America’s Original Sin: Racism
“We get this … but what can we do? What are the next steps ?”
(if you don’t ‘get this,’ check out one or both of the introductions at the top of the page)
I have often met Christians who are looking for ways to walk in solidarity with African-American people. They are a diverse lot: young and old, in the trenches and in the suburbs, budding activists and conservatives. Varied as they are, they often have this in common – they just aren’t sure what to do next (or what they’ve been trying isn’t working or feels off). Here’s an attempt to speak into that gap: a list of peacemaking ideas – some easy, some hard, many necessary and maybe visionary. It’s not perfect and it certainly isn’t exhaustive. But it could spark a conversation, helping individuals and communities craft their own rooted ways of walking the paths of peace. Be certain – there’s no one right way to do this. Yet there are postures that will give life and allow us to journey in a good way. So as you seek to act, note the suggested postures and outlooks that are at the beginning of this document. Ponder, hold them close, and add your own as you go along. Thank you friend, for engaging this. Courage to you and your circle as you experiment with some of the next steps.
P.S. If you’re able, send me an email (email@example.com) and share what you have learned so that we can figure out, collectively, how to do this better. We’ll update this pamphlet as we go along. Each of these sections are broken into different categories based on what type of actions you are most interested or feel emboldened to act on…
(adapted with permission from and collaboration with Mennonite Church Canada which originally authored a similar set of tools for settler Christians engaging host communities) Scroll to the bottom of this post for more information on the original pamphlet.
First, SOME POSTURES AND ATTITUDES
→ → Be patient. As Justice Murray Sinclair has said, “If it took seven generations to mess things up this bad, it’ll take at least seven to mend” (regarding the Native American situation, but it applies here as well).
→ → Listen and listen again to black voices and their concerns. Dialogue is important, but we need to do as Christ does, and privilege the words and wisdom of the marginalized.
→ → Don’t feel guilty. You didn’t ask to be born into your family (and church) that enslaved black people for white well-being. Feel responsible for bearing your piece of the burden. What is God calling you to?
→ → Take risks. Don’t play it safe. “Count the cost,
→ → Look for black strength, rather than deficiency. If you want to explore faults and needs, do as Jesus did, and begin with oneself and the “white problem.” Black people are aware of the issues in their community and are working at it. We can help by working on our issues.
→ → Recognize the importance of the past. Most of that is continually looking to tomorrow. black folks have deep memories. Get comfortable with that. Ponder how the “past is sedimented in the present” (Charles Taylor).
→ → Take hope in small numbers. It’s rare that whole congregations will get on board with this journey (though it does happen sometimes).
→ → Focus on possibilities rather than problems. In fact, take it a step further, and dare to dream. People might dismiss you as idealistic…don’t let that get in your way. Dream and find other dreamers who are trying to find ways to flesh them out. Stuff will happen in those circles.
→ → Set personal and corporate goals. It’ll help you move along this journey.
→ → Acknowledge mistrust. History has taught many black people to not trust white, people. Too many broken promises. Accept that.
→ → Get angry! Jesus and the prophets got upset with injustice. Anger is a tool of liberating potential.
→ → Commit for the long haul. There are no quick fixes for this broken relationship.
→ → Don’t despair. Lift your heart to God and focus on the gifts and assets that you and your group bring to this. There’s a lot of difficult stuff to work through , but you can do it. The Spirit is with us.
→ → Keep at least one eye on the present! Racist systems and racist practices are not just a thing of the past.
→ → Exercise self-suspicion. The history of good intentions (e.g., Freedman’s Bureau, 40 acres and a mule) should lead us to some healthy doubt about our hopes, beliefs and desired actions (definitely read Ivan Illich’s article “To Hell with Good Intentions”)
. → → Seek your healing, not just that of others. Stan McKay (Cree) say s that we whites “are wounded and marked by history.” Those wounds may not look the same as the black community, but they’re still there.
→ → Lament. Though we are not responsible for what our ancestors have done, we should feel shame for that history. But more than that, we need to grieve the damage that our ancestors wrought, wittingly or unwittingly, for lament can “free us to act, because [we] are no longer afraid of uncovering that pain” (Victoria Freeman).
→ → Trauma is real. Take care of yourself. Segregation and racism impacts peoples and communities differently, but it gets us all. Check out Francoise Mathieu’s, Compassion Fatigue.
→ → Give thanks and celebrate! There’s a lot of heavy stuff that you’re going to deal with. Look for beauty. Take time to sing, to say thanks, to ponder the good, to rest in God.
→ → Be conscious of white and class privilege. Find ways to deconstruct. See Frances Kendall’s Understanding White Privilege.
→ → Receive anger, and don’t take it personally. If you’re white, you represent – in some fashion – the face of the slave master. That’s tough. But as one white ally says, “What I learned is…[there’s] no point in saying, but that’s not me, but I don’t feel that way…. No. I am white, and this is what my people did. This is the truth.”
→ → Acknowledge complexity. Many of the issues we are dealing with are complicated. “either/or” thinking doesn’t always help. Be comfortable with some grays.
→ → Be willing to address the controversial. (Pack an extra shirt in case you sweat a lot like me).
→ → Scratch your head, and try again. It often isn’t easy trying to figure out how to engage this stuff. You’re not alone. Just “keep on keeping on.”
→ → Don’t fear making mistakes.
→ → Believe that you have something to learn from black people. We whites often struggle with paternalism, believing our knowledges, religions, economics and way of life superior. Confess, and do otherwise.
→ → Learn from, but don’t appropriate black traditions and spiritual practices. Show respect and honor to whom they belong.
→ → Don’t promise more than you can give. That creates a lot of hurt in black communities.
→ → Relax, and trust the Spirit. Sometimes this stuff is a lot easier than we imagine. Certainly, more joyful and worth it! Go for it… and go in peace.
The Path of Learning and unlearning
• Listen to black voices; storytellers, poets and critical theorists like James Baldwin (“The Fire Next Time,” Collected Essays), W.E.B. DuBois (The Souls of Black Folk), Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow), Toni Morrison, and Brian Stephenson (Just Mercy)
Ponder life, past and present, from another set of lenses.
• Attend to white voices who are walking a good path. Folks like Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (Free to Be Bound), Tim Wise (White Like Me), Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon
• Re-read the Bible. Seriously. The Scriptures contain powerful stories of liberation that can help ‘free’ our souls and mobilize the church for justice. The shadow traditions – those tales of imperialism, conquest and oppression – can remind us of paths not to be taken.
– For helpful African-American guides, look to John Perkins (Let Justice Roll Down), James Cone (The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Black Theology, God of the Oppressed), William Barber (Forward Together), Micky ScottBey Jones, Rev. Otis Moss III, Rev. Dominique Gilliard, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II
– For white insights, check out Clarence Jordan (Cotton Patch Gospel), Shane Claiborne (Follow Me to Freedom), Jim Perkinson (White Theology), Michael Emerson (Divided by Faith)
• Check out Blacknews.com and get informed about the latest news from an black perspective.
• Dig into your family history and discover the ways your people have engaged the black community in the past. Celebrate the good, lament and learn from the unhealthy, and explore ways to take responsibility for any past injustice which has benefited you today.
• Discover black humor and have a good laugh. Check out Saturday Night Live’s “Black History Month,” Richard Pryor’s standup, the movie Coming to America, Key & Peele race-related skits (bleeped language)
• Go deep and explore some of the critical issues:
– Mass Incarceration (read The New Jim Crow)
– African kingdoms pre-slavery (read Segu or the first half of Roots)
– The Middle Passage
– Missing and murdered black men
– black spirituality/world view
– black Christianity
– White supremacy, as related to systemic racism, not the racist groups
– Food deserts
– School-to-Prison Pipeline
– White privilege
– the Fall of the Freedman’s Bureau
– Tulsa Race Riot
– Jim Crow
– Police brutality
– de facto segregation
• Check out black movements like Black Lives Matter, and white Christian organizations like the Equal Justice Initiative to learn what others are currently doing to animate awareness and to act on it.
• Discover the race history of your particular region; from both sides. Ask around.
• Invite local black elders, teachers and young people who would be willing to come to your community and share. Create a safe space for dialogue and make sure to honor their efforts with a generous gift.
• Participate in a NAACP Conference, meeting, or read its newsletter
• Find positive stories about white communities and churches that are learning to
walk the path of solidarity, like Koinonia Farm in Georgia.
• Start conversations in your congregation/community to find out what others have done in your particular city/town in years past to better relationships with African-American people. You might be surprised!
• Bring your circle of friends to a black place of learning. Learn about HBCs (historically black colleges).
• For decades, faith-based activists have struggled for black justice. Be inspired from their efforts and ponder what might work today (Koinonia Farm, The non-profit Coming to the Table), (non faith based: Jeremiah Evarts, John Fee, Helen Hunt Jackson, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, Robert Flournoy, Matilda Gage, Lydia Child.).
• To appreciate what was lost, learn about the pre-slavery African kingdoms. Try the book Segu or the first half of Roots.
• Go on a guided delegation to be with black communities, learn their histories, and discover their “survivance.” Check out Christian Peacemaker Teams.
The Path of Relationship
1) With other whites
• Share books with close acquaintances that can help stir a conversation.
• Invite your friends to movie nights that can bring awareness and provoke action.
Here are a few solid options:
– Colorblind (Tim Wise, Youtube… cultural white supremacy)
– 400 Year Head Start (Tim Wise, Youtube)
– Boyz in the Hood (black men coming of age)
• Find a community of solidarity (or a few friends nearby) that you can pray with, talk with, do a book study with and discern next steps.
• Organize a book club to engage the important issues; Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, James Baldwin’s Collected Essays
• If you’re a teacher or student, grab some friends and explore how to create space for black knowledge and histories in the classroom.
2) Connect with black people:
• Contemplate ways to be neighborly with black people in your
community or the neighborhood nearby (not simply to serve, but to get to
know and be friends with).
• Attend black community events and arts/craft fairs.
– Contemplate the idea of “Black spaces” and “white spaces” in your community. These spaces are places where someone of the other race crossing the threshold implicitly has to explain why they are there (by their words or actions).
• Black churches are an incredible symbol of black strength. Forced to take the religion of the slave master, decades of African-Americans have taken this imposition and made it a source of beauty, resilience, and empowerment. Go to a black church and introduce yourself. Ask if there are ways to get to know the community; if there are public functions and festivities that you would be welcome to attend. Check out the events board, and just show up. Have courage – you can do this!
• Support and pray for black ministries
• Volunteer at a black run organization. Try not to go to the Christian food shelter as your first option. Look for a place to plug in where you will rub up with black strength (though it’s there in the bread line too).
• White suburbs are often a big deterrent to relationship with peoples of color. Relocate your home so that you are closer to the local black community, increasing the possibility of real neighborliness. As a friend of mine says, “Would we take Christ seriously if he looked like a middle-class suburban and didn’t do life in those marginal spaces? Probably not.”
• Honor the elders. Find ways to listen to their stories and offer to help them out (e.g., a ride to the clinic or grocery store, cutting firewood, and so on).
• Establish a community house where black and white peoples can live together and explore ways to be a sign and witness to just friendship in the community.
• Far too many black women and men are in the prison system. Become a volunteer. Seek friendship and mutual learning.
• Far too many black children are in the foster care system. Support black women and men who are trying hard to provide homes for these kids.
• Become a foster parent for black youth; a foster parent who has strong friendships with black aunties and uncles; a foster parent with a welcome place in the black community.
The Path of Art, Song and Celebration
• Seek out black poets, musicians, and artists that can inspire, challenge and renew your spirit. Here are a few examples: Poets – Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes Musicians – Kendrick Lamar (To Pimp a Butterfly), Talib Kwali, Mama Sol; Visual Artists – Jacob Lawrence
• Reflect on what you are learning and feeling through poetry, art, short story or song, photography or video. Share with others what you’ve been experiencing to raise awareness.
• Do up a subversive or humorous piece of art, drama or song than can ‘free’ or your neighborhood. Put it on public display.
• June 19th is when the black community celebrates the end of slavery – first learn what it is, then join an event or celebration in your community; throw a party and invite black and non-black to join you.
• Dream up some creative ways to share gifts and have fun together; some neighborhood and church communities have come together to do karaoke, games nights, pickling, B-B-Q’s, spaghetti nights, and more. Celebrate your common humanity.
The Path of Justice
• Read black newspapers (like http://www.blacknews.com)… and when the mainstream media picks up a ‘black’ issue that has grabbed the public’s eye, courageously share what black communities and commentators are saying. You don’t have to agree, but offer another view to helpfully nuance the conversation.
• Boldly confront racism when you see it happening.
• Find out what the local schools teach regarding black people and their/our history. Encourage them to create space for black voices and understandings.
• Explore the history of racism in your area, and discover hopeful stories that can animate discussion and action.
• Donate money to black charities seeking cultural renewal, reparations, and more.
• Go to black led rallies (e.g., Black Lives Matter). Spread the word and offer to help at future rallies.
• Mobilize a group to get serious about understanding and undoing racism in our/your church denomination. This is often thought of as an American issue. Ask people of color in our communities… it’s right here.
• Form an black-white support group in your local high-school. Like LGBTQ persons, many black kids do not feel welcome, safe or supported at school. White kids don’t have many places to learn how to become allies. You can create such a space.
• Petition bible colleges, seminaries and Christian universities to create a mandatory course on black-white relations, and to have at least one black professor on staff.
• As a community recognizing the dispossession of black peoples seek bold ways to live the good news of Jubilee! Donate extra money to black-led organizations .
• Learn how to mobilize others into action. If you don’t have a mentor, check out these fine books for help: Organizing for Social Change (Midwest Academy); Edward T. Chambers’ Roots for Radicals; Chris Crass’s Towards Collective Liberation; and Rev. Alexia Salvatierra’s Faith-Rooted Social Organizing.
• Do up some creative posters and Banksy-style “graffiti” (Google it) and share it around town to facilitate conversation. Focus on white issues and be positive… you’re less likely to get in trouble that way.
The Path of Worship
• Great news! The Creator longs for peace, reconciliation and justice more than we do, and the Spirit will help us pursue this path, with joy, gutsy determination, and laughter. So let’s pray and pray again. Pray with Christian friends; and pray – if invited – in black churches. We are all in this together.
• Discern as a circle: What are the ways that you can create space – physically, audibly, visually, financially, spiritually – in your Church for black voices and their concerns?
• Encourage your Church to devote a sermon series and Fall/Spring Education semester on understanding black-white relationships.
• Take up and read a black Christian prayer book.
• Bring signs and symbols of our relationship
• Discover within your tradition rituals that can connect you and your community to black communities. If you aren’t aware of any, take a risk and create some.
• Memorize Scripture and black teachings (present and past) that can stir your spirit as you walk the path. For quotable forms of the latter, check out black poets
• Translate gospel/biblical texts into today’s white-black context (or just read Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospels, written for the Southern States segregated by racial hatred).
• Put up pictures of the Black Christ in your church and home (because Jesus wasn’t white!)
• Persuade your church/denomination to set aside a month in the liturgical calendar to engage local relationships and justice issues.
Adapted from the original “Paths for peacemaking with host peoples”
by Steve Heinrichs
Director of Indigenous Relations
Mennonite Church Canada
Find most of the materials referenced in this hand out
online or in person at CommonWord Bookstore
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Mennonite Church Canada uses recycled paper that contains post-consumer waste in all its printing.
Paths for Peacemaking with Host Peoples
Original Written by: Steve Heinrichs
Mennonite Church Canada
Download additional copies at http://www.commonword.ca/go/91
Adapted by Ryan Beuthin for the US with permission from Mennonite Church Canada
This material may be reproduced and adapted by Mennonite Church Canada congregations free of charge. Please add an explanatory note (“Used courtesy Mennonite Church Canada”), acknowledge if it has been adapted, and credit those who have done so.