A Black Woman’s Experience of Racism in the Church

Good morning! I am grateful for the opportunity to share some of my reflections and learnings a few years into the UN Decade for people of African Descent as someone who represents you on the joint task group with the United Church of Christ and as a fellow Christian trying to figure it all out.

Let us pray…

Picture: me at three different protests and rallies

I am convinced that we are in a wilderness time: I have attended more protest, marches and rallies in the past three years than I have in the past 25 combined. (I am not even American, and I have marched on Washington twice. )

In the wilderness, it is not hard to see our true colours. We wear it on our Facebook posts, in our silence and in our actions. The good news about wilderness times is that where I am today, with God’s help, is not where I will be tomorrow. Being in the wilderness allows us to identify what we believe in our heart of hearts and to evaluate if we are inline, or as my Dad would say ‘on the right path’. The wilderness sucks, but liberation is worth it.

In my wilderness wanderings I often read Exodus, but over the past few weeks I been drawn to the writings of Paul. From Paul, I have learnt that it is OK to be a skeptic. I am very doubtful that we as a society will be able to eradicate racism in any of our lifetimes. I can’t imagine what that would look like. I don’t understand how it could be. I am even more skeptical that we can do so as a church. How can an institution, such as the church, that helped to build and shape our understandings of racism ever overcome it without tearing itself a part? How can you remove the flour from a cake once it is baked and ingested?

I believe that it could possibly happen… someday. But I am discouraged by the surface level conversations that we have about race as a church, and the Pollyanna type solutions that I hear at the end of these conversations, that I can’t help but feel doubtful of the effectiveness of our Anti-Racism work.

It’s not a doubt that I often share in public, because it is not a very inspiring thing for an Anti-racism advocate to say; but, I know that I am not alone in my skepticism or in my determination to continue the journey of my ancestors towards this unknown promised land despite my doubts. Part of me trusts that these doubts are part of the struggles I need to work through on the way to liberation.

UN Working Group Picture:

At a meeting this past October, Dominique Day, one of the members of the UN Working Group of Experts of People of African Descent, helped ease my frustrations with surface conversations. She expressed her hope in the spiral effect: the more dialogues she participates in the more she sees the conversation deepening each time it circles back... It is easy for me to forget that we rarely start conversations about race in the church at the same spot in the spiral.

As a child, my parents had to teach me about racism, because we live in a racist society, and I would have classmates, neighbors and teachers who would treat me differently because of my brown skin. My parents wanted me to know that I was entitled to the same dignity and respect as anyone else, and they knew I would not be taught that lesson in school. My White friends where not having conversations about race at home. In church school children have innocently asked me: why is my skin a different colour? And does it wash off? I am grateful that they trusted me enough to ask such questions, but also painfully aware that there conversations with me may have been their first conversations on race.

Last week, I shared with a group of predominately White high school students in Markham my experience at The National Memorial for Justice and Peace, informally known as the National Lynching Memorial, in Montgomery Alabama. The excellent and knowledgeable tour guides at the memorial would only be a few years older than the students I was speaking to. Yet, I was shocked to learn that most of the students did not know what lynching was.

We are not at equal levels of knowledge when it comes to racism and race, which is why conversations about race can be so frustrating for people who have been fighting, studying and living experiences of racism their whole lives.

In my life I am forced to circle back on different conversations and concepts about race daily, sometimes hourly. For many of the Black folks I have met it is a constant reality that they get no respite from. Understanding how racism works is a basic survival tactic. When people fail to show a deeper understanding of racism, or continually fail to identify racists acts, it is often a reflection of their limited understanding, their own bias, their own coping mechanism or their own internalized racism; it is not a reflection of reality.

The lack of deep conversations about racism, is a bit more complex than this, but I am given a tremendous amount of hope with the idea that these surface conversations are possibly drawing us deeper and closer to addressing the core of the issue. I still have my doubts, but professor Day, has given me a bit of hope to hold on to as well.

Black Clergy Gathering Picture:

Someone else I have encountered in the wilderness, Black Liberation theologian Professor Anthony Reddie, has helped me wrestle with my disappointment with the trite Pollyanna anti-racism sentiments that are rampant within the church by re-introducing me to embodied theology.

In every spiritual action and ritual that I participate in, or preform, I bring my whole self, which includes:

Images of Places we have Visited

1. The stories of others (16th Street Baptist Church)

2. National Memorial For Justice and Peace/ Amber Valley, Athabasca Alberta

3. My experiences and scars from racism

4. The memories of my family and friends, people who struggle and people who did not make it

I carry this with me always and proudly, not as a burden, but as a crown on my head. Sometimes in worship phrases like ‘we are all one’, and ‘God does not see colour’ feel like a physical attack attempting to knock the crown right off. Sometimes it is an intentional silencing (don’t talk about racism here), but often it is a well-meaning claim for unity. Regardless of the intent: the theoretical blow hurts. Such theoretical language is often used to dismiss, minimalize or discredit the experiences and hardships of the struggle for racial equality.

In theoretical terms, I am fully aware that we are all equal. And I am well aware that race is an elaborate social construct. I am also equally aware that racism is as real as the air that we are collectively breathing and the crocuses that will soon push through the earth. Anthony taught me that sometimes these words, which I truly believe, feel so horribly wrong because, the ability to live in the theoretical world is a privilege that most Black and racialized folk cannot afford.

I remain skeptical whenever I hear such rhetoric, but my hope is in the call to be embodied, real and practical alongside the theoretical, earthly and heavenly, so that we can be truly Authentic in our actions.

Picture of seedling bursting out of its case

Paul reminds us that in order for something to grow within a seed, something else within that same seed must die (the mystery of resurrection). So perhaps as a church, if we are to grow into our theoretical dream and truly become One in Christ (and therefore Anti-Racist), we very practically need to allow some things to die.

I am making a list! So far I have 4 myths that I believe must die in order for us to transform into an anti-racist church (please think of things to add to this list):

1. Myth: Canadian Promised Land:

a. Origin with the Underground Railroad History (allows us to start Canadian Black History here, and not talk about slavery in Canada and not talk about the Underground Railroad that traveled South – because it does not fit into our narrative of Mexico)

Pictures of UN Meeting

b. Beloved International Narrative: Example of how people at various meetings had difficulty hearing that there are concerning human rights violations against Black people in Canada. In an attempt to defend and hold this sacred narrative people are reticent and defensive to any counter-narrative.

c. An insult to our ancestors and past freedom fighters to call this the promised land… (not MLK’s Dream, not Langston Hughes, not my parents, not my grandma’s, certainly not Jesus’) Equity is needed first.

Seedling picture

2. Myth: Better than is good enough

a. myth that some racism is better/ more tolerable/ less harmful than other forms of racism: it is all poison, some fast, some slow…

b. Anything less than the kingdom of God, anything less than true equity, is not good enough…

3. Myth: If it is working don’t mess with it!

a. Goes with if people aren’t complaining we don’t need to do anything – who would be complaining? And what would be the physical/ emotional/ financial cost for them to make such a complaint? Who has complained, or spoken with the feet or their participation?

b. Diversity as an adjective: sometimes things just look diverse, it doesn’t actually reflect who is holding the power, who is making the decisions and who feels comfortable to be their whole selves

4. Myth: Racism is an individual thing

i. Dismissing feelings of an individual who experiences racism: sometimes something feels wrong, but you don’t yet have the words to articulate what is happening…trust the feeling, words will come (but in society we often discredit and dismiss feelings)

ii. Dismissing/ excusing racist acts with kind intentions: they didn’t mean anything by it. Problematic when we only label cartoonish and grand gestures as racist, dismissing small daily acts of racism and the opportunities to learn and grow from them.

I remain skeptical that racism could ever be eradicated in any of our lifetimes, but I am hopeful that if these myths along with many other harmful actions and beliefs can slowly begin to die, perhaps it can start to chip away at the hard casing that is trapping the seedling of the kingdom.

I am also hopeful that if we continue to nourish the seedling with our faithful actions and audacious hope the Kingdom of God might just break lose, outgrowing the hard casing, and bloom anyway!

In this wilderness time, this is the hope that I choose to hold on to; to help feed the seedling instead of the monsters. I attempt to model the radical - loving people you don’t like - sort of love of Jesus by following the example of peaceful non-violent protestors like the radical Martin Luther King. Like my beloved parents and grandparents, I attempt to love and celebrate the gift of life passionately and creatively enough to be willing to fight for the right of all people to live life fully and abundantly (even if it is with limited resources). Like fellow theologians both ancient and contemporary, I attempt to practice an embodied faith that is as theoretical as it is practical: A kingdom that is on earth as it is in heaven.

Picture of Blooming Plant

It is the sort of faith that have helped my ancestors travel through much harsher terrains and break through much harder shells than I could ever imagine; they helped the kingdom to break through for us, and even though I have my doubts, I have faith that our work can help the kingdom break through for the next, until that glorious day when all is revealed.

For all our sakes, may it be so. Amen.