MONTREAT, N.C. – The DisGrace conference, being held this week at Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina, is focused on institutional racism and the church – on “seeking God’s grace amid the disgrace of racism.”
The conference, which has drawn about 400 participants, is a place to explore the dynamics of racism – and the reasons why it’s the work of the church and of people of faith to take on the hard work of confronting racism in all its complexities and manifestations.
Lament. Racism distorts all it touches – “racism has turned us all into small, insignificant selves,” José Morales Jr., director of pastoral formation at Disciples Seminary Foundation in Claremont, California, preached during the conference’s opening worship Oct. 10.
He spoke of how racism kills – black men shot dead on the streets of American cities.
Microaggressions wear down people of color like water dripping on a stone slowly erodes the rock – when their contributions are constantly undervalued or attributed to others; when they’re told to “go back where you came from,” when their families have been U.S. citizens for generations; when they keep being asked “where are you really from?”
He described himself as both Latino and mestizo – of mixed ethnicity, who is sometimes seen as white, seeing through the blurring of those lines how racism plays out in different contexts. In the end, “lament is the only mode through which we can reclaim our authentic selves,” Morales said. Lament “opens us up” – to ourselves, to one another, to the lamenting, redeeming God.”
Confession. Carol Steele, Montreat’s vice-president for program, acknowledged during her welcome to the participants that Montreat hasn’t always been equally welcoming to all. Montreat’s timeline includes realities that are a reason for “shame, sorrow and deep regret,” Steele said – among them, segregation; a protracted resistance to including black youth in leadership schools; a time during World War II when Assembly Inn was used “lawfully and disgracefully to detain German and Japanese families.”
Before that, “this land was revered as sacred by indigenous people, long before white settlers arrived to claim what they believed was theirs,” Steele said.
She acknowledged the scar tissue and the failure to “see the image of God in all.”
Through the years, with different histories, “we have not trod the same roads” at Montreat or elsewhere, Steele said. “Let’s enter each from our own place,” with lamentation and confession, yet “holding fast to God’s intention of us living as one.”
Conversations. The conference started off Oct. 10 with the recognition that the conversations that people of color and whites want and need to have sometimes are different.
So the event began with two sessions held concurrently:
- One,led by Jessica Vazquez Torres, an experienced anti-racism trainer and a peace and justice advocate, was for people of color – to discuss ways in which internalized racism makes solidarity difficult, and also the “ways in which overcoming our collective internalization can help us build solidarity across people of color groups; a solidarity that is restorative for people of color and challenges white supremacy,” the description of her session stated.
- The other, led by
J. C. Austin, vice-president for Christian leadership formation at Auburn Theological Seminary, dealt with white fragility – described as the resistance of many whites “to the idea that they benefit from and participate in racially unjust social systems, even if they reject racism as individuals.”
An Outlook reporter, who is white, sat in on the white fragility session. Many white pastors want to address racial injustice – but don’t feel equipped to do so, Austin said. Some congregations resist the subject completely. Austin said he spoke to one pastor who told him that “I feel like I’m abandoning my calling” by not directly speaking of racism in church, but who said “I also know I have to pay for my kid to go to college. I don’t think I can do both. I don’t think my congregation will let me do both.”
Many whites, Austin said, think of racism as a problem of individuals, not systems. As this thinking goes, systems can’t be racist; good people can’t be racist; and “if my intentions aren’t racist, my words and actions can’t be racist,” Austin said.
“For most white folks, whiteness is not understood as a racial construct,” he said. “Whiteness is understood as normative, normal, standard, universal.”
So when people of color contend that racism is at play, often “white people get angry very fast,” or shut down, he said. “The reason for that is a sense that as an individual, I’m a good person. I don’t mean to do wrong. And you’re lumping me in with a Klansman or neo-Nazi.”
Austin explained that racism doesn’t have to involve intention – it’s systemic, where one group is lifted up to the disadvantage of others. To work, it doesn’t need the overt complicity or even the awareness of those who benefit from it.
What’s known as “white fragility” is the reaction often evoked when those dynamics are called out – when whites react defensively in anger; in silence or silencing those who want to confront racism; in minimizing or contesting examples of racism that are pointed out, asking “why are you playing the race card?”
Austin pointed out examples from popular culture – such as when some criticize the Netflix series “Luke Cage” for having a virtually all-black cast. In response, someone posted on Twitter that “anyone who complains that Luke Cage is racist has never seen an episode of Friends.”
Some fiercely criticized gymnast Gabby Douglas, who is black, for not putting her hand over her heart while the national anthem was played during an Olympics awards ceremony. But photos showed white male athletes doing exactly the same – and they escaped the wrath, Austin said.
Why does this matter to the church? The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is more than 90 percent white, while non-Hispanic whites make up only about 63 percent of the U.S. population, he said. And there are theological resources that can help people of faith as they have these conversations – including:
- The doctrine of original sin – “human beings cannot create systems or structures that are free from imperfection or sin.”
- The doctrine of total depravity – “there is no part of our lives that is not tainted by the reality of sin.”
- The litany of confession – “it’s about telling truth. It’s about being honest….Confession is telling the truth about ourselves” and “only at that point can we start talking about reconciliation.”
Austin then spent time exploring how mostly white congregations can take on this work – beginning with the process of using storytelling as a tool for confession. He broke the crowd up into pairs and had them discuss this question: “Tell a story about a time, any time, in which race was a significant factor in an experience you had.”
Other possible discussion questions:
- What are your earliest memories related to race?
- As a child, what were you taught about how to relate to people of different races? What did you learn that you weren’t explicitly taught?
- What experiences with racial identity did you have in middle and high school? What about college or early adulthood?
- What experiences have you had in your life with being in the racial minority? What emotion did you have during and after those experiences? If you have none, why do you think that is?
- How often is your race a factor in how you are treated in your daily life? What are some examples of how that happens?
Austin said he’s learned with these exercises that people will engage in these conversations, and “it can go pretty deep, pretty fast.”
And his word to congregations is “this isn’t an optional extra,” something churches can do if they have extra time or money. “These are hard conversations,” he told the DisGrace participants. “You showed up. You were willing to participate. I’m really grateful for that.”