Making bricks with no straw

Denise Anderson

The Special Commission on Racism, Truth & Reconciliation was birthed at the 222nd General Assembly in Portland, Oregon, in 2016. It was established to conduct a listening session of people “long silenced” by systemic racism in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Their work would have culminated with a report at the 224th General Assembly this summer. The commission was to consist of 20 members, two-thirds of whom were to be people of color, and it was the job of Jan Edmiston and me, as GA co-moderators, to appoint members to it.

Except we couldn’t fill it because a commission has very narrow requirements for membership and finding enough people of color who were both willing and qualified was nearly impossible. A commission can only consist of ruling and teaching elders in a specific ratio. There are also requirements for age, gender and geographic diversity. These tight parameters meant that many people of color who wanted to serve could not — usually for reasons as simple as there was already another teaching elder from their synod. Others who would qualify to fill our vacancies were, frankly, often the people called on repeatedly to do the same work. They are tired of telling a majority-white church what to do in order to be more just. We couldn’t fill the commission.

So, we urged the 223rd General Assembly in 2018 to change the composition of the group from a commission to a committee. This was for two reasons: to relax the qualifications so that more who were interested in serving could qualify, and because the original mandate asked the group to make recommendations to the General Assembly and did not need the powers of a commission. We also asked the assembly to change its composition to 15 members with at least five members identifying as people of color, and to extend its deadline to the 225th GA. We did this to lighten the burden on people of color and to ensure that the work wouldn’t remain in limbo if they were unable or unwilling to do it. The work of dismantling systems should be shouldered by the people who benefit from those systems. Representation is necessary, but it is unfair to expect people of color to carry the lion’s share of untangling systems from which we do not benefit.

The 223rd GA agreed to our request and the remaining members were appointed by co-moderators Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri and Cindy Kohlmann. I later joined the staff of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and was assigned to co-staff the committee. We’re now halfway through the 4-year charge. And ironically, two-thirds of the committee members are people of color. They are faithful, passionate and imaginative people and I feel very blessed to work alongside them.

But the committee’s genesis was wrapped in good intentions that still failed to consider not only the logistical, but emotional labor of what they were asking Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) to do. This tendency is de rigueur in majority-white institutions. What’s more, the 224th GA passed a substitute motion to “On the Church in This Moment in History” that added significantly to the committee’s charge. Though the work they are being asked to do is important, we are again looking to a mostly BIPOC group to do work without consulting them on whether or not it’s possible with the parameters they’ve been given. Even with the immense confidence I have in this group, I fear this sets them up for failure.

BIPOC who work in majority-white institutions often find we’re being asked to make bricks with little to no straw. These institutions rarely count the costs of doing this work or the impact the work has on us. I long for the day when white siblings in our denomination put their own skin in the game (not someone else’s). Pronouncements and macro-level directives are easy things. Broad-based organizing with some accountability on your own part (and not someone’s accountability to you) is much harder.

To be clear, this does not mean speak for BIPOC. It means not imposing more work on those who are most impacted. Amplify the voices who are speaking and organize among each other to respond.

BIPOC have our own anti-racism work to do. But in majority-white institutions, our needs for our work get swallowed by the needs and wants of white siblings for their work. All our efforts focus on what white folks want to do. Whether it’s hand-holding timid white people or being expected to materialize the visions of white institutions, white supremacy is when, even with the best of intentions, more work is somehow made for BIPOC.

Denise Anderson is coordinator for racial and intercultural justice with the Presbyterian Mission Agency in Louisville. 

Denise Anderson, former co-moderator of the General Assembly, wrote this editorial for our General Assembly wrap-up issue. One of the threads woven throughout the 224th GA was the call to listen to and trust Black women. In response to this call, we invited Denise to share her insights on some of what took place at the virtual meeting of the General Assembly. – Jill Duffield