“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
Theme for the Week
Builders Activate a Growth Mindset: Stumbling Upward
-As those who regard themselves as “good people”, how did we get here and how can we be made new? That is the over-arching question we want to ask with our summer book study that is a part of the larger work of the Presbytery as we consider ways to continue to grow into our anti-racist stance and leadership.
The Person You Mean to Be – Chapter One
For those who want to dive deeper: Emergent Strategy – principles and elements of emergent strategy (pgs 41-50)
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. – Mark 1: 9-13
This week’s video is from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), part of their COVID at the Margins series where they talk to grassroots leaders from various communities about the intersectional impacts of racism, white supremacy and the COVID pandemic. This video is a conversation about the impact of the COVID pandemic on the African-American community and was led by Christian Brooks, the Representative for Domestic Issues at the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness in Washington D.C.
There is an important opinion piece that was published by the Washington Post this past week, When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs. The author, Tre Johnson, offers the reflection that, “The right acknowledgement of black justice, humanity, freedom and happiness won’t be found in your book clubs, protest signs, chalk talks or organizational statements. It will be found in your earnest willingness to dismantle systems that stand in our way – be they at your job, in your social network, your neighborhood associations, your family or your home. It’s not just about amplifying our voices, it’s about investing in them and in our businesses, education, political representation, power, housing and art. It starts, also, with reflection in the harm you’ve probably caused in a black person’s life.”
For the last year and a half as we have begun the journey of anti-racism in the Presbytery of Southern New England, I have been resisting, as a leader, having a book study. We are a highly educated group of Presbyterians here in the Presbytery of Southern New England. As clergy, all of us have masters degrees, many of us have additional training, a secondary masters, a doctoral degree, professional certifications and so forth. The folks who make up the congregations in this Presbytery, for the most part, are highly educated, some of us make up the “1%”, and many are leaders nationally and globally. One of our first goals was to get out of the safety of our heads that a book study would provide and instead get into our hearts and souls, to figure out the “gut impact” of how racism has taken up space in our lives and is part of our day-to-day actions. To not hang out in a book study which is a comfort zone, but instead get into the gut and take some punches there to wake ourselves up and interrogate how nearly all of us here have been much more part of the problem than part of the solution when it comes to racism in the United States and how it works in our local communities. Lots of people asked me to start us in a book study, and have repeated that “ask” over the last year and a half. Because it’s our safe-space as white people. We can hang out there in our heads and be smart. In our “why” video that we shared last week, Jessica, David, Julie and I talk about how we didn’t think we’d do a book study, and yet here we are, partially because of the global health pandemic and the needs to pivot and change our plans for 2020, and also because we think this could be an interesting set of questions to unpack. But we are also committed to this not being a book study that falls into the same problematic pitfalls as others.
Our theology of baptism as Presbyterians is that baptism is when we publicly acknowledge the truth that we are children of God, and profess our dedication to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. This means that we also renounce evil. Last week I wrote a column for the Presbytery on some musings on the renunciation of evil. Part of the journey we have to acknowledge, learn from, and embody if we are to get beyond the “good-ish” people phenomena which holds us back from real anti-racist living, which I would suggest is real living into our baptismal vows, then we have to get comfortable with talking about how evil lives in us and in our actions. We have to notice, say and stop the ways of behaving and living we engage in that cause intentional harm.
Here’s a concrete example in the church we can all get our heads around: the calling of a new pastor. In the Presbytery of Southern New England, how many clergy are serving in our congregations who are not white? Four. And these four clergy serve at our African-American, two Korean-American and one immigrant fellowship (Brazilian) congregations. We have no non-white clergy serving in the Presbytery of Southern New England beyond these four congregations. When I train pastor nominating committees I talk to them about anti-discrimination and have a document for them that shows were bias can creep into the process. A pastor nominating committee I trained earlier this year, when I raised the concept of calling an African-American pastor, and asked how many African-Americans lived in their community, they snickered a bit, shot glances to each other across the table and did the thing we know about in the white community – acknowledged my comment and then moved on as quickly as possible. I have served as the General Presbyter in this Presbytery for the last three years and in not one of the many searches that has been conducted during this time, has there been anyone who has been interviewed who is not white. When we look at the pay scale of clergy salaries in this Presbytery, the four clergy I referenced are all in the bottom tier of the pay scale. Please go back and re-read this paragraph and let it sink into your soul.
Let’s just pause here for a minute and acknowledge that this dynamic is deeply sinful. And that it is intentional in its sinfulness. It might not be intentional in terms of when a pastor nominating committee meets and says explicitly that we will only interview white people for our next pastoral position, but it is intentional in how positions are crafted, in the inner thoughts we have as we evaluate candidates, in our training of search teams which clearly isn’t working, in the reputation that has been cultivated for decades of your congregation and of this Presbytery, and of this larger region, a reputation which suggests to most non-white clergy that this is not a safe space in which to come and serve, and where their gifts would not be welcomed. There is reputation and years and years of “good-ish” behavior is behind a lot of it. And token-hiring doesn’t fix the problem either, because what it ends up doing is causing harm. That’s also happened in this Presbytery. Please go back and re-read this paragraph and let it sink into your soul.
Chapter 1, our reading for this week, begins the conversation about a growth and a fixed mindset, what they are, how they take up residence inside of us, and some early ways to begin to interrogate and change this. Specifically, it looks at this through the lens of hiring, which is why I bring up the example of calling a new pastor. At the end of Chapter 1, Dolly Chugh writes these words: “As builders, we are ready to look at ourselves as individuals who carry unconscious biases and examine ourselves as part of systems in which biases are baked in culturally, legally and structurally. To confront both unconscious and systemic bias, we will need to keep our growth mindsets activated.” To put her words into a theological lens for us as Presbyterians – she is talking about confession. And confession is at the heart of our baptismal theology. “Will you renounce evil and its power in the world?” If we say we are turning to Jesus Christ as our only Lord and Savior, that is not a one-time deal on baptism day! That is a lifetime of renunciation, changing, confessing and letting go of the other gods that dominate our lives and cause harm to others. And that is not all just an exercise of the mind, it is physical, it is active, it is in the soul, the gut, the heartbeat of our lives.
So the question is, so if this is not to be a comfortable book study with the usual patting of ourselves on the back….what are you going to do this week to renounce evil and its power in the world. Not just lip service, but a real renunciation, one that means you will examine something deeply in your life, where you have been the one inflicting the harm, and participating in racism? What is it?
We have started a podcast for our journey this summer. The first session is up which is the audio conversation on the “why” for this summer’s book study. You can access Connecting Our Conversations at psne.buzzsprout.com, and subscribe to it from there.
It might be helpful to journal your way through the summer study, starting with where you are each week. How are you feeling – physically, mentally, spiritually? Where is God showing up in your life? What do you hear the Spirit saying to you? As we move through the summer months, the journal might help you track how you are doing, what the growing edges are and where Jesus is showing up.
Take some time each day to sit with the reflection I wrote. Re-read it each day this week. How does it sit in your soul on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday? Saturday? Sunday? What new things are you noticing? Do not be afraid to dig deep and do some real excavation.
Each day, write a prayer of confession, naming the ways you are personally participating in racism. How you notice your personal biases showing up. Name them, warts and all. Name to God the ways you have not lived into Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in your day-to-day living and in your innermost thoughts. One of the persistent challenges for us as white people and those who live in the frame of whiteness is “perfectionism”, thinking we have to always be doing things the “right way.” Where is perfectionism showing up in your life, even as you write a personal journal of reflection? How is it keeping you from wanting to even write down, for your eyes only, what you have been about, how you have been operating and what you really have been doing? Dig deep each day, write your prayers of confession and consider the questions of the baptismal liturgy, in the order in which they are given – renunciation, profession, living/discipleship:
- Q1: “Do you renounce evil and its power in the world?”
- Q2: “Who is your Lord and Savior?”
- Q3: “Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his word and showing his love?
Use this format for your prayer of confession each day:
- Name the evil(s).
- Why are you claiming Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, what does that really mean to you?
- How do you want to live as a disciple, in a way that gets to the heart of renouncing the evils of racism, and what will that cause you to do differently and to give up?
I am praying this week for each of you as you do the hard soul-work of excavation, letting go of a fixed faith mindset and considering one of a growing faith.
Blessings upon you and the holy work you are engaging in this week. Here is a prayer I shared with our COM earlier this week:
This country is fractured, and we are so busy trying to please parishioners,
we have forgotten what it means to please God.
What will it take for us to wake up?
The encounters with the resurrected Jesus by the disciples should be our model.
We need to put our fingers in the bullet holes of a resurrected Trayvon Martin’s body.
We should eat fish with every LGBTQIA pastor in this denomination
and start to believe they are truly alive.
We have to declare three times our love for the immigrant, the sojourner
-three times while keeping ICE agents out of our sanctuaries…
…the Jesus we lynched rose in resurrection and redemption
and offers that grace and love freely, liberally to anyone.
My very existence, my very next breath, my family, my freedom
is proof that God is real.
that grace is real.
and it is also real for you.
-From Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S. by the Rev. Lenny Duncan