With issues regarding race relations dominating national headlines, the Rev. Julia Burkey wants to help address the problem starting in her own community. By partnering with the local chapter of the NAACP, the pastor of First Church of Christ, Congregational UCC in Middletown, Conn., hopes a series of sacred conversations on race will lead to actions that celebrate our differences while promoting acceptance, tolerance and understanding.
"Among the faith community, this struck an important cord as a conversation we needed to have," Burkey said. "But more than a conversation, we need to do something. Let’s have a series of conversations that lead to actions."
The partnership between First Church UCC and the Middlesex (Conn.) County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People began a few months ago, but the trial of George Zimmerman, who in July was acquitted of killing unarmed African American teen Trayvon Martin, reinforced the relevance of the group’s mission. On Aug. 21, a representative from the American Civil Liberties Union gave a presentation about the school-to-prison-pipeline, a theory that young black men are predisposed to social conditions at a young age that lead to incarceration, to about 40 people at the NAACP’s general membership meeting. On Aug. 25, the ACLU representative will give the same presentation to members of First Church UCC, and on Sept. 17, the two groups will come together for a forum that will be open to the community.
"We really wanted to take a moment and sort of embrace the resurgence of what is happening in communities around social justice issues," Burkey said. "And we thought getting our communities together would be a great start."
Burkey hopes that other local groups will attend the Sept. 17 discussion and want to join the coalition started by First Church UCC and the NAACP. They plan to write a statement of purpose and would also like to involve the local police department, as Burkey says Connecticut has a relatively high prison population compared to other states. She already has a few ideas in mind for ways the coalition could raise funds and support its mission of improving race relations. For example, she would like to organize a multimedia showcase of art from different cultures that would recognize and celebrate racial and ethnic diversity.
"As a local community organization, we do have a voice in the legal system, but we have a larger voice when we come together and create a coalition," Burkey said. "I think we can change the culture by getting together and organizing around something that doesn’t highlight our differences, but brings us together on something we all believe in. There are ways that just being side by side and working with someone different than you really shifts something."
Burkey is aware that the topic of race can be controversial, and events like the Zimmerman acquittal have a tendency to divide racial groups. But she also thinks that race is an issue people need to face head on in order for things to improve, and that the faith community is called to help others do just that in a peaceful, inclusive way.
"I would hope that standing up for our faith and standing up against oppression would create a sort of magnetism and bring likeminded people together and create a stronger faith," she said. "There are so many ways that our faith calls us to be witnesses whenever there is any kind of injustice, especially when we see the possibly of cultural and social stress but we do it any way."