Almost every day now someone asks me "What can we do?" to fix the systemic and deeply ingrained problems of racism in our country and in our community. I struggle to give an answer that provides for any kind of easy solution.
Because there is no easy solution.
This work is hard. It takes time and sustained commitment by the people who do it to learn, change, confess and rebuild together.
The primary reason this work is hard, and the reason this work often falls short, is because we have to be willing (especially as white people) to say that our lives - personally, communally, professionally - will have to change in ways that we do not understand at the beginning of the work.
Over 20 years ago when I attended seminary, I went out of my way to choose a school that prioritized racial, ethnic and cultural diversity. I spent more time reading the theological and biblical scholarship of people of color and the global church than I did John Calvin or Carl Barth. There was no English language proficiency requirement to enroll, which meant we had a significant number of international students from Africa, Central America and Asia who also attended classes where we talked about what it means to be the church. The majority of students at my seminary were not even Presbyterian, so our conversations about ministry were not limited to my cultural experience of Mainline Christianity.
And yet we still struggled mightily with issues of race, racism and white supremacy. Tensions were always present between the young white students who mostly lived on campus - often right out of college or a volunteer ministry to the church - and the older second-career black students who commuted to the campus on the south side of Chicago and who were more likely balancing part-time classes with full-time work. There were tensions between the primarily black administrative staff and the primarily white faculty.
During my time there, issues of racism within our community were so prevalent that a small group of faculty, students and staff were asked to meet together regularly and to lead the seminary through hard conversations on these issues. I was asked to be a part of that group. Even with the benefit of a renowned multicultural and diversity expert brought in to teach us the skills to have these conversations together and move forward as a community, our efforts made little impact.
I vividly remember as a student in my early 20’s the moment of realization that broke me out of my white naiveté on this issue. We could have hundreds of open and honest conversations on these issues, but if folks were not actually willing to change their behavior, their habits, their expectations, their way of being in the world, nothing would ever be different.
The people of privilege were actually going to need to let go of their privilege - and not just on the days we had conversations on race and diversity, but every day.
Every day into the future, people whose lives were relatively easy compared to our black and brown colleagues, were going to have to be open to their lives being harder.
We could no longer move through the world ignoring race, retreating back into our uncomplicated lives as white people when we needed a break from the reality of our black and brown friends and co-workers.
The only way our community was going to change was if people were willing to change.
Twenty years later, I can see how obvious that statement is, but it is still the barrier to doing this work well.
If you ask me today “What can we do?” I will tell you that we can enter into this complicated and hard work together, willing to stay engaged when it gets messy, to examine our own selves and the ways our particular community works with radical honesty, and to be open to permanently letting go of the privilege and authority that we take for granted, while at the same time claiming our voices as individuals and as a congregation to lead others into this work.
None of us have any idea yet the scope of changes this will require of us.
I hope you are able to be engaged in this work with us this Sunday afternoon, June 14, as we gather over 100 people from our congregation and larger community to talk through the complexities of racism and our understanding of chattel slavery and emancipation in our country. Information about the Juneteenth Webinar can be found here.
This is the work to which we have been clearly called as a white Christian community.
It is work that will be hard, especially if we are willing to be transformed by it for good.