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.
We recently celebrated a Thanksgiving service at my church. As we sung our way through several hymns, I felt more troubled than grateful. The words to the classic Christian standard Great is Thy Faithfulness stuck in my throat. I couldn’t sing: “all I have needed thy hand hath provided…great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”
My stomach clenched, my spirit rebelled. I wondered bitterly about people, many of them members of my community, who don’t have all that they need. Is God unfaithful to those people? And what about the ways that God’s so-called provision or bounty or harvest are used as cover words to mask oppressive systems of inequality built and maintained through institutionalized violence, theft and betrayal?
Recently I attended a teach-in at Portland State University on the Indigenous perspective on Thanksgiving. We watched the video The Truth About Thanksgiving. I learned about the enslavement of indigenous peoples and a Thanksgiving “celebration” in 1637 that included the murder of over 700 men, women and children, about which the Governor of Plymouth William Bradford later wrote: “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire, and the streams of blood…and they gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands.”
As I sat in church and watched my young daughter join the other children in listening to a story about the “pilgrims” and the Native Americans, I worried.
I worried about the story we are re-creating with each telling.
I worried about how we praise God for providing for “us”…who is the us?
During my thesis research, I learned much from the work and writing of Rev. Dr. Traci West, Professor of Ethics and African American Studies at Drew University. Dr. West argues that white dominance is perpetuated when we ignore racial realities, “pretending they are not relevant in certain kinds of social interactions, like the dynamics within Christian worship services.”*
She asserts that “racialized understandings of ‘us and them’ can be strongly conveyed in prayers about those who are ‘less fortunate than we are’ or projects to reach out and help ‘them’.”**
So, for example, in our prayers for thanksgiving, how do we distinguish between the blessings that we receive as beneficiaries of a legacy of genocide and colonization and the blessings that we receive as “children of God”? How do we reinforce an “us” as aligned with the “pilgrims” and a “them” as aligned with those indigenous “enemies”?
Language matters. It reinforces and remakes reality. Is PILGRIM – a word which means a penitent, humble traveler seeking Spirit – really the right word for a group of invaders, murderers and thieves?
How many of our hymns, our prayers, our common liturgical language reinforce not only a particular view of the Holy as a god who sanctions the invasion of promised lands and murder of that land’s inhabitants, but a view of ourselves – Christian churchgoers – as innocent inheritors of the “bounty” of God’s blessing?
If we claim, as my church does, to advocate for justice, then we need to busy ourselves with the work of reconciliation. Many indigenous people today celebrate Thanksgiving as a Day of Mourning, a day of “remembrance and spiritual connection, as well as a protest of the racism and oppression that Native Americans continue to experience.”
I believe that A Day of Mourning is not for indigenous people alone. We who are Euro-American descendants need to mourn the crimes of our ancestors and actively work for an end to racism. We need to critically examine our language and the romantic stories we tell about pilgrims: about the size of their boat, the nature of their courage, or the pureness of their intent. Continuing to tell the story as we have been is an act of racism, but we can change the way we celebrate, and the stories we tell.
*See Dr. West’s book Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006, page 117.
** Ditto, page 118.
Part of my current angst is to retrieve and unpack the cultural baggage I have around my spiritual beliefs. I imagine big heavy suitcases covered with the customary black scuff marks that indicate multiple trips through baggage claim. Some of mine probably have tattered “Gate Check” tags because I keep trying to drag them on board while the flight attendants shake their heads and everyone behind me in line sends me poisonous glances.
Ok, maybe I’m getting carried away with the metaphor. But you get the idea.
I wonder if part of our society’s unconscious racism is that we think only indigenous people have a cultural spirituality. Some wanna-be-native white people natter on about indigenous connection to “the land” (cue the soaring music) and the “ancestors” (pan a shot of firelight) and the “animals” (zoom out on moose, elk, salmon). I don’t mean to minimize the differences between indigenous religion and euro-american religion.
George Tinker says:
Did you know that trees talk? Well they do. They talk to each other, and they’ll talk to you if you listen. Trouble is, white people don’t listen. They never learned to listen to the Indians, so I don’t I suppose they’ll listen to other voices in nature. But I have learned a lot from trees; sometimes about the weather, sometimes about animals, sometimes about the Great Spirit.
When we talk with non-Indians about nature, there is really nothing you can say in universal Western concepts that is going to make a lot of sense. I think that Western people who come into an Indian environment and attempt to preach take along their own set of categories and use it to deal with Indian people they meet.
(Source: “The Stones Shall Cry Out: Consciousness, Rocks, and Indians”, Wicazo Sa Review 19.2 (2004) 105-125)
The thing is, while we need to take responsibility for them, those western/scientific/enlightenment categories aren’t all we white people have. The lie of whiteness is that all white people are the same, that our pale skin strips us of our connection to the land, ancestors, and animals of our origins.
Maybe I feel this way because I have a strong connection to land, more specifically, to trees. I have seen plenty of nice trees in my life, but the pine forests of my Oregon home ring in me like nothing else. I thought I was just romanticizing it until I went back to my ancestral home. Near Gdansk/Danzig, Poland where my grandparents are from, the forests meet the sea. The rhodies bloom among the trees near the house in Lamstedt, Germany where my father was born. My body remembers.
I went to Marienkirche in Gdansk where my Tante Ursula remembers praying as a child. It was nice but it didn’t ring in me. The forests rang in me. The sea rang in me. I am still navigating my way through what this means, but my suspicion is that when we started writing big thick theology books and stopped praying to Our Mother, we lost something. I’m a good Protestant who adores systematic theology. All that organization. Tidy, neat boxes. It makes for good theologizing… and empty prayer and stale worship.
So that’s what I mean about my cultural baggage. My baggage isn’t actually my culture: it’s the veener of whiteness that masquerades as mine. That baggage includes believing that I don’t really come from anywhere or have any place, so it is ok for me to steal someone else’s land or religion or both when land and religion are one interconnected thing. I don’t want to steal, or let my community steal in my name. I want an authentic relationship to land and religion, however messy, complicated, guilty and confusing it might be.
The forests ring in me. The sea rings in me. Mama God knows my name. I just keep listening, letting that sound echo its way through my body, following it back. If I follow it long enough, maybe I’ll find my way clear to a kind of being and believing that isn’t just good for me but good for the world.
How does your culture influence or intersect with your spiritual beliefs and practices? I’d love to hear from you!
Applying for a social security card for my daughter, my hand stops over the voluntary ethnicity section. I know that these categories have changed over time (the boxes used to say ‘free’ or ‘slave’ or ‘mulatto’) and reflect a global system of white supremacy.
While I know this history, when I fill out forms for myself I rarely think twice. But this time I am answering for my daughter. I check the boxes for “White” and “Hispanic” and then I stop.
What is the government going to do with this information? Will my daughter be targeted if I make her visible to the government in this way? I think of “Operation Wetback” in the 1950s, of the ICE raids in Portland in 2007, of the families who are still, this moment, in danger.
Then I think about affirmative action programs and college scholarships. I think about my hometown near LA and its increasing Latino majority. Isn’t it important to be visible?
I’m acutely aware that all of my angst is about the box labeled “Hispanic.” I don’t feel any uncertainty about checking the box labeled “White.” I’ve never had to think about these boxes before and how they relate to me or my family. There was never a box for “German-American” or “Rural Poor White Class.”
If I refuse to give this information, does that mean that I am ashamed of my daughter’s heritage? Paranoid about racism? Trying to opt out?
As I reflect, I begin to wonder if I am using my daughter to examine my own complicity and place in the system. Is that fair to her or helpful to me? I don’t know.
After much internal debate, I print out a new application. This time, I don’t check any boxes. I leave them all blank.
What do you do when you fill out these types of forms? I’d love to hear your thoughts or insights.
You can’t get there from here. That’s what I think about this academic stuff.
It only goes so far, and then it runs out, like an asphalt road built along the surf line. The ocean does not work with asphalt roads. You need a boat, a tree or something that will float. You need your body, your arms and the motion they make against the waves, pushing you along, a little speck in a great sea. Don’t be afraid. All things that are wild have your heart at the core.
I began this work because I wanted to heal myself and my people. My people (white people, German people) created this system of injustice and I need to do my part to destroy what we built, what we keep on building.
But how do I destroy this system, the house that I’m living in, the one that shelters and protects me? I must be a lunatic.
I fight with my ancestors at night when I’m lying in bed not sleeping. “Be quiet,” they say. Then louder: “SHUT UP. HOR AUF.” But I can’t stop. How can I?
I’ve seen the pictures: people, parents and children, their bodies stacked like firewood, naked and ashen. This is mine to fix. (It is yours, too.)
“Not our problem,” some of my ancestors hiss. They left their country. When war changed the borders, they moved on.
What kind of fiction do we have to invent to make this history okay?
A big BIG story. An underbrush, a thicket, each lie overlapping lie.
My ancestors came to this continent, carried inside my father, but they didn’t know about me yet. I am what came next. I feel it here in this country, in the forest by the ocean that looks like our old home. All the people whose land this is, they talk to me.
Maybe I wouldn’t be able to hear them if the forests weren’t clear cut. But I do hear them, at night when I am arguing with my ancestors. They whisper: “You don’t belong here. Be useful or go away.” Some of them are angry. Some are gentle. Some look at me like they know who I am.
Where does it come from, this need to make it right?
I have to make it better for myself.
I can’t live here anymore, in this house I’m trying to destroy. I know it has stout, wide-timbered walls, but it is not my home. Yet it is SO big. Where can I live where I am not under its roof?
I go small and I gather friends. I am part of the resistance.
And there is a bigger part of our life, one I know…even though no one has told me it’s true:
Our Mama God, Mother of the Cosmos, is bigger than this house, this roof we’re living under. Nothing the germans (or english or french or spanish or dutch…), nothing any of us could make, even hundreds of years old, is bigger than the
BODY OF OUR MOTHER.
You can’t contain her.
She will hold us all, she will shelter us, when the house finally comes down.
Look…a hole in the roof! I can see the stars. LOOK! There’s proof.
None of it is hopeless.
All of it is worthwhile.
Don’t be quiet.
Step up, speak out, keep moving.
This is the first half of a meditation I wrote recently while struggling through my thesis on white religious racism. I am trying to find a vision for what sustains me to do my work for racial justice.