While this blog has taken a few months to get here, the original call to share this with the body has remained clear. I pray those of you who read, will be encouraged in the truth...
April 6, 2021 was a beautiful morning. However, due to the new rhythm of our lives, and the protective barriers known as COVID safety protocols, my interview with Tonye Brown was scheduled as a Zoom call. Having just seen Tonye online, as the spoken word artist for the Good Friday special at Westside Church, I was excited to continue our conversation that was previously initiated in August 2020. As one who has become reliant on digital communication during the pandemic, the glitchy connection which ensued, requiring me to repeat questions and apologize for being unable to decipher his broken responses, expectedly transitioned to an old-school phone call.
As we began to talk in a more normal, uninterrupted manner, I recalled the pleasure of our conversation in August, when I interviewed Tonye for the first time for a blog which ended up being swallowed by the mountain of work known as my thesis. Since finishing my thesis, and prayerfully considering what God might desire to share through Tonye and I, I sensed the Spirit leading me to listen to how the pandemic has affected him, and those around us, in this beautiful city of Vancouver.
The Realization of Racism
Tonye Brown is a thirty-two year old software developer, who recently married Michelle, a woman with a “twinkle in her eye” and “a big big heart for people.” Although Tonye and Michelle’s wedding was an intimate COVID wedding with only ten guests, the couple felt deep gratitude for those who were able to join them. In addition to Michelle, Tonye’s loves include working out, making music, and “new creative ventures.” Writing and performing spoken word for the Good Friday service was his newest creative venture, and one which Tonye describes as an amazing opportunity to “feel trickles of heaven falling on earth” through the process of composing. The blessing of this experience was heightened by the knowledge that in using his gifts, he would be used by God to “encourage the body of Christ.”
Tonye was born in Nigeria, raised in a Christian family in a predominantly Muslim context with four regional languages and over 250 dialects. He was 16 when he left Nigeria with his parents and three younger sisters, to live first in Botswana, and then the United States. When he began college, Tonye admits discovering much about himself: “I learned that I was Pharisaical and super rigid.” In South Dakota, Tonye became involved in university campus ministry, which surrounded him with many Christians and the opportunity to grow in understanding God’s grace. However, it was at this time that Tonye was first faced with racism. He laughed as he began to share with me, “There were only like five black people in South Dakota. I didn’t experience any racism in Africa, or maybe I chose not to see it, but when I came to North America it hit me in the face.”
The personal experiences and those Tonye witnessed as he moved from the US to Canada, led him to live in the tension of anger and despair: anger at the insanity of injustice (“I wanted justice so badly!”), and despair over the realization that people might not accept him or respond to his voice, because of the colour of his skin. The deep discouragement was particularly poignant for Tonye when issues of race were raised within his own Christian community. This internal battle, however, was used by the Holy Spirit to evoke within Tonye the consideration of other people groups who lived under the societal auspice of being devalued—namely, the disabled and the poor. He admits, alongside the realization of racism, was the realization of pervasive oppression of those who were devalued: “I started to experience the desire to protect them, but what am I to do? I feel I can’t do enough to help.”
The burden Tonye feels for the poor is tangible as he speaks: “Our social circles, here in Vancouver, don’t include the poor. We notice them, we give them money, but we don’t try to hang out with them.” It becomes clear, as he continues to share, that the experience of being associated with a group of people who have been oppressed and undervalued has opened his eyes to see how this is the reality of many other people. Tonye points to his wife Michelle, whose work with the elderly has consistently encouraged him toward compassion for the undervalued. This insight is beautiful to witness, because it powerfully embodies the compassion of Christ, through His experience of suffering on earth.
COVID’s Cultivation of Humility
While Tonye’s experience with racism has been used by God to grow his compassion for others who experience oppression, this experience has also begun to open his heart to choose mercy for those who oppress. The wrestle with injustice and the recent killings of black men and women by officers of the law is painful. He acknowledges, “I should be open to what God is doing... If the cops ask for forgiveness, God will forgive 100%. I should be fine with that, but it’s tough... We’ve all sinned, I have to renew my mind, and fight the hate. I really believe this, even while we’re still weeping [over the deaths of more black men and women]—weep with us, but we have to forgive, as we have been forgiven.” Alongside the realization of racism, is the cultivation of humility. Tonye pensively points to the complexity in this world consisting of sinners harming one another, and sinners being renewed in Christ, of whom, he is one.
One of the sobering insights Tonye has gained over the course of this pandemic is the glaring clash between the very accepted and prevalent cancel culture and the dismissed biblical culture of Jesus. Tonye explains, “I’ve been a part of cancel culture, it feels good, feels just, the person on the other end deserves it… But as a Christian, I have to remember all the times I’ve sinned—what if God cancelled me? If we are Christians, we have to show grace and mercy. It’s difficult, but I cannot be a part of cancel culture. Over this past year, I’ve had to ask myself, Is this what Jesus wants? For us to cancel each other? The answer I have received is a resounding ‘No’.”
Tonye admits the current conversations at Westside around unity have prompted many discussions between him and Michelle as they seek to live as citizens of Jesus’ culture. They have concluded, “We have to be willing—if we want to be peacemakers—we have to be willing to be in situations where peace is required. God is obsessed with unity. Cancel culture opposes this, so we must oppose this.”
One of the questions that arises as we talk is, how is it possible to live in grace and mercy with those who deserve otherwise? The answer is clear according to Scripture, and I hear it all over Tonye’s words: humility and forgiveness. Tonye admits, “I could’ve been cancelled for things I’ve done. I’ve been shown mercy, and as a Christian, I need to show mercy. We ask for forgiveness every day, we also have to forgive.”
As he thinks ahead, Tonye shares, “So I figure God's going to keep on giving me ideas and thoughts on how to be merciful and gracious to people. The other Sunday, Pastor Matt's sermon regarding fostering a culture of confession, repentance and affirming each other in Jesus, came together really well for me. For instance, I like to debate random nonsense sometimes, but I recently read during my quest of reading the bible backwards, in 2 Timothy 2:16, ‘Avoid godless chatter because those who indulge in it will become more ungodly,’ and it's stuck with me. So, the next time I'm having one of these godless chatter conversations with a Christian, I'll affirm them to live to the higher standard God has for them and not engage in it. I believe an important part of this is also confessing that I'm prone to enjoying conversations like that, and committing to not participate in them anymore.”
Acknowledging the forgiveness he has received from Jesus, Tonye states, “I can't ask for forgiveness and more grace and mercy if I don't show that to my brothers and sisters in Christ and others who don't know Christ. So, basically, cancel culture and the Gospel don't go hand in hand. As much as I'm all for justice, the way God executes justice is not by cancelling the evil-doer, at least not in the way we'd like on earth. “
Called to Love
Tonye is right. The path forward is not hate, fear nor cancel culture—it is love, abiding, and the culture of the Gospel.