Posts tagged reconciliation
Proclamation and Practice

Like Whoa. So, like many of you, I have been watching all things Moody unfold. And here is the truth. This happens almost every year at someone's college/university. Moody is not at all special or different in its unfolding drama, only the latest. This afternoon I had the opportunity to talk about higher ed, so its all one my mind now! And because of all this, I want to tease out something important for all of us to grapple with in Christian higher ed. 

We have some decisions to make, people. And by "we" I mean administrators and leaders at our churches and higher education institutions. 

The language sounds so great doesn't it?

We are going to be a place where all students belong.

We believe that diversity is an important component in the life of our campus. 

We know that our students are made better when they experience diversity. 

We know its important for all of our students to develop cultural competencies. 

And there are plenty of references about the difficulties too- to being uncomfortable, to the road being long, to being committed to change. Yes, much time has been spent crafting the language, the theology, the website, the document... and yet. 

And yet, students of color (and often faculty/staff of color) regularly find themselves in the center of what feels very much like a race war.

How could that be?

Well, its usually because people of color believe(d) you. We looked at your website and believed the words. We read through your documents and believed the words. We heard your theological support and believed your words. We heard your MLK speech and believe what you said. 

My guess is its been a long time since someone walked into your institution and had to make the case for diversity and inclusion. I'm guessing its been a decade or two since you first made the declaration that diversity, inclusion and reconciliation matter to you. These students are not holding you hostage to some arbitrary personal desires on their part. Students are holding you accountable to your own declaration. Faculty and staff are holding you accountable to your own declaration. Congregation members are holding you accountable to your own declaration. 

Because your declaration must come with actions, or your declaration is a lie. 

I know thats super harsh. But if we switched out the subject of our conversation, imagine the reactions. What if we promised students good, consistent meals and didn't provide them? What if we promised our students regular chapel services and only held one once a year? What if we told students their books would be in our stores and then didn't order any? What if our churches made a declaration that we were going to pray more and didn't? Study the Bible more and didn't? Do some outreach and didn't? 

We would feel awfully convicted if someone called us out on the lack of follow through. We would apologize profusely. We would appoint someone or somebodies. We would find a budget. We would fix it. We would apologize and fix it. We would try to make it right, immediately. We would plan and act. We would talk and act. We find immediate solutions while building long-term solutions. We would act with urgency and love. 

And yet, when it comes to all things diversity related, there is an immediate reaction to "manage" the conversation, to manage expectations. The preference is to move slowly, find incremental changes. There is a demand for patience, trust, understanding. There is much celebration for the accomplishments of the past, but there is little excitement to create anything new to celebrate. 

And then there is an explosion of frustration and anger aimed at students/members of color who are simply asking for evidence of your own proclamation.  Students are notorious for opening wide the gulf that exists between what is proclaimed and what is practiced. 

Rather than jumping at the opportunity to bring in a new leader, or to make changes to the chapel service, or to add to the curriculum, or to create a new center or department... there is instead a retreat, a pumping of the brakes, usually introduced with the words:  

I'm not sure we have enough buy-in yet.  

I'm not sure the student body / congregation will understand.

This just its the right time.

We have so much that we are juggling right now.

There are competing values at play here. 

Next time. Next time. Next time.  Next time. Next time. Next time. Next time. Next time. Next time. Next time. Next time. Next time. 

All that talk. All that scripture. All that training. All those proclamations and documents and language undermined because you lack courage for change and remain unconvinced of the immediate necessity for change. 

And student/members of color carry the weight. They go to class wondering if the institution will acknowledge their hurt and pain. They eat dinner wondering if the board will finally approve their center, their organization, their event. They fall asleep wondering if the institution will hold their experiences as sacred as the alumni's. They do their homework wondering if they will ever really belong in this Christian place where they live. They worship alongside their brothers and sisters in Christ and wonder if they will ever truly be considered to be made in the image of God. 

That cannot be acceptable. 

That cannot be acceptable. 

So, there are some decisions to make. Are those pretty words true? Is there enough conviction to to live them out with urgency, love, and faithfulness. We can get mad or we can get busy- harnessing that energy and excitement to support all of our students/members and creating communities that live up to our words. 


Justice, then Reconciliation
Photo by Anna J. Yoder. Click through to view her portfolio.

Photo by Anna J. Yoder. Click through to view her portfolio.

We use the language of reconciliation fairly often in Christian social justice circles. Sometimes we offer ourselves synonyms like diversity or multiculturalism, but I think it's really important for us to explore the realities of practicing reconciliation. The fact that there is no singular definition of racial reconciliation, practically speaking, has created a situation where we are not entirely sure when we're doing it and when we are failing miserably at it. So let's explore the requirements for reconciliation to take place.

Heres what many think reconciliation looks like:

1. Having friends of color
2. Having diverse congregations
3. Serving in justice ministries
4. Hiring a person of color

I know this is going to be a little disheartening, so I am just going to say it. None of these things fall under the umbrella of reconciliation without one very large precondition: Justice.

Thats right. You could have an Asian friend, attend a diverse church, read to Latino children after school, and hire a Black speaker for the conference you're planning--- and still you may not actually be practicing reconciliation in your life. Why? Because none of these things require the presence of justice, equality, shared power.

Reconciliation is what we practice after we have chosen justice.

Reconciliation requires far more than hugs, small talk, and coffee dates. Being nice is well... nice, but it is not reconciliation. Reconciliation is what we do as we listen to hard truths from the marginalized among us. As our friends point out how troubling our words have been, how hurtful our actions have been, it's our reaction that determines whether or not we are practicing reconciliation. Drinking in the words. Sitting in the pain. Committing to understanding. Committing to doing better. Desiring the hard truths because they lead to growth. These are the sign posts on the path of reconciliation. It's spending time in each other's spaces- physical space, head space, heart space. And it's creating shared spaces where both can breathe freely.

Reconciliation requires more than a rainbow of skin-tones at the 11:00 o'clock service. Diversity without justice is assimilation. And assimilation makes clear whose culture is the favored one, the good one, the right one, the holy one. If your culture is the standard for rightness, you have found the Imago Dei in others to be insufficient. It is the definition of racism- the assumed superiority of your race, your culture, your way of being. We can discuss who is assimilating into what, how and why, but a pound of diversity without an ounce of justice, is not reconciliation. Reconciliation is how we respond after being told we are racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, agist, ableist congregation hiding behind platitudes of love rather than acting justly. Reconciliation is having our hearts broken that people are experiencing these things, not having our feelings hurt for being called out on it. Reconciliation is staying in relationship until all these are cast out and love reigns.

Reconciliation requires more than hiring a person of color. Reconciliation is when we cheer for decisions to implement new, just policies and processes. Reconciliation is our commitment to stay in organizations that restructure leadership positions and add co-positions in order to place marginalized voices front and center. If your leadership (or speaker line-up or authors or cabinet or board of directors or elders or management) is monocultural, you should ask yourself whether or not you have bought into the lie- that whiteness is preferable. Could it be that your leadership reflects a belief (conscious or not) that leaders must be like you? Act like you. Speak like you. Dress like you. Think like you. If you have a negative reaction to sharing power, raising up new leaders, adding decision-makers who embody diverse experiences, you're not ready for the work of reconciliation.

Reconciliation requires more than serving people of color. Reconciliation is what we do while we confess the ways folks have been excluded, left out, cast aside, downgraded, and treated only as recipients of paternalistic spirituality. If you only encounter "the other" through participation in a clear hierarchy of power and therefore value, it might be service, but it is not reconciliation. Are you in a position of equality or subordination to those you "serve"? Are you just the feet to the plan created by those experiencing homelessness? Are you advocating according to the instructions of those who eat at your food pantry? Are you learning the Scriptures from those who are imprisoned? Are you so valuing the innate human dignity of the marginalized that you are willing to share power or even submit your will to the oppressed? If so you might be moving from service work to reconciliation work.

I believe each if these can be on-ramps to the work of reconciliation. I do not believe one of these is better or more impactful than another. They each have the ability to open us wide, to challenge us beyond measure, to make us better people. They have a tendency to bleed into one another. When you've grappled with one, it's impossible to turn away from the others. They chase after one another desiring the fullness of the Kingdom. It's not easy work. The internal work and external effort can be gut wrenching. And yet. And yet there is no experience like working toward justice and watching reconciliation unfold.

What Now?

So I recently wrote this thing. I was sitting at a beach, steaming from all that was unfolding in Ferguson. I said some things. Things I stand by. But I also included a list. A list of what individuals who are tired of easy answers can do. I also stand by my list which came from the inspiring decisions my friends have made to change their lives. But in my emotional state, I made a mistake. I made a list that was highly individualistic and didn't talk at all about what churches could do as a body to respond to racial injustice. So, I'm back to fix that. 

This too will not be an exhaustive list. Sadly, there is so much work to be done, I'd have to write a series of books to name everything that we have to work on as a Church. So this list is just what has been churning in my head and heart. I pray that it serves as a good starting place, a match that the Holy Spirit might strike. 

1. Study with honesty and integrity the history of your church from a social perspective. Admit if your church body has always been centered on whiteness. Admit that it ignored racial tensions of the [insert decade here]. Admit when whiteness failed AND how that effected communities of color. That second part is really important. Its not enough to pretend that your choices as a church existed in a vacuum. Your choices as a church effected people. Families of color didn't feel safe coming to you. Multiracial families were isolated in your church. Your church members didn't allow a shelter to be built. You were so busy running the food pantry, you didn't vote for wage increases that could have helped every family who comes. Your members moved when people of color started to arrive. People of color are regularly pulled over on the way to your church because its so racially isolated, and your church has done nothing about it. I don't know your story as a church, but you should. Confess the ways your church has promoted whiteness and then move to confessing how that impacted the rest of God's Church.  

2. Stop talking around the racial realities that your church is already involved with. You have homelessness ministries, food pantries, prison ministries, after school programming and more. Some of them you have had for decades. You consume books on how to improve the ministry, how to be better, how to stretch those dollars further, how to be of help to those who partake of the services. And yet you cannot recite one statistic on the racial injustice therein. What is the connection between urban renewal, the displacement of African Americans and their overrepresentation in shelters? You should know that. Why are there food desserts in black and brown neighborhoods that force folks to come to your food pantry? You should know that. How are laws constructed and enforced that allow for the gross overrepresentation of black and latino people in the criminal justice system? You should know that. What accounts for the lack of after school programming in under resourced communities? You should know that.  Become an expert. Trace how these institutions, policies, and laws have changed over time, how they effect the lives of the people you serve. Its time to stop patting ourselves on the back for having these services; we need to start figuring out what injustice has occurred that makes them necessary in the first place. 

3. Racial reconciliation can't be talked about once a year during MLK. Your church is committed to teaching the Word of God, right? Do you only do that once a year? Your church is committed to prayer, right? Do you only pray when a tragedy happens in the congregation? Your church is committed to families, right? Do you only talk about families once at Christmas time? If you are only talking about racial reconciliation during MLK and perhaps if a national tragedy takes place, your church may be interested in racial reconciliation, but it is not committed. Racial reconciliation must become a consistent part of your conversation as a Church; otherwise its not going to happen. If you need some examples for how churches are making this a sustained conversation check out: Quest Church, Church of All Nations, Willow Chicago, River City Community Church, and Bridgeway Church. I'm sure there are others I am forgetting; find the ones in your area for inspiration. But don't be afraid to carve your own way. Your steps may be different based on your responses to #1 and #2. What I can assure you, is none of these churches sacrifice prayer or Scripture, or family picnics to give space to racial justice and reconciliation. Its just a part of who they are.  

Again, this is not a complete list by any means. Its only three suggestions. But I hope my point is clear. If you are tired of injustice (not tired of your feelings when injustice occurs), your Church can choose to be different. Your Church body is absolutely capable of making the world better. But you must decide whether or not you get a small high from reciting all your service projects. You must decide whether or not you enjoy being the savior for families or if you want them to never have to come back your pantry ever again. You have to decide if you're ready for confession and the repentance that confession will require. You have to decide if discussing reconciliation will be your church's hobby or if practicing reconciliation will be your legacy. 

Top 10: Conversation Deflections

Recently, my friend Grace Sandra wrote a risky article for CT on the vulnerabilities faced by black women. In it she discusses the links between her personal experiences, current events and statistics. Grace explains how this trifecta weighs on her personally, and by extension other black women as well. She ends by requesting that the Church not shy away from but instead engages the hearts of black women who feel as weighed down as she.

Sounds simple right? It rarely is. Unfortunately for many people attempting to speak truth to power, sharing our hearts on these issues (not just theories, but how they make us FEEL) is always risky. Sometimes those listening engage well, but we always know there is a chance things will fall apart. It doesn't always matter what the justice issue is- mass incarceration, education, immigration, or in this case racial justice- there is always a risk that our hearts will leave as broken as when we came.

I use Grace's recent experience as a backdrop 1. because the article is good and you should read it. 2. because the comments section managed to use ten of the most common deflections known to racial reconcilers. If it wasn't so frustrating, it would be amazing. So I thought it might be helpful to make a Top 10 List for those who are new and perhaps frustrated by how quickly these conversations can devolve.  

10. "No, it's a different -ism… " 

More than one -ism can exist in any given situation. Your denial that racism was present in the story I am telling you is insulting my experience and my intelligence. It might not be wise to assume you are the most learned in an -ism that you don't experience. 

9. "My singular experiences trump your lifetime of experiences."

Its really nice that you work in the 'hood, attend a church with some black people, learned Spanish, travelled to an underresourced community, have an Asian friend etc. Yeah, no. Your short-term experiences will never "trump" my lifetime of experiences.  Additionally, if none of these experiences have opened your eyes to the realities of racism, you're not paying attention. So you should probably listen to these stories. It will make you a better friend. 

8. "Why aren't you listening to me?"

This comes in numerous forms: Shouldn't we all be heard? Why doesn't my voice matter? We're tired of listening to {insert race} people. Haven't we talked about this enough? No matter the form, this is an attempt to silence people of color and exert power to control the conversation. Resist the desire to control. A conversation is going to be the easiest form of releasing power; if you can't do that, you will have little success doing so in systems, structures and interpersonal relationships.  

7. "You're feelings aren't valid until I'm convinced the cause of those feelings is just."

Ouch. This can often be an incredibly painful response for someone who is sharing the pain of their lives. If I said, "I had a bad day today," and continued to express what happened, would you judge whether or not my experiences legitimately add up to a bad day? Would you pick apart what you think valid and what is not? Would you dare tell me that you don't think my bad day is valid and walk away? Why is greater grace given to a single bad day than a lifetime of struggling against racism?  You don't get to be the judge and jury over anyone's feelings. Stop picking apart people's stories. 

6. "But what about what this other black person said?"

Newsflash: We are not all the same. We are allowed to have varied experiences, perspectives, and ideas. And we trust that you can take them all in. If you are basing everything you believe about race on one person, thats a problem. You should be quiet and take in a few more perspectives. 

5. "Scripture, Scripture, Scripture… All clear now?" 

Ummm, can we stop assuming that people of color haven't already reconciled their ideas, experiences, and studies of racism with the Bible? Please don't try to fix me with Scripture when I'm busy trying to fix a broken world. 

4. "History is not tied to today's problems"

Yes. It is. History matters, including slavery which is what most folks mean when they want to dismiss history. Racism wasn't created in a vacuum. It was constructed and you would do well to know how, when, and why. This information leads to all the ways race has then been reconstructed over time until today. 

3. "But others have it worse"

The fact that other people have been/are being oppressed isnt a good reason to stop having the conversation about this particular oppression. And it certainly doesn't dismiss it or make it okay. People of color are generally well aware of the different forms oppression has taken throughout history. We could probably school you on some of the connections between them, but lets be honest. You're not trying to dive deeper, you are trying to dismiss. Stop. Focus on this oppression. We can talk about the others later, if you can have this conversation well. 

2. Hyper focus on a micro-issue 

This may be one of the most effective tools for derailing a conversation. Hyper focusing on a minor example, story, or media event has the ability to shift the conversation into a fight over arguable specifics instead of connecting the dots between multiple forms of racism.   

1. You're making me feel bad; make it stop.

Ultimately, most of the above responses are an attempt to guard against feelings of guilt, shame, sadness, frustration, anger and helplessness. Even when there is nothing accusatory spoken, just the race conversation- the retelling of painful stories- is enough to elicit an emotional response. Rather than let the emotions live, it is quite common for participants to resist. 

Now, I am sure there are more, but I hope this is a good starting place. Before I close, I would like to offer another thought. Just sit in it. I know its hard. I know its uncomfortable. I know there is a lot of emotion. I am having feels. You are having feels. But it will be okay. Just join me in the pain, muck, mire. Don't resist it. Let down your defenses. Pull up a seat and be witness, be a friend. 

Finally, I would like to acknowledge Grace, Brenna, Kathy, and others who chose to engage specifically in the convo that inspired this post. Despite the refusal of some to just sit in the pain being expressed in the article, it was incredibly encouraging to see these women tag team responses. You should also check out their responses in the comments section. It was beautiful and encouraging the way they encouraged folks to return to Grace's words.  

*For more on participating in race conversations well, check out this post by Emily Maynardthis one by Esther Emery, and this one by Christena Cleveland. Can you tell I just keep adding? Okay, I'm done now.*