The Soul-Healing Work of Dismantling Racism

Dearly Beloved,

What a gift last week was -- I got to read, journal, pray and engage with two different groups for conversation and study. The first was Next Church, a Disciples of Christ clergy group that encourages study and supports pastors in all stages of ministry through community and conversation. The second was Sacred Conversations to End Racism. I am halfway through a 6-month course of study and prayer through Sacred Conversations.

Through this work, I have come to believe that anti-racism work is the work of soul healing.

The more I learn about the history of race and racism in our nation, the clearer it becomes that this is, as Jim Wallace the senior editor of Sojourner Magazine writes, the original sin of our nation. So often, we talk about racism and white supremacy as harming Indigenous peoples and people of color, and it certainly does. It also harms people of European descent. White supremacy has stripped many of us (black, indigenous, brown, white) of our cultural heritage, ancestral languages and practices. It has also imprinted itself on our minds whether we want it to or not. Whether or not we wish to participate in its systems, we are born into them, and these systems traumatize those who benefit from them as well as those who are oppressed by them.

I believe that anti-racism work is the work of soul healing.

And, of course, it is complex. Layers of oppression, injustice and trauma exist that we all experience. I carry the traumas of being effectively deported from South Africa with my family in 1990 (I was 6 1/2 years old and my home in Mfanefile was the only one I'd ever known) and of fleeing state-sanctioned violence against white people in Zimbabwe in 2000. In both situations, I benefited greatly from white supremacy (I believe that the only reason my family survived living illegally in a Zulu community in South Africa was because we were white and American), even as my whiteness in Zimbabwe put me and my family directly in danger of violence and death.

It's complicated, right? You may have a story of how mental or physical illness has impacted your family. Of poverty or discrimination because of your ethnicity (I think about all of the people of Russian German descent in our congregation who lost their language because of the prejudices against German people during and after WWII). You may have experienced trauma at the hands of our churches because of who you love or because of your gender expression. You may have a story of addiction or surviving abuse. Holding the complexity of our stories is part of this work -- we have survived traumas and experienced hardship even as we may have benefited from racism and white supremacy. And some of us, like me, have both suffered because of white supremacy and benefited.

In all of this, we hold the truth that we are all God's beloved children. You are beloved. As you are. I am beloved. Imperfect as I am (I need to remind myself of this as my racial biases and racism are revealed). So often, for people of European descent, we move quickly to defensiveness, shame or guilt when the topic of race comes up -- but that is never the purpose of this conversation. The purpose is to see ourselves and our world more clearly and truthfully and to open our hearts and lives to change. Because we are God's beloved. And God wants healing for all of us. Because God's beloved community is calling. Because a different way is possible. 

Collaborating with Alexandra Stanke, Paul Heintzleman and Craig Bialy, we are working to put together educational opportunities to help us deconstruct racism. (You can read more 
HERE.) With the help of Carrie Johansing (who teaches emerging English language learners), I have put together a list of children's books to add to our church collection that positively depict children of many races and backgrounds, and you are invited to gift one of these books (or a book that you love) to our church collection. When we return to our church building, you may also notice depictions of Jesus as Palestinian (which historically, we know Jesus was) or of another ethnicity. These are not to replace the beautiful depictions we have of Jesus (at least one of which I believe was brought to the United States from Russia by one of our founding families), but to expand how we see Jesus. You might want to take a look at artist Pops Peterson's contemporary re-interpretations of Norman Rockwell's justice-oriented artwork to see just how powerful images are. 

It is such a blessing to be a part of this community of faith! And to remember together that we are indeed God's beloved children. Now and always.

In peace and grace,
Thandiwe

In my initial letter to the congregation, I completely left out the harm that has been done by the church to LGBTQIA+ people. Here is my pastoral letter to the congregation addressing and apologizing for this harmful ommission:


June 9, 2020 

Dearly Beloved,

I write with gratitude for a member of our community who trusted me enough to let me know when I left something important out.

In today's email, I shared about my learning in Sacred Conversations to End Racism. I laid out intersections of trauma, oppression and injustice. I also left out that the LGBTQ+ Community has experienced tremendous hurt and oppression not just by our wider society but also by the church.

To members of our congregation who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, I am sorry. I made a mistake for which I have no excuse, and that mistake caused you harm and perhaps reinforced harm you have experienced before. 

I also want to acknowledge that I personally have been very focused on the issue of racial justice these last two months to the detriment of other equally important issues. I don't think I even acknowledged from the pulpit that June was National Pride Month. I am sorry for this as well. Poet Maya Angelou puts it beautifully: "The truth is no one of us can be free until everybody is free."

To our wider congregation, I am sorry. By leaving out of today's email the harm that has been done by the church at large to LGBTQ+ people, I missed an opportunity to remind us what members of our congregation have been saying in letters to the Board and Executive Board: that the discernment around Open and Affirming is important and calling us to move forward in this process.

I share these apologies in the hopes that you will reach out to me if I have personally harmed you or if you simply want to talk with me further. 

I also share this because I believe we are a community that seeks an authenticity that honors our imperfect humanity (though this does not let us off the hook for actions that are harmful).

I believe we are becoming a community where we can point out to each other our mistakes and the harm they have caused. I believe we hope to become a community where we take responsibility for not just the intent but the impact of our actions. 

And I believe we long to be the kind of community where we truly do hold all of our members in love, affirmation, respect and care. There is much work yet to be done.

Thank goodness we do not have to do it alone! Thank goodness that God's Spirit is a Spirit of truth, courage, grace and love. I am thankful to be on this life-long journey of faith, of human imperfection, and of learning to love one another better with all of you.

In humility and love,
Thandiwe