Reshaping the Church

A melange of colors: the work of Ubuntu

Posted July 12, 2023

by Ozi Ojukwu

Photo by Esther Elliott

White and black Americans — and even Christians — are divided on how they view racism. In 2020, 37% of all white adults said the United States has a race problem, compared to 76% of all black adults, according to a report from Barna Research Group. In the same year, 33% of white Christians said the United States has a race problem, compared to 81% of black Christians.

In response to this division, several Christian organizations, including Be the Bridge, are still working towards unity and understanding in cultural and racial issues. One such organization is Ubuntu, founded in Fall of 2021 by Esther Elliott.

A 2023 graduate of Malone University in Canton, Ohio, Elliott originally founded the organization to help both African-Americans and African immigrants understand each other; the word Ubuntu is an Nguni word meaning “a person is a person through other persons.” In seeking to help people understand other cultures, the organization illustrates this philosophy.

Do you consider Ubuntu to be a ministry? If so, why, or why not?

Well, I want it to be a ministry, but I haven’t considered it a ministry, mainly because it was meant to be more of an educational organization to just bring about a better understanding of people and culture. Although, recently, I have thought about making it a ministry to keep the gospel at the center of conversations about culture, race and ethnicity because we can easily get sidetracked, especially with what’s happening today in our day and age.

Especially after incidents of police brutality, we see a lot more books coming out about the history of racism in America. And of course, even though they’ve been coming out since at least near the 2010s, I have seen more of a rise, especially when you hear about a Black person dying because of police brutality and stuff. And more conversations about race are arising. I just want to keep Christ at the center; it's easy to get side-tracked because of our culture.

Why did you originally choose to start Ubuntu?

So, as someone who’s the child of African immigrants — my parents are both from Nigeria — and even going to Malone, I just kind of noticed a difference between how Africans are to African Americans culturally — and even as a history major learning that African Americans were stripped of their African heritage because of slavery.

I, in some ways, want to give back to them what they have lost — which definitely sounds loaded — but I say it in the sense that African-Americans today don’t really associate with Africa.

You’ll hear me use the term Black more because they don’t know what part of Africa they’re from because of slavery. And also, I want to change the narrative surrounding Black culture and Black history because it’s mostly filled with slavery and oppression. Like, you have Jim Crow. You have the Civil Rights Movement, you have redlining, inequality, and all that stuff. I want to show that there’s more to African and African American culture than that.

Even though I also originally started as like, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll just introduce them to African culture,’ I also kind of want to build an understanding between both cultures because you need that understanding if we’re going to bring both cultures together. And we just have to be united as one because all Black people are from Africa. It’s just that African Americans need that reconnection because of what was lost because of slavery.

What do you consider Ubuntu to be?

Right now, I’ve considered and I will still consider it mostly to be a micro-organization. Now, I use the term ‘organization’ because I want it to be an educational experience. Not in the sense of school or being in a classroom, but just a way for people to learn about each other and their cultures. And how I envision this is just either having a few pieces of written content or video content or art pieces and other ways to make it easier and lighthearted for people to understand.

Even when I brought this up to the Student Senate, of course they mostly thought of it as a club. But I don’t really use that term because ‘club’ is more for a social setting. But for me, I want to make a difference. I don’t just want it to be social. I want it to be educational. So that’s why I consider it more of an organization. It’s more of a micro one because it’s not big, but I’m working to make it big.

You recently decided to expand Ubuntu from contemplating relationships between African immigrants and African Americans to discussing relationships between all cultures. Practically, what do you hope this will look like?

Well, how I want it to look like is — it’s pretty much similar to what I already want to do. Provide content and things that would help people understand not just differences but also similarities between various cultures. Also understanding that even though we’re all different cultures, we also are still one in Christ.

If I were to talk about African culture, or even Asian culture, it would be — I’ll give an example. During my first meeting, it was more like a small group discussion and in it I had them answer, “How much do you know about Africa?”

I asked different questions and then I gave them a synopsis of what Ubuntu is, what it isn’t, and just some of the things that we hope to do. So similar with that. Because I want to be an experience of learning about the culture, not just in the sense of hearing but also partaking in one another’s cultures. Whether that’s with food, with languages, or anything like that.

And then one more thing I want to add, for Black History Month, I did a panel discussion where I shared different prompts and I had people answer according to what their opinions were. So that’s something that I would also like to do in order to bring more conversations and also while I’m helping others learn, me learning from them as well. And the reason why this one for Black History Month and I like it better is because I feel like I learned a lot more from the panelists as much as I hope that they’re also learning from each other.

Do you hope to utilize your education as a history graduate to discuss relationships between other cultures?

Well, in a sense. So one of the things — and I will emphasize it again — it’s not a history class. So it’s not intended to focus so much on history as it is just having conversations. Because that’s really what I want to bring to the table: conversations.

If necessary — for example, for my first meeting I did introduce some history — but mainly that was just to explain what Ubuntu was all about. I want it to be more of a place where people can ask questions and engage in dialogue. If that needs some history, then yes, I will include some portion. But it’s not supposed to be hard and academic.

How do you situate your organization within the debates surrounding efforts to promote racial and ethnic identity?

This is something I’ve definitely considered, especially with the rising debate about racial and ethnic identity. So first of all, with identity, I kind of want to focus more on enjoying certain aspects of the culture and not so much about race. Even though I may bring it up a little bit, but I think that because of how politicized it is, it just gets so complicated.

One of the things I emphasized in my panel discussion was forgiveness because that also gets a lot of heat, especially when we’re talking about it. Because the issue is we’re talking mostly about struggle, the struggle, the struggle — and while we may talk about that, I don’t want to emphasize that as much.

I just want to emphasize some of the different aspects about each culture, whether that’s like respecting authority, trying different foods or different languages or even doing an all-around-the-world simulation where people share bits and pieces of their culture. It’s not so much about people understanding race as it is more of them partaking in each other’s cultures.

If questions about race do pop up, I will allow the discussion, but I don’t want it to be solely centered on that. Especially since, Biblically speaking, the term ‘racial’ is not accurate; it’s more ‘ethnic’ because we all have different ethnicities.

Photo by Esther Elliott

How do you think Ubuntu encourages Christian discipleship? If you could give examples of this, that would be great.

I haven’t really explored much discipleship yet. But I would say, in one form, it would be the aspect of listening to one another, because that’s also something that I want to implement — listening and then also offering feedback.

I also want people to think more about this from a Biblical and not just a cultural standpoint because oftentimes we may just think in relation to culture. So even though I have not really explored this deeply, the part about just listening to one another, that’s something that I think would encourage Christian discipleship. Because overall I want it to be like, ‘Oh yeah, God gave us all these different cultures and we should explore them and recognize how much the Kingdom of God is diverse.’

Currently, how do you integrate Christianity into the work that Ubuntu does? In other words, how does Ubuntu in its current form promote a Christian vision of cultural understanding/engagement?

I’m integrating Christianity into Ubuntu by emphasizing community and forgiveness. Ubuntu is all about community, and we were all made for community, as shown in Genesis 1:26-28. I try my best to share certain scriptures and am starting to do that on our Insta page. In my Black History Month panel discussion, “Honest Conversations”, I mentioned forgiveness, which is something that’s often glossed over in race relations. I didn’t originally plan to discuss race but it is relevant, and it’s important that we discuss it from a Biblical perspective. Race talk is “struggle, struggle, struggle.” How do minorities overcome them? Obviously they can’t do it themselves.

I’ve also shared in other Insta posts about how community in Christ was created, then ruined and then restored. I tried starting a LifeGroup called “Sitting At The Table" which discusses community more. Didn’t have such a great turnout. The times people did come we discussed what community means to each of us and what it should mean in Christ.

Also, last spring, I discussed cultural engagement as Christians to challenge people to incorporate Christ into conversations about culture.

Photo by Esther Elliott

Revelation 7:9-10 says: “After these things, I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

In emphasizing an understanding of all cultures, Ubuntu reminds one of the future reality of the diverse Kingdom of God. More information about the organization can be found here.