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.
“That was a beautiful sermon. Thank you,” Janet said to me, as I stood greeting after worship. Then she caught herself. “I guess ‘beautiful’ isn’t quite the right word. Moving. Powerful.” These were the kinds of comments I got used to hearing each week during Lent. Worship and church school were moving, challenging and powerful. They certainly were not comfortable or uplifting.
Back in January, in coordination with some of our congregational leadership, we began to plan for a Lenten focus on racism. During the season of self-examination and repentance, we were invited to examine ourselves and repent of the many ways in which we are complicit in systems of racism and white supremacy.
Members were encouraged to purchase and use the “Lenten Reflections of the Confession of Belhar” for daily study. Each Sunday we used a portion of the confession in worship, covering the entire resource by Easter. We chose to follow the recommendation of co-moderators Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston in using “Waking Up White” as a primary text for our topical adult church school class. Each week, the liturgy, music, art, and sermon all kept racism front and center.
Using the lectionary readings each week, I preached about “waking up,” using the texts of Genesis and the wilderness temptations of Jesus, and the charge to “go” beyond our comfort zones, following the examples of Abram and Nicodemus. The Israelites in Exodus and the Samaritan woman at the well pointed us toward “troubled water.” We looked at ways in which we are “blind,” dead like dry bones, and “bound” like Lazarus. As we looked at the road “from palms to passion,” we asked what we are actually willing to sacrifice, how far we are willing to travel on the path to true justice and equity for all. (All sermon manuscripts are available on the church website.)
As a preacher, it amazed me each week to see how perfectly the sermon preceded the church school class that continued and amplified the same themes. Our gifted teachers, Hannah Facknitz and David Carothers, pulled in many other voices to be in conversation with Debby Irving and our overall Lenten focus. Nell Painter, Ibram X. Kendi, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Verna Myers, Christopher Michael and others were our adjunct faculty. We extended the focus for a few more weeks in order to provide time to watch the Netflix documentary “13th.” It was too much every week, and yet not nearly enough at the same time.
Two of our members grew up a stone’s throw from Debby Irving’s hometown, and could easily relate to her early years. One member voiced the opposite sentiment: Her own upbringing had been much less comfortable, and so it was hard to relate, and yet she found the discussion questions and other observations helpful.
Our church in Virginia was founded 54 years ago, and racial reconciliation was an early concern and commitment of the congregation. One of our elders recalled that the first church school class he and his wife attended back in the 1970s when they first moved here was about racism. The founding pastor who worships here faithfully each week grappled with his own sense of failure. How is it that so little has really changed?
“Waking Up White” was a helpful starting point for many in our very predominantly white congregation to begin or continue to learn about white privilege. It was a good place for many of us to begin the deeper work of self-examination and repentance that must precede the harder work of seeking justice and reconciliation. We struggled aloud with the tension of centering this work around ourselves as white people with not asking or expecting people of color to come in and fix us, to come and expend their time, physical, emotional and spiritual labor to help us wake up.
Perhaps the obvious question is: What we do now? We must keep waking up, and pay attention to what is happening in our country today, particularly around mass incarceration and the criminalization and killing of black bodies. We need to continue to repent, and continue to do the difficult work of confronting and fighting off the cancer of racism and the places where it has metastasized in our bodies, our communities and our political and social structures. We need to be as ready and willing to march for black lives as we are to rally for women’s rights. I will continue to preach about racism and name white supremacy from the pulpit, and we will keep the conversation going. It’s a starting point, but an important one.
Our congregation is a founding member of an interfaith group, Faith in Action. As one of our members spoke to their staff person, they discussed what the church had been studying. As a result, the covenant congregation leadership team will be reading “Waking Up White” this summer, and then they will follow up with anti-racism training in the fall. As I talk to other community leaders, I’m encouraged to hear how many of them have heard about this focus and have been inspired to follow.
The first Sunday of Lent, after greeting Janet and agreeing that my sermon hadn’t been exactly “beautiful,” I sat in the back of the church school class, watching and listening for reactions. Would this be too much, too fast, even for our progressive congregation? Would members be willing to dig deep to meet the challenge? Would attendance drop from week to week as people avoided another depressing morning at church? Thankfully, that first week, I was reinforced by my sisters, Denise and Jan, as they underscored on video why it was so important for us to be doing this work. I’m grateful beyond words to both of them for the energy, intelligence, imagination and love that they have poured into the church through their service. I’m grateful for this challenge and the resources they have helped to create and support, and for the prophetic voices they continue to use to call the church to repentance and action. I pray that other congregations, presbyteries and groups take up the mantle and continue the important work.
STEPHANIE SORGE WING is pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia.