"Racism remains a wound at the heart of our nation, a wound that cannot be wished away or treated carelessly," the Rev. John H. Thomas wrote in his pastoral letter last year, inviting the United Church of Christ into a Sacred Conversation on Race.
Delegates and visitors to General Synod 27 had the opportunity to join one of 13 different, three-hour "conversations" Sunday morning scattered around meeting rooms in DeVos Place. The sessions focused on aspects of race such as culture, immigration, economics and poverty, education, religion and the criminal justice system, and moderators were chosen for their life experience with the topic.
The Rev. Mona Bagasan, a Disciples of Christ chaplain at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., chose a mosaic as a symbol for her discussion of culture and the place of the Asian woman in it.
Defining culture as "all the things important enough for us to want to claim," she selected the Asian "both/and" or the yin and yang to illustrate the tension among races.
"The 'both/and' or 'fully human/fully divine' are an Asian offering to the discussion," Bagasan, a Filipina, said. "We run into difficulties when we insist on 'either/or'."
In the discussion of Race and Daily Life, the Rev. Cari Jackson, newly called African-American pastor at Stamford (Conn.) UCC, challenged the group to move beyond assumptions that we make about others or assumptions that we think are being made about us.
"Sometimes I think I'm tired of teaching white people," she said. "But really we're all involved in teaching one another. When we get it that we really are one…, we will grow into that perfect word of God."
Each group invited participants to break into small groups to discuss their topics. In Jackson's session on Race and Daily Life, a woman described having a white man in her congregation who married an African-American man. She said he feels very comfortable there and they work hard to make him feel comfortable.
As soon as she finished speaking, an African American man in the group responded, suggesting that rather than try to make the black man feel comfortable, they should just be themselves.
"It doesn't help to put on one face for one person and another face for another," he said. "Even if you don't use words, your body language shows whether you're being genuine."
Later a woman from South Dakota lamented how little real involvement her congregation has with Native Americans on a nearby reservation. "It's only token stuff," she said, such as delivering old clothes or a meal during the holidays or feeling good when they come to church for a Sunday.
As they left the sessions, people expressed a willingness to carry the conversations back to their home congregations, but one or two suggested that they are growing weary just talking.
"I'll be so glad when we have moved past this. When our actions do the talking," an Asian woman said.
Organizers said a summary of all the discussions will be made available to inform the Sacred Conversation on Race that will continue throughout the church.