Racial Tensions Spark Sacred Conversations

By Michael Barber

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead, Anthropologist

The clergy of First Community Church, led by Senior Minister Richard Wing, have observed that a long-delayed, national conversation on race is desperately needed.

In this issue of firstnews, you will find a special section with a variety of personal observations by our clergy and staff regarding the race issue that still exists in our community. Additionally, the church will offer a Lenten study on race and will preach on the subject in a concerted sermon series beginning March 8, 2017.

While it is agreed that, in this case particularly, actions speak louder than words, some of our clergy answer some tough questions to begin our sacred conversations.

What role does the church play in discussing and understanding race?

Rev. David Hett: Why is all the issue of race and racism – including the ‘othering’ of all peoples of color – arising at this time and in this nation? In the U.S., with its racial history, the church has an opportunity to fulfill its true role as a people committed to 

following the compassionate, justice-seeking way of Jesus, and to follow perhaps the greatest Christian scripture: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”

The church is one place where Christians, or non-Christians, should be open to share their truth with whatever maturity and insight each of us brings as individuals, and to do so in safe, sacred spaces. This is as important for the future of the church as a force for liberation in the world as it is important for society.

Rev. Chris Rinker: I believe the church, like all institutions of faith, is in a unique position to offer a space for authentic community. Ideally, such communities would bring in folks from all walks of life, with many differing opinions. In addition, many people look to religious institutions such as the church as a prime source of moral authority. Therefore, the church has not only the moral obligation to speak out against injustice (such as systemic racism), but also the responsibility to provide a space for safe, honest, and open discussion regarding issues such as race.

People do not change their minds by being yelled at. They change their minds when they are able to have meaningful conversations and experiences with people who are different from them. The church is perfectly poised to be a place where these conversations and experiences can happen.

What is White Privilege?

Dr. Richard Wing: White privilege is a set of advantages and/or immunities that white people benefit from on a daily basis beyond those common to all others. White privilege can exist without white people’s conscious knowledge of its presence and it helps to maintain the racial hierarchy in this country.

The biggest problem with white privilege is the invisibility it maintains to those who benefit from it most. The inability to recognize that many of the advantages whites hold are a direct result of the disadvantages of other people, contributes to the unwillingness of white people, even those who are not overtly racist, to recognize their part in maintaining and benefiting from white supremacy.

Rev. Kate Shaner: White privilege is the societal privilege that comes just from the color of one’s skin. It is often inherent bias, ingrained so deeply in the societal norms we grow up in that it is not understood or recognized unless addressed specifically.

Being white means never having to think about it. – James Baldwin, Author, On Being White…and Other Lies, Essence Magazine, 1984

What message does the church wish to send about racism?

Dr. Richard Wing: The only way around the existence of racism is to own it and seek reconciliation through everyone telling the truth. The doorway to our church says, “You will know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” There is freedom waiting for people of all races as they sit together and tell the truth about the pain of racism and the promise of reconciliation.

Rev. Paul Baumer: All of God’s people are all people and all people should be open to and caring about all other people.

Rev. Chris Rinker: Jesus came preaching redemption and forgiveness, so we know that no matter how monstrous someone’s actions and speech might be, it does not, in fact, make them a monster. However, Jesus also came to preach release to the captive, good news to the poor and justice for the oppressed. God’s love and grace may cover all – that is true – but God does indeed take sides. God is passionately on the side that seeks to dismantle racist systems, to rectify injustices and to bring the balance of power and privilege into a state of equality among all people.

Rev. Kate Shaner: The church wishes to say that racism is not a black issue and not an issue for inner cities. Racism is an issue of power and privilege. It’s up to those who hold this power, in our society it is white people, to take the lead in uncovering their own bias to dismantle systems that oppress others. 

Are the conversations on race different than 50 years ago?

Rev. David Hett: I think we are still asking people of color to be patient, and that seems very easy to do when one is in a position where life is pretty much working out to your benefit. It’s past time to bring this conversation into the present moment and the current reality.

Rev. Paul Baumer: Not that I can tell. It is easier to start a conversation, but the difficulty, embarrassment and highly-different backgrounds to the conversation still make it
very difficult.

Dr. Ronald Jenkins: It is significantly different. 50 years ago, white people rarely encountered people of different races in their neighborhoods – only sometimes in schools, not in churches, or even very much work places. Black people especially were hidden from view unless working in a ‘service’ capacity.

What is your personal, short-term goal toward better understanding?

Rev. Paul Baumer: To keep encouraging our congregation to be in relationship with congregations of other races. Our neighborhood and social/cultural status makes it very difficult to expect persons of other races to join our congregation. We need to get outside of ourselves.

Rev. David Hett: I hope to open myself to holding lightly to my (many) opinions and positions on these subjects, while I see what new insights might arise as a way to move forward, as well as investigating ways of dealing with the issues from a white perspective without inducing excessive guilt, blame or shame.

Rev. Chris Rinker: Personally, I need to step out of my comfort zone and follow the advice of my brothers and sisters of color who have given white people a list of things we can do to actually help. This includes advocating for more transparency in our police departments, speaking out against racism when it manifests itself in our families or groups of friends, and amplifying the voices of people of color by sharing their stories and posts on social media and using our privilege to give them platforms to speak.