Preaching about Racism: A Guide for Faith Leaders

Carolyn B. Helsel
Chalice Press, 128 pages
Reviewed by Rachel Cheney

As a predominantly white denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has the option to choose whether we want to think or talk about racism. Most people of color are not afforded this luxury. For many, talking about racism is not an abstract mental exercise, but a painfully lived out reality. Taking on this topic from the pulpit can be daunting.

In “Preaching about Racism,” Carolyn Helsel lays out a format for pastors and faith leaders to engage the necessary task of talking about racism from the pulpit. She argues that for white pastors preaching to predominantly white congregations, it is crucial that we start with gratitude for the work that Christ has already done in our own lives. She explains: “The shame of sin does not motivate us to live new lives. Our gratitude for what God has done gets us excited to live humbly and work for justice” — especially justice for those most affected by the prevalence of racism in our world.

Helsel believes we must interpret Scripture in life-giving ways for people of all colors and classes by recognizing our personal lens and encouraging congregations to recognize the lenses by which we view the Scripture and internalize our experiences. Helping others see that racism is an ingrained feature of our society is a necessary step to eradicate it. She borrows the term “racialized society” to describe our context where racism is a part of the building blocks of our culture. She writes, “Race has been used historically to signify a higher or lower status in racial hierarchy, where whites continue to benefit from their position in the racial pyramid.” With compassion for people at different stages of awareness, pastors must learn to guide their congregations in understanding that racism is systemic not occasional.

For many white Christians, racism is a known problem. But few can articulate examples of how people of color are impacted daily. Spiritual leaders fill in these gaps by incorporating quotes, music, books, sermons and lectures from people of color. Illuminating Scripture passages that give commentary on our current racial climate brings the problem of racism to the forefront of our congregations’ awareness.

However, just talking about the problem is not the end result. As Helsel points out, autonomy and action are goals of preaching about racism. She clarifies, “This does not mean that the white person is no longer part of the racial group that continues to benefit from the legacy of racism, but it means that the white person is constantly committed to questioning assumptions of white superiority.” Ultimately, white Christians must constantly strive for awareness of our racialized situation and take thoughtful action to combat its presence.

Helsel’s clear writing and vast understanding of both racism and white Christian culture make this an insightful and informative read. She tackles a multifaceted problem with courage and honesty. It is by no means a comprehensive summary of preaching on racism, and faith leaders would do well to continue their research with podcasts, books and sermons by people of color. I highly recommended this book for pastors and church leaders looking for advice on how to encourage dialogue on our current racial climate.

Rachel Cheney is a youth pastor in North Carolina who loves working with young people and is passionate about racial reconciliation in the church.