While the intensity of the street protests in Ferguson, Missouri, burns hotter on some nights, calmer on others, the sense that serious and sustained attention needs to be paid to matters of race relations and injustice in this country has not died down. Presbyterians are struggling to figure out how a mostly-white denomination can talk honestly about race and about what they can do in their own communities about issues such as police violence and the disproportionate incarceration of young black men.
After Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson August 9, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) issued a statement calling for peace and prayer – a statement that some Presbyterians publicly contended didn’t go nearly far enough.
When that statement was released, “it took only a few minutes for concerns, comments and disappointment to come from across the church,” wrote Larissa Kwong Abazia, a pastor and vice-moderator of the 2014 General Assembly. “Were we really asking people to trust law enforcement officials and the justice system at a time when some of the same individuals participated in Michael Brown’s death and proceeding events? Did we avoid naming ‘racism’ and stop short from calling our denomination to hands-on, immediate action? Was it possible for us to have used so many words to say so little?
“As the only person of color named at the bottom of the letter, I felt even more responsible for what many called a lackluster response published over a week after Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson,” she wrote. “Others, my good friends and colleagues included, wanted more from me. I wanted more from me.”
Abazia began collecting blog posts, sermons and resources from around the PC(USA) and the nation. And in the weeks since Ferguson, the conversation and questions continue to percolate: What conversations do Presbyterians need to have about race? In their communities, what can people of faith do?
J. Herbert Nelson II, director of the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness, called on Presbyterians to go beyond position papers and become involved in the struggle for racial justice in their communities by getting involved in public advocacy on issues such as gun violence and systemic inequities.
Some advocates are organizing a Weekend of Resistance in St. Louis Oct. 10-13, planning marches, rallies, hip hop shows, civil disobedience and prayer – and inviting faith leaders to participate.
Nelson will go to First Presbyterian Church in Ferguson on Oct. 18, for a conversation among Presbyterians about race in St. Louis. The theme of the next Ecumenical Advocacy Days, which will be held in Washington D.C. April 17-20, will be mass incarceration, including issues of race and poverty, according to Mark Koenig, who leads the PC(USA)’s United Nations Office.
As Presbyterians, “most often our preference has been to wait for General Assembly statements or involvement from other entities of the denomination to provide litanies, prayers, and words of confession or healing,” Nelson wrote. “However, it is imperative that local congregations not remain silent and idle amid community strife. Nor can we be out of touch with the realities of racism, which still exist in the United States.”
Once-a-year pulpit exchanges or celebrating Racial Justice Sunday isn’t enough, Nelson wrote. “Churches must provide a moral compass for the nation by getting outside their buildings, engaging in their communities, and shaping public policies that will move our whole nation towards justice, peace, and reconciliation for all people.”
The PC(USA) has provided resources for Presbyterians to use in antiracism training – including General Assembly policy statements, study guides, videos and more.
Sera Chung, the denomination’s associate for gender and racial justice, told members of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board at the board’s fall meeting that committing to truth and reconciliation “calls for a lot of self-reflection.” A policy statement from the 1999 General Assembly, “Facing Racism: A Vision of the Beloved Community,” recognizes racism as sin – a spiritual problem, Chung said. A new module that’s being written for inclusion in the denomination’s anti-racism training materials will deal explicitly with white privilege, Chung said.
“It’s exceptionally difficult” to have a conversation about racism in a church that’s roughly 90 percent white and sometimes not socioeconomically diverse,” said Molly Casteel, the PC(USA)’s coordinator of representation, inclusiveness and ruling elder training. Cultural proficiency “really is about dealing with differences, all kinds of differences in cultures,” Casteel said in an interview. “Cultural proficiency is a process. You are discovering about yourself, and also about the system and the larger society.”
So what can local congregations do? Pastors can preach on racism and injustice. Presbyterians can talk intentionally about race and class issues, educate themselves, get involved in community efforts and build relationships with people from other ethnicities and economic groups.
“I hear so often from folks, ‘My whole congregation is white and my neighborhood is white, and what kind of conversations can we have?’ ” Abrazia said in an interview. “What I have heard since Ferguson – and even before that – is a desire for ongoing conversation. For people who experience racism, it’s an everyday occurrence. Whether we want to think about it or not, we have to,” even if a particular congregation doesn’t reflect the diversity of the country, which is expected to be majority nonwhite by 2043.
Journalist Bill Tammeus wrote in a column for the National Catholic Reporter that his congregation, Second Presbyterian in Kansas City, is bringing in a speaker from the local police department; hopes to have its book discussion group read a book about mass incarceration; and is checking into resources to use for conversations about race-based privilege.
By encouraging intentional conversations on difficult issues of race and class, churches can provide “that safe place” for honest conversation and encourage people to become critical thinkers, Abazia said. She also urges Presbyterians “to stand on the side of justice, to really use our voice and our power and our desire to be peacemakers to seek justice in a positive way and a vocal way.”
Carol DeVaughan, pastor of Florissant Presbyterian Church in suburban St. Louis (not far from Ferguson), wrote in a church newsletter that “the tragedy in Ferguson with the ensuing unrest has been a really uncomfortable time for all of us. As neighbors and as Christians, we feel the compulsion to ‘do something.’ And many positive ideas have been proposed: financial support for the St. Louis Area Foodbank to ensure meals for children who had a delayed school start; items to be donated to area food pantries; eating out at Ferguson restaurants; shopping at Ferguson stores.”
“All of these are good ideas, but represent a temporary response. The larger and harder issue for all of us is to work toward long-term justice, equality, and a better relationship between all residents of the area, without regard to racial ethnicity. That might mean working to establish an ongoing dialogue with those who are not like us. It certainly means educating ourselves on issues and making sure to vote. It means fervent and constant prayer. It means an openness within our own hearts and minds that we may not always be ‘right.’
“As we begin this new program year in the church, let’s be intentional about being Christ’s light and witness to our community.”
At the fall meeting, two committees of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board blocked out some time on their agendas to talk about race – including watching a TED Talks presentation by lawyer Bryan Stevenson entitled “We need to talk about an injustice.” After the video, the first efforts to initiate a discussion felt a little awkward – the conversation was slow to start.
When the hard subjects of race relations are introduced, “the silence is what is deafening,” said Mark S. Jones Sr. from the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns, acknowledging the discomfort.
“Is it that we don’t believe the statistics? Do we think that what is being said is not true? And if we do believe there is this huge gap and this huge injustice, is the task so overwhelming that we don’t want to be uncomfortable enough to challenge it?”
Often, these conversations will be uncomfortable, Jones said. “If you aren’t doing what Jesus calls you to do, if you aren’t uncomfortable, then the gospel isn’t at work in your life . . . Just be courageous enough to say what you are thinking. That is the beginning of the conversation.”
Kevin Yoho, the general presbyter of Newark Presbytery, encouraged Presbyterians not just to have these congregations inside their own walls (at a church or presbytery meeting) but out in the public square. Convene a community conversation; invite local leaders and the neighborhood.
While conversations within congregations matter, “doing it outside the church is better,” he said. “The impact will be far greater.”
Yoho also wrote this on his blog: “We need to demonstrate, not just articulate, our solidarity with those who suffer. Being present in the public square is not only an obligation every churches should fulfill, it is a mandate to earn once again the right to be heard which many churches have taken for granted in communities all across America. We speak, but we are not heard. We pray, but we are not present. We act, but we have little impact. The city can’t be blessed if the church is under a dome, isolated from the community.”
Ask the people of Ferguson who they trust, Yoho wrote.
Also: ask what the church is doing.
What the people of Ferguson think matters.
What they want.
Ask who shows up.