Uncomfortable but Necessary Conversations

Uncomfortable but Necessary Conversations

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One of the major challenges for ministry leaders in times of cultural upheaval is to teach about issues of the day through a biblical lens. Joshua Brubaker Canales, lead pastor of Mission Ebenezer Family Church in Greater Los Angeles, believes preaching about racial justice is a theme explored repeatedly in Scripture.

Canales has been lead pastor of the predominantly Hispanic megachurch in Carson since April 2019. He succeeded his father as lead pastor after Isaac Canales retired following 41 years of ministry. Josh’s grandparents Miguel and Lupe Canales founded the church 60 years ago.

For several weeks, Joshua Canales has been preaching about prejudice, inequity, justice, and the need for racial reconciliation. Last month he talked about the plight of Ahmaud Arbery, the African American killed while jogging in Georgia. On June 6, Canales spoke about Black Lives Matter at a citywide protest and released an official statement about racism to the church co-authored with his Nigerian-American wife, Bunmi. On June 7, he preached forcefully regarding the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minnesota.

On June 14, he helped organize a panel discussion with the church’s race-relations task force. Participants included Bunmi; African American youth pastor Kevin Nickerson; and African American assistant youth pastor Traco Rachal. Josh’s brother Coba moderated the discussion about oppression among blacks in the U.S.

The emphasis has been too much for some congregants, who have warned him he better cease preaching on racism and start focusing on “sin,” lest they will leave the church. (The Assemblies of God adopted a resolution denouncing racism as sin in 1989, and reiterated that declaration earlier this month in the wake of Floyd's death).

“Not everybody is on the same page when it comes to the great challenge we are facing,” says Canales, who has been on staff at the church since 2003. “There always will be somebody who is not 100 percent in agreement with the vision God has for the body of Christ.”

In light of the societal turmoil, Canales sees no greater concern facing the Church than justice for all. He is committed in the short term to keep preaching and teaching on the topic. Long-range goals include educating, informing, and creating opportunities for dialogue and action.

“We don’t want to be hearers of the Word only,” Canales says. “We need to speak up on behalf of the disenfranchised and marginalized on the issues of immigration, racial prejudice, and the need for police tactical reform, specifically as it pertains to the African-American community. This issue will help shape our mission and vision from here on out.”

Since 2003, Canales, who is Mexican American, has been married to Bunmi, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. in the mid-1970s. Moreover, Canales believes the Church must address the misconception introduced in 1619 when the first slaves arrived in 1619 that black people are inferior because of their skin color.

“The Church must speak up and act against the great evil of racism,” Canales says.

He acknowledges not all Christians are at ease addressing mistreatment of African Americans, in and by the Church. Yet ignoring the subject is tantamount to endorsing racism, he declares.

“It requires spiritual humility for all of us to sit down and have these uncomfortable and difficult, but necessary conversations so we can arrive at a place of understanding,” says Canales, 41. “The time is now for us to come together to heal our land, heal our churches, and care for our hurting black brothers and sisters.”

Josh and Bunmi aren’t an aberration at Mission Ebenezer Family Church, a congregation in the Assemblies of God Southern Pacific District. Dozens of married interracial couples attend the church. Indeed, interracial spouses active in ministry may be a key in helping to bridge the racial divides plaguing much of American society.

While L.A. is as much an ethnically diverse melting pot as anywhere in the world, Canales acknowledges there can be bitter tensions between certain minorities in parts of the city. He says much of the misunderstanding — including among those attending churches — stems from recently arrived immigrants unaccustomed to being an ethnic minority. Second- and third-generation residents are more acclimated to accepting different cultures, he says.

Josh met Bunmi in an athletic training room at UCLA; he played baseball while she participated in track and field. They grew closer while attending Athletes in Action Bible studies on campus. Canales played minor league baseball for three years (for the Dodgers and Astros) before yielding to the ministry call in 2003.

His younger brother Dave A. Canales served as a bivocational worship leader for five years before pursuing a full-time gridiron career. Dave has been wide receivers’ coach and quarterbacks coach for the Seattle Seahawks. The team this year announced Canales had been promoted to passing game coordinator.

Mission Ebenezer Family Church remains at the forefront for many in the Canales family. Josh’s mother, Ritha, works in the church’s human resources department. Youngest brother Coba is young adults pastor. Bunmi is the head administrator.

Josh and Bunmi have three children: Elisha, 13; Judah, 11; and Adelola, 3. Bunmi, 39, says she has experienced much subtle prejudice from people dealing with “covert discomfort.” That includes people turning away when they see her approaching or refusing to make eye contact; women clutching their purses tightly or holding their children close when she walks past; and individuals in conversation expressing surprise that she “sounds educated” or “speaks so well.” The current racial crisis has presented instructive opportunities.

“Our church is trying to shed light on ugly biases of the heart,” Bunmi says. “We’re praying for the Lord to expose things that have been passed down generationally that cause separation. We hope the Lord removes things people didn’t realize were there.”

Bunmi is optimistic that such lessons will make a lasting impact. Clearly, education and enlightenment sometimes are necessary even for longtime ministry leaders. 

“People around the United States and all over the world have taken a united stand for the cause,” she says. “The turnaround won’t be immediate, but seeds have been planted that we hope will make a better world for our children.”

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