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Trouble the Waters: One congregation’s year-long focus on racial justice

2.14. 2017 Written By: Joel Miller 681 Times read

Joel Miller is Pastor of Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite Church. For more reflections on Mennonites, race and faith, check out the February issue of The Mennonite magazine. 

In the fall of 2015, a group of leaders in our congregation sat down to discuss a question: What do we need to be talking about and might this serve as a theme throughout the coming year?

After naming our context and sharing from our own lives, we reached a clear consensus: We need to be talking about race. We need to be talking about racism and the work of anti-racism.

This answer immediately raised other questions. How does a congregation do this well? Can a predominantly white congregation have a sustained focus on race without making non-white members overly visible or invisible? Will people get tired of focusing on racial justice for an entire year? Is this already an example of privilege that we can opt in or out of confronting racism? When the year is up, will we integrate anti-racism principles into how we do church or will we simply move on to another topic? Am I, as a pastoral leader, ready to engage in what one of my seminary professors referred to as “doing theology by the seat of your pants?” Where do we even begin?

Lent came early in 2016, a season of confession. It was a place to start.

One tradition of our congregation is to have different members write a meditation each day of the Lenten season, sent out through email. Rather than general reflections, we invited people to tell a story about their own experience of race. What were you taught about race growing up? When did you first realize you were white or brown? When did you give or receive your first racial slur? People’s willingness to address these questions opened up a conversation that is still going.

Our Worship Commission settled on “Trouble the waters” as a Lenten worship theme. Along with referencing the words of the African-American spiritual, which we sang in different styles throughout the season, the phrase was intended to name that we were intentionally opting in to the troubled waters of racial consciousness.

I invited members to sign up to reflect with me on the lectionary texts over meals at our house. We discussed the passages for the coming Sunday through a racial and personal lens. An example: The temptations of Jesus in the wilderness took on new depth as we viewed them through the filter of white privilege, as temptations to live out a distorted kind of power. One person around the table noted that he had done plenty of foolish things in his life akin to Jesus hurling himself off the pinnacle of the temple. He wondered if it was his whiteness that had been his ‘angel’ protecting him from social injury, giving him second and third chances. To paraphrase Psalm 91: “He will command his lawyers concerning you, to protect you.” I included comments and insights like this in Lenten sermons.

An early sign that this theme was troubling the water in a constructive way came when several parents reported that their young children were starting to ask questions at home about racism.

During the winter and spring, a group of us studied the first 20 chapters of Exodus, with attention to how the Hebrews’ liberation from slavery was paralleled by the African-American experience, and how Black Christianity has weaved the Exodus story into its own identity. We pondered the civil disobedience of the Hebrew midwives, the bi-cultural consciousness of Moses, the interpretive history associating the Egyptians giving their gold and silver to the fleeing Hebrews with the concept of reparations, just payment for stolen labor.

We noted that the Egyptian word “Pharaoh” means “The big house,” a remarkable connection to the residence of elite American slave masters. Every time the word “Pharaoh” appeared in the text, we read “the big house” instead.

During the summer and fall, we invited several leaders working at racial justice in our community to speak with us during and after worship and invite us into their work.

On Labor Day weekend, we canceled the worship service in our own building and encouraged members to worship with predominantly African-American congregations throughout the city. We created an annotated list of these congregations we already had a relational connection with and encouraged people to sign up for limited slots so a bunch of white people wouldn’t overwhelm any single church. We heard positive testimonies of these visits during later sharing times.

In September, a 13 year old black boy named Tyre King was shot and killed by a Columbus police officer a few miles from our church. Had this happened in a previous year, I’m not sure our congregation would have felt connected to the incident. But because we had already been speaking the names of black folks who have died at the hands of police, it felt natural and vital that our worship include a lament for the King family. Along with this, a member spoke up challenging us to build better ties with local police officers.

In the fall our worship theme was: “From colorblindness to racial consciousness to anti-racism and racial justice.” One Sunday, our bulletin cover had a 1930’s map of redlined neighborhoods in Columbus. During that era, these neighborhoods of mostly black folks were considered too risky to receive home and business loans. We noted that our church building is located in a historic ‘green’ area, receiving preferential treatment for such loans, and that today this area remains a financially flourishing neighborhood.

We told the story of the 1969 Black Manifesto, and its demands for reparations from white congregations. We listened to older members who had memory of how the Black Manifesto was received in various Mennonite settings.

Throughout the fall, into December, we had two Sunday school classes addressing racism, including a book study of Drew Hart’s Trouble I’ve Seen which speaks directly to the church. The final session included a comment from a participant saying that black lives must matter for our congregation in 2017 as well. Another participant requested a follow up class in the new year to go deeper into the social construction of whiteness.

Along with Drew Hart’s writing, some other books I found helpful throughout the year were Dear White Christians, by Jennifer Harvey; Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates; and Racial Formation in the United States by Michael Omi and Howard Winant.

It was a very important year for our congregation, but it hasn’t been easy. We are all at different places, and the way we approached the year did not resonate with everyone.

Personally, the year succeeded in troubling my own waters in ways I didn’t anticipate. I often felt off balance, behind the learning curve, and angered at what my blinded eyes were finally starting to see. I feel the need to listen more to people of color, even as I recognize that my own work will mostly be with fellow white people.

I have been encouraged by a number of testimonies of transformation from congregational members, some of them prefaced with how hesitant they were initially to have such a theme throughout a whole year. I’m amazed by the informal conversations, and concrete actions, that this year produced. It has given us permission to talk about race and confess our blindness, and anger, to each other.

I’m grateful at the ways different people responded in ways that helped others of us along, like the church member who decided to buy 50 “Black Lives Matter” yard signs and make them available at the church. When I asked her what she was charging, she said there was no charge, that everyone can do something, and this was one thing she was doing. We ran out of signs, partly because some neighbors around the church started asking for them.

The further this year went along, the more it seemed unconscionable to ‘move on’ from a struggle in which people of color do not have the privilege of opting out.

As I write this at the end of 2016, there are two sweet images in my mind. One occurred last evening, as 50 or so people from our congregation hosted a community “Carol Sing for Justice” on the corner of a busy intersection by our church. We sang familiar Christmas carols in the cold, and held up signs made by our youth Sunday school class reading, “Jesus was a refugee,” “No peace without justice,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Christmas to do list: Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.” Cars at the stop light rolled down their windows to listen and look, many giving a thumbs up or honk.

The second image is sitting right in front of me on my desk. A pastor friend has been relating with
Tyre King’s family. He invited the young people of our congregation to write Christmas cards to Tyre’s mother and sisters, experiencing their first Christmas without Tyre. I’m looking at the stack of cards filled with signatures, notes and drawings from young Mennonites. I am both sorrowful for the loss of a young black boy whose life mattered just as much as any teenager in our congregation, and honored that we can be a small part of the story of healing in our community.

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