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.
Ryan Landino is the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Geneseo, Illinois, a predominantly white congregation in the Presbytery of Great Rivers. Lisa M. López is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Hanover Park, Illinois, a multi-ethnic congregation in the suburbs of Chicago. When they learned that they were both planning book studies of “Waking Up White” during the season of Lent, they decided to experiment with a cross-study pen-pal relationship. Members from a group studying the book in Geneseo wrote open letters to Hanover Park members and vice versa. Often this took the form of a “question of the week” that each church’s group members were be invited to respond to (such as: “What does it mean to be of my race?” “What is my personal stake here?” “What am I finding most challenging at this time?” “What do I hope to do with this moving forward?”). These are their reflections on the experience.
Our small church, like our small town, is 98.5 percent white. A half-dozen members, all white, answered the invitation to join the book study. Because many of us had never even spoken intentionally about race before, we needed to learn how and practice.
In addition to sharing verbally, we used the opportunity to write letters with the Hanover Park church as a way to help us practice articulating our reflections through journaling and letter writing. We needed help recognizing that racism does indeed affect our lives, so the value of our group’s discussion really became clear when we began receiving letters from the other group. We read, signed by name, reflections of other white folks vulnerably revealing how they too were wrestling with how racism affected them. We witnessed the stark reality of racism from people of color, in their own words, in their own handwriting.
There was enough distance that many of us felt we could take more risks in sharing our growing areas, and we were getting to know other group members enough that we were forming relationships, which reminded us of what was at stake in our discussion. As we delved deeper, we became empowered to name our “bubble,” and our format exposed us to other life experiences, some of which we have been long disconnected from, consciously or unconsciously. So what may have been seen initially as a “pastor’s choice” book study became, with the help of our Hanover Park partners, our first steps into a larger, ongoing discovery. We continue taking these steps in conversation, Bible study, sermons and in connecting with the community beyond our bubble.
When the Christian education team at our small church invited all members to read “Waking Up White” during Lent, the reactions varied greatly. Some members were eager to engage with the book, hoping to find a way to have meaningful conversations about race, while others whether the author’s reflections could say anything they had not already learned through painful personal experience.
About 20 of our members decided the best way for them to engage would be to read the book independently, but a diverse group of approximately a dozen others (including white, Asian, black and Latino congregants) decided to take the plunge into joining a weekly book-study that also exchanged letters with the group from Geneseo.
Through the duration of this study, the group discovered that its diversity was both its challenge and its strength. At times there was a sense of loneliness in the endeavor, as participants discovered that their own perspectives and experiences (of privilege or marginalization) were not always shared or understood by the others. Some wrestled with feelings of helplessness and shame, though others experienced the relief that comes from finally being heard. It was the sharing of stories and perspectives with one another, as well as sharing those stories and perspectives in the letters sent to the members in Geneseo, that proved to be transformational. Each week the world seemed to expand slightly for each of those participating in both the study and the letter writing. A deep curiosity began to pervade the group meetings, and soon participants were asking what we could do together to help bring about a future where racism is a thing of the past.
Even though the study has ended, it has been my joy to see that the engagement continues. The experience gave us new language and awareness of the world, and some members of the study have taken their learnings into conversations with their families and work colleagues. There they are sparking new conversations about race, privilege and what it may take to dismantle the oppressive system of racism.
Members from the First Presbyterian Church of Geneseo and Christ Presbyterian Church in Hanover Park were able to break bread together last Sunday, June 25, 2017, for a time of further reflection on their shared experience. It was a gathering filled with learning and hope.
RYAN LANDINO is the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Geneseo, Illinois. LISA M. LÓPEZ is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Hanover Park, Illinois.