Presbyterians venture beyond church walls to examine White privilege

Presbyterians gather at Charlotte’s White Privilege Conference. Photo provided by Ben Lyons.

The White Privilege Conference (WPC) is not a church conference. It does not center on religion, theology, Scripture, or church growth strategy. The conference was born in a higher education setting in Iowa and caters to K-12 educators, students and college administrators. Why, then, are Presbyterians seeking it out?

Molly Casteel, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s former manager for equity and representation, attended her first WPC after hearing about it from two denominational young adult interns. The discussions Casteel had with these interns after the conference made her realize she needed to make time to attend the conference herself. She was able to attend WPC in 2011 and has been every year since.

Founded 23 years ago by Eddie Moore Jr., an educator and author who received his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in education leadership, the White Privilege Conference is organized and led by Black leaders. The WPC, which is now a part of The Privilege Institute (the nonprofit organization created by Moore in early 2014) describes its mission as offering “opportunities for advocates of peace, equity, and justice to enhance their work … on issues of privilege, power, and leadership.” The conference serves as a learning lab for participants to explore their privilege and how it has systemically, structurally, and personally affected the lives of marginalized people. “It’s a space where everything is interrogated with humility, authenticity and vulnerability.” Casteel said. “It’s people in the work doing the work.”

After a few years of attending herself, Casteel wanted to formally organize Presbyterians who were ready to go deeper in their antiracism work. In 2014, she was able to arrange for a Presbyterian discount code to attend the WPC. Casteel invited every Presbyterian who registered for WPC using this code to gather during the conference to process and connect. As she promoted the conference to those in her circle, she invited the synod executives that she interacted with through her diversity, equity and inclusion. This invitation gained traction in 2015 when WPC was held in Louisville and coincided with a meeting of PC(USA) synod executives. Word started to spread among more Presbyterians of the opportunity.

Ryan Landino, presbytery leader of Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery, is another Presbyterian who attends WPC every year. Landino describes the conference as “an important part of my spiritual practice,” saying, “every time, I learn how much more I have to learn.”

This year, the conference was held March 9-12 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and it was hosted for the first time by a Presbyterian body, the Presbytery of Charlotte. Jan Edmiston, co-moderator of the 2018 General Assembly and the presbytery’s general presbyter, and Donna Fair, an elder at First United Presbyterian Church, led the effort to bring WPC to Charlotte. Edmiston shared, “over 50 PC(USA) leaders participated either in person or virtually.”

For the first time, the conference explored religion as part of its theme “Wade in the Water: White Supremacy, Religion and Reciprocity.” This offered a chance to study the role of religion at a conference that was not explicitly religious. Landino noted the value of focusing on the function of religion to build community or destroy it.

In response to questions from the Outlook about his experience at this year’s conference, Landino wrote via email, “I was a part of a powerful workshop that unmasked how problematic theology has been used to devastate Black communities in the name of urban renewal, tendencies easily recognizable in congregations today. I was grateful for the reminders of the power of song and story in worship to shape our values, and how our songs and stories may or may not reflect the lived experience of our communities, which speaks to the difference in expressions of Black and White worship. It’s been a useful mirror to take a look at what kind of world we as church leaders are actually building, and whether the tools we have inherited are helping us get where we need to go.”

After attending for a few years herself, Fair wanted to help bring the WPC to Charlotte. She described the WPC as “unique in its very specific charge to dismantle White supremacy and privilege wherever and by whomever it is held.” In response to an Outlook email, Fair wrote: “I think this conference recognizes that we all have privilege in various ways,” and it makes participants confront that privilege and analyze how they “have or have not used it to address the White Supremacy that undergirds our entire society.”

Fair goes on to describe the WPC as different than the antiracism offerings “which are merely seeking to expand diversity and inclusion efforts” and are “structured as feel-good activities.” Fair quotes Moore, who stresses that the WPC “is not antiracism 101 and it’s not for everyone.”

Artist and activist Bree Newsome and author and psychotherapist Resmaa Menakem were two of the keynote speakers in Charlotte.

Landino said it was powerful to be in “an arena where historically marginalized communities are the ones setting the norms and curating the workshop offerings,” saying that while “most conferences engage our minds … this one is intentional about connecting to our bodies and feelings as well, so it creates more opportunity for authenticity.”

At the end of each day of keynotes, plenaries and workshops, WPC participants are invited to caucus with those of their same race to collectively process what they are experiencing. Casteel always encourages Presbyterians to attend these caucuses, saying, “White caucus … it’s the best use of your time. Time to practice the new skills you are learning at WPC.”

Landino describes the time spent in caucus as “powerful to process together what we are experiencing. It creates a kind of community healing, and focusing a shared resolve to commit to action.”

WPC is a challenging space for Presbyterians but also welcoming. Casteel described the atmosphere of accountability at WPC this way: “Mistakes are made but corrected. It’s a community that learns together and corrects together. It doesn’t cover the mistake and pretend it didn’t happen.”

She experiences the WPC as “holy ground. The Spirit moves in this place, this holy encounter where folks are not holding all their costumes and masks up … where people are willing to be honest and open and vulnerable. You participate in this conference, and you get the compassion and the connection. You realize that this is what it takes to get through and do this work.”

This story was made possible in part by the reporting of Shani McIlwain.