The Problem with ‘Welcoming’
My home church recently hosted a summer-long series of guest speakers under the theme “Expanding Our Faith.” Eager to gain insights from other religious traditions, we invited a rabbi, an imam, a Zen Buddhist monk, and an indigenous storyteller to preach on four consecutive Sundays. Our team chose songs, wrote prayers and selected images for the program that reflected the speaker’s faith tradition. Yet I could not help but notice the giant cross which hangs in the front of our church, above the platform where our guests spoke. On these Sundays, the cross seemed to dominate the room.
In her book, Radical Welcome: Embracing God, the Other, and the Spirit of Transformation, Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers provides strategies for ‘mainline’ (read: predominantly white, majority heterosexual) congregations who are seeking to welcome marginalized cultures and groups into their church. Spellers distinguishes between “inclusive” churches that practice incorporation and churches of “incarnation” who practice radical welcome.
An inclusive faith community incorporates new marginalized members without modifying its core dominant cultural identity or institutional structure. By constrast, in a community that practices radical welcome, the community’s cultural identity(ies) shift to enable full expression of a range of voices and gifts to be present. The power structure of the community changes so that leadership reflects all voices within the community. Radical welcome transforms every aspect of the community’s life together.
When we talk about becoming a multi-racial church, we tend to focus on what we can do to be accessible and “welcoming,” what signs we can add to the building, what outreach events we might schedule. We rarely (if never) sign on for power sharing or a complete top-to-bottom transformation of congregational identity: after all, many of our United Church of Christ churches have been around for hundreds of years. Congregational identity and a narrative of the local church’s place in a certain telling of American history is deeply ingrained.
In the same way, as we pursue engagements with other faiths, we strive to be welcoming and hospitable. We are courteous, work to pronounce unfamiliar names correctly, ask permission to take photographs. But we do not question how our way of being followers of Jesus, the ways we literally “do church,” inhibit our ability to communicate authentically with others.
Sometimes it seems that dominant white culture and dominant Christian culture are so interconnected as to be indistinguishable from one another. How “hospitable” can my church actually be to the indigenous leader whose great-great-grandfather was forced to attend a missionary boarding school whose teachers included members of my church?
What kind of justice work do Christians need to pursue in order to participate in authentic interfaith relationships? How do we need to change our way of holding and using power so that others can be present?
White-Christian Dominance of Interfaith Space
Perhaps the example of inviting guest speakers into my Christian place of worship is disingenuous, for a secular meeting place where many faiths gather would seem to offer more even ground. But I think the model of inviting others to come to us illustrates the problem. In the city where I live, interfaith work is organized by an ecumenical council (a group of Christians) whose buildings, lands, etc. play host to our multi-faith gatherings. Our meetings for interfaith racial justice organizing with Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) are held in a white church.
When we gather, once a year, for Interfaith Advocacy Days, on the steps of our state capitol, I’m aware of the statues, memorials (even street names!) which pay tribute to ‘pioneer’ ancestors…those responsible for the plunder and desecration of indigenous holy places. There isn’t any ‘neutral’ territory outside the dominant white-Christian-culture of our society.
When we gather in a secular place, consider the structure and order of our interfaith prayer services: we always begin and end at an appointed time. We usually have a printed program listing the speakers, which means that certain people must and do speak (and the audience does not generally interrupt). We use certain words, which are believed to be “common”: prayer, blessing, litany. When we gather to celebrate many faiths, we still structure our gathering using a dominant white-western-Euro-American cultural model that is especially conducive to Christianity.
In racial justice organizing, we distinguish between multiculturalism and dismantling racism. Multicultural efforts often manifest as seeking to collect a kind of smorgasbord of cultural diversity, while efforts to dismantle racism resist the colonizer-collector attitude that treats diversity as a product to be bought and bartered.
Too often interfaith gatherings reflect a colonizer model: dominant Christian culture plays host for a buffet of faiths and cultures whose dishes provide “flavor and spice,” the “exotic other.” Power remains centralized in the hands of the host who invites and disinvites guests at will. This is especially evident in language.
While we pride ourselves on hearing and understanding one another in interfaith dialogue, do we also notice whose vocabulary provides the scaffolding for the conversation? Who picks the terms, who decides what the words mean?
The Limits of Language
For example, my community includes a Umatilla/Nez Perce/Sauk & Fox indigenous storyteller and an Ifa priestess. When I talk about interfaith work with them, they resist my use of the word faith.
Faith is a dominant word, they tell me. They point out that, for example, in our country, one can be licensed as a Jewish or Christian or Buddhist chaplain, but not an Ifa chaplain. From their perspective, “people of faith” are people who follow religions with a history of oppression and domination of indigenous people, culture and spirituality.
When I ask my friends to name their spiritual practices, the words they use include: ritual, ceremony, meditation, dance, journaling, movement, smudge, prayer, spell casting, journeying, listening/talking to ancestors, circlework, dreams, pow-wow, feast, blessing.
The words I associate with “faith”: worship, liturgy, litany, communion, fellowship, confession are not words that they use. In fact, there is active resistance to using words that are Christian.
It isn’t that we have different words for the same thing, so that our task is one of simple translation. (I’ve observed other scholars attempt to place their labels onto indigenous practices, comparing passing the peace pipe to communion, for example, and have seen the violence inherent in renaming something against its intention.) For example, “ritual” is used instead of “worship” because the central task of a ritual is connection to elements of energy and/or ancestors, rather than praise of a deity. So while it might in superficial ways look similar (i.e. we sit in a circle, gather for about an hour, sing, hear a lesson), our gatherings are in many ways deeply, intentionally different.
For my friends in indigenous African and Native American traditions, spiritual practice in their own terms is a form of resistance to the European colonization, slavery and genocide that attacked and destroyed their culture and language. Many old words have been lost, and the new ones that are being reclaimed do not/will not fit into a framework of “faith,” not even for the sake of “interfaith dialogue,” for fear of once again becoming invisible and being erased.
For people seeking liberation from ever-present systems of oppression and domination, something like dialogue — an exchange of words and ideas between peers — is not the goal (or perhaps, not the first one). Sovereignty is the goal, liberation is the goal.
Indigenous peoples are actively advocating for their right to protect their land, practice their religion and nurture cultural and community life for future generations. African-American peoples are resisting white supremacist police and vigilante violence, affirming their right to life and to worship in Black churches that have long served to nurture connection and resilience.
While white people talk about making sure everyone has a place at “the table,” they do not consider how the white table itself is toxic and life-threatening to those they want to invite.
What does it cost people of color to enter white space in order to participate in interfaith dialogue? How might changes in power structures be a prerequisite for interfaith gatherings?
Letting Go of Power So All Can be Present
The accountability guidelines used by Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) provide a valuable model for white Christians seeking to do interfaith work. SURJ members seek to show up for racial justice in two major ways: first, working within white communities to call out and change the ways they are perpetuating white supremacy through our ways of being in the world, and second, showing up with financial, physical, legal and spiritual support to POC-led campaigns for liberation.
As we understand it, showing up involves not talking at the public action: not to the press, not on the mic, not about our feelings. Showing up involves listening and holding back and questioning what feels like a natural impulse to make it all about us. Showing up means dropping off food for an all-Black gathering, taking off work to be in audience at the courthouse and at city hall, contributing money to bail and living expenses for local leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement.
I’m wondering if white Christians can show up to interfaith work in this way. Perhaps the most useful white Christian participation in an interfaith setting would be to provide food, foot the bill for space rental, and not say anything, but just listen as indigenous and African and Asian Pacific Islander and Latino people share their sacred stories. Listen and reflect and listen some more.
White Christians need to stop worrying about how to invite everyone to the table of faith, and start wondering instead about all the other tables they’ve never visited…the ways of doing religion and being church and yes, even following God, where they aren’t in control.
This blog post is an excerpt of a paper I presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion / Society of Biblical Literature in Atlanta, Georgia on November 23, 2015.
I was privileged to have a conversation recently with a young Black activist who I deeply admire. I was surprised when she suggested that there is nothing remarkable about the white part of white supremacy.
In different cultures around the world, in the past and present, groups have acted in similar ways, creating and maintaining brutal, dehumanizing and oppressive control of others. Those groups did not use the label “white” or come from european backgrounds.
Part of me recoiled as I listened to her talk.
I felt myself wonder: so we aren’t special? There isn’t something inherent in whiteness that makes us oppressors?
While I know that whiteness was historically constructed, an identity placed on me for the purposes of social control, rather than a cultural identity (like my German-immigrant-ness)…it still feels as though white is something I am.
To think that I could be white, and white could just as easily be the social label for people who are enslaved, denied culture and language, profiled, targeted and incarcerated….my brain-body-self couldn’t process this idea.
As I sat with it, I realized my defensive reaction was related to my internalized sense of being superior. That internalized superiority was embedded in my sense that there was something about my identity that makes me especially suited for holding the role of oppressor. Even as I denigrate and mock it, I simultaneously cherish and claim it.
What if the talk that whites do around racism and white complicity is a means of reassuring their internalized superiority?
Whites bemoan their complicity. Catalog the list of their privileges. Study whiteness, attempt to deconstruct themselves. Call out other whites for racist behavior. Roll their eyes at white culture. I do this.
Whites “re-imagine” history by noticing all the terrible things white people have done, rather than by listening (without interruption or re-interpretation) to histories that have not been told. Whites remain the authors of their lives, the shapers of the narrative. That they have changed the narrative to less explicitly mythologize white dominance doesn’t mean they have stopped being dominant. This is me.
Whites succeed at shaping and controlling a set of stories about racism and their participation in it that does little to shift the center of power. Saying “I am a racist” or “I participate in racism” doesn’t, in and of itself, reduce internalized superiority. In my experience, whites can say that and go on believing that there is something special, unique about them that makes them suited for the role of oppressor.
In fact, the anti-racist work that whites do, can in itself be an exercise in maintaining white dominance. Several times in anti-racist workshops I’ve noticed that a conversation that was supposed to be about racism turned into a conversation about what it meant to be white. (As if whites were the only or most important people in the room.)
Since I started this blog as a way of being transparent in my consciousness around race, I have become more and more uneasy with addressing only whites. So in this post, I have changed the way I use “we” and “our,” noticing the way it is different when I address whites as a subgroup rather than as my primary audience.
Whites that I’ve met in activist circles seem to carry a kind of white self-consciousness about them. I think many whites understand anti-racist work as an opportunity to deepen their understanding of themselves.
Certainly, I pursue anti-racist work because I want to see myself more clearly and be more authentic. I have tried to deconstruct what it means to be an oppressor, in hopes of driving a wedge of anti-racist consciousness into the routinely racist thoughts and actions I commit.
So I seek out conversations and relationships with people of color, listening for the parts of reality that I miss, the things I can’t see. But am I listening for myself in those conversations? Am I filtering everything I hear by how it applies to me? (This articles seems a case in point…ARGH!)
Perhaps some of that self-absorption is baseline human behavior, a survival instinct, a need to find recognition and belonging. Yet I believe that racism is about power, and giving up power is difficult.
Maybe I need to work on listening and being present for the primary purpose of affirming the speaker’s humanity, without an agenda of making it useful to me. There a difference between “I am listening because I want to learn” and “I am listening because you are worth listening to.”
Recently someone asked: “What would your community look like if it loved black people?”
A few answers came to me, but the first and last answer was, “I don’t know and I want to know.” I want to know. I want to be alive when that becomes reality.
I have heard confusion from people about the act of terrorism in Charleston. I am not confused. I am angry. I am tired. I am newly ashamed of my people. I am furious, with the killer, yes, but his actions cannot be undone. We have lost Hon. Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Cynthia Hurd, Myra Thompson, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr. and Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor. We cannot bring them back.
Mostly I am angry with myself, with my people, with white America. The conservative news stations and those who lie repeatedly about racism are beyond any rational dialogue, so I tune them out. I am frustrated instead with those whose words I can hear, white people like me, who believe that racism is real but who don’t show up.
Your words matter to me when I see your struggle, your anguish. Your actions matter more.
I deeply believe that we cannot stop this pathological disease of racism with policy alone. Or with changes in economics, although those are maybe more important than we realize.
Racism is a spiritual sickness. I see it every Sunday as we sing and pray and talk but don’t act. We can feel sad and sorry until the cows come home, but our sadness changes nothing.
Racism is a spiritual sickness. Here is what I have learned about spirituality from being a follower of Jesus:
Your body matters. If you kneel when you pray, it changes how you pray. Where you literally physically stand matters.
It changes something inside you when you turn off your television, put down your tablet, stand up, walk out of your house and get in your car or take the bus to the place where a black kid was killed, and stand on that street corner with other people who are mourning his life, and all the other black lives too, but this one was ours. This one lived here.
You standing there changes, in a small but necessary way, the fear and hatred of black people that lives within you.
You standing there acknowledges that this is your responsibility, that racism is your problem, because you are a human being and a member of a society that hates and murders people whose skin is brown.
You standing there starts to change injustice.
During the Holocaust many, many people stayed inside our homes. This is the biggest example of not-showing-up that I can think of. Martin Niemöller is often quoted, but what he said in 1946 seems important today:
“We preferred to keep silent. We are certainly not without guilt/fault, and I ask myself again and again, what would have happened, if in the year 1933 or 1934 – there must have been a possibility – 14,000 Protestant pastors and all Protestant communities in Germany had defended the truth until their deaths? If we had said back then, it is not right when Hermann Göring simply puts 100,000 Communists in the concentration camps, in order to let them die. I can imagine that perhaps 30,000 to 40,000 Protestant Christians would have had their heads cut off, but I can also imagine that we would have rescued 30-40,000 million [sic] people, because that is what it is costing us now.”
Your words matter, my people. But your actions matter more.
The next vigil for Keaton Otis is on Sunday July 12 at 6pm at NE 6th and NE Halsey. Come stand with me.
I’ve been challenged recently to hear that some of what I’m sharing on Facebook is experienced as hurtful or polarizing. I’ve been thinking deeply about this, trying to sort it out, and want to share some thoughts.
I think part of what’s happening is that it is hard to stop racism. Racism isn’t just about the system out there: the US government, global imperialism, etc. The system is also inside us. Which means at least two things are happening when we talk about race:
1) Power is being challenged/changed and it doesn’t feel good.
When my friend Kathleen Saadat answers the question, “where do white allies fit in?” by saying “if they can’t figure out how this struggle is in their interest then they can go home. I don’t need ’em. I don’t need anybody coming to save me,” white folk may feel OUCH. From my point of view, what I see Kathleen doing is resisting racism (in general and within the question).
She’s resisting the racism that happens when black people take care of white people by making us feel good about ourselves. If she had answered with “here’s what you need to do,” whites would have added that to our task list and felt good about being able to help. And that would perpetuate the problem. Because that helping is how racism works…if the struggle for black liberation is only (or primarily) the task of black people, and white people pitch in here and then but never challenge ourselves to change how we’re part of the system, then the system within us continues.
Because we are the system, changing the system means changing ourselves…changing something inside us. For me racial justice work is spiritual work, transformation work. An ouch is an invitation, an opportunity to sit with feeling hurt and reflect on my feelings without getting defensive and shutting down and blaming or shifting the conversation elsewhere. When I feel confused (which happens often), it helps me to pray or meditate, to notice how I’m afraid and remember that I’m loved, and to try to let go of not making mistakes and figuring it all out.
2) I think another thing that’s happening is that whites are being judged and judging ourselves. Another article I shared recently by Rachel Hackenburg was in the format of the “dear white people” letters making their rounds on the interwebs. Setting aside obvious rudeness and name-calling (never okay), I’m curious about the ways our feelings are hurt reading these. Many of these, like Rachel’s piece, are judgmental.
As we start to realize that we are the system – the system lives within us – we name, label, distance and judge that part of us. White folk are trying to find a way to call other whites to accountability for what we’re doing wrong and to stop doing it. This is hard because what whites are doing wrong is so deeply embedded into our way of being in the world that it feels like we’re being told we ARE wrong: our approach, our ideas, even our questions are bad.
That’s not true. White people are not bad people. We’re beloved and worthy and complicit and well-meaning. We’ve learned, at a very deep level, a way of being in the world that perpetuates an injustice we want to stop. So we feel stuck. We feel afraid that talking about race means confessing a bunch of sins we haven’t committed, or even worse, sins we committed against our will and are powerless to stop.
But even if we feel despair, it isn’t hopeless. I promise. We can do this. We ARE doing it. Our discomfort and hurt feelings and confusion are evidence that we are engaged with the conversation, and if we can not take it too personally and sit with it, it will get easier. It will get easier to be uncomfortable and confused and hurt, because we’ll remember that power is changing and we are the system and so we are changing and change is HARD.
I whole-heartedly believe that it is possible to talk about race and be loving and kind. I know this because some incredible mentors in my life have been (and continue to be) kind to me when I am excruciatingly vulnerable, when I ask well-meaning but racist questions, when I make mistakes.
My friend Vanessa Timmons says our spiritual task is to meet change with the best of ourselves. Let’s bring our best. Let’s be kind and courageous and forgiving of mistakes and committed to challenging injustice and dismantling racism.
I’d love to talk more about this, privately, or publicly on facebook or my blog, so that we can learn together.
Yours in love and struggle,
Last weekend as I left the house for church, I slowed down because the boys at the end of our street were playing basketball.
They stood back as I passed, and a racial epithet – one my father used frequently through my childhood – leapt into my mind. Annoyed at myself, I pushed it away, thinking as I did so that the “boys” were actually young men. Thinking of them as young black men made me nervous, a white woman paranoia that I’ve learned to name as racism. Pushing THAT thought away, I thought of Ferguson, and felt a wash of shame and despair.
Then there was traffic, and my worry about being prepped to teach Sunday school, and my thoughts moved on, until Monday, when I walked into the ladies bathroom at work and heard an unexpected noise. It took me a long minute before I realized that the sound was a breast pump: a female co-worker in the wide stall at the end of the row was pumping her milk.
I’d been holding it together in my new job until that moment. It’s been three weeks since I left my daughter at home to work full-time. Her absence is a deep ache in my body. The first week I felt so disconnected, like I was in a dream living someone else’s life. That has faded, but I still have a strict two minute limit on tears.
But in that moment, it hit me hard: the ache for my daughter, and immediately on the heels of that, I thought of Mike Brown, of Mike’s mother, and all the people who love him. Ohmygodohmygodohmygod:
They are killing our children. Our children.
Heartbroken, I cried in the bathroom, letting the whirr and hiss of the pump cover my sobs. Eventually I stopped, splashed water on my face, readjusted my armor and went back to my desk. I need to keep this job.
On the drive home that night, I let myself think about them again: first my daughter, and then Mike. I remembered the bit I know of history, and it felt like this. I know where my people are, in that picture, I know whose side my ancestors are on. And I thought:
We are killing our children.
And in that moment, I was suddenly so F—ING FURIOUS I could barely drive.
Enough of your voice in my head, Father.
Enough of pushing away kneejerk paranoia and shame about feeling it.
Enough of there being nothing I can do.
Haven’t I learned, at least a little, that the way to meet shame is with courage and responsibility?
WE are killing our children and we had better well f—ing stop. RIGHT NOW.
What is my church doing about this? Who do I know in Missouri, do I know anyone, who could I call?
I let the fury carry me into plans and actions, and I wondered:
Why did it take me SO LONG? A week of reading the news on facebook, late at night after my daughter was finally tucked into bed, but none of it really penetrating, none of it connecting with my heart, moving me into action.
Maybe I’m preoccupied…new job, big transition. Maybe I’m desensitized…there have been so many deaths, not only from police violence but the war on Gaza’s children, the refugee children at our borders. And maybe it is uncomfortable and easier for me to act as if it isn’t my children, our children, who are being murdered.
This post is to help me remember to stay connected, to stay present, to not let change and privilege lull me into isolation.
How are you responding to the systemic racism of police violence? What helps you stay connected?