Written by Edith Guffey
April - May 2008
This is not a column about politics, but it is about something that has become a huge issue in the political arena: race.
At General Synod, I called for and committed myself to helping us to have a conversation about race in the church. That starts now and the commentary about race I have heard recently in the political arena has only illuminated the pressing need.
Let's not fool ourselves: the same thoughts, beliefs, misunderstandings about race that we see in the news are present in the church. The primary difference is that most of our churches have little diversity so encounters with people of different races are not as prevalent as they are in our day-to-day lives. (That's a commentary in and of itself).
Still, I can't count the number of times I have experienced comments that in some way touch on race ending up in a firestorm of misunderstanding, hurt feelings and anger.
Often I have known all of the persons involved, and knew them personally not to be uninformed, callous or uncaring people. They were even people who passionately embrace the UCC and our commitment to being a multicultural and multiracial church.
But the reality is that we live in a country with a shameful history of racial oppression and that history, even subconsciously, has in some way touched and shaped us all. And it continues to do so.
The result is that statements that some may not see or experience as hurtful turn out to be exactly that to others. It is clearly a matter of intent versus impact, but often the impact is so significant that we find ourselves paralyzed, and we feed the unhealthy and unhelpful divisions among us.
Recently, I heard one commentator say he could not believe that race had become such a factor in the political process. I wanted to say, “How could anyone think that it wouldn't?” Race is too much a part of our history — a history that we have not adequately attended to.
But I still have hope, and I believe the church has a particular opportunity here. While concerns about race are perhaps no different than the ones in the broader society, the foundation for the conversation certainly is. As sisters and brothers in Christ, we know that our unity is in Christ, not in a political party or even agreements on issues. Our mandate to be welcoming and to embrace “the stranger” is from the gospel, not from the perspective of political correctness.
I hope that that reality gives us courage to take the risk and engage in a challenging but, in the end, helpful, honest and respectful conversation about race.
Linda Jaramillo and I have started thinking about models we might offer to Conferences and local churches that support and encourage these conversations. I know that many of you are just as interested in engaging this important conversation as I am and you may have ideas and ways to do it that could inform our work.
Drop me a note, but — more importantly — start on your own conversations with a good friend or colleague. Don't be complacent and wait for another misunderstanding to prod you along. Let's talk honestly and with care, not about each other, but with each other.
There's no better time to start than now.
Edith Guffey is associate general minister and a member of the UCC's five-person Collegium of Officers.