In a great Christian Century article about Rev. Jeremiah Wright, pastor of Trinity UCC and Barak Obama’s minister (and the keynote speaker at this year’s Ministry Days before GA–click on “CENTER Days” on the left sidebar for info), this story is told:
I asked Wright what response white churches should make to his Africentric gospel. He referred to a crash course on inner-city ministry he used to teach to white seminarians. He would close the course by telling them that the final exam was this: when their friends or family or parishioners exhibited racism, the students should speak up. If they didn’t, they failed the course. And only they and God would know.
So, this seems connected to me to the ongoing criticism of Starr King School for the Ministry and it’s commitment to Educating to Counter Oppressions and create just and sustainable communities. (Often abbreviated to ECO.) (pdf) We seem to be stuck arguing about whether or not “brown bag lunch” is connected to the practice of excluding darker-skinned African Americans from churches, fraternities, and clubs.
Some suggest that if we see no direct, provable connection, that the whole conversation is somehow an act of hypersensitivity and is worthy only of ridicule. Others just dismiss Starr King as “that school.” Clearly, our (superior?) judgment is more important than any connection someone who actually deals with racism every day may feel. Stentor Danielson at Debitage discusses the nuances and complexities of listening to the oppressed.
I was going to say “all of this just makes me sad.” And it does. But it also makes me mad. It seems so arrogant to me. It seems clear that we’re an association that would rather fight over how somebody else tries to address racism and oppression than do anything about it ourselves. I’ve seen an insistence on accuracy when it comes to brown bags, but no need for the same insistence on accuracy when we feel like being snarky.
I’ve known for a long time that many people don’t understand Starr King and have a hard time with our denomination’s efforts to learn how to address racism and other oppressions. I was naive about how defensive and downright mean we can be with each other. Starr King and the UUA’s efforts are imperfect. Of course they are. Let’s not make that a reason to not even try. And what about a little “compassion in human relations?”
And then there is this (also from the Christian Century article):
The miracle (no lesser word is appropriate) of the black church is that the sons and daughters of Africa embrace rather than eschew the faith they first learned from their white slavemasters, and that they have renewed it again and again out of their own struggles. Conservatives may find the Africentric church too political, and liberals may squirm over its revivalist emotion. But the black church continues to makes converts in unlikely places, reflecting a God who makes a way where there is no way.
Isn’t that connected to what Peacebang was saying about ministry and integrity? How Christianity and/or Unitarian Universalism can be made stronger when we are able to be ourselves, incorporate our individuality and the things we bring from our experience and culture with us into ministry?
What does this mean if we are truly serious about having a diverse ministry? Who decides what people of color or others are “allowed” to bring? What if they are personally offended by something we say or do? What if their offense seems “too sensitive” to us? What if they actually ask us to change? Are we going to dismiss them because what they ask isn’t based on facts as we understand them? Trinity UCC church has found a way to give voice to an Africentric faith that may (and should) make us squirm a bit. Are we willing to learn?
What breaks my heart is not that people disagree with me, with Starr King, with the means and methods of trying to do what we say we want to do. What breaks my heart is that we are so dismissive and mean. What breaks my heart is that while hearts are breaking we sit around arguing about the standards we’ll use to determine who deserves to be heard. What breaks my heart is that so often it seems that defensiveness in the doctrine of our church, rather than love.
I don’t write this out of some need to scold, but out of genuine sadness and frustration. I am well aware of my own participation in patterns of defensiveness and behaviors that are not as respectful or loving as I would like them to be. But I cannot NOT speak up. It is a part of what I chose when I chose to be accountable to my calling. So I leave you with words that I find hopeful:
Religious leadership in our time is coming from people who are capable of being present to suffering without turning away; people whose own life experience has taught them that it is possible to cross thresholds and survive; people who are willing to be authentically themselves when others wish to silence them; people whose presence inspires, challenges, surprises, and calls forth strength from others; people who give themselves to the work of mending the world, and are themselves grounded in love. ~Starr King Journal, Spring, 1996
We envision theological education that includes engagement with culturally diverse values and life experiences, including those of people whose economic circumstances, lack of education, sexual orientation, and racial characteristics mark them as less valued by culturally dominant groups. This engagement must take place to add freshness to the questions, to deepen caring, and to create just community. ~Starr King Educational Planning Committee, February, 1993