Editor’s note: This week we’re sharing stories of Presbyterian congregations who have answered the invitation from co-moderators Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston to read and discuss “Waking Up White” as a church. Read the series here. Resources, including video clips and a guide for a four-session group study of the book, are available at the GA co-moderators’ website.
Members and friends of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Milwaukee answered the call issued by Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) co-moderators Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston, to read and discuss “Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race” by Debby Irving. During the five Wednesday evenings in Lent, over 50 people gathered to reflect, listen and share about our experiences with racial injustice and white privilege. Each two-hour gathering included a simple Lenten supper of soup and bread, table worship and the Lord’s Supper, and an hour-long time of reflection and conversation about “Waking Up White.”
A historic, downtown congregation in Milwaukee, Immanuel Presbyterian Church is diverse in many ways (family make-up, age, class, sexual orientation), but racially is predominantly white. As Milwaukeeans, many of us are aware of the deep racial divisions in our community, regularly identified as one of the most segregated cities in the United States. Encouraged by this local context, the invitation of our denominational leaders, the self-reflective spirit of Lent and our continued desire to be thoughtful and engaged Christians and citizens, we felt this was a good time for such an important conversation. A key component of our study was following Irving’s guidance to explore our own racial formation. Each participant was given a composition book and invited to begin a racial autobiography. Questions developed by the leaders and taken from the “Waking Up White” PC(USA) study guide helped to guide individual reflection: Who and/or what (e.g., family, friends, teachers, faith community) contributed to your “racial formation”? When you were growing up, what kind of contact did you have with people from different racial backgrounds?
We talked about the importance of moving beyond a simplified “colorblind” outlook on the world in order to understand that being white is a race and that white people need to understand their own racial identity as many of us begin to explore again, or for the first time, the problems of white privilege. Video clips of Debby Irving from a recent TED talk helped to further unpack the content of the book. We discussed the challenge for many white people to come to terms with the fact that sometimes, as Irving says, “we don’t know what we don’t know.” Many participants were surprised to learn about the racial inequity of the post-World War II G.I. Bill and the widely used practice of red-lining in residential real estate that was common throughout the United States in the mid-20th century. Our conversation also included some preliminary discussion of how to faithfully respond to the problems of racial injustice in the context of the church and in our lives together as a community of faith. On our final evening together, we were pleased to be able to share a Skype conversation with PC(USA) co-moderator Jan Edmiston who shared her story of “waking up white” with us and helped us to begin to think about where to take this conversation next.
Perhaps most importantly, as the group evaluated and assessed our time and work together, an overwhelming interest emerged in continuing the conversation, recognizing that we’d just scratched the surface on beginning to understand the struggle for racial justice in our country and in Milwaukee. So, this May, we are already in the midst of taking this conversation deeper by reading and discussing together “Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism” by Drew Hart. We have found that Hart’s work as a young African-American theologian balances Irving’s well. His book has helped us to take this conversation to another level, exploring the culpability of the church in this very real social problem as we consider ways to live our lives as people of faith who answer God’s call to follow Jesus and his witness of justice for all people, especially the marginalized and oppressed.
Rob Ater and Jean Dow are associate pastors at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Milwaukee.