About Dr. Kenneth Christiansen

My professional career includes thirty-four years, 1974-2008, teaching courses in religion and sociology at Defiance College, Defiance, Ohio; four years, 1970-74, serving as pastor of Union Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Somonauk, Illinois; and two years, 1965-67, as a parish worker at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Chicago, Illinois.

Holy Trinity was a storefront congregation located at 29 East 47th Street, half a block from the center line of the Robert Taylor Homes, the largest public housing project in the United States at the time. Prior to this volunteer engagement I had lived in an almost entirely white world. My entry into the black world of public housing residents and the surrounding black Southside of Chicago changed my life. Nothing could be taken for granted. People took care of us. Empathy flowed in both directions.

I was invited to dinner at a home in the projects after church one of my first Sundays. The interior of the apartment, the smells of chicken and other things cooking, all seemed familiar. After a blessing we started eating. What did awaken my consciousness was when I noticed everyone else had paused eating and was looking at me. Then someone gathered their courage to ask, “Please pass the knife.” I hadn’t noticed that I had the only place setting that included a knife. I came to know that family very well. That was just the beginning of an extensive re-education.

Others had similar surprises. A female member of our team, Karen McDonald, started a group for teenage girls. She met them all at the church the first night. When it came time for the next meeting, a half hour before the meeting, she heard a knock at her door. When she opened it she saw five or six girls from her group. She asked, “What are you doing here? Aren’t we supposed to meet at the church?” One of the girls said, “Lady, we don’t walk anywhere by ourselves in this neighborhood and you aren’t going to either.” They continued to escort her to the church for their meeting weekly. (Karen and I were married in August of 1967.)

Dr. King came to Chicago in the summer of 1967. We attended rallies and marched in white neighborhoods for open housing. Jessie Jackson met in our storefront church with an integrated group of ministers and church members. Chicago was the first big city Dr. King attempted to change. The legendary Mayor Daley out-maneuvered him. Nonetheless, when Dr. King was assassinated, Mayor Daley quickly named a thoroughfare in the African American Community after him. 

In January of 1966, the University of Chicago Divinity School initiated the first Doctor of Ministry program in the nation. The founders wanted an activist program that would make a difference in the world. I joined up. The activist emphasis lasted only until 1970 when Viet Nam war protestors, some of my classmates among them, staged a sit-in in the university’s Administration building.

The Divinity School arranged for our entire class to join up with the Urban Training Center for Christian Mission (UTC) during the spring and summer quarters of 1967. I did an internship with the Church Federation of Greater Chicago. Most interesting to me was how well black and white UTC participants focused their energies and worked together. In the spring quarter this included a daily telephone conference call with ministers and congregations throughout the inner city. When the Chicago Police Department (CPD) raided Holy Trinity Lutheran Church and, among other things, tore a sink off the wall in a bathroom while looking for drugs, I shared that news on the next day’s conference call. The CPD did this to several churches in the inner city, alleging support for gangs. It ended when a popular newspaper columnist, Mike Royko, wrote a satirical column titled “Operation Steeple Stop.

As the summer progressed there was a change. The Black Power movement was taking hold. Some of the black participants in these city-wide conversations would no longer allow white people in meetings they organized. In these centers, talk of white guilt became common and white and black collaboration was discouraged.

It is noteworthy to me that Rev. Joseph Barndt, the co-founder of Crossroads Ministries, attended the Urban Training Center during most or all of 1968. In his first book, Why Black Power, he gives credit to that experience for his understanding of racial realities in the United States. The focus changes in this book and in his later work from white and black people working together to transform discriminatory laws and policies, to the exclusive and complete culpability of white people for the racial situation in the United States and the need to eradicate white racism. The effects of this change is discussed in a paper on this website.

Friendship Press, affiliated with the National Council of Churches, published my board game Dignity in 1967. Dignity simulates life as experienced by residents of the Robert Taylor Homes Public Housing Project in Chicago, 1965-67. The activities of the Civil Rights campaign of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Chicago in the summer of 1966 also play a role in the gameThe game sold over 10,000 copies before going out of print in the mid 1970s. (Note: I am working on translating the contents of the game Dignity into a format that will work on this website. Stay tuned.)

Why the theme, Asset-Based Anti-Racism?

For seventeen years at Defiance College, 1980-1997, I taught Cultural Diversity classes every semester to a collection of Education majors, Criminal Justice majors, Social Work majors, Religion Majors, and a smattering of others. The student population in my classes, like the college itself, was mostly but not all white. Many were first generation college students. My assigned task was to help prepare these students to work professionally in schools and agencies where they would be working with children and adults from every race, ethnicity, and economic background. I had one semester to make a difference in their personal and professional lives.

At the beginning of every class, we began by looking at the history of prejudice, discrimination and oppression in our country. We didn’t sugarcoat anything. Somewhere in the first several weeks it inevitably became clear that many or most of the Caucasian students in the class were feeling a lot of guilt. Not guilt for things they themselves had done. Rather, guilt for things members of their race had done historically. Or guilt for the advantages they or their racial ancestors enjoyed at others’ expense. This would typically cause them to show signs of shutting down; to parse every response they made in class discussion; to become very unsure of themselves. Open class discussion became more difficult. I did not and do not see this development as healthy. I could only imagine how tongue-tied they would be at the end of the semester and how limited they would be when helping a student or client in their chosen profession later in life.

My response was to share what I observed to be an empowering message. “If you actually have done any of the horrible things we are learning about, or if you have intentionally utilized your advantages, your privileges, to disadvantage or injure someone else, by all means feel guilty. If, on the other hand, you haven’t done these things, get angry instead. Get angry at racism and oppression wherever you see it.”

Guilt, I explained, is anger directed inward. If you let it build up, it will eventually either eat you up or burst out as anger directed toward others. If, on the other hand, you feel anger instead of guilt when you see injustice or discrimination, that anger can energize and mobilize you to fight oppression in all of its forms for the rest of your life. Anger at oppression can inspire you to speak up, to join with others to fight injustice. At the personal level it can inspire you to listen to victims of oppression, how they perceive their situation, and join them in rebuilding their lives and the world they and we live in.

Persons who see themselves as assets that can bring about needed positive changes will accomplish much more for the common good than persons who are overwhelmed by feelings of guilt. I am calling this the Asset-Based approach to Anti-Racism and Anti-Oppression. This name was inspired in part by the practice of Asset-Based Community Development as described by John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight in the book, Building Communities From The Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets (ACTA Publications, Skokie, IL, 1993). Their work is continued at the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University in Chicago, https://resources.depaul.edu/abcd-institute/Pages/default.aspx.