Today’s problems are so acute because the tragic evasions and defaults of several centuries have accumulated to disaster proportions. The luxury of a leisurely approach to urgent solutions—the ease of gradualism—was forfeited by ignoring the issues for too long. The nation waited until the black man was explosive with fury before stirring itself even to partial concern. Confronted now with the interrelated problems of war, inflation, urban decay, white backlash and a climate of violence, it is now forced to address itself to race relations and poverty, and it is tragically unprepared. What might once have been a series of separate problems now merge into a social crisis of almost stupefying complexity.
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “A Testament of Hope” (1967)
If there is one thing that became clear as a result of the recent Hand-in-Hand Racial Reconciliation Listening Sessions, it is that we continue to face “a social crisis of almost stupefying complexity.” These sessions – held at Calvary Church in Front Royal, Trinity Church in Charlottesville and Grace Church in Kilmarnock – were designed to continue the dialogue around how we as members of the Church should be involved in addressing racial divisions. But the sessions demonstrated, at least in part, that we are only beginning to understand one another – across race, ethnicity, age, background and experience.
This last round of listening sessions was redesigned to move away from the Indaba style, which focused on personal storytelling without follow-up conversation, to facilitated small-group discussions. “We found,” commented Bishop Susan Goff, “that the Indaba style worked well a few years ago when we addressed human sexuality but did not work as well with discussions concerning race. People poured out their hearts but didn’t receive much-needed feedback and validation.”
Each session began with prayer, an introduction from Bishop Goff and a video clip of then Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry’s sermon at the anniversary of the martyrdom of Jonathan Daniels. Bishop Curry preached forcefully on the power of love, noting that if we could ever harness the power of love, it would bring into being one of the greatest revolutions in human history. But to love someone, certainly you need to get to know that person first. As the listening session participants moved into their small-group discussions, it became apparent that we have a long way to go just to get to know one another.
Getting to know one another isn’t going to be easy – and it’s going to take some time. The discussion groups confirmed that we come from different backgrounds and have differing perspectives. Our stories are diverse. We make different assumptions. Some experienced the civil rights movement first hand. Others have only read about it in their history books. Many white participants commented that they have lived sheltered lives, unaware of the level of discrimination faced by other races. Participants debated whether color blindness was a “luxury of the privileged class.” As one noted, “if you’re color blind, you don’t feel my pain.”
Perhaps the only thing that became clear from these sessions is that there is no simple fix. Some participants asked the bishops to develop a comprehensive plan that
“The Diocese” could adopt and then propose to the wider Church. But the listening sessions demonstrated that issues and perspectives surrounding race are as complex as are our vagaries as individuals. Racial reconciliation undoubtedly will not lend itself to homogenized solutions.
What also become clear, based on the group discussions and written feedback, is that we need to keep going. People of all races are hungry for continuing conversations and substantive interactions with people of other races. There was almost universal agreement that the hard work now needs to move to the local level. A number of congregations are already on that path – having racial reconciliation gatherings in their congregations and in their local communities.
People recognized the need to work toward parity of racial participation in the conversations, including inviting members of other denominations if that is what is necessary to achieve a level of racial diversity. Participants suggested getting more young people involved and having similar discussions at Sunday schools and adult forums. Several suggested that the next step should be to develop ways actively to work on projects with people of other races to combine talk with action.
Many participants also recognized that the sessions are important in and of themselves – as a step to begin to get to know one another better. One commented: “Like most white people, my history with race is convoluted and full of denial. Small bits of honest conversation such as this bring more light through the cracks.” Another noted: “It was good to hear/sit with people of color.” And another: “Finally, the beginning of listening to one another. Trust will need to be fostered – it will take much more time and deep listening before authentic response is possible. Keep going.”
If you participated in these sessions, thank you. You already are engaged in the hard work of racial reconciliation. If you were not able to participate, stay tuned. We want to get to know you – and love you – better.
By: Buck Blanchard, Director of Mission & Outreach, Diocese of Virginia