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The story of God’s people: Tali Hairston speaks to Next Church

SEATTLE – “The way the story is told matters,” W. Tali Hairston told the NEXT Church 2019 national gathering during its opening plenary March 11.

Meaning: who is given voice and who is not. Who is left out. Who controls the narrative.

A Seattle native, Hairston is senior advisor for community engagement for Seattle Presbytery. He spoke to this gathering about the elements of transformation and reconciliation – warning the crowd of about 575 at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Seattle that he would not be afraid to speak uncomfortable truths. “I was going to wear tennis shoes so that when I was done I could run out and you couldn’t catch me,” Hairston said near the beginning. He decided to stay put and speak his mind.

W. Tali Hairston (All photos by Jodi Craiglow)

Hairston makes the argument that transformational change needs to make people uncomfortable; that it involves advocating for the disenfranchised and marginalized; that it involves a sense of mutuality, not charity; and that transformational relationships subvert oppressive systems.

He framed his remarks through the Old Testament story of Ruth, her daughter in law Naomi and Boaz, the rich man who helped Ruth during a time of famine and later married her. At its heart, this is a story of “how God redeems those marginalized within this system,” Hairston said. Yet “we know very little about Ruth” from this story, because “here the narrative does not tell us much about the redeeming actor.”

That has echoes in other settings, he said. We hear the names of Sojourner Truth or Fannie Mae Hamer, but not much about their lives or who they were. “Without the women in the story of the African-American tradition, we would not be here,” he said. “The African-American church is rooted in matriarchy, not patriarchy,” although much of the attention and power goes to the men.

Hairston contends that “we must learn to tell the origin story from the perspective of the indigenous people,” of the disempowered people, not just the winning side. “The indigenous history is of great value to the redemptive story of any people. … And when you leave them out, you are augmenting and editing the salvific story.”

That’s important for the church as well, he said – not to present itself as set apart or better than, but more honestly as “dirty messed-up folk who never had it right and never had it all together and never figured out how to be together.” The church’s origin story needs to include the marginalize and some truth-telling.  The narrative of the church as pure is a mythology, he said – when the truth really includes “the genesis story of racism. That is so far from Jesus’ story.”

In the interaction between Ruth and Boaz, what happened was not a simple transaction but more a transformation, Hairston said. That meant “Boaz became uncomfortable. Our need for the comfortable can delay God’s work for transformation.” Churches and Christians who are unwilling to feel uncomfortable end up with relationships that are transactional, not transformational, he said, and which sustain marginalization.

Congregations default to charity “when we do for people, not with people,” Hairston said. And people of faith do that “when we do not believe in their capacity or ability” and don’t see them as equals, made in the image of God. When we presume that “God is not already talking to them.”

The centuries of colonial missiology relied on a sense of unequal charity, so that “people were made to feel their cultural norms were not appropriate for God, as if we knew,” he said. “Maybe the job for us is to listen for the story of the people, because God is going to show up in the story of the people. … That’s why the story matters so much.”

He also spoke about the elements of belonging, including not only acceptance and welcome, but also trust. People of color learn to develop a double consciousness – learning to sing the song their way but also the white way. Many whites think diversity means having people of color standing next to whites singing the way whites do, not that whites need to learn something new, Hairston said.

When you are never at the center of the story, you experience rejection, he said. “When the space you inhabit says you are not normal, and you internalize that, especially children, you should not be surprised when the babies act out. …Their story is never in the space.”

And often when whites are asked to tell their cultural or ethnic story, they’ll say, “we don’t have one. We’re American. … You never have to interrogate your whiteness.”

People of color don’t have the time, the energy or the responsibility to help whites do that, Hairston said. His message: “I need everyone who has white guilt to just leave it in the seat when you leave today. It doesn’t help.”

In understanding issues of race and racism, “do that work on your own,” because “what I can’t do is raise my African-American son in the city and raise you too. … I’m trying to raise my son to keep him from getting shot for something he did not do.”

Someone in the audience asked: What about confession and forgiveness?

“Can we start with lament first?” Hairston responded. Lament makes space for compassion and for relationship. Maybe in the discomfort, if trust is built, transformation can begin.

The NEXT Church gathering continues March 12 with Bible study, testimonies, workshops and worship with preaching from Kelle Brown, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister who is lead pastor of Plymouth Church United Church of Christ in downtown Seattle. Plenary sessions are being live-streamed, with the link here and the schedule here.

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