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Diversity Is What’s Next

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is curating a series featuring an eclectic group of voices responding to the question, “Does church matter? And if it matters, how, and if it does not, why?” Some of the voices speak from the center of the PC(USA); others stand on the periphery. One or two of the voices come from other denominations while some speak to us from the wilderness and barren places. “To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of humans.” These voices are stirring up that imagination in their own way. May your imagination be stirred as you consider their insight. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Phanta Lansden

I grew up with azaleas lining the walkway of my parents’ home and always enjoyed the beauty and radiance they offered. One spring, I decided to exchange the green boxwoods in front of my own house for beautiful azaleas. I planted seven fuchsia azaleas along my walkway. The garden associate at the Lowes Home Improvement store assured me they would bloom the following season. The following spring, nothing spectacular happened. I had one bloom on seven plants.

I examined the azaleas and discovered that, not only had the weeds choked the life out of the them, but I failed to prepare the soil. I pulled a few weeds and threw in some garden soil, but something went wrong. The azaleas were dying, save for one. I pulled up the dying plants and discarded them.

Not to be outdone, the following season, I purchased more azaleas. I tried desperately to match colors. This time around, my efforts were purposeful and thoughtful. I prepared the soil much better. I fertilized them properly and I put down black tarp to eliminate the weeds. I rejoiced when the plants grew beautifully and got bigger and more radiant with each passing season.

The one fuchsia-colored azalea that survived that first endeavor does not match the larger powder pink azaleas from the second planting. But, nonetheless, the fuchsia one pops with color and radiance alongside the powder pink ones and they all sit proudly along the walkway in front of my dining room window. Each spring, the blossoms are countless and the flower bed is filled with brushes of soft pink and fuchsia petals. All the azaleas are from the same family of flowers, but unique in the beauty that each brings and gives to our living space. One color is no better than the other, one cannot be compared to the other; both are glorious!

Like the beauty of the azalea, the radiance of its petals, the graciousness of its presence and the brightening power of its existence, this we are in God’s eyes in the world. We are unique without comparison and fearfully and wonderfully made.

The Psalmist sings in 139 verses 13-15,

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.”

God took time to nurture, craft and create our inmost being. We are who God created us to be and no one of us compares to another. There is no cloning or replication. Everyone is created with uniqueness, value, and worth. Each of us brings something beautiful to the world as we radiate with the gifts God gave us. We brighten a room, lift someone’s spirit, and become an image of love and joy.

Unfortunately, church has become a place where this is least recognized. Our churches have become like country clubs with their particular socio-economic, political, racial, and ideological grouping. Uniqueness and beauty is not valued and diversity is not put on the table. Some of God’s beautiful children are not met with warm receptions when they enter the doors of certain churches. The rate of “nones” is rising in culture, while church membership and attendance is decreasing. It is partly because we, as the church, are not accepting of all people.

Exclusion diminishes the witness of the church. Exclusion darkens the beacon of love as the foundation of our faith. I hope we will take a deep look at the weeds growing within our churches, notice how they are choking the life out of our witness. May we eradicate racism, bigotry, and hatred of any kind and cultivate a loving community of inclusivity and diversity so all people thrive and produce a bountiful harvest. Diversity is what’s next for the church.


Phanta Lansden is a fierce fighter of life who found her voice in the shadows. She is associate pastor of C.N. Jenkins Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. You can find her at www.phantalansden.com.

Addressing the Evil That is Racism

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Jen James are curating a series featuring videos from National Gatherings and suggestions for how they might serve as resources for ministry. We’re revisiting speakers from this most recent National Gathering in Seattle as well as speakers from previous years. Our hope is that inviting you to engage (or reengage) their work might invite deeper reflection and possibly yield more fruit. What is taking root and bearing fruit in your own life and ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

In her testimony during the 2016 National Gathering, Jessica Vazquez Torres offers a strong challenge to the church to get serious about addressing the evil that is racism in meaningful ways. This 30 minute video is a resource for leaders and congregations who are already talking about race, racism, and white supremacy and want to lean into that tension. It is a challenging personal introduction for leaders who want to deepen their own wrestling with racism and white supremacy.

As you finish the video, what word or phrase describes how you feel after watching this? (in a group setting, be sure to allow for complexity of reaction and varied reactions)What is hard to hear in what Jessica says? How might you lean into that discomfort?

Jessica offers four insights in addressing racism that the church needs to be clearer about:

  1. Racism can’t be understood aside from white supremacy.
  2. History matters.
  3. Racism is structural, not relational.
  4. All of us are made complicit.

Thinking about your own context or your own life, which of these insights is most recognizable to you? Which is the most daunting?

What’s one step toward learning you can do in one of these areas?

Jessica she offers four actions to take:

  1. Own your complicity.
  2. Develop a thicker, more complex, intersectional analysis of racism.
  3. Be political (because racism is lived out in the public sphere).
  4. Talk about whiteness and the benefits to white people, not just the oppression of people of color.

Which of these actions could you lean into most easily as an individual or as a congregation? What’s one step you/your church could take?

Which of these actions would be the most difficult to lean into? Is there an initial step you could take toward that larger action?

Holy Spirit, this is a challenging word. Help us to hear your liberating promise within this challenge. Open us to the tension and discomfort that we pray is in service of sanctification. Amen.

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.

Our Challenge is Not Decline. It’s Racism.

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Kerri N. Allen

It is often the case that General Assembly resolutions do not feel connected to our local congregations. As much as anything, that is because resolutions are statements about our life as a corporate body. This resolution is about how our larger denomination relates to Black Presbyterian congregational ministry and, as such, I believe that it can only go so far to address the challenge of being Black and Presbyterian. Black congregational instability is only one issue that is facing Black Presbyterians, and in 2018, I dare say that it is not the most significant. The challenge of being Black in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is not about decline. It is about racism.

Recently, I heard a preacher say that racism was not a stain on the American flag, it was the thread that sewed the flag together. The challenge of being Black in the PCUSA mirrors the overall challenges of being Black in the United States. That thread of racism that exists from the earliest days of European colonizers is embedded throughout every corner of this nation and, as such, is part of the very ethos of the PCUSA.

I know this from my own painful personal story on the “challenge of being Black in the PCUSA” that I shared publicly a few years ago. This experience resonated with many and I heard from close to 40 other ministers of color (including many Black Presbyterians) who thanked me for sharing a narrative that is all too familiar. Shortly after the election of Donald Trump, Dr. Camille Dungy wrote about the challenge of being Black in the PCUSA from her view from the pew.

As Christians, we should understand that racism is a sin. Sin demands a theological response of confession and repentance. While a generalized, sanitized lip service of “racism is bad” is commonplace in the PCUSA, explicit naming of the structural sin that permeates the life and history of the denomination has failed to occur.

When we are able to be honest about the Southern Presbyterian slaveholder money that built institutions, congregations, and denominational relics – many which are used for good – we will begin some real work of confession. When Northern Presbyterians recognize that many of their good intentions in “reunification” that led to the creation of the PCUSA also decimated the infrastructure of Black Presbyterian institutions, we can claim that we have made some honest progress toward confession.

From confession, the real work of repentance can take place. Real, biblical repentance is the only faithful path. Genuine biblical repentance is what Jesus shows us in his encounter with Zacchaeus. It goes beyond apology and requires actively turning away from previous actions, acknowledging the good pain and even anger that exists by those who have been wronged, and actively committing to do better. Biblical repentance is costly and uncomfortable, and it is the only path to reconciliation.

When those of us who claim to follow Jesus begin to take seriously theological imperatives that bring about justice and reconciliation, the frustrations that are expressed by Black Presbyterians will be addressed because there will no longer be excuses in addressing them. It is from that place that we can see real progress and wholeness in our relationships with one another.


Kerri N. Allen is a Reformed and womanist theologian, PhD student, and hospital chaplain. Originally from St. Paul, MN, when Kerri is not buried in a book or writing a paper, she enjoys hiking, travel, watching sports, cooking or spending time with one of her many nieces or nephews.

2018 National Gathering Testimony: Betsy Nix & Sheri Parks

Dr. Betsy Nix and Dr. Sheri Parks collaborate on a testimony to the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering in Baltimore, MD, about race in the city.

Elizabeth Nix (Betsy) is an associate professor of history and the chair of the Division of Legal, Ethical and Historical Studies at the University of Baltimore. Sheri Parks is the associate dean for research, interdisciplinary scholarship, and programming for the College of Arts and Humanities, and an associate professor of American studies at hte University of Maryland.

Sustained Radical Racial Reconciliation

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

Today, NEXT Church executive team co-chairs Shavon Starling-Louis and Lori Raible close the month’s reflections with a conversation.

SHAVON: Can NEXT Church be a place of sustained radical racial reconciliation?

Societally and denominationally there are many places in which the thought of racial reconciliation is celebrated. But it is often relegated to the incremental “not too much, not too fast” fashion. It often can feel that communities of leadership (read: committees) are created in the paint-by-numbers vein (i.e. “ we need to find __ black people… __ Latin American… __Native American… __ Asian Americans so we won’t be all white”).

Unfortunately, what is desired to be a place of diversity often quickly becomes a place of tokenism in which a people’s diverse phenotypical presence is valued but the gifts of their culture, individual life, and experiences are not.

My hope is that NEXT Church can be something different. NEXT Church has core values grounded in relationship and authenticity. So, yes we have a hope of 50% + of people of color in our leadership teams, but it only makes sense to me because I know it comes out of a hope for drastic systemic change in who is at the leadership tables.

And while this goal may seem to minimize the intersectionality of diversity, I think we wanted some goal to hold us racially accountable for the leadership relationships we cultivate.

At its core, NEXT Church believes that in real relationship, significant transformational changes in how we live life together are possible.

I have watched us be stretched, struggle, and be blessed by our way: being community which is grounded in real experiences of life together. In both joy and hurt, we are made more faithful and more just.

It’s not that we get it right but that we lean in when it’s hardest that excites me about NEXT Church. I have noticed that when I expose my heart to the other, I experience the grace and challenge of my identity in Christian community and I sense others do too.

I think that in our work together we see that being the kind of community that is open to hear the impact of racism on our life together and then prayerfully discern how to respond in our actions towards healing is a treasure and a sign of the in-breaking of the Holy Spirit. And I sense this is true because we are committed to being vulnerable with each other. We have a level of trust because of our desire for real relationship.

And what seems to be a Holy Spirit gift of unbelievable proportion is that this is a common thread of those engaging NEXT Church at every level. And while I know we are all in different places in how we articulate the role of racism in being a sinful barrier to faithful relationship with the other, when I connect with new friends through NEXT Church, I get this overwhelming sense that this person has the intent to build up – and not tear down – the body Christ and the global community at large.

I discern that in our racialized and polarizing times our type of commitment to relationship at NEXT Church is radical work. It is radical because by being in real relationship, we are naturally cultivating organized, faithful, theologically grounded work for the healing of the person-to-person and systemic impacts of racism.

So Lori, what do you think?

LORI: Your thoughts, Shavon, make me question what it really means to belong at NEXT Church.

NEXT Church believes God is always calling the Church into the future. Cultivating leaders and congregations by equipping and connecting them to one another will strengthen the relational fabric of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and promote God’s transformation of our communities for the common good.

Belonging is easy to talk about, but hard to do. So hard in fact, it’s biblical. Which of course as people “in the people business,” we all know but hate to admit.  The 2017 National Gathering hosted about 600 leaders. For 220 of them, it was their first time at a NEXT Church Gathering. Every year we host an orientation conversation about NEXT Church. This year I remember mentioning that NEXT Church hopes to express the Kingdom of God to the world in an honest way that reflects the creativity and diversity of that Kingdom. Easy to say. Hard to do. As Shavon mentions, it requires deep trust, a willingness to give one another the benefit of the doubt, and an openness to listening. The National Gathering sets the tone for this work, with an expectation that we must then act in the world in a way that is congruent with what we proclaim together about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

During orientation we also mentioned that our National Gathering is designed as a bountiful feast, not a prix fixe 5-course meal. Were there parts of the Gathering that did not resonate with me personally? YEP. Am I grateful for the good people that gave of their time and gifts in leadership? YEP. Was I challenged and inspired? Absolutely.

Some folks have a hard time believing it, but NEXT Church has a seat at the table for every leader in our denomination. We are not a club. We do not take sides. We try desperately not to be exclusionary. The tables throughout our gathering space in Kansas City reflected these claims. If you will sit at the table and engage, then you are encouraged to speak up and share your gifts for the greater good of our denomination. The workshops were meant to reflect this claim.

And yet serious questions about belonging were raised during the National Gathering: Can I trust NEXT Church will welcome my unique perspective for what it is? Can I trust that NEXT Church will not be yet another organization unwilling to recognize the marginalization of women, LGBTQ leaders, and leaders who do not identify as white? How is NEXT Church reconciling institutional habits of exclusion and racism and avoiding the appropriation of cultural expressions of faith? How can I trust NEXT Church honestly values my conservative understanding of theology? Do they really care about what I have to say as a part time or non-traditional pastor? A traditional large steeple pastor? A seminarian? A leader in the last years of ministry? An educator? A ruling elder?

It makes sense that some are skeptical of the claim that there is a seat for everyone at NEXT Church, especially when personal experiences may inform a necessary level of self protection. But there is a seat. To be clear, we do not always agree, we do not always get it right, and we do not claim to be experts at the work of radical belonging. But together, we are trying. The National Gathering in Kansas City was a celebration of unity, not sameness. We commit to having the hard conversations, taking risks, and holding ourselves accountable. We also practice the art of giving one another the benefit of the doubt with grace and trust.

Most days I am simply trying to remain faithful to the people I serve. Between sermons, teaching, hospital visits, budgets, meetings, and parenting, I get tired. Bone tired. In the midst of a tenuous American culture, sometimes I doubt my ability to proclaim the Gospel with integrity and boldness. It gets isolating. So yeah, I need community. I need colleagues and friends to keep me honest and focused, but NEXT Church is about more than friendships.  If we are interested in collecting our voices and harnessing the power of Christ’s Church for God’s Kingdom, then our gathering space cannot be an echo chamber. What would it look like for the PCUSA to express the Kingdom of Heaven to the world in an authentic way that embraces and celebrates our diversity?

Seriously. Think about that for a minute.

We cannot afford to waste time bickering or managing our losses when there is a surplus of committed, diverse, and creative leaders, each worthy of investment. Also, we must not wait for support structures and institutions to catch up. Christ is alive in the world, NOW. While in humility, we claim the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ when we missed the mark. With all hope, you were inspired, challenged, engaged, and nourished by those you found in your midst. Having learned and grown together, we will step boldly into the future again next year with commitment, passion, and a renewed sense of faith.


Shavon Starling-Louis is pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in Providence, RI. Lori Raible is co-pastor of Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. Both are co-chairs of the NEXT Church executive team.

Race, Relationship, Repentance

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Andrew Foster Connors

Like most worthwhile things, the NEXT Church strategy team’s initial commitment to become 50%+ non-white in our leadership was born more out of Gospel idealism than out of competency. We believe that the “next Church” will reflect the culture in which the PC(USA) is situated, a culture that will be 50%+ non-white by 2042. God will make that a reality and the PC(USA) has an opportunity to be a part of it if we choose. I believe Paul’s words to the Galatians subordinating the divisions that we take for granted to a unity in Christ that is as clear as the color of the water in our baptisms. But as a Calvinist, I also know that racism coats everything in America. It warps the way we see each other. It’s warped the Church, too. There is no way to dismantle a sinful system that’s had generations to percolate, without a “gird up your loins” gritty commitment to abide with each other through the crap that we all swim in.

As you would expect, living into that commitment hasn’t been easy. One example of the way this came to the fore at the 2017 National Gathering was the Tuesday morning “crowd-sourced band.”  Steve Lindsley, a talented musician (and pastor, too!), had about as “nexty” an idea as you could come up with: to create a music team entirely off social media. The band would play well known “secular” music that would carry the worship service. It was risky, participatory, and agile – all values that NEXT Church has trumpeted as essential qualities for church to get beyond institutional rigidity. Steve was sensitive to a playlist that reflected diverse genres within the organizing idea. Then a member of our group raised the important question: was this going to be a bunch of white people leading “we shall overcome?” What about Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” (both on the playlist)? And could two white guys really rap “Where Is the Love?” with any kind of worship integrity? Of course, having never met each other before we had to first find out, “Are we all white?”

When we discovered that we were, in fact, all white, some uncomfortable questions arose. Should we remove “Redemption Song” and “We Shall Overcome” to avoid cultural appropriation? Should we actively seek out persons of color to make the group less white? Should we try to contextualize each piece? Should we call the whole thing off? Immediately we were face to face with the ongoing, glaring sin that we all live with in the Presbyterian Church: we are whiter than God would have us be. We solicited some second opinions and came up with a plan. We would drop the white guys rapping “Where Is the Love” in favor of a video montage. We would add some context to the “We Shall Overcome” piece. Originally we were also going to add context to “Redemption Song” and to the other pieces, but in rehearsal it started to feel stilted, even defensive. We scrapped that plan, and added a few sentences of context at the beginning.

Evaluating the worship experience later, our diverse strategy team commended the group for some of our choices, but also critiqued the decision not to add context for the Bob Marley piece. One member of the team raised a question that was completely outside of my field of vision – whether the word “band” subtly signals “white music.” Could adjusting that one word result in a musical group with more diversity? Maybe. Maybe not. As we discussed other experiences of worship beyond Tuesday morning, an African-American member of the team was almost apologetic in her response: “It pains me to share my reaction with you. I don’t often share this kind of feeling in this kind of a setting.” But this strategy team member did share that feeling. And I am grateful for it.

Two things I’ve learned over the years as a person crossing racial boundaries (and other types of boundaries, too): healing is only possible when relationships are strong enough to handle the pain that comes to the surface; AND forgiveness and repentance (not perfection) are the only foundations on which to build real relationships. We’ll never grow as a church if we’re afraid of doing things that reveal our racism. We have to build relationships that are able to handle difference and division when they arise, calling out the racism that warps us, and moving forward together with courage and deeper trust. These are some of the conversations we’re having in NEXT Church leadership. With God’s grace, we’ll keep having them, building a broader community, and the church will move a little closer toward God’s dreams for us.


Andrew Foster Connors is senior pastor of the Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD. Andrew serves as clergy co-chair of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD – www.buildiaf.org), a local affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and Maryland’s largest citizens power organization. He serves on the executive team of NEXT Church. Andrew holds degrees from Duke University and Columbia Theological Seminary, was the 2001 recipient of the David H.C. Read Preaching Award, and was named 2016 “Marylander of the Year – Runner Up” along with two other BUILD colleagues for their work negotiating the largest Community Benefits Agreement in Baltimore history. Andrew is married to the Rev. Kate Foster Connors. They live in Baltimore with their two children.

Racism: A Culture of Malformation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During June, Therese Taylor-Stinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring Contemplation and Social Justice, featuring posts by member os the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Elizabeth Leung

When I think of contemplation, the name of Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and social critic, came to mind. I read “No Man is an Island” and “Seeds of Contemplation” decades ago, and what he said about the illusion of the false self, in contrast to the true self in God, inspired me to think of the spiritual life in a deeper way. However, it would be years later, when my eyes were opened to the false self as a colonized subject growing up in British Hong Kong, while coming into racial consciousness living as a non-white immigrant and learning of Asian American history in the United States.

A few weeks ago, I heard a plenary address “Engaging Racism: Merton and the Unfinished Quest for Social Justice” given by Bryan N. Massingale at the International Thomas Merton Society meeting. Massingale has focused on racism as culture—“a way of interpreting human color differences that pervade the collective convictions, conventions, and practices of American life … functions as an ethos, as the animating spirit of U.S. society, which lives on despite observable changes and assumes various incarnations in different historical circumstances.” (Bryan N. Massingale, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, p. 15.)

Quoting Merton who wrote in the mid-1960s about U.S. racism as a white[ness] problem and a spiritual crises, and African American agency as white kairos, Massingale explained racism as a cultural ethos of malformation of self and conformation to a social order that adopts a racial superiority. In terms of Merton’s understanding of the true self in God, the contemplative is one who is uneasy with the social order and its mechanisms that keep us in a false self. For in the adoption of racial superiority, the inmost being, whose destiny is in God as the true self, becomes a specter.

Racism as a culture of malformation echoes with my reflection on racism as disfiguration of the image of God and the creation of the beloved community as the transfiguration of the body of Christ. Similar to Massingale, I consider racism a culture in which we are already immersed. We cannot ignore the lasting impacts of the historical realities of racism on the establishment of social structures and on present attitudes and behaviors regarding race. In other words, when we say that racism is a sin, it cannot be simply about what one person does to another. Racism is a malformation that afflicts all and a disfiguration that violates all.

If racism affects the destiny of our true self in God and the creation of the Body of Christ, I wonder why social justice regarding race is often treated as an application of theology. For me, the vision of John of Patmos in Revelation 7:9 indicates that in heaven, at the end of times, God is not “colorblind.” Perhaps it is time to face the malformation in our current church culture and to seek reformation for the next—one in which racial justice is integral in our theological discourse, foundational in our seminary curriculum, and central in our Christian faith formation.


 

Elizabeth LeungThe Rev. Elizabeth Leung is the Minister for Racial Justice with the national setting of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio. She was trained in spiritual direction at Mercy Center, Burlingame, CA. Her PhD in Christian Spirituality was from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA.

Contemplation and Social Justice

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During June, Therese Taylor-Stinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring Contemplation and Social Justice, featuring posts by member os the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

In case you have missed any, here is a master list of  this month’s posts exploring contemplation and social Justice:

Blog curator Therese Taylor-Stinson introduces this month’s topic in “Contemplation and Social Justice: A Month of Blogging by Members of the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd.”

photo credit: DSC_0082 via photopin (license)

photo credit: DSC_0082 via photopin (license)

Second, Leslye Colvin shares a reflection on the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in “A Clearer Image: Two at a Well.”

Next, Cynthia Bailey Manns explores the challenge of engaging in meaningful discussions about race, faith, and politics in a two-part post, “Reluctant Companions.” You can read part I here, and part II here.

In “Embracing Diversity,” Therese Taylor-Stinson reflects on Tiffany Jana and Matthew Freeman’s keynote at the 2015 NEXT Church National Gathering in Chicago.

In Jesus Stripped of His Clothing, Leslye Colvin provides a thoughtful Good Friday Reflection on Racism.

Vikki Montgomery compares the contemplative work of Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement with Desmond Tutu’s work to end Apartheid in her post Silence Before Protest.

Rosalie E. Norman-McNaney writes about the importance of breath in her spiritual direction sessions and the violence directed against young black men like Freddie Gray in her post Breathe on Me Lord; I Can’t Breathe.

Elizabeth Leung reflects on Thomas Merton in Racism: A Culture of Malformation.

In For What Shall I Pray?, Martha L. Wharton shares a heart-wrenching prayer on behalf of Baltimore mothers.

Vikki Montgomery reviews Krista Tippet’s On Being Interview with Pico Iyer in Out of Stillness and Silence.

Finally, Lerita Coleman Brown and Jacquelyn Smith-Crooks provide a four part series about Intersectionality. You can read part 1, 2, 3, and 4 here.

Reluctant Companions—Part I

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During June, Therese Taylor-Stinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring Contemplation and Social Justice, featuring posts by member os the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Cynthia Bailey Manns

Faith, Race, and Politics…. Each word alone can cause one to hesitate to enter into conversation with another. Yet, we are all accompanying each other on this journey we call life. How do we live “The Golden Rule” of treating others as we wish to be treated as we engage in sacred, non-polarizing conversations that must to be had to continue to evolve as a society?

About a month ago, I felt myself becoming discouraged with the continual negative, antagonistic discourse, from all sides, regarding these topics. I know my responses are viewed through the lenses of my life experiences and theology. I am an African American woman with a Caucasian great-great-great grandfather. I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s when societal change was creating excitement and fear simultaneously. Since my father was in the Army, I lived throughout the United States and Germany. I was frequently the only little black girl in my classes at school on the Army bases, yet, when I visited my grandparents in Alabama, things were quite different. We couldn’t try on clothes at certain stores, couldn’t eat in certain restaurants, had to drink from the “colored” water fountains and go up the back stairs of the movie theatre to sit in the balcony with the other “colored” people. Living in both realms of reality, segregation and integration, I knew discrimination was unjust because I had experienced freedom. Grounding my intense discontent with inequality was my unwavering knowing that God did not mean for some people to be treated so badly and others not.

Today we are still struggling with the intersection of these concepts–Faith, Race, and Politics. The U.S. continues to grow more ethnically, racially, and spiritually diverse. The Pew Research Center estimates that the Millennial Generation (18-33) is unattached to organized politics and religion, and is America’s most racially diverse generation. In T.D. Jake’s Huffington Post blog, he reminds us that, in the coming decade, one third of the 73 million people on the planet will identify as Christians, and due to this explosive growth occurring predominately in Africa and Europe, the next millennium Christian will be increasing non-white. By 2050, our racial categories will continue to dismantle as racial intermarriage increases, and by 2060, the changing face of America will be 43 percent white, 13 percent black, 31 percent Hispanic, 8 percent Asian, and 6 percent other. Finally, the Pew Research Center informs us that partisan animosity continues to increase with political parties viewing the others as a “threat to the nation’s well-being.”

So, how do we encourage dialogue and action around these topics? Might I suggest we begin with self? I recognize I need to be more contemplative about my response to the turbulent discourse. In her book Mysticism, Evelyn Underhill describes the work of contemplation as “the gradual development of an extraordinary faculty of concentration, a power of spiritual attention.” How do I engage “spiritual attention” to ensure God is present in me in my words and actions with others? How do I engage “special attention” so I can encounter the Christ who is present in the other, in me, and all our surroundings?

Until Reluctant Companions—Part II, ponder these words….

“Everything we think, say, and do is prayer.”  (Neale Donald Walsh)

“I think when push comes to shove people need to remember that, underneath all the pain, hurt, anger, pride, and lies, we are all the same. Human.” (Aimee)

“I don’t have to agree with you to like you or respect you.” (Anthony Bourdain)


 

Cynthia Bailey MannsCynthia Bailey Manns, M.A., currently serves as a spiritual director and educator. Her ministry also includes workshop and retreat facilitation. Cynthia is currently completing her Doctorate of Ministry in Spiritual Direction.