Anti-racism Resources For Congregational Use
Race continues to play a role in national politics and social media. When does it end? How can we become a more inclusive, inviting community for all?
I am a middle-class white woman living in the U.S. I have a husband, 3 kids, a mortgage, and student loans. So why am I writing an article about anti-racism resources for churches? It’s simple. I’m part of the human community. And when any in the human community is suffering, we all suffer.
More than that, being white affords me a voice in ways I would not enjoy if I were any other color or culture. I can keep my mouth shut and pretend it’s not my problem. Or I can use my voice to speak on behalf of those who are systematically silenced.
So, listen up – it’s time to speak up. Here are some tools for you to get started in your faith community.
What is Racism?
According to the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) webpage on racism,
“Racism is the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another, that a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics. Racial separatism is the belief, most of the time based on racism, that different races should remain segregated and apart from one another.”
Anecdotally, racism is assuming a black man is more likely to be guilty of a crime than a white man. It is believing Asians are secretly trying to undermine American society by out-performing in the arenas of science and technology.
It is resenting Mexicans for taking “our” jobs. It is also refraining from asking questions and opening dialogs with those different from us out of fear of judgment. It is fearing to speak out against microaggressions we witness or engage in daily– clutching our purses when passing a black man or complimenting an Asian on her English skills.
Racism exists on a long spectrum of attitudes and behaviors that ultimately undermine human community.
Dehumanization of Others
Human beings are fundamentally wired not to harm other human beings. We react to such violence with a deep-seated horror and cannot force ourselves to engage in such atrocities. How then, do such horrific offenses such as torture, rape, or murder occur? To override our wiring, we dehumanize others.
When they are no longer human, we can engage in unimaginable cruelties.
This process of dehumanization begins to instill an “us vs. them” mentality. When groups of like-minded people start acting on their competitive ideologies, retribution and hostility ramp up, and a cycle of violence grows in intensity.
There are no winners in such a war.
Racism is an outcome of dehumanization. When we establish “us vs. them” mentalities along racial lines, we find it tolerable to engage in acts of racism, small and large. We can work personally, communally, and globally to keep certain races in poverty, imprisoned, and persecuted out of self-righteous arrogance.
How is Racism Expressed in our Congregations?
It has become increasingly popular to strive toward integration of cultures within Christian communities.
Despite good intentions, the effort often comes with challenges and obstacles. Churches that try to incorporate elements that appeal to a variety of cultures and backgrounds still struggle to attract and maintain diverse congregations. And in the past year, congregations that had achieved some level of diversity have begun to lose their multi-racial communities.
Some even question whether we ought to be striving for multi-cultural communities at all.
Racism is an outcome of dehumanization. When we establish “us vs. them” mentalities along racial lines, we find it tolerable to engage in acts of racism, small and large.
At the Heart of the Matter
Awareness and Acceptance
One of the most powerful tools toward combating racism is acknowledging racism inside ourselves. None of us wants to admit we are racist, but refusing to do so further limits our ability to change. Accepting that we have biases is the first step toward overcoming them.
But racism isn’t only an individual problem. Accepting that our congregations also have biases is also necessary toward changing the culture.
A Silent Church
One of the most insidious problems with the church’s involvement in racism is its silence. Whether it is a genuine lack of empathy or a fear of speaking about something we know little about, pulpits are notoriously void of candid, hard conversations about race – especially when it comes to calling out the racism within its own walls.
Churches may be reluctant to speak about issues of race, fearing they’re entering a political arena. Speaking on political topics can be tricky, especially when it is against the law for a non-profit organization to “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
But racism isn’t just a political issue, it’s a human rights issue. And Jesus spoke openly about both human rights and political issues. He refused to be silent and charged us with the task of speaking up, even when it’s uncomfortable. If we don’t know what to say, then begin by asking questions.
We can talk with the people in our congregations that bring the most diversity. We can talk with those outside our congregations that have wisdom to share. We can talk personally with people we trust the most, speaking our most guarded truths – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Once they’re out there, we can finally begin to deal with them.
"We’ve Always Done It That Way"
Also plaguing struggling congregations is the oft-unspoken unwillingness to change. Congregations have favorite hymns, established worship settings, and a familiar vibe. Congregations don’t want to learn new music or recite litanies that feel unfamiliar. They don’t want to add multi-cultural dancing (or any dancing, for that matter) into their services. They don’t want to be called out from the pulpit. They don’t want to replace their white images of Jesus with images that are Jewish, black, Asian, female, or anything else.
Churches want to grow, but not at the expense of change. When members of churches talk about growing the church, what they often mean is they want more people just like them. But when new families with noisy kids interrupt the tranquility of a pensive worship service, members start over-advertising their spacious nurseries.
When gay couples arrive, they are welcomed with overbearing and nervous members wanting to make sure everyone knows they are progressive (even if inside they are squirming). When people of color show up, churches jump to put them on committees and councils to show how diverse they are, but they continue to hire white pastors.
Change is hard. But it’s also necessary to the survival of the church. Jesus’ entire ministry was founded on the necessity for change. Jesus gave his Holy Spirit to guide in the transformation. We don’t have to change drastically overnight to achieve grand consequences. Even a willingness to make small changes can propel a church forward toward genuine, lasting, transformational change.
Some congregations also battle with power struggles – when big donors or members with large followings want to keep conversations of racism out of the church, it can be daunting to oppose them openly. There may be fear that angering or losing those members could be detrimental to the congregation in the long run. It may seem prudent to remain silent or speak ambiguously about racism.
But power struggles are a normal (if not unfortunate) part of leading a church. Disagreements don’t necessarily mean the church will split or suffer. Even if a church does suffer consequences for speaking out against racism, the reality is that churches and individuals suffer greatly from not speaking out. Churches cannot let people with power (perceived or real) to dictate the course of a congregation’s trajectory.
Courage and Heart
To combat racism within ourselves and our congregations will take courage and heart. “I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:4-14) When God is with us, there is nothing we cannot accomplish.
Resources for your congregation to actively combat racism:
Films & Other Anti-racism Articles
Dr. Kimberly "Kace" Leetch the founder of Clergy Stuff, a provider of Narrative Lectionary worship resources and the parent company of RCL Worship Resources. Her goal in her work life is to provide resources for clergy to make their ministries cooler, easier, and funner. Yes, she means funner. She lives with her family in Bloomington, Minnesota.