by Jess Cook

As someone who frequently facilitates trainings and conversations related to the identities of and challenges faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA+) people, I am familiar with the awkward silence that can descend on a room full of people — and not just because the topic itself is one many of us have been taught to avoid discussing altogether. There is a palpable energy shift when a subject people have been taught not to talk about is named directly, or when the discussion is no longer an abstract concept but a reality. Most often, this silence happens when the conversation turns from terminology to action, when people are invited to step out of their comfort zones and into practice. Of course, there are also those times when someone names their discomfort aloud, such as the time at the end of a training I led when a kind gentleman up front raised his hand and sincerely asked: “I hear you saying that trans women are more often targets of violence than other people… are you saying I am supposed to do something about that?”

I have also experienced these moments as a white person striving to live faithfully into the work of dismantling racism. At this point in my life and career, I have moved through more awkward silences than I can count, as both a facilitator and a participant; and, I can say without a doubt that no topic gets the awkward crickets chirping more than reparations.

New programs? Great!

More outreach? Awesome!

Invest money directly into the pockets of the people who’ve been exploited for centuries? . . .

We are in the midst of a time when the weight of injustice has become so unbearably heavy that all of creation is crying out. All the lies and contradictions, the misuse of Scripture to uphold injustice and the use of religion as a bludgeon of oppression can no longer be hidden behind a wall of comfort, shame, willful ignorance or even awkward silences. While not in our lifetimes, we as a people have been here before. Scripture is full of messages to both those who are being exploited and those who are exploiting others. The prophet Amos minces no words when he offers his warning to those who “trample the needy and destroy the poor of the land” and who “deceive with false balances, in order to buy the needy for silver and the helpless for sandals.”

For those seeking to live righteously in this time and who are serious about the work of ending systemic racism, reparations must be integrated into any plan moving forward. Programs are essential, but not enough. Doing the internal work of examining white supremacy’s impact on our institutions and on ourselves regardless of our race, while essential, is not enough. Put simply, if we are speaking about racism, if we are preaching about justice, we must put our money where our mouths are. Not just individually, but collectively and systemically. We have the opportunity, and we certainly have the means. Now we must find the courage to move through the awkward silence and step into action. The soul of our nation depends on it.

Jess Cook is the program and communications manager for More Light Presbyterians, and lives in Richmond, Virginia.