Church declares racism a public health crisis
The United Church of Christ continued its decades-long advocacy for fairness in society by declaring racism as a public health crisis during plenary on Sunday evening, July 11.
The action by delegates attending its 33rd General Synod, being held virtually this week, noted that “racial inequities persist in every system of society.” The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to existing disparities in accessing health care and other services.
Brought to the General Synod by two church agencies – the Council for Health and Human Service Ministries (CHHSM) and the Council on Racial and Ethnic Ministries (COREM) – the resolution observes that “racial inequalities persist in every system of society, and thus a specific anti-racist lens is required for health equity and broader systemic change.” The agencies joined on this effort since “remaining silent or siloed in our work for justice was not an option.”
“This resolution,” CHHSM President and CEO Michael Readinger stated firmly in speaking to delegates, “is not a resolution of words but a resolution of action.”
The Rev. Zillah Wesley, who serves as moderator for COREM, said, “For decades, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ has advocated for health care as a right and priority for all people and for a commitment to be an anti-racist church.” A recent COREM task force on racial and ethnic health disparities reported that “we are tired of a health system that does not see health care as a basic right and priority for all people.”
Past General Synod Moderator Marvin Morgan, pointing to his head of white hair, noted he “had lived long enough to have experienced first-hand the discrimination and racism of which we speak.” Acknowledging the several previous anti-racism actions of the church, he urged passage of this resolution. “My grandson and great grandchildren will have to fight these battles all over again unless we keep this issue at the forefront of this denomination and the forefront of this nation.”
The significance of this action being among the first items of business addressed by the gathering was not lost on CHHSM’s the Rev. Elyse Berry, associate for advocacy and leadership development. “Racial justice is intentionally woven throughout this Synod,” she said, underscoring the importance of the issue. This discussion, she believes, will “set the tone” for all other business that comes before General Synod.
“Racism hurts everyone,” Berry says. “It disproportionately targets people of color, but harms people on a wider scale than we tend to talk about. Yet the negative impact of these factors is preventable.”
The United Church of Christ General Synod is said to “speak TO and not FOR” its local congregations in communities throughout the United States. Much of the work to overcome racism in public heath will fall to those congregations, Berry said. CHHSM has created an online course to help local churches and their members determine their local response to racism in health care. “People understand parts of things, but aren’t always connecting the dots as to why these things are related,” she said. The course, “Reason to Have Hope: A Public Health Response to Racism,” provides tools for discussion and guides for action.
“Racism is harmful across racial lines, and on a wider scale than we tend to talk about,” Berry adds. “Anti-racism is liberation for everyone and shows us that the damage of systemic racism and white supremacy is preventable.”
One specific piece of action called for in the resolution is Congressional passage of the Anti-Racism in Public Health Act, which creates a “Center on Anti-Racism in Health” as part of the federal Centers for Disease Control and directs funding to address public health impacts of racist policies and activities.
“This resolution is incredibly important especially in light of the conversations being had under critical race theory,” said Andrew Roblyer, a delegate from the South Central Conference. “Racism is absolutely a public health crisis and we should do everything we can to speak out against it.”
Tim Kershner, a longtime General Synod Newsroom volunteer, lives in Campton, N.H.. in the New Hampshire Conference.
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