. 7:9). God is the creator of racial diversity, and as such we His people ought to love it.

She goes on to give us very practical suggestions about how we can diversify our lives and our churches. She speaks to all of us, but she has some good, respectful words to share specifically with pastors and church leaders. These are words we need to hear! I am convinced that this is an issue our church specifically needs to address and am thankful that my fellow elders agree. Trillia’s story is an inspiring one that gives us much to chew on, much to rejoice in, and much to aim for. You won’t regret picking up this book, no matter who you are. I loved United for many reasons, but mostly because it not only captures God’s vision for diversity, but it shares it in a contagious way. Thank you Trillia for writing this book, we need it. I will pray with you, sister, that we hear it and respond.

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