The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Caught in a culture war, this multiracial family navigates a predominantly White evangelical world

From left, Story Ivey, 13, Aaron Ivey, Cayden Ivey, 17, Jamie Ivey, Amos Ivey, 16, and Deacon Ivey, 15, appear outside their home in Austin on May 15. The Iveys are heavily involved in their church and have pushed conservative Christians for more conversations about race and social justice. (Julia Robinson for The Washington Post)

AUSTIN — Deacon Ivey is used to the lingering stares in restaurants and on vacation. As a biracial teenager with White evangelical parents, Deacon said he often feels uncomfortable going into public with his multiracial family in their predominantly White community in Texas.

“Waiters will ask, ‘Are you all together? Who’s paying?’ ” said Deacon, who is 15 and learning to drive. “We’re kids.”

Deacon and his three teenage siblings live comfortably in a five-bedroom modern farmhouse in a rural part of south Austin. His family also sits awkwardly on the sidelines of tense debates about race taking place both in the country and in their church’s denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention.

Culture war discussions about critical race theory (CRT), an intellectual framework used to examine structural racism, are expected to flare up in June at the next Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Nashville, where at least 10,000 Baptists will elect their next convention president.

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Former president Donald Trump denounced CRT in September as “toxic propaganda.” Two months later, Southern Baptist seminary presidents and the SBC president, who are White men, attacked CRT as incompatible with Baptist theology. Those attacks prompted several Black pastors to leave the denomination.

Such disputes have not yet trickled down to many Southern Baptist churches such as the Austin Stone, where Deacon’s dad, Aaron Ivey, the head worship pastor, operates independently from the denomination and intentionally hires people of color.

But Deacon’s mother, Jamie Ivey, a preacher and evangelical influencer with a popular podcast that has 615,000 downloads per month, said her family isn’t isolated from the debates taking place at the national level. As the mother of Black children, she has drawn on resources outside the White evangelical world to understand racial prejudice.

“When I hear my Black friends talk about their experiences that I’ve never had, there’s no way to explain that except that the system isn’t for them,” she said. “I look at my kids and think, ‘You’re never going to experience what they have experienced.’ ”

Building a family

Aaron and Jamie Ivey began building their nontraditional family in their early 20s. In 2004, they had a biological son named Cayden.

In 2005, inspired by a larger trend among White evangelicals to adopt children, the Iveys adopted Deacon from a White mother in San Antonio (Deacon’s father is Black, and Deacon identifies as Black). Then they adopted two more Black children named Story and Amos from Haiti in 2009 and 2010.

When the couple brought their Black children home, Jamie Ivey said, they considered themselves “colorblind” and did not feel the need to consider race in the adoption process. Raising four teenagers, Jamie Ivey, 43, who has a fondness for country music, mayonnaise and Skinny Dipped Almonds, has done work to educate herself on race-related topics in recent years.

“There was a season where I was very naive about adoption and would’ve had the mind-set of ‘love heals all problems,’ ” she said. “My opinions have evolved.”

With comedian Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime” book on Jamie Ivey’s bedside table, the home is filled with a mix of books by Black authors and White evangelicals. The couple exposes their children to literature, music and films while encouraging them to find their own passions.

Deacon likes the show “Black-ish.”

Amos, who is 16, listens to rap music.

Story, who is 13, wants to be the next Whitney Houston.

As their White older brother, Cayden said he feels protective of his siblings and has worked to understand racial issues. He said he recently talked about the injustices Asian Americans often face with his girlfriend, who is Chinese American, especially after a mass shooting in Atlanta in March. He is well aware of the racist comments directed toward his siblings.

In May, a fellow student came into a girls’ bathroom at their public middle school and showed Story a swastika she had drawn on her arm. In 2017, around the time when National Football League players inspired by Colin Kaepernick were kneeling before games to protest racial injustice, a White man told Deacon and Amos as they entered a high school football game, “You boys better not kneel during the national anthem.”

Sitting around a fire pit in their backyard roasting s’mores, Cayden’s siblings said they have mixed feelings about being raised in a predominantly White community.

“I feel pretty settled now,” said Amos, who was adopted from Haiti at age 4. “When I was younger, I wanted somewhere I could feel comfortable. Now it’s growing on me. If we lived somewhere else, we’d have the same problems.”

Deacon, however, said he thinks that if they lived in a Black community, they would spend less time talking to and educating people and more time protesting and engaging on issues.

Story, who playfully aimed a marshmallow at her brother Amos, said she likes the opportunities her family has been given to teach people about race.

“Sometimes I like it because I get to act like the smart person,” she said. “So, like, when they say something wrong or something racist-ish, I’m like, ‘Hold up, that [isn’t] right.’ I get to act like the smart person and educate them.”

The limits of colorblindness

Jamie Ivey said her eyes began to open to racial issues in 2014 after she joined a racial reconciliation group with other Christians led by Latasha Morrison, the best-selling author of “Be the Bridge.” Morrison, who now lives in Atlanta, said that because Jamie Ivey had Black children, she had more awareness of racial issues than many White evangelicals.

“She was slow getting started, but as she began to learn historical factors and understand racism in our country, she became very passionate about it,” Morrison said.

Morrison said that she sees a lot of White evangelicals who adopt with good intentions, but that it can be harmful for a child of color to be raised with a “colorblind lens” because their parents often miss the systemic issues that take place in the United States’ racialized society.

In 2015, Jamie Ivey said, she took her family to a local Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade where people were chanting, “I am Trayvon Martin. I am Michael Brown.” Deacon, who was 9 at the time, asked her who Brown was, and she hesitated to share details about the man who was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

“I remember feeling like, ‘I don’t want to tell you,’ ” she said. “ ‘You’re my baby, and I’m going to keep you here and keep you safe.’ ”

Then, Jamie Ivey said, she read an article by a Black man whose White parents had not exposed him to racial issues and who said college was terrible for him because he was learning about it for the first time.

“I realized our White privilege can’t rub off,” Jamie Ivey said. “I remember realizing we’re setting them up for failure.”

During the summer of 2020, the Ivey family was featured on the show “Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man” with Emmanuel Acho and watched by more than 2 million people, including Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, because Goodell’s father wanted to adopt a Black child.

On that show, Acho urged the Iveys to help their children keep their Black culture. Jamie Ivey said she called him after the show and asked him to recommend movies, TV shows and books to expose them to Black culture, especially when their Texas public education falls short. Deacon said he remembers how one of his textbooks suggested that enslaved people came to the United States to work.

What has become increasingly uncomfortable for the Ivey family is how issues of racial identity have become wrapped up in national politics and sometimes church politics.

Jamie Ivey, who was raised in a Southern Baptist home, said she long assumed Christians should vote for Republicans. Three years after adopting a Black boy, she remembers feeling tension when Barack Obama was running for president because she wanted to vote for a Black man, but she felt uncomfortable voting for a Democrat who supported abortion rights.

“I feel embarrassed for where I was, and I believe in growth,” she said.

Now her children look up to the Obamas as role models, and they said they are relieved that Trump is out of office. Story recalled how Trump held up a Bible in front of a church while Black Lives Matter protesters were tear-gassed nearby.

“I’m glad he’s out of power,” Deacon said. “He made it okay to say racist things.”

What had not yet come up in family conversations is how polls showed 80 percent of White evangelicals voted for Trump. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler, who is running for president of the SBC, rocked the evangelical world last year when he said he would vote for Trump after several years of denouncing him.

“Is it hard for you to imagine that a lot of White Christians voted for him?” Aaron Ivey, 42, asked his children. Deacon’s eyes grew wide.

Although Austin is more politically progressive than the rest of Texas, the Iveys live in a predominantly White, Republican area of the city, and the children go to school in a rural area called Dripping Springs. Most of their friends’ parents probably voted for Trump, Jamie Ivey said.

“I would tell them, ‘I think my parents voted for Joe Biden,’ ” Deacon said. “They would say, ‘So they voted for abortion?’ ”

Aaron Ivey sat back in his chair.

“There’s the zinger,” he said.

When Jamie Ivey talks about topics on her podcast or on her Instagram feed, she will often get pushback, especially when she encourages her followers to listen to stories about undocumented immigrants.

Her followers will often write: “I’m so disappointed in you.”

Southern Baptist with a twist

Sporting an official badge for the Austin Stone, Story is one of the church’s most enthusiastic greeters while her father leads the church of mostly 20-somethings from the stage in rock concert-style worship.

With conservative Baptist theology, the Iveys’ Austin Stone church is viewed as more culturally progressive and more multiethnic in the evangelical world, broadcasting Spanish lyrics under English ones on the stage. Aaron and Jamie Ivey are not the typical Southern Baptist pastor and wife, with tattoos down their arms, ripped jeans and a well-stocked home bar.

The staff at the Austin Stone, a church that attracts about 10,000 congregants online and in person each week, has read Jemar Tisby’s best-selling book “Color of Compromise” about Christians’ complicity with racism, and Jamie Ivey recently had Tisby on her show.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Tisby said he thinks many multiracial families like the Iveys tend to be more open to recognizing racial issues because they see their children’s experiences. But, he said, he expects their Black children will struggle within their Southern Baptist context.

“It should be uncomfortable to be part of a denomination that’s obsessed with critical race theory,” Tisby said. “It’s part of a trajectory under the Trump administration where Christian leaders are having to declare their stances on racial justice.”

Like female preachers in the SBC, Jamie Ivey sits on the periphery where there aren’t many formal institutional roles for women. In some ways, she is following in the footsteps of Beth Moore, a popular Bible teacher who has been deeply influential in Jamie Ivey’s life. Moore was part of a string of high-profile departures from the Southern Baptist Convention earlier this year, and she cited Baptists’ strong support for Trump.

Like Moore, Jamie Ivey also preaches, a topic that has ignited much debate among Southern Baptists about the role of women in churches. Earlier this year, Jamie and Aaron Ivey published a book with the SBC’s publishing arm promoting the ideas of complementarianism, which generally teaches male headship and female submission within a marriage and in church roles.

Next month, Jamie Ivey is scheduled to speak at events around the SBC’s big annual meeting, but she won’t be a “messenger,” someone who votes for the next president. She wants to go to seminary but is not considering Southern Baptist ones.

“I don’t feel like I’m a Southern Baptist, or that I’m raising Southern Baptist kids,” she said. “I’m a Christian, and I hope my kids love Jesus someday.”

Over the past year, Jamie Ivey has urged her followers to educate themselves on race, telling them to read books by Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi, authors who have become controversial among White evangelicals because of CRT. Jamie Ivey said she thinks CRT has helped her understand her Black children’s experiences in the United States.

“People say we don’t need CRT; we need the Bible. Then we don’t need psychologists. To me, that feels closed-minded,” she said of Southern Baptist attacks on CRT. “Whether you agree or not, it was poor timing.”

Deacon and his siblings don’t know what the Southern Baptist Convention is, they don’t know what critical race theory is, and they don’t know that the denomination was formed in the 1800s over the issue of slavery.

Their church sends money to the convention because it wants to support missionary efforts, but most people who attend and even people on staff don’t realize the connection. However, Becca Matimba, a worship leader at the Austin Stone, said she and other Black members talk about leaving Southern Baptist churches. She stays because she wants to be the change she wants to see.

Matimba, whose parents are from Zimbabwe and raised her in White evangelical churches, said the Austin Stone addresses race from the stage quite a bit for an evangelical church but not as regularly as she would like.

“They remind me of an anxious toddler,” she said. “They’re trying to soak in all the information [on race] to do what’s best and get overwhelmed, and they find themselves in that safe camp.”

Matimba said that every year, she wonders whether she will leave her church. Having watched the SBC debates about CRT unfold, she said, she will be watching the new leadership.

“It depends on the leadership to confess, repent and change the parts of the SBC that have been blatantly racist,” she said. “Or it’s going to end up what it started as: a convention for White evangelicals.”

Read more:

Several Black pastors break with the Southern Baptist Convention over a statement on race

Bible teacher Beth Moore’s split with Southern Baptists has some women wondering whether to follow her

Russell Moore’s departure from the Southern Baptist Convention’s leadership prompts questions over its future