|Amanda Powell of Federated UCC in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, leads singing at the opening worship service of the World Conference of Churches conference on racism at the UCC’s Amistad Chapel in Cleveland.
How can the global church challenge racism when its manifestations take on such different forms in various places around the world?
That question became central to the conversation at a UCC-hosted World Council of Churches conference on racism, where 30 participants from 15 countries gathered Aug. 26-29 in Cleveland to discuss rationale and strategies for a sustained ecumenical engagement in confronting racism and related forms of prejudice.
“There is a lot of energy that comes from hearing and naming the issues,” says the Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson, the UCC’s minister for racial justice. “In the midst of what you know, you are also intent on understanding what you don’t know.”
Participants discussed many concerns, ranging from anti-Muslim and anti-Roma (gypsy) discrimination in Europe to the experiences of First Nations people in Canada to persistent caste-based discrimination in India.
The group also acknowledged the difficulty of owning and sharing others’ issues when it’s tempting to focus solely on one community’s own experience of exclusion.
“I would name that as a challenge,” Thompson said. “People are struggling so hard to get attention for their issue and they become afraid that naming other issues will somehow supersede their own issue. There is the need for all us to be uplifting these issues, to find a common language to share these realities, even as we remain committed to our community’s issues.”
“Even in discussing the issues of people of African descent, you realize that the issues important to Afro-Brazilians are different from those of Afro-Nicaraguans, or the Afro-Peruvians’ issues are different from those of African Americans,” she said.
The group’s next steps include producing comments that will inform a larger statement to be issued in May 2011 in Jamaica when the WCC gathers to culminate its decade-long emphasis on overcoming violence.
“Our focus now is on drafting a theological statement that will begin to name how the church can make in-roads, collectively speaking,” Thompson said.
As part of a draft summary of the meeting, the group concluded that the persistence of economic, social and political exclusion demands that churches must assume an even greater leadership role in battling racial and caste discrimination.
The Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, executive minister for the UCC’s Justice and Witness Ministries and a member of the UCC’s five-person Collegium of Officers, said she was proud that the UCC stepped forward to host the gathering and was given the opportunity by the WCC to welcome the global delegation to the UCC’s Church House in Cleveland.
“The amazing part for me was just sitting around the meal tables and listening to the stories — the experience, the intelligence and the passion,” Jaramillo said. “It made me feel really honored to have them here.”
For Jaramillo, the conversations underscored the connecting points of racism and how many of the issues stem from the lingering effects of European colonialism around the world, whether in South America, New Zealand, India, the Caribbean or the United States.
“It’s important that we realize that racism is so much bigger than us [in the United States], and yet we cannot ignore the racism that persists in this country,” she said.
Countries represented were Brazil, Canada, Dominican Republic, Germany, India, Jamaica, Nicaragua, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, Romania, South Africa, Switzerland, United Kingdom and United States. A representative from Pakistan was scheduled to attend but was denied a visa by the U.S. government.