Can Churches Change the Conversation on Race?

Pentecost w Artist Effects

Desperate to help the children in our congregation understand the unrest in Baltimore this time a year ago, a small group of parents asked our pastors for a conversation on race. Both pastors had questioned us from the pulpit, after the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray, “If we can’t have these conversations in our houses of worship, then where?”

Thus began a tentative experiment with a monthly Conversation on Race after the worship service. And what we’ve learned is that something very different from our national conversation happens when everyone who comes to the table assumes that everyone else is speaking from a place of love and compassion.

Over the past year, we have shared our own stories around race in the most honest conversations I’ve ever heard. We have struggled to understand events both national and local, including when a white student at a county high school was caught making racist comments on a video that went viral. And all year we have sought ways to move forward so that our own children and our children’s children aren’t still facing these same issues 50 years from now.

First Presbyterian Church of Howard County sits on the outskirts of a community planned by a board that included social scientists charged with the explicit purpose of eliminating religious, racial, and class segregation in the wake of the Civil Rights Act. Within the villages of Columbia proper, only interfaith centers housed religious communities, and that remains true nearly 50 years later. Columbia is still racially and economically diverse. But it is located in a county that the 2013 census named the second wealthiest county in the United States, and schools in western Howard County remain more than 90% white.

Because of our location, the congregation is more diverse than many churches around the country. In most places President Obama’s description in his 2008 “A More Perfect Union Speech” is still accurate—that anger occasionally “…finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of that old truism that the most segregated hour of American life occurs on Sunday morning.”

But how do we move beyond that anger? That is the question our church members ask at each conversation. We’ve begun a book study during the Adult Education hour—just finished a four-week discussion of Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me and will continue with an examination of Brian Stevenson’s Just Mercy.

For the first time, I’ve begun to ask myself whether we liberals in America might be part of the reason we’re not moving forward. Too often, I’ve heard conversations in my work place, on social media, and on talk shows that come from a position of moral superiority. We essentially say, “I’ve faced my biases, and you need to do the same.” We seldom assume that everyone who comes to the table speaks from a heart of love and compassion, and we alienate the very people who might be most open to bringing about change.

For decades we have fought to create laws that end institutional racism. And we must continue to do that. But to truly bring about change, we must recognize that all of us have implicit biases and that until we can talk about them openly, we won’t reach a place where those laws are no longer necessary.

In a powerful and persuasive TedTalk, Vernā Myers, a diversity advocate, says this:

Let me just start with number one. We gotta get out of denial. Stop trying to be good people. We need real people. You know, I do a lot of diversity work, and people will come up to me at the beginning of the workshop. They’re like, “Oh, Ms. Diversity Lady, we’re so glad you’re here but we don’t have a biased bone in our body.” And I’m like, “Really? Because I do this work every day, and I see all my biases.”

When the audience laughs, she goes on to tell a story about being on a plane piloted by a woman when it encountered turbulence. She admits that her first thought was that she hoped the pilot was competent, something she’d never wondered when a plane was piloted by a man.

She goes on to explain that in an implicit-association test on race that has been taken by over five million people, 70% of whites and 50% of blacks have an automatic preference for white over black. (This test is part of Harvard’s Project Implicit, which tests biases on a number of topics that are outside our conscious awareness and control.)

We will hear one another as a nation only when we can create a place where all of us are comfortable admitting to the times when our unconscious biases affect our behavior, sometimes in spite of the people we want to be.

Sometimes perhaps we even need to have a sense of humor about it. In a funny and engaging TedTalk, journalist Rich Benjamin shares how he spent two years living in “Whitopia.” As a black man, he rented homes over the phone in three of the whitest communities in America and then immersed himself in the life of the community. What he discovered was surprising, even to himself:

It’s possible for people to be in Whitopia not for racist reasons, though it has racist outcomes. Many Whitopians feel pushed by illegals, social welfare abuse, minorities, density, crowded schools…And I learned in Whitopia how a country can have racism without racists.

No one would question that we have racists among us. But it isn’t racists who are perpetuating institutional racism. And until we can have an honest conversation that allows us to express our discomfort around race without being labeled as racists, we will not be able to move forward to create that more perfect union.

I will retire this summer from 39 years as a teacher and instructional specialist. For most of those 39 years, I’ve been engaging in conversations with colleagues about how to bring all our children to the fount of education—and especially our children of color. Far too often, those conversations begin from a place of blame that seeks to root out racist beliefs. Far too often, those conversations exclude our children of poverty because of the feeling that it obscures issues of race. And as a child of poverty in those conversations, I’ve far too often felt that I had to stop advocating for poor children lest I be seen as part of the problem.

It wasn’t until this year, when a small group of church members tentatively dipped our toes into the turbulent waters of race through the waters of our baptism, that I began to think differently and more hopefully about the future of race in America.

As much as our religious institutions have sometimes perpetuated inequality, change has often begun when people of all faiths come together to challenge injustice. But how do we go beyond the force of power to truly integrate our country?

Perhaps that, too, can begin in our places of worship. I am fortunate to have a more diverse congregation than most in America, though it is still largely white. Perhaps every religious leader in America should begin to ask that question, “If we can’t have these conversations in our houses of worship, then where?” Perhaps every church and every synagogue and every mosque and every temple should seek to begin a conversation with some other, more diverse place of worship across town or even across the country if they have to go that far.

Perhaps congregations that are more diverse, who are having such conversations, should send their fledgling ambassadors into other places just as we send workgroups into places of poverty to rebuild homes. By sharing what happens when we come from a place of love and compassion, perhaps we can encourage others to do the same.

As a nation we are saying many of the same things today that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Almost all of us can quote his dream—our shared dream still in 2016. But in one of the lesser quoted portions of the speech, he said, “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.”

It is time to somehow integrate our places of worship or to at least begin to interact with one another from a place of compassion and love. Because if we can’t end institutional racism in places where we worship a Spirit that has no skin color, then where?