A hard opportunity
Today, after worship, 10 people joined me for our "on-going sacred conversation about race" in the United States (an initiative of the United Church of Christ.) This was our second gathering and as we reflected on this portion of the UCC's Pastoral Letter (If we fail to acknowledge honestly the racial tensions or to examine their underlying causes, the anger, backlash, and misunderstanding that are resident in our communities will only go underground and fester. We will continue to be susceptible to the tactics of those who wish to keep us racially divided and distracted from addressing the issues we share in common.) two hard opportunities began to take shape:
First, with two guests visiting the area from California, we told stories of how we experienced "conscientization" ( a term coined by Paulo Freire to speak of how our conscience is awakened and we learn to perceive and expose social and political contradictions. Conscientization also includes taking action against oppressive elements in one's life as part of that learning.) Some of us realized racism was real when we experienced the powerlessness of being a minority, others (who were racial minorities) spoke of what it was like to be ostracized by their own race for seeming too "white" and all of us told of key events that opened our hearts and minds to the divisions so deep within our society (reading Black Like Me, MLK's first speech in Washington, travelling to Ecuador with missionaries, etc.)
Second, we began to tell the very complicated story of our own congregation and town. It seems that the city of Pittsfield chose to vote with the South when it came to returning runaway slaves because our local industry depended upon the plantation economy. What's more, while our church officially celebrates our role in bringing to birth Second Congregational Church as the first African American congregation in the Berkshires, the reality is that the wife of the Rev. Dr. John Todd would not take communion from the same cup as our Black members and the African American church was created to make sure that the races didn't have to mix at the communion table! To be sure, we were generous and helpful in starting this new congregation but somehow that New Testament insight of St. Paul's - that in Christ there is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female - seemed conveniently forgotten.
So the hard opportunity that became clear has to do with educating 21st century white folk in our congregation of this very complicated history and then initiating a public act of repentance. We cannot move into a deeper relationship with people of color without owning our sins and asking for forgiveness. And so we shall...
I had no idea that this would become one of the realities of our ministry when I left Tucson, AZ for the Berkshires last year but that's how the journey of faith goes. 141 years after the end of the American Civil War perhaps we can find our way to being able to sing with honesty the old hymn: In Christ there is no East or West. We shall see...
For more information:
-The United Church of Chirst Pastoral Letter on Racism http://www.ucc.org/sacred-conversation/pdfs/pastltrracism.pdf
-BlackPast.org re: the first pastor of Second Congregational Church: http://www.blackpast.org/?q=aah/harrison-samuel-1818-1900