Written by J. Bennett Guess
August - September 2008
At First Congregational Church of Minnesota, UCC, in Minneapolis, the congregation began its "sacred conversation on race" on May 18, just as many UCC congregations did.
The date, which coincided with Trinity Sunday, was urged by the UCC's Collegium of Officers as an occasion for pastors to preach on race and for congregations to begin a broader discussion.
But the Minnesota church knew it needed to devote more than one Sunday to the conversation. So, instead of naively limiting the discussion, it decided to hold at least three more forums in the fall and winter, and a group within the church has organized to sustain the conversation. The Rev. Eric Marinus Nelson, principal minister, says church members are discovering that conversations about race can be transforming.
"Through the sharing of stories and experiences, some members of the congregation who have known each other for some time came to realize that they have had similar experiences that they didn't know about," Nelson says. "Others also learned that some of our members' families are more racially diverse than we knew."
At its initial meeting, Nelson says, the congregation emphasized five points: First, they recognized the political turmoil of the past six months presented a "kairos moment" that necessitated such a conversation. Second, they recognized that this would not be the church's first nor its last conversation on race, and underscored the fact that the church's membership was not all white. Third, members were encouraged to deeply engage the conversation on race. They drew strength from knowing that, as an Open and Affirming congregation, they had a history of tackling difficult conversations. Fourth, members articulated barriers to sustaining the conversation, such as white privilege. Fifth, members were asked for ideas for how best to keep the conversation going.
'Concrete next steps'
At the UCC's Franklinton Center at Bricks in Whitakers, N.C., about 50 clergy from the Southern Conference gathered on May 29-30, where a group conversation was led by the Rev. Henry Simmons, pastor of St. Albans Congregational UCC in Queens, N.Y., the Rev. Steve Camp, Southern Conference Minister, the Rev. Linda Jaramillo, executive minister for Justice and Witness Ministries, and the Rev. Stephen Sterner, acting executive minister for Local Church Ministries.
"The group left committed to taking concrete next steps to continue this critical conversation," says Jaramillo, who is leading the national setting's effort to provide resources to churches and other settings committed to ongoing dialogue.
The late May event was the first of several conversations planned at Franklinton Center. On Aug. 10-13, the North Carolina campus will conduct "a sacred conversation on race for youth" for young people ages 6 to 12.
'Fabric of church life'
Mountain View UCC in Aurora, Colo., is working to embed its sacred conversation on race into the existing fabric of church life.
"Instead of taking a programmatic approach, we are striving to take an organic approach," explains the Rev. Craig Peterson. "Instead of trying to map out a series of activities, we are instead looking for opportunities that develop within the day-to-day life of the church to weave awareness-raising experiences around race into those moments.
"All of our endeavors will be rooted and grounded within the context of personal relationships," he says. "Thankfully, for a small congregation of 110 members, we have been blessed with people who come from a variety of locations: places such as China, Ghana, Ireland, Kenya, and Mexico. This prevents us from having conversations rooted simply in the abstract."
The congregation, which regularly recites the liturgy of Holy Communion in languages other than English, is also utilizing its periodic fifth-Sunday "faith sharing" time as an opportunity for individuals to share how race has shaped their faith journeys.
"Usually we just have one person share their faith journey on the fifth Sunday of the month," Peterson says. "This month, however, we decided to involve three people in the faith sharing: an African-American man, an African woman and a European-American man."
The scriptural passage for the day included well-known words from Galatians: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."
"Each of our speakers talked candidly, and at times painfully, about the first time they became aware of their racial location and how this sense of identity informed their experience of what it meant to be 'one in Christ Jesus," Peterson says. "The congregational response was positive as they had to wrestle with the painful stories of those times when a sense of otherness prevailed over a sense of oneness."
For Peterson, the bedrock principle is to keep it real. "We seek to root all of our conversations in the concrete."
'Learn and grow'
Coral Gables (Fla.) Congregational UCC, a racially diverse congregation, and the Church of the Open Door UCC in Miami, an African-American congregation, decided to begin their sacred conversation on race together.
On June 1, the two UCC churches gathered on "neutral ground" at an Episcopal church that was centrally located.
"We were fortunate enough to have Edith Guffey [the UCC's associate general minister] come in to lead the two-hour opening session which included worship, small group sharing, individual reflections, and then fellowship at the end," says the Rev. Laurinda Hafner, senior minister of the Coral Gables church. "It's such a difficult and challenging conversation but the good news is we started."
In July, Coral Gables Congregational UCC met on its own to view the documentary, "What Makes Me White," one of the denomination's recommended video resources.
"We had a really profound experience as most of us there were white but one of our members, an African-American man, challenged us on many of our presumptions, stereotypes, and attitudes," Hafner says. "It was a remarkable evening.
"The really interesting thing for me about this was that many of our young families who would normally be a part of such a gathering were gone for the summer," she says, "and many of the folks that were there were in their 70s and 80s. I found it so moving that they really wanted to learn and grow from this experience."
Hafner says her congregation and Church of the Open Door UCC are planning to meet again and continue the conversation.
"Each time it feels like we only scratch the surface," she says, "but we are doing it and growing from it and I believe changing for the better because of it."