An Unplanned Lesson on Race Conversation

1/14/2016
By Drew Page

HARTFORD (01/14/2016) -- When churches work together and collaborate on shared ministry, we should celebrate and share the story. A Second Hour conversation between Amistad United Church of Christ in Hartford and a church in Newtown should have been one of those stories. Instead of a celebration, however, the story is a lesson on racial conversations.

In his January 10 sermon, Amistad's pastor Bishop John Selders spoke of risk taking, the kind of risk taking that takes one out of their comfort zone and places them on the front lines of advocacy work. He shared stories about the perilous work of Jesus, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Moral Monday CT. Selders said it takes courage to do the work of unmasking racism.

"To what degree are you willing to expose yourself to danger, to harm, to lot?" he asked. "What is your own accepted and conscious willingness to lean into risk?"

Bishop John Selders

In a Second Hour discussion that followed worship, the visitors from Newtown shared what they had been doing since Selders visited their church late last year. They were inspired to ask what they could do right away. Selders suggested they "be present" and start by holding up some signs on the front lawn as a way to start the conversation. So, the group gathered for several Monday afternoons.

The Newtown visitors reported both positive and negative responses to their demonstration. Some people grabbed signs to join the group. The demonstrators received "two sets of fingers," a positive thumbs up and another, less polite gesture. One particular response they referred to as "rolling coal." Several trucks drove up to the group and spewed black smoke from exhaust pipes. A frequent response was folks yelling "All Lives Matter" as they drove by. This led to a discussion about their response to this common retort to the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Newtown group decided they wished to do more. They have discussed holding public discussions on "neutral" ground, a site other than the church, and bringing in people with other perspectives to continue the conversation.

Had the second hour conversation ended here, it would have been one of those positive, noteworthy collaborations between two churches mentioned earlier.

It did not end there.

There were several signs that the conversation was going to head in the wrong direction. One occurred when a woman reported feeling relief when the police began making regular passes. She described this as "a very nice police presence" that made her feel better because the first week was "a little scary." One of the other Newtown people did point out that the police gave some wary looks toward the group, but did not mention that the woman's comfort was based on an experience of white privilege that was not one shared by the Moral Monday CT activists present, who reported being under police surveillance at times or being arrested on several occasions.

The real turning point came when one of the Newtown demonstrators spoke of the many white people who suffer with long hours and low wages. He then suggested that they hold up some White Lives Matter signs along with the Black Live Matter signs.

Selders spoke. "Let me jump in here, because I'm a little troubled."

Selders explained that the Black Lives Matter movement began in response to an injustice that occurred in Florida, when George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin and was never convicted of killing the unarmed teen. It was a specific context that demanded action, particularly the affirming of black lives in a society that regularly diminishes the value of black and brown people. Selders said when All Lives Matter is spoken in response to Black Lives Matter, it is a "political resistance statement in the context of affirming" black lives.

When he finished, Pam Selders jumped in.

"I'm troubled that in 2016 I'm sitting in a room full of people who really don't understand what racism is," she said. She went on to say that the Newtown group was not ready to work because they had not done their "first work" in finding out what racism is and what Black Lives Matter really means.

The response from some of the Newtown group illustrated white fragility. They become defensive and lashed back at Lady Selders. They claimed to be offended. They defended their readiness to do the work and their lack of understanding about racism by saying, "We're here to find that out."

Pam Selders responded, "You do that not with me. When you come to me, it's time to work."

Selders was correct. Some of the Newtown group was not ready for this work. They had not done their homework. They had not learned to identify racism, or even learned what Black Lives Matter means. Certainly, this group as a whole was not prepared to have a conversation about race. And placing the burden of explanation on the backs of those who have experienced first-hand the very racial injustice one is trying to eradicate, is wrong.

One woman asked, "How do we do our homework?" She was answered by a member of her own group who suggested reading Waking Up White by Debby Irving, to help understand what white privilege means. There are many resources available online and through advocacy groups that can help one understand racism and white privilege. The Racial Justice Ministry of the Connecticut Conference offers such resources to local churches who wish to begin a conversation.

Bishop Selders asked the Newtown folks what they are willing to risk. The work of unmasking racism is difficult; engaging in the conversation is challenging. Emily Hale, a facilitator for the Racial Justice Ministry, says there are protocols for having the conversation in order to prevent the emotional response described here. A covenant is used that specifically calls for participants to understand that the conversation will make them uncomfortable and gives them tools for "self-soothing." Having these protocols and facilitators trained in guiding the conversation can prevent conversations from becoming accusatory or result in participants simply shutting down.

Pam Selders was absolutely correct in stating that in 2016, there is no excuse for ignorance about racism and white privilege, but the conversation at Amistad was not unsuccessful. It was a lesson, much like burning your hand teaches you a lesson. You don't blame the stove; you learn to work with one. Hale sees the positive in this conversation:

"People were challenged to go and learn more. People were uncomfortable. That's good, because there's not much comforting about these issues, and I'd rather us all be uncomfortably working on dismantling racism together than sit in silence. "

Drew Page is Associate Editor for the Connecticut Conference UCC.

The specific Newtown church was not identified in this story because it does not matter. The events teach a lesson, and the experience could have been lived by any predominately white church group. The church was not a UCC church.