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You, Me, and White Fragility: Open Letters from the NEXT Church Co-Chairs

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Linda Kurtz is curating a series we’re affectionately referring to as our NEXT Church book club, which aims to share insights on a variety of texts – and how they have impacted our bloggers’ ministries. Understanding that reading in and beyond one’s field is important to offering good leadership, we offer this series to get your juices flowing on what books you might read next. What are you reading that’s impacting how you think about and/or do ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

A dialogue between Shavon Starling-Louis and Adam Fronczek

Shavon: Hey, Adam!

So we are drawing near to the end our year of overlapping as co-chairs for the strategy team of NEXT Church and it has been quite a year! We have had amazing opportunities to stand side by side to celebrate the innovative, creative ways in which the people of God are sharing Christ in the world, like at the National Gathering in Baltimore, and we have had times when we have navigated tension and discord – particularly around issues of systemic and interpersonal experiences of racism in our work.

I have to admit that despite having met through NEXT Church a few years back, I was curious as to how we would work together. We come from different church setting backgrounds – you, larger predominately white; me, mostly serving a smaller multiracial, multicultural church.

Our time of shared leadership started with a rather shaking experience that reflected the systemic and personal messiness of racism. For some of us it was a shock, a rip, a rending of the relational fabric which NEXT Church builds itself upon; for others its was an unmasking of holes that already existed.

In response, the fuller NEXT Church leadership looked, felt, searched for a way forward grounded in our Christian call for justice and mercy. There were times when as an African-American woman, the weight of my deep love for NEXT Church and the PC(USA) combined with the piercing of the heart, mind, and spirit that comes when racist ideas erupt so closely seemed like too much for me. I was particularly pained when I saw racism wound other leaders of color who are precious, beloved friends and colleagues.

In hindsight at the beginning of our shared tenure, there were times when I could have used a bit more support particularly when a systemically oppressive idea was shared in our work.

Recently, I was wondering about those moments. I wondered, could Adam sense that something needed to be said? Was I expecting him to be a mind reader or was there something else going on there?

Without being accusatory, it seemed like those earlier moments that I struggled with were actually examples of white silence and the white solidarity that it promotes. Both of which, as you know Robin DiAngelo discusses in White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. But I also wonder if it’s me or did you also notice a shift in our co-leadership once we read White Fragility along with the fuller NEXT Church strategy team? I have noticed you have stepped into have certain situations with a posture that is supportive of the leadership I bring and yet volunteers to carry weight that might be extra heavy if I had to carry it. I have felt that White Fragility (the book, not the phenomenon) has been a helpful conversation partner in our co-leadership, but would love to hear your thoughts.

Adam: Shavon,
Thank you for your honest, challenging, and compassionate letter. Across this difficult season we’ve shared, I’ve learned so much from leading with you. Among your many gifts, you know how to name an issue – to call it like it is – and here you’ve done it again. And you always do so speaking the truth in love.

White silence – the idea that white people maintain their safety in difficult conversations about race by being silent – was a new idea for me this year. You and I became co-chairs just as our strategy team agenda unraveled into a long-overdue conversation about racism and white privilege. My first reaction was to become silent. My rationale went something like this: “The last thing this conversation needs is another white male to be a dominant voice. The best thing you can do, Adam, is listen and try to learn something.”

Then, as our hard conversations progressed, I heard that one of the worst things well-meaning white people do in conversations about race is remain silent. When something uncomfortable or racist is said by another white person, white folks expect the persons of color in the room to bravely name it, rather than taking responsibility to speak a challenging word to our own white brothers and sisters and try to be brave ourselves. I first started internalizing this feedback thanks to you and other people of color on our strategy team. Then, when we read White Fragility, I found a name and definition for it: “white silence.” So in that sense, the answer to your question is “yes,” our reading this book together has given me language to name behaviors I’ve been struggling with all year long.

The more complicated response to your question is that I still haven’t figured out the best way to break out of my white silence. While I have a renewed conviction about calling out white privilege and white fragility when I see it, I know also that there is much to be gained if me and the other white folks spend less time talking and more time listening.

There is no rule book or manual that helps me know when to speak up and when to shut up, and I continue to struggle with that – it makes me feel vulnerable, unsafe, and ill at ease, like I don’t really belong. I’ve tried to make peace with those unsettling feelings by reminding myself that, especially in the 90% white PC(USA), people of color are almost always in contexts like that. They are asked to play by a rule book of white behaviors that cause people of color to feel unsafe. For generations, people of color have figured out how to bravely navigate those situations. I confess that in my own white silence I have been a coward, and I hope to be more brave in the days ahead.

I promised you a question back. I know that you have thoughtfully engaged your congregation and presbytery in some of the same work we’ve been doing at NEXT Church with White Fragility. What is your vision for where those conversations go in the PC(USA) and how can I and other white folks in our denomination help to advance that vision?

Shavon: Thanks Adam!
Truly. Thank you.

My vision is that the PC(USA) will be a denomination recognizable for cultivating and liberating Christian community with the theological, spiritual, and interpersonal courage and stamina to overcome the atrophy of the faith which is reflected in all forms of systemic and interpersonal expressions of oppression – including white fragility. In order to fulfill the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, we will edify the faithful to be stewards of power or privilege for divine justice in ways previously unseen.

Regarding how to help advance that vision – God willing, all of us, but particularly our white siblings can begin with a counter-cultural expectation of discomfort, vulnerability, and failure. To do so is to expect to learn, to grow, and to experience God’s grace in their lives and the lives we touch.

Adam, I am truly blessed that God has allowed our lives to have touched.

With Gratitude and Hope,
SSL


 Shavon Starling-Louis is the pastor at Providence Presbyterian Church in Providence, Rhode Island. Adam Fronczek is pastor at Knox Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. Both have served as co-chairs of the NEXT Church strategy team for the past year.

A Reflection of Our God

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. In February, Laura Cheifetz curated a series on leadership development. We have one more to add to the series! These blog posts are by people who have been developed as leaders and who, in turn, develop leaders. They are insightful and focused. They offer lessons. What does leadership development look like in your own context? What could it be? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Omayra Gonzalez Mendez

I’m Puerto Rican, I’m a woman, and I have an accent. Does that describe who I am? Of course, the truth is I’m much more, but I must admit that representing those categories has opened many doors. Yes, there were times when I felt I checked all the boxes when different people were needed: woman, young, and Hispanic; I was a perfect package. Sometimes, I questioned if I really had the skills or was just invited to meet the quota. It may seem odd or illogical, but with the desire of the church to have different faces in leadership spaces, it was a blessing.

However, when I was about 18 years old, I met great women of color leaders while serving in Racial Ethnic Young Women Together (REYWT). One of these women, Marnie del Carmen, reminded me that wherever I went I had to make a difference. She preached to me, “Do not erase your accent, do not erase who you are. Share with others about your childhood. Your voice will make a difference. Other people will somehow identify with you and your story.”

Photo from Montreat flickr page

I remember the first time I led an energizer at a Montreat youth conference, perhaps in 2006, and a young Dominican girl approached me. She was excited because my accent reminded her of her mother’s family. I felt that even in the middle of North Carolina with all these people, it was wonderful that there was someone like her, someone to identify with, someone who understood what it is like to have an accent.

I’m more than my ethnicity. I realized that I am also the sister of a woman with disabilities. So, I’m Puerto Rican, I’m a woman, I have an accent, and I grew up in a family with a kid with disability.

Having a relative with a disability gives you another perspective on life. You learn not to complain about everything. You learn the power to believe in yourself. And you especially learn that the world is not made for people who are different or have special needs. Sometimes, not even the church.

For years I have worked in several capacities within the church, but my most prominent roles are in recreation. And as I wrote a few years ago for another publication: “Recreation is more than ‘time to play.’ It is about creating community. I try to lead games that invite people to work together, help people understand the need to be part of the greater body of Christ. Everyone has a purpose. Sometimes people don’t stop to think of the theological part of what they are doing — and that’s okay — but I know that God works in every single moment of the day. Energizers may not be the traditional way of doing worship or teaching the Bible, but is a way and sometimes that’s all that we need — a way to start doing things.”

This summer, while directing recreation in Montreat, my co-leader (Betsy Apple Eldridge) and I set out to plan the events with people who have mobility problems or motor skill challenges in mind.

At the end of the first week, we received a letter from the mother of a young man in a wheelchair thanking us for thinking about him, and finding ways to make him part of the body of Christ through recreation. We do not do things to be recognized, but that letter filled our hearts.

It was a confirmation that in everything we do, small or great act, is a reflection of our God.

The church has much to offer. The church can be that space that creates leaders who are aware of who they are, how they have grown up, and the blessings they can be for other people. We are the face of the church, in all our difference, and it is a gift!


Omayra L. Gonzalez Mendez is a news producer, movie lover, and super passionate about the church. From media reports, pictures and videos, she takes every free minute to work in different organizations of the Presbyterian Church, both locally and internationally. As an elder in the Presbyterian Church in Hato Rey, she works with the youth society and finance ministries. She understand that all parts of the church are equally important, so she can take a summer to sit and follow the committees of the General Assembly of the PCUSA, and fly the next day to lead recreation in a youth event. All matters of the church, processes and creation, fascinate her.