An anti-racism program interrogates whiteness
With a curriculum based in the works of Black intellectuals and creatives, a Baptist pastor helps white participants consider racism as they haven’t before.
Bob Thomason sometimes wonders how he lived almost seven decades before learning of the iconic author James Baldwin.
Recognized for his searing explorations of race and racism in the United States, Baldwin wrote “The Fire Next Time,” among other works.
“How do you get to be 67 years old and not know who this great thinker -- hero, really -- was? But I’m a white man, and I wasn’t taught [Baldwin’s work] when I went to school,” said the former banker and now aviation executive who still lives in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina.
White people can choose to ignore racism. If you are white, when did you realize the importance of understanding the experience of Black people in your community?
“His books weren’t on the TV I watched, in the magazines I read,” Thomason said. “And honestly, as a white man, race wasn’t top and center for me.”
Thomason was introduced to “The Fire Next Time” in a program at the church he’s attended all his life, Charlotte’s Myers Park Baptist.
The book was the first and foundational reading for a seven-week program called What Does it Mean to Be White? designed by the congregation’s senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Boswell.
Boswell, who is the father of an adopted Black daughter, created the program in 2020 partly to help white people understand the surge of police killings of Black people and the persistence of prejudice. But more to the point, he saw the need for white people to understand their own identities.
The Duke Divinity School graduate, 40, launched a pilot of the program as part of his own personal quest and doctoral studies at St. Paul School of Theology. The curriculum is slated to be published by Upper Room Books, and other congregations in the Alliance of Baptists may adopt it.
“I started going on a long, deep dive of reading everything I could on whiteness. I’m reading every book I could possibly find and thinking, ‘How do I translate this for the church?’” Boswell said.
Beyond preaching sermons and attending protests, what can white pastors do to lead white congregations to grapple with the impact of whiteness?
James Weldon Johnson, the author and diplomat and first Black executive secretary of the NAACP, once said that Black people of this country know and understand white people better than white people know Black people. Or themselves, Boswell said.
So Boswell asked himself, “How do I create a process by which we can read works written by Black authors, creatives and intellectuals who have written about white people for a hundred years [so that] white people are forced to reckon with descriptions of themselves written by Black people?”
A progressive history
Beyond his own beliefs, Boswell was spurred on by Myers Park’s history as a progressive religious community and its reputation for pastoral leadership that actively promotes dialogue about social issues.
The Rev. Carlyle Marney, who led Myers Park during the volatile period of the late 1950s and 1960s, wrote the book “Structures of Prejudice” and vocally supported many civil rights causes.
Decades later, in 2007, after years of friction with its statewide body over various positions on baptism, women in the pulpit and segregation, the church was expelled from the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina for affirming LGBTQ rights.
Still, Myers Park has seen its share of dissent about some of its public stances. Passersby, callers and a few congregation members have complained about its Black Lives Matter banner.
In 2016, soon after Donald Trump’s election and not long after Boswell was hired, a fiery speech from the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, former North Carolina NAACP president and leader of the Moral Mondays movement, indicted the president-elect in a talk at the church -- in much the same language as a white speaker who had previously denounced Trump.
Barber’s speech raised hackles that the white speaker’s hadn’t, said Boswell. In a contentious meeting where church leadership fielded complaints about Barber’s comments, a sole deacon stood up and said that the only difference was race.
That moment was pivotal. Boswell saw that there was more work to be done in his church. Only 10% of its congregants are people of color. Although the church was founded in 1943, it didn't welcome its first pastor of color until 2019. Now, two of its five ordained clergy are Black.
Focus on Black writers and thought leaders
More than 200 participants have completed Myers Park’s anti-racism program, including some who don’t attend the church. That’s a small share of its 1,600 members, but Boswell said it reflects the program’s current capacity rather than demand. Each What Does it Mean to Be White? group takes only a dozen people.
The program’s readings include books and other selections from canonical Black writers and thought leaders such as Baldwin, Toni Morrison, bell hooks and Malcolm X, as well as legal scholars and theologians. One unit includes articles by Yale Divinity School professor Willie James Jennings, along with the Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas’ “What Does Jesus Have to Do with Whiteness?”.
Films such as “Fruitvale Station,” about the 2009 police killing of 22-year-old Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, and “13th,” Ava DuVernay’s documentary about the rise of mass incarceration, are also on the syllabus.
What is shaping your imagination? What books have you read lately? What books do you recommend to others?
Attendees write a “racial autobiography” at the program’s outset. That helps them think through how whiteness has operated in their lives, in both obvious and stealthy ways. Its goal is to get white people thinking about the invisibility of this identity. Being white is often considered the norm or racial baseline, with people of color seen as “the other.”
The content isn’t easy, on multiple levels. A seminal 1993 Harvard Law Review article by Cheryl Harris, now a professor of civil rights and civil liberties at UCLA Law, introduces the idea of whiteness as property.
Whiteness, Harris wrote, is partly an enhanced ability to accumulate wealth and material items through the dispossession of others. It shares a logic with the law and practice of property holding in U.S. history -- throughout much of which property has conferred citizenship, voting rights and other privileges. Whiteness works this way, too.
But the difficulty of the Myers Park program extends beyond its theoretically dense readings. The first question of each week’s group video discussion is, “How did these readings make you feel?” The deceptively simple query demands that participants juggle emotion, unfamiliar facts, perspectives and texts that challenge their notions of history and self.
One week’s unit probes the topic “whiteness as evil” and features Malcolm X readings using terms such as “white devils” and “race of devils.” Some of the works are more subtle, but they all constitute a confrontation of sorts.
Charlotte attorney Tara Harris, 43, uses water metaphors to describe her journey in the program. She joined a group last summer, soon after George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police.
The tumultuous aftermath of Floyd’s death brought many people to the program. Harris had been trying to do self-study about racial issues and justice but saw this as a way to accelerate her learning and do so communally.
"Racism is the Water"
“I had thought of racism like a shark in the ocean and this scary thing that could bite you,” she said. “Then, all of a sudden, it occurred to me that racism is the water. It’s everywhere.”
How does whiteness define your community, and what continues to reinforce the power of white culture? How does Christian witness confront whiteness?
Taking the plunge to discuss whiteness, race and racism in ways she hadn’t before felt like “I was a really bad swimmer who had sort of been cast out into the deep end of the ocean and was barely swimming to get by,” she said.
“I don’t want this to be one of those things like, ‘Oh, white people always say [learning to be anti-racist] is so hard.’ Yes, it was hard. But it needed to be hard. That was important,” Harris said.
Thomason knows the struggle well, as participant and now as one of 25 graduate facilitators. His new crop meets weekly via Zoom.
“This is a pretty receptive audience. Now, that said, there’s a lot of emotion in [the ‘whiteness as evil’ session]. There’s always a little anger and a little pushback, because we don’t like to think of ourselves as evil, or our ancestors. [We want to say,] ‘That’s just the way it was,’” he said.
As a young child during segregation, he and many other white people were taught that etiquette didn’t apply to Black workers; he was admonished for thanking the help. Many years later, he recalls such lessons -- instilled by loved ones -- with a profound sense of shame, he said, and welcomes to chance to talk about these issues and experiences with other white people. He often found himself shocked at the many, frequently deliberate ways that ideas of white superiority were systemically built into the law, religion, the arts and almost every aspect of American life.
What Does it Mean to Be White? is specifically for white people. No people of color are in the groups, something that gave educator Lucretia Berry pause at first. Berry, who is Black, owns the Charlotte-based diversity consulting practice Brownicity, which offers customized anti-racist trainings. She’s also a curriculum development specialist and advises the What Does it Mean to Be White? facilitators.
Study and discomfort
“I won’t say I’m a fan [of all-white groups],” she said. “I don’t promote that, but I do understand it. And so when Dr. Boswell came to me and asked me to be accountability partner for this group, I said, ‘It’s very difficult to learn as much as possible when you’re in an affinity group [of people like you].’”
Who should be doing the “heavy lifting” of leading conversations about racism and privilege? What is the burden Black people experience in such conversations?
But she ultimately signed on, because “the goal is for white people to be vulnerable and transparent and not look to people of color to do the heavy lifting.”
She noted how difficult it is for Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to talk about race, even in environments committed to just those conversations.
“I wasn’t exposed to intersectionality or critical race theory until I was getting a doctorate. And I was taking courses specifically in anti-racism education,” Berry said.
“So I tell people who are at the beginning [of thinking about racism] that you can’t even begin to understand structural racism or, for example, the difference between equity and equality” without committed study and a willingness to linger in discomfort, she said.
One of the key challenges for anti-racist trainings is how to harness emotion productively, said racial and gender justice organizer Kari Points.
A self-described “liberation facilitator” based in Durham, North Carolina. Points co-founded Finding Freedom, a multiweek program for white women to examine how they are affected simultaneously by white privilege and gender disadvantage. The program is not affiliated with Myers Park.
“Shame is not a motivator,” Points said. In fact, it’s often quite the opposite: a recipe for inertia.
What white people need is to look each other in the eye and tell each other, with honesty and firmness, that they can do better, she said.
The best anti-racism programs do “remedial” education “to get white people to a place where we can show up in multiracial organizing spaces and be constructively humble -- not always asking for permission or approval, but also not needing a lot of attention or time” or to be centered, she said.
As Points sees it, that remedial process -- in which white people consider how they are invested in racism and then how to subvert it -- is an individual, collective and institutional project that can’t be divorced from social or political action.
The Myers Park program, for its part, doesn’t push participants to take any particular social or political action.
But both Tara Harris and Thomason are working hard to dismantle the racial tics of their upbringings and environments. They’ve each taken steps to translate their learning into action.
Harris recently drove her 11-year-old daughter to her hometown of Greenwood, South Carolina -- infamous for its 1898 “Phoenix riot,” sparked by Black efforts to resist voting disenfranchisement. The two had a car talk about the town’s history and how to make a better future.
What actions are you taking because of your understanding of the impact of racism on your community?
When asked whether her two children could be featured in a brochure for a school yoga program, Harris noted that no children of color were being included and took up the matter with the school.
Thomason had already moved his family’s nest egg to a Black-owned bank, and when the police shooting of Black motorist Keith Lamont Scott inflamed Charlotte in 2016, he asked Boswell to recommend a protest he could attend. And he went. But he still had a lot of room to grow.
Now that he has completed the program and absorbed its training, Thomason watches how participants -- those raised in the North, those with slave-owner ancestors like him, self-avowed progressives -- have racist beliefs to untangle. And he has been particularly surprised that younger people who didn’t grow up under Jim Crow have bias he thought belonged to older generations.
“I was hoping personally for just a deeper understanding of the issue of race in America,” Thomason said of his goals in taking part.
“How is it that I’ve lived all these decades and it still looks like the 1960s, you know, riots on TV, etc.? I wanted to understand that one,” he said. “And then I wanted to understand what, if anything, I could do or people like me could do to make the situation better. I mean, I want to die seeing racism go away.”
The move to doing church online isn’t just a necessity during the pandemic. It prepares religious institutions to become more flexible in meeting future challenges long-term, says a scholar who researches digital religion.
From the outset, the pandemic has forced religious groups and leaders to re-imagine their traditional practices and forms of gathering.
Religious leaders who had been technologically resistant in early 2020 have had to rethink their critiques of technology; indeed, many have had to embrace it for their very survival. Since March 2020, Facebook, YouTube and Zoom have become hosts to dozens of experiments in digital worship each weekend.
As someone who has studied how religious communities respond to technology for two and a half decades, I quickly realized that this move marked a unique and important moment for contemporary religion.
Over the first six months of the pandemic, I closely studied how a variety of churches engaged with technology. I collected essays and reflections from an array of church leaders, theologians, students and media scholars around the globe and published a series of three e-books -- in April, May and August 2020 -- exploring issues faced by congregations and pastors during this time.
Each of these e-books ends with an essay summarizing the common observations from the authors’ essays on how religious communities and their worship are being shaped by the conditions of the pandemic.
From this work, I’ve compiled a list of key lessons for religious leaders and scholars about how churches’ choices about engagement with technology will affect them in the long run. These 10 lessons appear in a new e-book, published in February 2021. Here are the first five lessons.
Religious leaders are being forced to reconcile their concerns about technology with the clear benefits provided by the internet during this time.
COVID-19 has been difficult for some religious groups -- in particular, those that were previously hesitant about or entirely resistant to the use of internet technology in worship. The pandemic has forced these groups to go online and consider how technology can be a benefit instead of a threat.
For years, researchers have highlighted the potential benefits that moving online can offer religious groups, challenging them to consider how technology could potentially expand their influence to new groups and opportunities. Religious communities are now, out of necessity, taking up that challenge, and seeing in a new way the benefits of technology.
Experimenting with worship online has revealed the power of technology that many religious groups were previously unaware of.
While some religious communities have been gathering online for a while, many communities made their first appearances online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For those groups, there was a steep learning curve that was not without its mistakes and challenges. But this hands-on learning has given them technological insights and opportunities to try out new tactics and strategies that have helped build connections within their congregations beyond what was possible in the offline world.
Mediated worship raises the question, How much of religion is -- or needs to be -- embodied?
Many of this project’s researchers questioned what the pandemic might mean for embodied religion. How much of religion is embodied, or how much needs to be embodied to be authentic?
In a period when people are not allowed to gather in person, the very purpose and definition of religion comes into question. This connects closely to the next lesson.
Social distancing practices and the creation of online worship services spotlight what religious groups actually see as their core values and defining rituals.
Not being able to meet face to face has caused many people to rethink the fundamental focus and practices of their religion.
For example, the project’s researchers found that while some churches proudly proclaim in their mission statements that they are focused on discipleship or outreach, what the pandemic has revealed is that they are primarily in the business of worship service delivery.
This revelation should challenge religious institutions to reevaluate their mission and identity. Social distancing is a catalyst that has pushed groups into examining how they define and live out religion in America.
Religious communities that are flexible and willing to innovate during this time are better placed to foster resilience in the long run.
Researchers noted that by being flexible, religious community members help prepare their traditions and groups for future changes and encourage religious creativity. Within days of learning about the crisis and impending lockdowns in the United States, many religious leaders were able to be innovative with the centuries-old traditions and ways of doing church.
By being willing to test out new technologies and experiment with novel ways to celebrate together, these institutions have encouraged adaptation.
This forced flexibility is showing dwindling congregations that they can reinvent religion and build communities able to adapt to changing conditions.
Collectively, these lessons speak to the positive potential of the pandemic to bring about shifts in the way Americans both “do” and think about religion. As the pandemic continues, innovation and adaptation will continue to be demanded of faith communities.
There may never be a full return to the business of religion as it once was -- event dependent and fixed to one location.
Religious groups and leaders that allow themselves to imagine and try out new forms of gathering, relationship building and community engagement will not only adapt more easily to the conditions created by COVID-19 but will also create a platform that will enable their faith communities to prepare for and respond to future change.
Interested in learning more?
Heidi Campbell’s four e-books are available free online.
“The Distanced Church: Reflections on Doing Church Online” presents an international dialogue between church leaders, theologians and media scholars on churches’ practical and theological challenges during their forced migration to online forms of worship and ministry.
“Religion in Quarantine: The Future of Religion in a Post-Pandemic World” offers reflections from religious studies faculty and students from Texas A&M University on how their spiritual journeys and their study of religion are being shaped by quarantine and social distancing.
“Digital Ecclesiology: A Global Conversation” addresses in greater depth the ecclesiological questions raised by churches readily embracing digital media and culture. Theologians from around the world explore the ways a church’s technological choices can create unforeseen theological implications for faith communities.
“What Should Post-Pandemic Religion Look Like?” outlines 10 trends religious groups need to understand to survive and thrive in the next decade.
One year into the disruptions caused by COVID-19, faith leaders from around the country discuss what has been learned and what still needs to be asked.
The COVID-19 pandemic suddenly changed many things, including the ways faith communities worship, celebrate rituals, serve their communities and conduct basic business.
One year later, in the midst of another Lent, Faith & Leadership asked 12 church and ministry leaders to step back from the daily challenge of their work and reflect on a question that looks both to the recent past and to the future: “A year into the pandemic, what lessons have you learned?”
Practitioners from across the country who preach, teach, guide organizations and influence others offered a variety of answers: COVID-19 has laid bare the inequalities in our society. It has shown that even small congregations can mobilize an army of volunteers to care for the least of these. It has challenged houses of worship to be more forthcoming in sharing where contributors’ money is going.
A dozen perspectives but one overriding theme: The church world faces a moral reckoning, and it cannot run and hide; for whether this crisis or another, there will be trials that test faith communities’ professions of faith and love.
‘The danger of selfish individualism’
Adam Russell Taylor, the president of the social justice-focused ministry Sojourners, believes that COVID-19 has been apocalyptic, as that word is defined by its Greek root, “to reveal and lay bare.”
After one year, what the pandemic has laid bare -- a health care system that leaves behind those who are racially and economically marginalized, a nation polarized to the degree that wearing a mask provokes anger and division -- all of this is deeply disappointing, Taylor said.
“It’s the danger of selfish individualism,” he said, and offered instead an example of the faith perspective we should be taking: “Wearing a mask is a testament to Christian discipleship. It is an expression of the golden rule.”
Rather than a lesson, Taylor believes, the pandemic leaves us with a challenge in post-COVID America: to care first for the least of these -- the elderly, minorities, essential workers -- and to see our lives and futures intertwined as articulated in 1 Corinthians 12. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26 NRSV).
‘Compounding traumas and crises’
FOUNDER, SENIOR PASTOR
NEW CITY CHURCH
For Tyler Sit, calling on churches to respond in a crisis extends beyond COVID-19. New City Church is within walking distance of where George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed while being arrested by Minneapolis police officers.
Sit said the lessons learned from both the pandemic and the unrest following Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, apply to whatever comes next. And there will be a “next,” he said, citing the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol as the latest of these “compounding traumas and crises.”
Going forward, Sit said, the church must offer a place to grieve, in consoling a church member who lost a parent to the virus, for example, or hosting an online prayer vigil after an event like Floyd’s death. And it must expand its use of social media -- “social media on steroids,” he called it -- to build unity.
It’s not enough to announce the time of the Sunday worship service on Facebook. There should be an active platform for people to share real-time communication -- “My mother was just diagnosed with COVID” or “If I’m not back from the protest by 5 p.m., call my cell.” New City, a small, multiethnic United Methodist congregation launched in 2017, has received a $40,000 grant to expand community building online.
Life has been a whirlwind at New City Church. The need to be ready for the next storm is clear. “We’re not going to return to normal,” Sit said.
‘I don’t want to go back’
FULLER YOUTH INSTITUTE
Kara Powell’s focus is on the faith development of youth. A year into the pandemic, the head of the Fuller Youth Institute hears not just teenagers but also adults articulating perhaps the one bright spot in all this darkness. With no soccer practice for kids to rush to, with time suddenly at our disposal to read, take a walk, savor the quiet, people of all ages are saying, “I don’t want to go back to the busyness of my pre-pandemic schedule.”
With much of our typical to-do lists eliminated, the challenge and opportunity for churches is to make this free time quality time. We can do so, Fuller said, by focusing on relationships and service.
We can find ways to build more intimacy into small, online youth groups. Keep a sharp eye out for those kids succumbing to loneliness and worse during this time of isolation. Harness social media for good, not gossip.
What if the teens in our church volunteered with the social media ministry? Found ways to serve their neighbors? The Powells, including their two teens, help clean a local food distribution center every other Thursday.
Pandemic or not, Powell said, young people ask three questions: “Who am I? Where do I fit in? What difference can I make?”
As Year Two of COVID-19 looms, Powell said, there’s time to search for answers.
‘You can’t keep making excuses’
CROSSING CAPITAL GROUP
BETHEL CHURCH OF MORRISTOWN
MORRISTOWN, NEW JERSEY
Whether preaching to his congregation or helping small churches make a social impact, Sidney Williams’ message is informed by COVID-19.
“You can’t keep making excuses for not doing anything,” he said. “You can do something.”
Williams’ focus through Crossing Capital Group involves helping congregations harness social media platforms -- Twitter, Instagram and others -- to mobilize volunteers to serve those most affected by COVID-19.
His own church is a powerful illustration. With 200 members, it has recruited 2,000 volunteers (non-church members) to distribute food and household essentials, tutor children after school, help staff a COVID-19 testing center at the church and provide rides to the hospital for people getting the vaccine. In all, his church is serving 2,000 families a week, up from 200 families before the pandemic.
This involves volunteers recruiting volunteers, Williams said. And with the elderly and poor often left behind digitally -- the digital divide “is still a thing,” he noted -- the church is reaching out to people the old-fashioned way. “We’re picking up the phone and calling,” he said.
Nearing the end of this first year of life in a pandemic, a bittersweet image sticks in Williams’ mind: folks trudging through the knee-deep New Jersey snow to get to the church, where volunteers stand ready to distribute groceries.
‘Working through the communal’
COORDINATOR OF RELATIONS WITH THEOLOGICAL ENTITIES
ASSOCIATION FOR HISPANIC THEOLOGICAL EDUCATION
For the Latino community, Elizabeth Conde-Frazier said, online teaching and learning can be effective, but it leaves the “relational and embodied part,” as she put it, wanting.
Connecting with each other, through the Holy Spirit, is essential. That’s the lesson Conde-Frazier, who works with the Association for Hispanic Theological Education, will carry forward as virtual education continues for who knows how long.
“There is a personalism in our [Latino] culture,” she said. “The Holy Spirit is working through the communal.”
How can this connection be made as students old and young -- indeed, theological education begins “when we sing hymns to a child in the womb,” she said -- all sit in front of their laptops, alone, miles apart?
By creating space for it to happen, Conde-Frazier said. We can begin with silence. Invite prayer. Share reflective readings. Be present to one another via Zoom. Look -- really look -- at each other, and ask, “How are you doing?”
The mission? She said it’s to bring people together regardless of age and background, helping them appreciate that we are one in our pandemic struggles, and one in our journey to hope and healing.
‘Charity isn’t enough’
DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA
In the Black church and community where Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove works for social justice -- St. John’s Missionary Baptist in Durham’s Walltown neighborhood -- COVID-19 claimed 11 people in January 2021.
“The only in-person gatherings we’ve had have been at the graveyard,” he said. “This virus has spread through all the places where our society is broken.”
That is the lesson he will carry forward; while the effort to care for the immediate needs of the sick and poor is impressive, God is calling us to a deeper place.
“Charity is important, but charity isn’t enough,” Wilson-Hartgrove said. “Something like this [COVID-19] should call us to look at structural inequalities that shouldn’t be tolerated.”
Health care available to all. A minimum wage workers can live on. An affordable home.
“This is certainly the season to hear that call,” he said.
‘The meaning of bodily presence’
THE ASSOCIATION OF THEOLOGICAL SCHOOLS
THE COMMISSION ON ACCREDITING
Seminaries have long asked the question, “What makes an effective leader?” COVID-19 has brought urgency and complication to the search for an answer, said Frank Yamada, the head of an association of 276 graduate schools of theology.
As seminaries train the spiritual leaders of tomorrow, Yamada said, it isn’t enough to show them how to lead worship or raise money online. Mastering the intricacies of virtual leadership is a given.
But if life in a pandemic is to be the new normal -- who can say for how long? -- there is a deeper challenge. How do we train our leaders to connect as if they were actually present, in person, sharing wisdom and empathy, hope and direction?
“In resident theological education,” Yamada said, “it was assumed that presence and embodiment were the same things.” But perhaps not.
“With the growing necessity of online learning,” he said, “it’s time to reflect deeply on the meaning of bodily presence.”
Is the pandemic proving that we don’t have to be there in the flesh to embody God’s spirit?
‘What are the things I really need?’
BARRY YOUNG CENTER FOR MINISTRY FORMATION
SAMUEL DEWITT PROCTOR SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY
VIRGINIA UNION UNIVERSITY
Jessica Young Brown’s view of life after COVID-19 is informed by her training as a psychologist and her work helping clergy deal with the stresses of ministry.
But her belief that the pandemic has stirred us to find new ways to engage with other people and find peace within also stems from personal experience. Among her loved ones who contracted COVID-19 was a childhood friend in his 40s who died.
A year into the pandemic, Brown encourages us to consider these questions: “What are the things I really need to be OK? How can I be creative to really access those things?”
She believes that many of us are finding new answers. Neighbors are sitting in their yards, getting to know each other for the first time. Loved ones are picking up the phone and, rather than texting, finding comfort in a familiar voice. Clergy and educators are discovering they can shape lives virtually. With more time alone, we are learning to cherish the stillness.
The question, Brown said, bears repeating: “What are the things I really need to be OK?”
‘Clear and transparent’
KAREN LAKE BUTTREY DIRECTOR
LAKE INSTITUTE ON FAITH & GIVING
“Resiliency” is the word David King uses to describe the ways in which churches have adapted to life in a pandemic. That includes how -- and how much -- people give.
King, the Lake Institute’s director, said a survey of 555 faith communities in July 2020 found that 59% had sustained or increased member giving since COVID-19 shut down in-person church. Prior to the pandemic, 73% of churches already had the ability to accept virtual contributions. Of those that didn’t, 39% reported quickly adding that option.
But expanding digital giving platforms isn’t the only answer, King believes. Churches must continue to focus on how resources that are given by members support the congregation’s mission, even if that mission is different during the pandemic.
Churches, King said, must be “clear and transparent.” Is the church investing in technology and infrastructure to enhance online worship and other ministries? Are new curricula being placed on people’s doorsteps, since churchgoers likely won’t return to in-person Sunday school anytime soon?
With members unable to be on-site to see and hear all that the church is doing, King said, the message must be shared more clearly than ever, no matter the platform.
“It’s not enough just to have the technical ability,” he said. “You have to point the people to how their giving continues to align with their own values and the congregation’s mission.”
‘The greater good’
BAPTIST STUDENT MINISTRY
UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS RIO GRANDE VALLEY
Campus minister Robert Rueda saw students rise to the occasion this past year. If the pandemic teaches us anything, he said, it is that the future belongs to the young.
The main campus of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg, Texas, is 25 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. The university is home to 32,000 students, 91% of whom are Hispanic. A survey conducted in 2019 found that 44% of students were facing food insecurity.
Hearing the call to help their peers, Rueda said, two students organized the opening of The Coffee House in January, a campus gathering space for fellowship, worship, sandwiches, pastries and coffee -- pay what you can. A group of 30 other students had already launched the Live Healthy Initiative to help people embrace healthy practices -- exercise, diet, avoiding fast foods -- “taking care of the temple of God,” Rueda said.
It’s a small sampling, Rueda acknowledged. But it gives him hope that extends beyond the Rio Grande Valley. This pandemic, he said, should teach us to be ready for what he called “the next trial,” whatever it may be. Part of being ready, he said, means being prepared to turn to the young for leadership, inspiration and ideas.
“I’m highly optimistic that the greater good will come out of this,” Rueda said, “and the church will be stronger.”
‘How do we renew?’
COOPERATIVE BAPTIST FELLOWSHIP
We’re exhausted, Paul Baxley said. A year of figuring out how to produce a virtual service, care for the lonely on Zoom and inspire people to keep the faith when their loved ones are sick or dying has left us spent.
Baxley, the executive coordinator of a coalition of 1,400 churches, praises congregations for the agility they’ve shown since COVID-19 first cast its shadow. He believes churches have met their sacred obligations through innovation. Many have reached a new and broader audience through online worship offerings.
But, Baxley warns, the most challenging days lie ahead. The pandemic will not lift one fine day and suddenly allow churches to “turn back the clock,” as he put it.
The challenge will be to find a safe and effective blend of in-person and online ministry. To continue serving neighbors in need when you literally can’t extend a hand. To find new ways to keep Christians “coming back” on Sunday mornings from their easy chairs.
Innovation and flexibility can leave us weary. For Baxley, one year into the pandemic, the future is framed more by a question asked than by lessons learned.
“How do we renew energy and strength?”
‘A moral reckoning’
EPISCOPAL DIVINITY SCHOOL
UNION THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
Kelly Brown Douglas minces no words. Shame on the faith community as a whole, she said, for failing to address the second pandemic that COVID-19 has exposed, namely, the inequalities that afflict those who are racially and economically marginalized.
“This has happened on our watch,” said the dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary.
Unequal access to the vaccine and health care in general, a crisis in policing, the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on poor kids -- those are the issues that demand churches’ attention, Douglas said, chiding congregations that have placed their focus instead on beefing up livestream worship and online giving.
In just one such moral inequity, at-risk students are falling further behind during virtual learning. Many lack the necessary internet access, and many are home alone because not all parents have the luxury of working from their kitchen tables, she said. What’s keeping churches from welcoming children and youth to its typically empty classrooms during the week for encouragement and a snack?
The pandemic isn’t over; there’s still a chance for churches to rise up, Douglas said. “This is a moral reckoning. We don’t have options.”
If our efforts toward racial reconciliation in the United States are rooted in white belief, they will serve only to erase difference and center whiteness, says a professor.
I learned a lot about what white people believe as a leader within a predominantly white progressive church committed to racial reconciliation.
Many white Christians believe that being in the same church building as racial minorities is a spiritual accomplishment. Their understanding of a reconciled community is filtered through the lens of their imagination and desire, and racial reconciliation is wrongly equated with the presence of ethnically minoritized peoples in white churches.
Many white Christians interpret welcoming “others” into their curated spaces as a crucial step in embodying a racial reconciliatory ethic.
But what if this vision of racial reconciliation, one authored by white desire, is rooted in a white form of belief?
It may be controversial, but it must be said: How white people believe is a major problem.
White belief is a kind of self-righteousness. Within historical Christian proselytizing accounts, it has positioned European men as evangelical agents to non-European “savage” communities who need the European gospel.
Oftentimes, assimilation into European culture and ways of life comes as a package deal with this gospel message. Whiteness is indoctrinated in many white Christians’ religious formation. According to white belief, white is “right” because it is presumed to be holy.
White belief operates first and foremost from how white people interpret themselves in a world of their making. How they want to see themselves must be how they actually are. There is no accountability to different communities; there are no checks and balances -- just an assurance and supreme confidence in the force of the white imagination.
There is an obliviousness in white belief, an assumption that to be white is to be good and morally upright. But as womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas reminds us, white belief is steeped in American exceptionalism, the myth that white Americanness is best.
The horrific events of Jan. 6, 2021, punctuate this exceptionalist belief; contrary to popular aphorism, it was not a “dark” day in American history -- it was a supremely white one.
White imagination produces American exceptionalism and nurtures white belief. And this white belief extends into the religious imagination as well.
The presumption of white inerrancy and subsequently righteousness is a tradition and practice often fortified in white communities and churches. It often fights back violently when challenged by the perspectives of minoritized communities.
White churches must confront this credal legacy. They must identify and let go of the cultural supposition that equates whiteness with virtue.
White ecclesial formation must be one of the first things interrogated.
Are white Christians taught to understand that their belief and practice of church is culturally specific? Given their history, how would they know that Christian churches are communal spaces that celebrate, among other things, particularity of experience? Would they know that churches are not colorblind but color-specific?
To be embodied means to be intensely aware of another’s body -- not in a “bridging differences” type of way but in a truthful acknowledgment that a white life and viewpoint may actually be the outlier and not the norm.
Contrary to white racial reconciliatory practice, it is not a spiritual virtue to erase or ignore difference. Difference is not something that must be overcome; it is something that must be emphasized as what makes the Christian church so dynamic. Instead of overcoming difference, what we must seek is overcoming white-assumed authority on what to do about difference.
White people in predominantly white churches have often believed they have been called to author what reconciliation might look like. But as liberationist forefather James Cone asserts, this is the furthest thing from what is right.
Often a cornerstone of racial reconciliation pursuits, 2 Corinthians 5:17-18 gets people in a lot of trouble. Many assume that racial and ethnic difference are the “old” that has “passed away”; thus, under the guise of tossing away racial difference, “the ministry of reconciliation” is falsely equated with white uniformity -- of vision, of style of being and acting, of being of one mind. The desire is to assimilate racial minorities into white assumptions of church and belief.
But the Christian church is only unifying if it recognizes cultural, ethnic, racial, gendered, sexual, economic and ability markers of distinction as reflections of God’s creative genius. Diversity is a divine decision; to misunderstand this is to make white ethnocentricity the “fix” for God’s creative intentions.
The confusion for white people can be traced to racial reconciliation’s modifier: race. Race is the elephant in the room ridiculously dressed in religious language.
The unease of the racial reconciliation project is not in white and nonwhite peoples struggling “together” to live in ecclesial harmony but in white people not knowing how to deal with not having a balm to racism’s chaotic effects.
“Racial” reconciliation has become an exercise in white racial absolution instead of an effort to creatively source what being together as uniquely cultured communities might mean -- that is, if minoritized churches are even interested in reconciliation.
The racially reconciling church in which I served valued honesty and hard conversations about race. So we had them. Time after time, I would pour out my heart to members of my church community about my frustration with the stronghold of whiteness in this reconciling community; many would express remorse, admit racism or commit to listening and doing better.
But their commitment often stayed in the realm of words. I could see on their faces how their verbal confessions were not connecting with their hearts. They were confused. What they were admitting and confessing did not reflect what they truly believed, or perhaps wanted to believe, about themselves.
For them, worshipping with nonwhite people was the serious accomplishment; this was to be celebrated and constantly lifted up. Changing the actual fabric of who the church was because of the presence of nonwhite church members, however, was a mountain too tall to climb.
Where would one even begin?
This reconciling body was most interested in genuinely celebrating nonwhite presence; I was most interested in decentering white theology and ecclesial practice. Years later, I left that church grateful for friendships but mourning the extreme difficulty of being Black in that space. I left a racial reconciliation agnostic.
If racial minorities do not get to determine the parameters of racial reconciliation, the effort still centers whiteness.
Unfortunately, racial reconciliation, as currently construed, centers how white churches imagine community, how they imagine being church with everyone else. It grants white people power to define right relationship. It makes white culture the center and the determinant of what “being together” and “being church” means.
But a world reconciled to affirm white desires of unity and community is a lost world, for such desires have not been thoroughly vetted to see whether they are free from the white supremacist ideas of what being church or community or even “American” should look like. Racial reconciliation of this ilk quite easily bleeds into an ecclesial project in white affirmation.
A nonwhite vision of community starts from a place of recognizing one’s position in relation to another and addressing apparent disparities. A thought tradition I deeply respect, womanism in the religious sphere, would define community by starting with proper social recognition.
A womanist notion of community tells us where we stand in relation to one another in order to collectively author what being together in an honest and mutual way looks like.
Whiteness is an aura. It is a tradition. It is a practice. It is a worldview. It fuels how and subsequently what white people believe. And white people need to believe that they are good, that every idea they have stems from a righteous place. To question this is to endanger their moral foundations, to throw into question their devotion to cultural credence and history. White belief forecloses the possibility of authentic approaches to justice, especially within the Christian church.
Framing justice as something done to white people who have no intention of denouncing their power is an idea too radical for many white people to consider. But the gospel is radical. And racial. And we would all do well to ensure that race and all that lives around it is always, honestly, part of the conversation.