Below, Gunda reflects on the conference and how the momentum has kept going.
Would you like to reflect a bit on the theme, “Overcoming Racism in the Church?”
Dr Gunda: To begin with, this theme is a confession, a realization of the sad reality that racism remains a presence inside our churches even though it was unequivocally declared a “sin against God and humanity” at the WCC 5th Assembly, in Nairobi, Kenya in 1975, and the same was reiterated in the WCC 11th Assembly in Karlsruhe, Germany in 2022. This theme demonstrates a renewed and shared commitment and conviction among Christians that we cannot shy away from exposing ourselves as struggling with this sin in our communities. This theme is an invitation to Christians, not only in Europe but globally to rethink the strategies of responding to this sickening reality. And having this theme in a conference that was predominantly “white,” I took it as a welcome development that some among “white” European Christians are calling themselves and others to an open, difficult but critically important conversation. The theme speaks to the decades-old problem of the permanent “migrant status” given to Christians whose origins or heritage is located in Africa, Caribbean, Asia, or elsewhere but who, at least some of them, are already second or third generation in their families, born and raised in Europe, with no real connection to their supposed heritage but always seen as migrants, not only in wider society but also in our churches. Some of the migrants, who felt unwelcome in our churches, went ahead and started their own faith communities, the so-called migrant churches. These migrant churches appear to have a permanent category of migrant churches, never to be fully embraced. This theme speaks to the need for greater, intentional integration of all Christians into our faith networks, to see in each other the image of God, sisters, brothers, and friends. This theme is a reminder to the rallying call of the WCC, inviting churches to visible unity, so that the world may believe! It is an acknowledgement that we can only be impactful in bringing about the unity of humanity if we preach with our own visible unity.
Finally, this theme sufficiently covers both the individual racial prejudices and discriminatory instances that racialized persons have to encounter in their everyday lives, but it also speaks to the presence that is rarely acknowledged, especially among Christians, that is, systemic racism. This theme calls not only for churches to invite individuals to overcome their personal prejudices with the assumption that racism is simply the sum of these personal prejudices—this theme calls for churches to embrace a critical unpacking of racism that is embedded in structures, laws, policies, practices that make up church traditions. In short, this theme calls churches and in this case, traditional European churches onto the table, to share fears and vulnerabilities that continue to strengthen racism in churches because we choose not to focus on them.
What most inspired you during the conference?
Dr Gunda: The most inspiring moment of the Church and Peace Conference was how “white” it was. I think out of close to 100 people, there were less than 15 people who were not “white.” The theme of the conference is one that normally attracts non-white European people because it is a theme that is traditionally associated with victimhood. Yet, arriving in Baarlo, I saw a large group of “white” Europeans, all keenly whispering and having small talks on the subject. The second inspirational aspect of this conference was the willingness the organizers had in inviting interventions from “non-white” resource persons, this was really important. In the context in which white saviourism persists, seeing a large group of “white” people sitting attentively and listening, and following and even appreciating interventions from migrants and “black” guests, that was inspiring to a certain degree.
How did people respond to your reflections?
Dr Gunda: I must begin by saying that the mere presence of the WCC at this conference, in the form of Rev. Nicole Ashwood, programme executive for Just Community of Women and Men, and myself, was greatly appreciated by organizers and participants alike. In the form of a fish bowl conversation, I appreciated what the conference had done but also challenged the participants to confront the most difficult questions that need to be asked if we are to confront racism and to eventually overcome it in our churches before we can even think of helping society at large to overcome this sin. I challenged the participants to encourage our constituencies to question our deepest fears around equality, equity, and justice.
Why do we fear being equal to others that look different? Why do we fear honestly re-membering the past, how that past is responsible for the present and already deciding the future? The key to overcoming racism in church lies in a degree of self-emptying about our personal but also systemic failures that continue to make racism look normal in our societies. There was silence, as people reflected on the depth and difficulty of embarking on this journey. But soon after the fish bowl session, many participants asked if they could have the questions for further reflection. Since the conference, a number of emails have also come through asking for the questions. The response was beyond my imagination, I realized the questions pushed participants into a place of discomfort—but it was a discomfort that they embraced and were willing to engage with. I was and am excited in the response from participants and I am looking forward to further and deeper conversations around the fears that people have, fears that make racism, xenophobia or other forms of discrimination between ethnic groups acceptable because by being racist or xenophobic we feel and think we are protecting or defending ourselves and our own ethnic group. Overcoming racism, therefore, is overcoming these fears that, in many cases, have now been institutionalized in our laws, policies and practices.