For the last couple of weeks, I have been sharing writings of my colleagues who have used our fall study trip to Birmingham as a springboard to talk about a difficult subject we often avoid in the church...racism.
My motivation in doing this was twofold:
1) I thought it would be meaningful for you to hear from different voices (other than mine) about our shared struggle to talk about and to face the reality of the deep racial divide in our world, our country, our communities and even our churches.
2) I want to invite you into a conversation. Perhaps it will be just a conversation with yourself which is a good place to begin. Yet, in order to enact true change, we must be willing to enter into honest, sometimes difficult, conversations with each other about the truth of the situation. Quoting Edith Guffey's article, which was in our last week's Weekly Connection, "the very act of taking the risk to tell our stories to each other matters."
Imagine the transformation which would be possible in our churches if we were willing to take the risk and tell our stories. In many ways, I believe this is what confession is all about. It is being honest with ourselves before God and one another. Reflecting on those areas in which we struggle. Naming our stumbling blocks, our missteps and our failures. Then allowing the power of God's grace to reclaim us, redeem us and redirect us toward restored relationships.
So, I invite you to hear a bit of my story, and in turn, I challenge you as churches to begin to share your own stories with each other--because it matters. It is a confessional way of clearing the path for new learnings, new insights, and new growth.
Recently, I saw a map that offered an overview of racial disparity in the U.S. by color coding the best to worst states for Black Americans, based on lack of education, employment opportunities, poverty, violence and unequal incarnation rates. I was discouraged and ashamed that my home state, Illinois, leaned strongly to the side of being one of the worst offenders. Yet as I reflected, I knew why. Here is what I knew from my own experience.
I grew up in central Illinois. In my town, my neighborhood, my church and my school, there were very few persons of color.
As a child, I overheard adults use racial slurs, make racist comments and jokes, and make disparaging comments about persons on television with darker skin and different features than mine.
By the time I was in middle school, I knew one of my best friends, who happened to be a black boy, was a friendship which would not be readily accepted by all (even some in my family).
When I was in high school, I knew members of my extended family (especially my uncles and grandparents on both sides) would not be accepting of me dating someone outside of my race. I knew what my maternal grandmother meant by "Birds of a feather flock together," and I cringed when my paternal grandmother used the word "colored."
I also understood from my parents talking openly about how they were embarrassed by the opinions and viewpoints of their relatives, that they struggled with the ways they were raised.
I understood that the conversations they had with me, my brother and sister about how all people were children of God and how sinful it was to discriminate against anyone of a different skin color, religion or sexual orientation were probably not conversations other youth in my church were having at home.
When I was in college, I knew it felt risky to bring home my college roommate, a young woman of very dark skin and Jamaican roots, for Thanksgiving to eat with my extended family, worship at my church and shop in the stores of my community.
When I was serving in my first church, after performing a wedding for a white woman to a Filipino man and receiving death threats from a white supremacist leader and his organization, my women in a bible study I led whispered odd comments like, "Well, what did she think was going to happen after marrying them?" and "She just couldn't leave well enough alone."
As a pastor, I understood when my husband's side of the family visited, I would feel ashamed as my sisters-in-law (white), my brothers-in-law (men of color), nieces and nephews (mixed race) would receive disgusted looks and would not receive the warm welcome that my side of the family would.
I understand there are things especially my black and Hispanic nephews will face that my white nephew never will. Just as there are things my black and Hispanic nieces will face that my white girls never will. I understand this is what is meant by white privilege.
Currently, I understand when my oldest daughter and her Hispanic boyfriend come to visit, there are places we will go where they will receive stares and will not be treated as well as other places we go.
But more importantly, I understand that all of these experiences, all of the overt and covert forms of racism I have been exposed to have had a profound effect on me--in some good ways and in some very bad and destructive ways. Out of all of these experiences and understandings, there are racist thoughts and opinions, which stick to me in ways that grieve my soul. Although I would prefer to deny it and claim a highly evolved sense of being, I must confess there are residual forms of racism in me, which I battle against. I do not know how to love the other as fully as Christ did and to which he calls us.
I am still a work in progress. However, the good news is God has not given up on me. God's call to follow in the steps of his Son, my Savior, has a grip on me and will not let me go. I am compelled each day, through the relenting presence of the Divine, to bring my undesirable traits to the light so that the immeasurable grace of God may transform them.
Yes, I am still a work in progress. There is so much more work, change and transformation to be done within me, so I might have a chance to effect change and transformation in the world. This is my story. What is yours?
Blessings, Rev. Shana Johnson, ISC Conference Minister