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Collaborative peacemaking: Suggestions for congregations

When University of Kentucky students took to the streets last spring after their basketball team lost in the Final Four – lighting fires, flipping over cars, damaging property – some news reports described them them as rowdy students, not a mob.

When people took the streets in Baltimore last spring to protest the death of Freddie Gray in police custody – lighting fires, flipping over cars, damaging property – news reports depicted them as dangerous and violent.

Blake Collins (center) talking with a Big Tent participant.
Blake Collins (center) talking with a Big Tent participant.

In the portrayals of the Kentucky fans, “these students are not violent criminals,” said Blake Collins, a mission engagement specialist for the Young Adult Volunteer Program, showing a photograph of a young white man taking a selfie with a police officer in riot gear. “These students are armed with beer and bravado.”

Collins showed another photograph of a smiling young Kentucky fan holding a chair over her head, ready to fling it. “Why is she not seen as dangerous?” Collins asked during a Big Tent workshop August 1 on combatting racism with peacemaking.

Some responses:

“She’s not an angry black lady.”
“Her makeup is well done.”
“She’s a young woman. She’s white. She’s not wearing baggy clothing.”

Alonzo Johnson (right) in conversation with a workshop participant.
Alonzo Johnson (right) in conversation with a workshop participant.

Collins and Alonzo Johnson, a mission associate for peacemaking for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), challenged participants to be aware of the racism around them, in the media, in their communities, in their own attitudes. It’s not always obvious, “but far more insidious,” said Johnson, who formerly served as a pastor in Philadelphia. “Communities are being crushed by racism behind the scenes.”

Presbyterians need to respond with “collaborative peacemaking,” he said – building connections with others concerned about systemic issues. Here are suggestions based on the workshop conversation.

Questions for congregations to ask:

  • Who are the people in your neighborhood? (Such as: middle class gentrifiers; homeless veterans; new immigrants).
  • What changes do you see in your neighborhood or city?
  • What blocks you from building relationships with other churches or faith communities? (Ego, fear of rejection or difference, tradition). “Sometimes we’re not comfortable with people who are different from us,” said Johnson, who did volunteer prison ministry for a decade. “Watch a former inmate walk into a church, and people get scared.”
  • Do you only build relationships with people who come into the building?
  • What assets can your church offer (participants said: people, a community garden, storage, lots of places for people to sit, a commercial kitchen).

Ways churches can work collaboratively:

  • Bible study and education. Hold Bible studies together with another church – a church that’s different from yours. Host speakers or community book studies on books that address issues such as racial inequities, mass incarceration, or gun violence. “We create spaces to discuss structural racism,” Johnson said.
  • Worship. Worship jointly with other congregations. Lift up justice issues in worship – including preaching on racism from the pulpit. Hold Justice Sundays or a month-long focus on justice issues.
  • Leadership. Consider the expertise in your congregation. “People are resources. They have connections and power outside the church,” Johnson said.
  • Koinonia. Think about communion and community. Build relationships with other faith groups, neighborhood organizations, schools and more. “We have to be collaborative,” Johnson said. “If we don’t, we will die or not be heard.”