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By Madeline White

The Elizabeth River District facilitated a conversation on race relations and the Church on Sunday, June 14, for a two-hour conversation. Approximately 200 people registered for the event and the conversation was streamed over ZOOM, Facebook and YouTube.

Panelists included M. Garlinda Burton from the General Commission on Religion and Race, and the Rev. Dr. Cedrick Bridgeforth from the California-Pacific Conference and the lead consultant with VAFOCUS 2020, an innovative process for African-American congregations in the Virginia Conference to be the catalyst in the communities where they serve.

Barbara Hamm Lee, television and radio personality in the Norfolk area and host of “Another View,” acted as moderator of the conversation.

Also taking part were the Rev. Dr. Sherry Daniels, Norfolk UMC; the Rev. Wayne Snead, Elizabeth River district superintendent; and the Rev. Jason Stanley, coordinator of Church Revitalization in the Elizabeth River District.

Questions were sent in prior to the start of the conversation, and participants could also send in live questions.

Topics of conversation ranged from whether racism exists, exploring what institutional racism is, how to start race conversations in local churches, how pastors can have a prophetic edge, and next steps for churches and individuals related to race relations.

Internalized racism versus institutionalized racism

Burton, who is also a deaconess in The United Methodist Church, shared that identifying what and where racism is needs to happen at all levels of The United Methodist Church. As well as identifying that this affects not only African-Americans, but also other people of color including Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans.

“We have to get clear that when we talk about racism, we are not talking about people who are rude to each other, who don’t talk to people of color, [or] about when one person uses a racial slur, although all of those things are expressions of racism,” Burton said. “What we are battling in our church and society is institutional racism which is the institutionalization, the encoding, of white supremacy in the very fabric of our Church in a way that has marginalized and otherwise affected people of color.”

Burton urged that working on internalized racism like using slurs is worthwhile work and that many people wouldn’t even think about excluding or being mean to people of color, but that is important to realize the level of racism in the institutions.

She gave many examples of what this looked like from access to healthcare to getting bank loans. In the church, Burton said, this can be seen in how the churches are racially separated and in how money is spent and the imbalance of wealth in the church.

Burton noted that those at General Conference who sit in on the financial legislative committee meetings are typically white males who represent largely the interests of all-white churches.

 “We have to get very clear that if we are going to fight racism, if we are going to answer the call of God to finish this unfinished agenda, that we can’t wrap it in a ‘Jesus-bow’ and just talk about just getting along. This is talking about social, moral, political, and spiritual transformation,” Burton said.  

Snead also noted that racism is embedded in the economics of this country and there is power in who citizens vote for whether in local or national government.

“If we don’t change it there [Washington, D.C.] from whoever can get the most votes then we are going to be in trouble. It is deeply embedded in who is making those votes and who they are listening to,” Snead said.

How the Church can join the movement in progress

Several of the panelists noted that the young people are largely part of this new move for racial justice, and that to be a part, the church will need to go out to the streets to be with them. 

Burton added that the Church should resist wanting to be a leader of this movement and join alongside, offering their spaces to local community meetings.

“I think the Church can impact by joining—joining in the protests and being a voice in the protests,” Bridgeforth said. “The Church has to step into the space and acknowledge that racism is not black people’s problem, so stop asking them to solve it.”

Snead shared that having these conversations about race will lead to some threatening to withhold their offerings or leaving the Church over it. He emphasized that if the Church bends to this, nothing will ever change.

“The power is in the economics, not in the power of what is right, not in the power of what Jesus said we should be doing as brothers and sisters together,” Snead said. “We have got to be comfortable at some point, and I am uncomfortable saying this, but I think for too long we have been held hostage in some way that if we speak up for justice or if we see racism then we need to understand that people will not like it. At some point in time we need to be okay with that.”

Starting the conversation

To start these conversations in local churches, Daniels noted that some “pre-conversations” and a good deal of thought should happen first to ensure pastors and leadership have the support they need.

“How to approach that conversation is really key,” Daniels said. “My experience really tells me that you need to understand who is able to bring the voices to the table. Who is that person in the community that has the power and respect of the majority in the community and also has a heart for doing what is in the greater good for the community to really get the people on board so they will come to the conversation at least with an open mind and open heart to hear what needs to be said?”

Daniels also stressed that there is not a lack of conversations that individuals and churches can have related to racism.

“This issue of racism covers so many areas in our lives,” Daniels said. “Racism not only covers our spiritual lives but it is also impacting our health. Some of the lives that were lost were not lost just because of the virus (COVID-19), they were lost because a lot of communities didn’t have access to the tests they needed or healthcare that need to be provided so that their lives could have been saved and should have been saved.”

Part of this work is a recognition of what gets in the way of these conversations and to challenge long-held notions.

“I saw this bumper sticker not too long ago that said, ‘Don’t believe everything you think,’” Bridgeforth said. “There are a lot of things that we think that we suddenly attribute to belief. We believe that rural spaces are non-hospitable to diversity. We believe that urban spaces are hospitable to diversity. Geography is important but proximity and ethic matters even more.”

Bridgeforth emphasized that it all starts with a recognition that we are all human and to listen to black communities. 

“Get in touch with the reality that we are all human and that all of us come with a variety of struggles. But some of us have a variety of struggles that we did not choose and that we cannot eradicate on our own. We only get that by sharing space together.”

Having conversations of race with older generations

A submitted question, posed by Lee, asked the panelists if older generations “should be let off the hook” as it applies to racism because of differences in how people were raised prior and during the Civil Rights Movement or whether they shouldn’t in order to stop perpetuating racism.

Bridgeforth said he didn’t think anyone should be let off the hook because we are all living in a historic and critical moment. He used the example of the overall use of technology by United Methodist churches and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Three months ago, you couldn’t pay churches to do anything online,” Bridgeforth said.

He explained that churches couldn’t use email or other types of online communication because not all members were online. The pandemic hit and churches closed and it all changed.

“And suddenly, overnight, everyone was online.”

Bridgeforth shared that a woman in his church only had a flip phone but had her children go out and get her a tablet so she could go online for Bible study among other online opportunities the church had.

“We give people that hook upon which to hang their biases, to hang their bigotry, to hand their complacency, and I believe the church if it is doing its prophetic, truly evangelical work than we remove those hooks and turn them into chains that allow us to bind ourselves together and we all move forward together.

“This technology boom shows us that if we can move into the 21st century as it relates to technology in our worship, we can move into the 21st century and provide leadership as it relates to race relations and dare I call it basic human dignity and decency for this present age,” said Bridgeforth.

A time of confession

The conversation also took a personal turn for some of the panelists to reflect on. In this time, Snead acknowledged that he was a part of racist behavior when he was younger.

“There is no doubt in my mind that racism exists,” Snead said. “I have seen it all of my life, there was a time of my life in my teens that I was a part of it and I confess that, openly and honestly. Even though I might have tried to, you know, act like these people are worse than I am. You know, it was all me.  And I chose to take a step forward, and I became a Christian soon after that. I radically changed how I felt about race.”

When the webinar wrapped up, moderator Lee shared that Snead’s confession took her breath away.

“I want to say to you, Rev. Snead, ‘Thank you’ because in my 62 years of living, I have never had a white man say, ‘I was a part of the problem.’ It took my breath away when you said ‘I was racist’ or ‘I did racist actions.’ And so I want to thank you for your honesty because that’s where we have to start with true honesty,” Lee said.

Next Steps

Next steps for race relations work in the Church include a recognition of whether you are willing to show compassion to others and actually having conversations, Bridgeforth said, in our spheres of influence and especially in our families. If we are uncertain of where to begin, choose a book or a movie to use as a prompt to conversation. This is one way to begin, Bridgeforth said, “to hear one another, to begin to see one another.”

For resources related to this conversation and for future dialogues on race relations and the Church, visit:

-Madeline Pillow White is the conference director of Communications.

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