Seeking justice and equity never gets easier
Although America’s Historic Black Churches were on the vanguard of racial change a generation ago, black church leaders today confront a more complex, variegated and frustrating situation.
While US churches across the board struggle to come to terms with America’s “racial reckoning”—precipitated by police violence against African Americans and keener appreciation of the systemic inequities that they and other minority groups face—the issues impinge on African American churches and congregations in a special way, say church leaders participating in the WCC’s central committee meeting.
For one thing, they are not the problem. “As a predominately African-American denomination, most of our work of addressing racism is external to our churches,” said Bishop Jefferson-Snorton, a central committee member from the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Alabama.
“In the ecumenical world and in predominately white churches,” she said, “we continue to observe a lack of education and awareness of issues of race and their real impact. It's difficult for many to grasp a reality they have never had to contend with and can forget about once the conversation is over.”
Jefferson-Snorton was among the North American contingent at the recent central committee meeting. Participants in the online gathering included central committee members, ecumenical officers, and allies from specialized ministries from Historic Black Churches as well as in other settings with significant portions of African American members.
Another key problem is resources, said Dr Tyrone Pitts, who served for 20 years as general secretary of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, an engine of change through the civil-rights movement, and ten years on the staff of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.
“Since the 1990s,” he said, “European American churches in the United States have not been serious about putting the resources in programmes to combat racism. American African denominations have continued in their own way to fight racism, often by themselves.”
“What I experience now is a renewed awareness of European Churches in America of the need to combat racism, but they do not appear to have the will to put up the financial resources to have an effective witness in transforming the racist systems and structures that support it,” said Pitts.
Educational programmes, safe spaces for real dialogue, legislative advocacy, grants for the most needy cases—all require resources from within and outside the churches themselves.
Complex legacies and ongoing inequities
But the deeper dilemma, Pitts says, is how “to engage the wider Eurocentric Christian American community in serious struggle to combat racism in our US context and abroad,” as well as
“to convince our fellow European American churches that the struggle to combat racism is inextricably interrelated, as Dr King said, to capitalism, militarism, and economic injustice.”
Others agree. Speaking from the Canadian context, Rev. Dr Japhet Ndhlovu of the United Church of Canada said, “It is complicated work to navigate and challenge white defensiveness, and increase white emotional strength to undertake anti-oppression work at the individual level. The work includes confronting denial of ongoing colonialism by non-Indigenous people and repairing damages to relationships caused by colonial and spiritual violence perpetuated by the church.”
Joining the moral and advocacy arenas, one nationwide effort rooted in church activism and spearheaded by Bishop William J. Barber II and Rev. Dr Liz Theoharis, is the revived Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
The gospel’s challenge to church culture
Still, church culture itself has in some measure harboured the problem, even in a historically progressive, justice-oriented body such as the United Church of Christ, says its associate general minister for wider church ministries, Rev. Dr Karen Georgia Thompson. “Truth telling is of import in addressing racism,” she says. But that entails “being able to look at the ways in which the institution, built on colonialism and patriarchy, continues to contribute to the inequities which manifest as racism and racial injustice.”
Along with its educational Join the Movement campaign, Thompson points to the UCC’s current institutional race audit. “This will critically examine all areas of the institution, including policies, governing documents, staffing, etc., to attend to the ways in which racism is present in the organization,” so they can be illuminated and addressed.
In the churches or in the wider society, whether individually or in groups, she says, addressing racism still requires fundamental change. “Racist narratives are void of love, the very love of God which we say is at the heart of the gospel and the message of God given through Jesus Christ.”