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Ending Racism without Conflict?

Greetings WAC Community,

Jesus went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” – Matthew 26:42

When Chelsea Kesselheim and I went to the women’s prison in Lusk for an “Alternatives to Violence” workshop, she would begin by asking the question, “How many of you would like to avoid all conflict?”  Every hand would go up.  Then she asked, “How many of you would want to watch a movie that had no conflict in it?”  At the end of the discussion, the conclusion would be that conflict is an essential fabric of life.  Things get in the way, i.e., barriers that necessitate conflict in order for life to move on.  The lesson is, conflict is necessary for justice to happen.

As we observe Holy Week in the Christian tradition, we become acutely aware of the conflict in the life of Jesus.  He knew the conflict leading to his death had to happen; avoiding it was not the correct answer for Jesus and neither is it for us.  Think about the lives of the Saints, the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and others you admire who have made a difference.  They led lives with conflict.  Conflict was necessary to make a difference.

As the Wyoming Association of Churches that is in the process of figuring out how to end racism, we are coming to the conclusion that it will necessitate some difficult conversations and conflicts to break through the barriers including denial and what Harlan Johnson, calls “unintentional apartheid.”  This week a Casper pastor and board member of WAC sent me an article entitled Embracing Diversity, from a publication of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA).  The author quotes Harlan Johnson saying, “I haven’t figured out how to reach the vast group of white people who don’t get it.  There’s a fear, I think, about having conversations across the barriers.  They’re afraid they are going to be seen as being racist.  There’s also a lot of discomfort about dealing with the fact that these other citizens in our community are receiving so much less than anyone else in terms of opportunities in life.”  In coining the expression, “unintentional apartheid,” he hopes the first word takes away the shame and the second word shocks people into action.  In other words, he believes conflict is necessary to get action.

Last Thursday night we had our 4th Community Dialogue in Fremont County following the shooting of two Northern Arapaho men by a white city employee last July in Riverton. The dialogue topics for the four sessions were: (1) Who are we? (2) Where are we? (3) Where do we want to go? and (4) What will we do to make a difference?  In the group I was in Thursday evening, the question came up about where are the churches in all of this?

Churches were involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, although certainly not all of them and even within churches, there were differences of opinions.  I know.  I was there.  When I was in high school, the pastor of the church my family attended preached many sermons about brotherhood with people of different color, but when I came home from college one time and met with the pastor about why blacks were not at out church, he told me that “they” were happier having their own church, even though they could only have a pastor come in once a month for worship.  I suspect the whites were happier that we had our own church.  When I lived in Cincinnati as a young adult, I quit going to a church in a predominantly black neighborhood with only old white people attending who used to live in that neighborhood.  Churches by and large remain segregated today half a century later.

As the saying goes, “You can’t make an omelet with breaking some eggs.”  That includes our churches.  It starts with conversations.  We can never address it if we don’t talk about it.  There are tools available.  One tool was in the article in the ELCA publication I mentioned above that has 6 exercises suggested by Robert C. Blezard with the Lower Susquehanna Synod: (1) Recognizing that we are one in Christ, (2) Understanding that diversity makes us stronger, (3) Learning about the demographics of your own neighborhood, (4) What it would mean to apply the word “apartheid” to our situation, (5) Identify barriers and (6) Moving from our comfort zone.  If you have other suggested tools for getting the conversation going, let me know.

We are offering our workshop, “Doing Justice in a Red State: Recognizing Racism, Embracing Diversity.”  Contact me if you think that or something similar would be of value to your church or community.  Whether you think that Wyoming being a Red State is bad or good, in reality, it is what it is and the approach to doing justice in a Red State is different perhaps than in other states.  I would meet with a planning group to decide how best to approach such a workshop in your community.

Next month I will be attending the National Council of Churches Advocacy Days in DC where racism also will be addressed.  I hope to bring back information about what is working for churches in other places.  But I must tell you, addressing racism won’t happen without conflict.  And it has to start by talking about it.

Let’s keep the conversation going about how we are addressing racism in Wyoming within our churches and our communities.  Churches can and should be the leaders.  The Wyoming Association of Churches is here to help.

We appreciate your generosity in helping us to continue our work for justice in Wyoming.  We cannot do it without your financial support.

Fear not.  Be bold.  Do justice.



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