Here’s how Presbyterians can preach about racism

Austin Seminary’s Carolyn Helsel works with Synod of the Covenant preachers during an online workshop

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Dawn McDonald via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — On Wednesday, the Rev. Dr. Carolyn Helsel helped preachers in and around the Synod of the Covenant to think through preaching about racism in an era of critical race theory bans.

Helsel, Associate Professor in the Blair Monie Distinguished Chair of Homiletics at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, “literally wrote the book on the topic today,” according to the Synod of the Covenant’s executive, the Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick. Helsel is the author of the 2018 book “Preaching About Racism: A Guide for Faith Leaders.” Her talk was part of Synod of the Covenant’s Equipping Preachers series, which is available to preachers living inside or outside the Synod of the Covenant — Michigan and most of Ohio.

Helsel briefly traced the history of the racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd and others and the ensuing reactions. “People took to the streets to protest. They asked their churches to have more conversations,” Helsel said. “But others were interested in changing the subject,” focusing instead on “the dangers of having protesters in the streets. Black Lives Matter was portrayed as a terrorist organization” and the critical race theory label came into prominence on popular outlets, including FOX News. She also took attendees through a handful of CRT policy briefings posted by right-leaning think tanks.

Helsel bolstered her talk by discussing how her work in parish ministry and in the academy has focused attention on helping preachers think about preaching about racism. Years ago, while working at Princeton Theological Seminary, Helsel learned that “feelings of guilt and shame are not the end goal — it’s to be in relationship with people and be able to engage freely in conversations.”

She came to her present post in 2015 and wrote her first book, “Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully About Racism,” following the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president. “I wrote it with the spirit of reaching out to family members who I knew voted for Trump,” she said. “His latent call for racist attitudes didn’t deter people from voting for him. I wanted to invite people in with the spirit of connection and empathy.”

In neither book does Helsel discuss critical race theory, she noted. But asked to write a second edition of “Anxious to Talk About It,” Helsel set out to research what conservative commentators were saying about CRT.

When the video emerged of “Derek Chauvin on the neck of George Floyd and the rage people felt at seeing racism clearly visible, you’d think it would be helpful for Americans to come together and defeat racism wherever it rears its head,” Helsel said. “Instead, people responded strongly to diversity training. They were criticizing ways we are uncovering previously untold stories,” such as more widespread awareness of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre.

The Rev. Dr. Carolyn Helsel

Evan as mass shootings continue to occur, including last year’s killing of 10 Black people in Buffalo, New York, many preachers “fear being ‘political’” in the pulpit, Helsel said. “A lot of what we do and think about can be seen as political. I am sure you have been charged with just that by talking about things that relate to our common life together.”

But political terms like “oppression” are found many times in the Bible. “Way before [Karl] Marx was around, oppression was something that was being done to the Israelites,” Helsel said. “Racism doesn’t go away in the vacuum of our silence. It continues. It festers.”

Oppressed people “have turned to the scriptures as long as they have been oppressed. They see Jesus Christ as one who redeems outcasts,” Helsel said. “God remembers those whom society has forgotten, and saves those others deem as lost.”

What can preachers do?

“Have conversations about racism,” she suggested. “Join with others doing the work of racial justice.” More and more people “are getting more and more involved in the work against racism,” she said.

Attend the meetings of local government boards and councils, especially school board meetings. “Listen for the comments being said in your own community. Is there already a desire to have conversations about diversity and racism? Support the leaders trying to do that,” Helsel said. “By your presence as a preacher, you’re making a difference by saying, ‘this matters to me as a person of faith and a faith leader, and this is what the gospel calls me to do.’”

Preach about racism. “Preach from the Bible. Use stories, and preach good news,” Helsel said. “The pulpit is where we proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, which talks about how Christ has broken down the dividing wall. It acknowledges the things that continue to keep us apart.”

Use your own life story, Helsel recommended. White people can talk about when they first became of racism in their own life. People of color can discuss when they first became aware that their race “is something people noticed,” she said. “When you’re aware of that testimony, share it. Tell people that it’s part of your process of discovery.”

Consider how you read scripture. “How does racialization impact which scripture texts you preach on?” she asked. Preachers should search for Bible commentaries written by people “who don’t look like you. If they look like you, you might not be able to give the full picture of scripture.”

Explore theologies of sin, “which give us language to talk about racism,” Helsel said. “If we believe sin is challenging to address on our own, it points to our need for a savior to redeem us from this sin.”

Preach using stories, which “help listeners empathize with others.” Helsel told a story on herself: During a talk she gave at a Midwestern school, she “described a man I interviewed as a tall, intimidating Black man.” Afterward, “I got feedback from an African American woman: ‘You know, when you said that, it reminded me of a lot of ways that people describe Black men when they have encounters with them, and it harms them.’ It was a challenge at first to hear that, but I received it as a gift,” Helsel said.

“We don’t talk about racism as if sin has the final word. We have a redeemer raised from the dead who will come again, and so we preach with hope,” Helsel said. We see glimpses of God’s kin-dom “even as we are immersed in stories that give us heartache.”

Learn more about the Synod of the Covenant’s Equipping Preachers series here.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?