Editor’s note: The Outlook will run occasional stories talking to Presbyterians involved with grassroots work to address racism and injustice in their communities. The hope: sharing these stories might help people of faith think more deeply about what they are called to do.
When Mamie Broadhurst, pastor of Covenant Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, heard of an event being organized in western Louisville following the shooting of black men by police in Minnesota and Baton Rouge, she knew she wanted to be there.
When Shannon Craigo-Snell, a professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) teaching elder, heard of the gathering, she had “a sense of a door in” to being part of the community’s response to police violence.
Both are white Presbyterians who are looking for ways to act out of conscience and faith in response to acts of violence that almost daily seem to make the news. After a black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed in St. Louis in 2014, Craigo-Snell drove there to be part of the civil disobedience and was one of a group of religious leaders arrested. She said her involvement came “when the news was too outrageous,” when she felt viscerally “this cannot be allowed to happen in our country. It’s important to say no.”
Not every Presbyterian will choose to march or to risk arrest – some may choose other ways to get involved.
Yet there is a theological call for Christians to work against injustice, Craigo-Snell said. When Christians hear the story of the Good Samaritan or heed the biblical instruction to love one’s neighbor, “we don’t get to pick which neighbor. … We are called to love and be loved by all our neighbors. When are neighbors are shot in the street, we are called as Christians to respond to that.”
She quoted the philosopher and professor Cornel West, who said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
What are some things Presbyterians can do to work for justice?
Broadhurst is the pastor of a small (about 50 people) congregation that has, for the past several years, made issues of racial injustice a priority.
She’s been involved with the Louisville chapter of SURJ – Showing Up for Racial Justice – an organization through which whites are organizing for racial justice and striving to be allies in the struggle with people of color. And when Broadhurst heard about a vigil and march scheduled for 5 p.m. that Sunday – the same time when her congregation typically holds worship – she asked the session for permission to move the service there.
Broadhurst said she knew that “I’m not going to be able to sit in our church at 5 p.m. talking about ‘Go and do likewise’ when there’s a vigil down the road also at 5 p.m.,” calling for justice. “Church doesn’t always happen in the building, and church doesn’t always happen even when pastors are preaching.”
In this case, the leadership for the events came from the community – including from Black Lives Matter and from the Black Student Union at duPont Manual High School. About 20 people from the Covenant congregation showed up, as did other Presbyterians – including a delegation from Central Presbyterian Church, some wearing T-shirts with the church’s name as an act of public witness.
Craigo-Snell described those gatherings as “the most integrated space I’ve ever been in in Louisville,” with “a sense of solidarity and determination.” People came together from different faith traditions and no faith traditions, “out of mourning and real despair” but also a sense – just a month after Muhammad Ali’s death – that “this community is really pushing forward.”
Showing up was a way “to name that as a movement in the spirit and an attempt to ask for life abundant,” Broadhurst said, and as “an amazing manifestation of hope.”
Learn and listen
Another suggestion that many concerned about injustice have for Presbyterians: Work to learn about white privilege, systemic injustice and the long ugly history and current manifestations of racism. Educate yourself. Read books and blogs and articles, watch videos, listen to perspectives different from your own.
Congregations or small groups can pick a book or other resource on racism or injustice to study together. Among the possibilities that Craigo-Snell suggested:
- Anti-racism materials from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
- A 2016 revision, approved by the General Assembly in Portland, of the Churchwide Antiracism Policy, known as “Facing Racism: A Vision of the Intercultural Community.”
- A series of six hour-long study guides for the antiracism policy.
- Resources on racism, including Racism 101 (from The Thoughtful Christian).
And T. Denise Anderson, co-moderator of the 2016 General Assembly and an African-American teaching elder, has suggested that white people need to also look at and acknowledge their own racism. She said on social media: “White people, you have heard it said that you must talk to other white people about racism, and you must. But don’t talk to them about their racism. Talk to them about YOUR racism.”
The Covenant congregation has been working directly on issues related to racial injustice for several years. Broadhurst came to the congregation after serving for several years as a PC(USA) mission co-worker in Colombia, and arriving around the time George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in 2012.
Broadhurst said she thought to herself: “How is this happening? How can someone be shot in the street and nothing be done?”
Over the next several years, the Covenant congregation began to discuss in-depth matters of racial inequality and injustice – with some members forming an intentional community to read books and study other material on white privilege, racism and systemic injustice, and discuss what they had learned. A Lenten sermon series in 2015 focused on the last seven words that Jesus spoke before his death and also the last words or phrases of seven people of color killed by police or vigilantes.
Those discussions proved helpful, Broadhurst said, as white church members acknowledged their own white privilege and admitted they didn’t always have a good response – didn’t think or react quickly enough – when something troubling was said or done involving race. People would say things like, “This happened, and I just sat there dumbfounded and didn’t know what to do,” Broadhurst said. So they practiced – recognizing the need to respond and not sit silent, choosing together effective words for the next time, developing skills “to say things that are uncomfortable and difficult to say.”
For white Christians, part of the work also is to listen and to not always try to lead, Craigo-Snell said.
“For a long time, Presbyterians have looked towards a vision of reconciliation,” she said. “That’s what our language has been. We’ve had a very happy notion of ‘wouldn’t it be great to have a totally integrated church?’ Well, that has not come to pass” – the PC(USA) remains more than 90 percent white.
Now, some are switching from a focus on reconciliation and integrating congregations to working for justice, and building relationships with a diverse group of leaders, both inside and outside the church.
With the General Assembly vote this summer to add the Belhar Confession from South Africa to the PC(USA) Book of Confessions, “we have an important ecclesiastical moment now,” Broadhurst said. “This is a moment when we have a special invitation from the church” to do such challenging yet crucial work.