By Joe LaGuardia
Now that protests are waning, the question becomes, “Now what?”
What are you going to do about racism, discrimination and prejudice aside from marching around the block a few times? Now its not about slogans or whitty tweets. Now is about shifting our entire culture away from violence and bigotry to understanding, reform, and restoration.
Some churches and faith leaders are scrambling to figure out how to move forward. They are moving to a new arena after finally realizing that silence will no longer suffice in bridging communities of privilege with communities of disparity.
This is where I found myself nearly 7 years ago in my last church, in Georgia, when protests broke out over the death of Michael Brown and so many others. I stopped judging others and their methods, and I refused to let anger have a say. Instead, this is what I did to take action–and they may be good “first steps” for you:
First, I got an education. Like many white communities, my own church was paralyzed by analysis and political rancor because we didn’t understand how and why racism is institutionalized. We didn’t know the right questions, so we had trouble arriving at productive answers.
I turned off the television and began reading. But not many people have time to read, so if you can read only one book, be sure its Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race. If your community is not evangelical, read it anyway–a majority of your neighbors are likely evangelical, so its a good start.
Memoirs are also helpful: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me has brought understanding, as well as memoirs by civil rights activists, such as MLK.
My personal favorite is Baptist preacher-without-a-steeple Brother Will Campbell. Right now, my 12-year old son and I are reading Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly together every night–We began this memoir before all of the news hit about the death of George Floyd. It is important to teach our children about injustice and justice, and how to differentiate one from the other.
Second, I made friends. You cannot go through life and have opinions about people or issues in which you have no experience. Just because you are a smart, rational human being doesn’t make you competent or literate on a subject, especially when ethnicity, culture, and marginalization is involved. As for my church, we integrated our staff and tasked our gifted associate pastor, a woman of color, to educate us on everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to emotional intelligence. Our friendship was based on brutal honesty and on-going education.
I also made friends with clergy of color in the community. We listened, sought understanding, and dialogued–sometimes in private and sometimes in front of our congregations. We hosted joint worship services and fellowships in which we swapped pulpits, talked to one another, and fellowshipped in a safe space.
I learned not only to walk in another’s shoes, but to pray in another’s shoes. That kind of prayer will break you and change you.
Third, I began to educate others. Once I cleaned up my own house in my heart, I sought to clean up my house of faith: We made it our effort to help (white) folks realize that race is systemic and part of our national architecture, not only the result of a few bad apples. We brought in our local law enforcement as a part of this educational endeavor, not just friends of color.
And we used research-based data to show how injustice goes beyond personal indiscretions or discrimination. We proved that institutionalized, racial disparities exist in real estate, healthcare, banking and lending (as well as predatory lending), education, federal funding, and access to high-education (which includes internships and networking opportunities).
We made truthful conversations the basis for our congregational culture, and we came up with concrete initiatives that transcended partisan politics and race-baiting sound bytes.
We began partnering with a major denomination of color, helped build bridges on a state level, and joined minority communities to promote other justice issues, like gun control legislation and access to voting registration.
This allowed us to build a grammar of race reconciliation. Once we got educated, we knew how to speak differently, how to speak to one another, and how to speak in ways that encouraged healing and action rather than tension and hostility. Justice is a biblical word. Reconciliation is our entrusted ministry, and God calls us to repair the world, not tear it apart and break it more than it already is.
Each community has to take responsibility to be a part of the solution rather than the problem. When I talk with (white) clergy, they feed me the same lines: “If our hearts would only change…” “If we had love in our hearts…” Love and change are wonderful and theological. But, as James says, “Faith without works is dead,” and, as John says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates a brother, he is a liar.” Our culture, not just our hearts, have to change.