MONTREAT, N.C. – About 400 people are expected to attend the DisGRACE Conference Oct. 10-13 at the Montreat Conference Center – a gathering focused on structural racism in the church and in American culture.
Among the speakers will be:
- Melissa Harris-Perry, a writer and political commentator, editor-at-large at Elle.com, a professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University and a former television show host on MSNBC.
- Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies, and graduate chair of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Butler is the author of “Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World.
- Soon-Chan Rah, an associate professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. Rah was the founding senior pastor of the multiethnic Cambridge Community Fellowship Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The conference will begin with two opening sessions held simultaneously.
- For people of color, Jessica Vazquez Torres, an experienced anti-racism trainer and a peace and justice advocate, will lead a session on 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 states.
- For those who are white, J. C. Austin, vice-president for Christian leadership formation at Auburn Theological Seminary, will lead a session on 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.” The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) “has both a long history of commitment to racial justice and a national membership that remains over 90% white, which makes this problem particularly pressing for us.”
Participants also will have the opportunity to take part in workshops October 11 and 12.
The DisGRACE conference is in some ways a thematic sequel to the powerful gathering at Montreat last summer called “Dr. King’s Unfinished Agenda: A Teach-in for Rededicating Ourselves to the Dream,” which drew about 1,000 people to the mountains of North Carolina. That gathering – held on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to Montreat in 1965 – raised up questions about what inequalities still exist, what work still is undone, and what Presbyterians need to do about that.
The focus of the DisGRACE conference is consider what’s “a faithful response to the embedded and structural racism in church and culture?” the Montreat website states. “Grounded in worship, truth-telling, confession, and collaboration, we move from disgrace towards solidarity.”
Carol Steele, Montreat’s vice-president for program, said via email that:
“Almost two years ago, when our planning team was moved to plan a conference on racism, the need seemed urgent; the topic was on each person’s mind daily as headlines told the stories of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and that’s no less the case today. Racism is a cause of deep pain and separation among God’s people, and our faith requires us to respond. The Unfinished Agenda conference last August was planned as a 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s address in Montreat. DisGRACE is part of our series of annual conferences for church leaders.”
The organizers chose the title DisGRACE “because it has in that one word both race, grace, and it’s encapsulated by disgrace,” said Tanner Pickett, Montreat’s vice-president for sales, marketing and communications. “When we started talking about the fact that structural racism continues to affect our church, that’s the word that kept speaking to us.”
Steele wrote that in the planning, “the word started to become emblematic of how the concepts are tied together, and how if you look, you can find signs of God’s grace amid the disgrace of racism.”
The idea for DisGRACE actually started taking root in early 2015, before the Unfinished Agenda conference convened, Pickett said. “There are a lot of people who are just longing to have this conversation in honest ways,” he said.
At an early planning event, several people discussed how “often times people of color would meet in smaller groups outside of a larger event like this. A lot of times they were having really great conversations about structural racism…What we wanted to do was to give those conversations the main stage.”