A Racially, Culturally Diverse Group of Religious Leaders Open a Conversation
HERE’S WHAT YOU’LL FIND IN THIS COLUMN
- HOW IT STARTED—First, the Rev. Chenda Innis Lee from Alexandria, Virginia, explains this pilot project.
- WATCH A SAMPLE DIALOGUE—Second, we’re streaming one of the pilot dialogues—you’ll see the video screen below—because that particular episode includes one of our long-time columnists and authors Benjamin Pratt.
- READ A SAMPLE COLUMN—As part of his own work in confronting injustice, Benjamin Pratt is encouraging readers to write their own stories about encountering injustices in the U.S. As a model, he has written a column, below after the video screen, summarizing some of his own reflections.
HOW THIS STARTED—AND WHERE IT’S GOING
By CHENDA INNIS LEE
The origin of the idea—After the murder of George Floyd last year, Bishop Sharma Lewis called Virginia United Methodists to take action on issues of systemic racism in the Virginia Annual Conference. She invited all 16 districts within the bounds of the Annual Conference “to have authentic conversations about race and reconciliation in houses of worship, communities, and workplaces in which we acknowledge racism as a sin and actively pursue whatever is necessary to dismantle the injustices.”
The committee who produced it—The Alexandria District, under the leadership of the Rev. Jeff Mickle formed a Racial Justice Taskforce to create a resource to be used as training for the clergy of the Alexandria District. The Rev. Chenda Innis Lee was asked to lead this work. The diverse task force of five members, both ordained and licensed local pastors, included two Black women, one Asian man, one Latino man, and one Caucasian woman. The group worked together for three months and produced a five-week video series titled: Real People, Real Talk: Clergy Experiences of Racism. These 30-minute conversations include discussions with active and retired clergy and bishops of the Virginia Annual Conference.
How it will be used and by whom—The video series already has been used as a mandatory training resource for clergy in the Alexandria District. It was well received by participants. The resource is now available for clergy and laity to use in their respective ministry settings. Although the audience for whom it was produced are United Methodists, it is available for anyone who wants to engage the work of racial justice. The resource now has been released on YouTube as six segments through the link above.
The Rev. Chenda Innis Lee serves a church in Alexandria and also chairs the Racial Justice Taskforce for the Alexandria District of the Virginia Conference.
WATCH A SAMPLE DIALOGUE
The Real People, Real Talk: Clergy Experiences of Racism—the series of videos linked above in this column—includes the following 30-minute episode in which Benjamin Pratt, one of our most popular columnists and authors, was part of the online dialogue. Simply listening to the introductions of the participants begins to expand our awareness of the complexities of race and cultural identity today. This dialogue, within the larger series, includes some brief references to the history of racism—as well as very contemporary experiences of this friction wherever people live and work and even order their favorite fast food.
BENJAMIN PRATT—WRITING OUR STORIES
For many years, Benjamin Pratt has been one of our most popular writers. He has published several books, which you can see displayed on his Amazon author page. Now, as a part of the pilot project in eastern Virginia, he is encouraging his readers to write their own stories about encountering the entrenched injustices involving racial and cultural assumptions in the U.S. As a model, he has written this column summarizing some of his own reflections.
By BENJAMIN PRATT
I am privileged and I have been so since my birth.
Considering the circumstances of my childhood, I never imagined I would declare this as a given. I grew up in a relatively poor, working class family. I lived with my parents and my brother in grandparents’ homes. We were a loving and happy family even with my mother visibly becoming more and more crippled daily by rheumatoid arthritis. From my 4th grade until my 10th, the four of us slept in the unheated attic of a small house in Erie, PA, where winter temperatures often hovered at 0 degrees. We used a chamber pot because my grandfather didn’t want us to possibly awaken him by going to the one bathroom. By the time I was in the 8th grade I couldn’t stand up straight in the low-ceiling attic. Obviously, these are not the conditions we usually attribute to privilege. It wasn’t Downton Abbey.
In spite of all of that, I was and am privileged—I’m white. The color of my skin, even though it technically is not white, gives me a leg up, an advantage, a privilege at the gateways of life. I’ve discovered that some whites don’t think they are part of a race—they assume they are part of the default norm.
Two Ways to Describe ‘White Privilege’
I was recently invited to participate on a panel of three persons discussing “white privilege,” “white fragility,” and how to be an ally for persons of color in our society. As our conversation began, I was asked to describe “white privilege.”
This was my answer:
Thousands of American men returned victorious from WW II and the bonus of free education and a housing loan. That was true if you were white, not if you were one of the million black Americans who had risked their lives in war. Only 4% of black GIs were able to access the bill’s offer of free education. Also, the Federal Housing Authority warned town developers that selling to nonwhite families would topple their profit values. On the housing front, a set of policies created by the FHA and implemented by lenders and realtors, mapped out neighborhoods according to skin color. This housing appraisal system, referred to as “redlining,” designating the area as a “hazardous” investment because it was for blacks. The red zones were filled with poorer quality buildings with higher interest rates for loans while “green” areas had lower interest rates and better quality structures. These experiences are at the heart of “white privilege” and “structural racism.”
Since our online conversation, I’ve heard a much more succinct way to define white privilege:
“As a white person I don’t worry about the safety of my child or grandchild when they leave the house.”
A History of Violence Close to Home
The first African Americans were bought and sold at the mouth of the James River in what is now Virginia in 1619. American slavery lasted a quarter millennium until 1865. It will be 2111 before African-Americans as a people will have been free for as long as they had been enslaved on American soil.
At its core, racism, classism and elitism are snobbery. It does not ask about what you believe, what you have done, or what you will do with your life. Snobbery asks: Who are your ancestors? What color is your skin? What class are you in society? Snobbery is a high window on the world viewed through blood, skin color and ancestry.
In my own personal journey, I have become ever more welcoming of diversity. I have told you about my earliest life. We were Protestants living in a predominantly Roman Catholic, Eastern European community. Following seminary, I was the founding pastor of a rapidly growing interracial church that, after 60 years, has become even more ethnically balanced. As a pastoral counselor, I was profoundly influenced by clergy colleagues from all traditions, sexual orientations and genders.
Jesus as a Model for Christians
As in all things Christian, let’s turn to Jesus as a welcome model of conversion when we face the power of snobbery in our lives. Many Christians insist that Jesus was perfect from infancy through the end of his life, but that assertion is challenged by at least some New Testament texts. If we believe that Jesus was a real human being who grew throughout his life, then we may even be witnessing Jesus rebuffed for snobbery in passages such as Matthew 15:21- 28 or Mark 7:24-30. These are scenes in which Jesus encounters a foreigner, a mother whose young daughter has been possessed by “an unclean spirit.” When this woman pursues a weary Jesus and pleads with him to heal her daughter, he snaps that it would be like tossing bread to dogs. The woman is persistent, though, and snaps right back at Jesus. Suddenly, Jesus softens, relents and performs the healing. Some commentators rebel at the idea that Jesus was chastened by this woman and actually changed course because of her rebuke. Perhaps these commentators fear that a woman played such a catalytic role or they fear accepting a Jesus who was not entirely perfect at every moment in his life. For me, this passage only leads me to love Jesus more. It makes his humanity real. He was a man who changed and acknowledged broader world views. Just as so many women have enabled me to broaden my perspective on life; it appears that a persistent and rather desperate woman of a different ethnic heritage was instrumental in converting Jesus from what may have been a weary moment of snobbery.
St. Paul’s Hymn to Love
There is no vaccine for the virus of racism that plagues our planet. So, what can we do is “let peace begin with me” as we engage with family and friends and even when we have the opportunity to be with persons of different perspectives. We can choose patience, empathic listening, gentle kindness—just a few of those qualities St. Paul listed in his famous “Hymn to Love” in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.
One of the great joys of my life now is to live in the same community with my friend since seminary days nearly 60 years ago. Jim Truxell and I take turns with others leading worship in our community. We discuss, share and challenge each other in our preparations for the sermons and services. On the Sunday prior to the Inauguration of our new President and Vice President, Jim preached a sermon on the two covenants—our American covenant and our Divine covenant. Jim challenged the community concerning what we can do, using Paul’s words,
Jim said, “Paul intended the 13th chapter of his letter to be part of a plan of action for healing their fractured community. It was Paul’s attempt to remind them of the heart and soul of their own covenant: that they should love one another as Jesus had loved his disciples. Or, as one of our great hymns puts it: ‘to love others as we find them, or as they may become.’ If we use only two of the things Paul says that love is, we’ll be off to a great start. Paul said that love is patient, and love is kind.”
The Transformation of George Wallace
Jesus, the Master Storyteller, would tell a story now to capture the essence of what we are saying. So, Jim did just that, he told this story:
What happened in Selma, at the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 was egged on by the self-avowed segregationist Alabama governor, George Wallace who ran a successful campaign on “Segregation forever!”
In 1979, wheelchair-bound because of a 1972 would-be assassin’s bullet lodged in his spine, this same George Wallace was wheeled by his attendant to the front of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. It was the same church Martin Luther King, Jr. pastored in the 1950s. Wallace turned to face the African American congregation.
Wracked with pain, his confinement to a wheelchair having ended the physically hyper-active life he had so cherished, George Wallace began to speak: “I’ve learned what suffering means in a way that was impossible. I think I can understand something of the pain that black people have come to endure. I know I contributed to that pain and I can only ask for your forgiveness.” As he was leaving the church, the congregation began singing “Amazing Grace.”
Wallace went on to ask forgiveness of black leaders. As governor, he then appointed a record number of African Americans to state positions.
What changed George Wallace? Surely his chronic, intense pain helped. But it involved something else: a profound and utterly unexpected act of kindness that touched his heart as he lay paralyzed in the hospital.
In 1972, George Wallace was campaigning for President. So was the first African American woman ever to be elected to the U. S. House of Representatives. You’ll recognize her name: it was Shirley Chisholm. Over the adamant objections of her staff, Shirley Chisholm suspended her campaign in order to visit George Wallace in his hospital room.
Astounded, Wallace asked Chisholm, “What are your people going to say about your coming here?”
Chisholm replied: “I know what they’re going to say, but I wouldn’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone.”
When Shirley Chisholm returned to the campaign, an aide asked how she could imperil her electoral campaign to visit such an arch villain and foe of African Americans. She said, “Sometimes we have to remember we’re all human beings, and I may be able to teach him something, to help him regain his humanity, to maybe make him open his eyes to make him see something he has not seen.” And then she added this: “You have to be optimistic that people can change. Sometimes one act of kindness may make all the difference in the world.”
My Call to Action
I may be privileged as a white person but that is not a privilege I want. I want to be privileged by God’s grace to be capable of empathy, kindness, patience and love for each person I encounter. I want the privilege of standing by all persons regardless of race, caste, sex or faith.