A Year of Conversations on Race, Bias, and Privilege: Presbytery Leadership Reflects on Our Courageous Call
Edited, Rev. Greg Klimovitz
In the latter portion of 2015, the Presbytery’s Leadership Collegium took a courageous step and announced the next twelve months as, “A Year of Conversations on Race, Bias, and Privilege.” Aware of the pervasive –isms that continue to plague both church and society, this intentional move by Presbytery leadership is an embrace of the church’s call as each of us “labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it.” (Confession of 1967, 9.44).
Assured such work hinges on God’s act of reconciliation in Jesus Christ and the movement of God’s Spirit throughout every age, representation of our leadership recently sat down for an informal dialogue on the pressing realities pertinent to race, bias, and privilege. Those present were: Rev. Bill Teague (Moderator), Rev. Dr. T. Janel Dixon (Vice Moderator and Co-Moderator of the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus), Rev. Ethelyn Taylor (Co-Moderator of National Black Presbyterian Caucus), Rev. Ruth Santa-Grace (Executive Presbyter), and Rev. Kevin Porter (Stated Clerk). The abbreviated transcript of the discussion is below, a reminder that we venture into this critical conversation together.
Aware this is both a critical and delicate conversation, what makes us reluctant to engage one another in regards to race, bias, and privilege?
Janel: People don’t want to be made to feel guilty for something their ancestors have done. And that’s real…. To talk about what has been done, the injustices and the discriminatory practices and those kinds of things- and want to have to deal with it and try to understand what your place is in all of that- it’s very delicate.
Ethelyn: We are taking a peak under the rug; we want [the truth] to come out but we don’t know how to let it out because we don’t want to offend anyone…The church as a whole needs to be talking about [race, bias, and privilege]. The church has to take a lead. And that’s the one thing the church doesn’t feel comfortable talking about…People are afraid; it’s the guilt feeling and not wanting people to think, “I am a racist.”
Ruth: Speaking from my perspective as a Latina, I have made an observation- entering the conversation on race and privilege is difficult for all, in part because of the complexities already mentioned. But I have also observed that for those of us of color, there are many times we get tired of being object lessons. That is a weight that is often difficult to carry. It requires that we become articulate, thoughtful, calm – when there are times when our hearts are crying in pain because of how we treat one another. It makes the temptation not to engage a real and present danger.
Kevin: On an emotional level, either feeling bad about oneself or making another feel bad; whether that’s guilt, anger, fear, and all those emotional things. There’s also an accountability piece that could have ramifications with regard to money, power, access, and the legacy factor when those things are compounded over generations…It leads to questions as to what would repair the past if it could be? Some may [also] feel as though it has been fixed. When you have that basic dichotomy, those who feel at its core [the brokenness of the past] has been fixed, let’s move on and those who say, “no, it hasn’t because of A, B, C, and D,” is that irreconcilable? If it is, then to what degree can we still be connected and unified?
Ruth: The magnitude of it is as such that we are all hesitant because, ‘to what end?“ It hasn’t been fixed for centuries and centuries. But there’s a theological conviction-we have to figure out how we are called to model the uncomfortable conversations. We all feel vulnerable or exhausted or tired; we’ve been in these conversations for eternity. But we are called against that exhaustion with the hope of making some movement…The church in this country has always been at the tail end of the issues; there have been very few movements when the church has has taken the lead. There have been individuals who have; but the church becomes a microcosm of the reality….We have absolutely contributed to the silence, to the fear, or to the anxiety of the conversation. On the other hand, there are historical places where the church has moved to be a prophetic presence, albeit late, but nonetheless, a prophetic voice that says, “if not us, then who?”
Bill: A time to keep silence, and a time to speak. All good conversations, but particularly conversations like this, require the keeping of silence while the other is given the time to speak. As a one who has inherent advantages in our particular world, the conversation on race, bias, and privilege asks that I begin with a time to keep silence while others are given a time to speak; others who do not have the same inherent advantages I have.
[Those of us in this conversation] are friends who were willing to tell stories that are not always easy to tell. I must be willing to listen, to listen well and to listen long, even when it is not easy to listen. Part of my reluctance and hesitance to engage in this conversation, then, is rooted in the reality that I will have to listen better and longer than I want to listen. Yes, the time to speak will come as the conversation continues, but the first words I speak will likely be the words of questions that ask for more stories that will open more windows to more understanding.
As we engage one another over the course of the next year, what are your hopes and even the most grandiose aspirations for these conversations?
Janel: Just getting people in the room to talk to one another [and] that whole building relationships piece. We can’t be friends unless you know something about me. Not only that, in order for us to really and truly be friends, I need to value you and you need to value me. It’s not enough that I see you and know that you exist. I have to value you; you must become important. That’s where we must begin. The mere fact that we are able to come into the room and have the conversation is a beautiful sign of hope and resurrection possibilities. We come to it from that perspective…to model the life and teachings of Jesus.
Ruth: We all understand, systemically, we can’t turn the world upside down; but I do believe that with our conviction we can cross the boundaries. The question for me is, how do we create the conditions whereby we encourage people not to solve it, but to get them to talk to someone they normally wouldn’t? How do we expand our cozy corners by crossing over and speaking to someone, in this case, of a different color or race?
Ethelyn: We’re all made in the image and likeness of Christ, but how do we say that to one another [and] to make them feel that you are really our brother and sister in Christ? How do we get to that point?
Ruth: Precisely. The absence of knowledge, the absence of humanizing someone, leads to terrorism on the other extreme. The absence of humanization allows us to characterize the other. This is precisely what gives terrorists the ability to do what they do to humanity – they dehumanize the other. So our call is to humanize the other in the image of God, in its fullness, not in its brokenness.
Kevin: The thing that’s great about the reality of the folks who are committed Christians having this conversation, it’s not just having Christ in the room but it’s Christ in the center. Just to build on what Ruth had to say about the image of God, it’s also the brokenness that creates the humility. To the degree that in a particular conversation on the macro, I can present as the one to whom the injustice has been done. I have to be, if I’m honest, equally aware of the ways that I am being unjust to others. What connects us at the foundational level is, “I am a sinner saved by grace.” Sin is causing death and disease; it’s causing all kinds of things. If we want to talk about a particular –ism, we turn the page and the players jump from the persecuted to the persecutor with a different-ism. What I would hope is that folks would recognize we have created a forum and a space and the table for the truth telling and listening to be done.
Ruth: One of the things I was thinking about is the baggage I carry because of the journey. We all carry baggage around fear, resentment – because of past experiences. My hope is that by engaging one another and by having these conversations in meaningful ways, there might be a day when those emotions will not accompany us into the room automatically?
Ethelyn: Over the years, I have seen this Presbytery change. Even for me, being the moderator at one time, I’ve seen our presbytery change for the better. The more we get people to be able to just sit and share their stories and nobody is making a judgment call. We all have stories that not only we can tell, [but also] we have stories that we would like to tell but we are afraid because of whatever reason… I really have hope for who we are, to role model not just among us but for [the broader world and community]. How much are we as individuals willing to risk so that the truth can set all of us free to some point?
Bill: Continuing the theme, I hope that we will be willing to take the time that this conversation requires. For me it begins with time to keep silence as friends like Kevin, Janel, Ruth and Ethelyn speak. In time I will begin to speak, questions first, but then to tell my own stories, and then, as we linger together, we may begin to challenge, confront, and encourage one another. Would that someone listening in on our conversations might notice how our speaking and our silence was filled with faith, hope, and love.
Aware that the nature of these conversations is organic and a growing edge, what are some ways people throughout our Presbytery can be a part of these conversations in the days ahead?
Bill: Show up. Show up to regional meetings and presbytery meetings and pre-presbytery meetings. Show up and be intentional. For those of us who have known advantages that are ours because of race and ethnicity, be intentional about beginning with a time to keep silence and to listen. For those of us who do not share those same advantages, be intentional about taking time to speak, telling stories, even stories that are hard to tell.
I am a reluctant presbytery moderator for a number of reasons, among them the reality of a full schedule and- I don’t have time for this. But as Christ has called me to take time and find time for participation in the life of the presbytery, he has blessed me with unexpected friendships with Kevin, Janel, Ruth, and Ethelyn, among others. It is a joy –sometimes a hard joy – to hear the stories they tell. It is a joy to know that they will want to hear my story, as well.
Ruth: [My hope is] we get through 2016 and we have learned not just how to have a conversation, but that we can model for other regions. That would be my grandiose hope. I think Philadelphia is particularly poised in part because of its complex 300 year history, but also because of where and how we stand today. Who we are because of whose we are can define how we respond to the pain of what is going on all around us in our nation and abroad. I believe our willingness to engage in these courageous conversation speaks to our spirit. I trust above all, that God’s Spirit is with us.
As the Presbytery of Philadelphia rallies behind these critical conversations on race, bias, and privilege, we are reminded such work is at the core of what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ who has given us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). Stay tuned for more opportunities to be engaged. Until then, may we all commit to move the conversation forward one step at a time and one relationship at a time, as we all draw nearer to the day when God makes all things new and right.