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Love > logic

Synod of the Covenant webinar shares wisdom on the challenges of preaching about race

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

the Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick

LOUISVILLE — A mostly white group of more than 40 preachers tuned in Wednesday to hear the Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick — who in turn did his share of listening during an informative 90-minute online session he hosted — lead a webinar with this provocative title: “Preaching about Racial Justice without Losing your Conviction or your Job.” View the webinar here.

Hardwick, interim executive with the Synod of the Covenant, first prayed and then opened the workshop by offering preachers this assurance: We can never preach a sermon bad enough to prevent God from speaking. Then he laid out some of his assumptions:

  • That PC(USA) preachers are more eager to speak about issues of racial justice than their listeners are to hear about issues of racial justice. That’s not true, he said, in predominantly Black PC(USA) churches, where listeners are generally receptive to sermons about racial justice.
  • That the workshop is geared mainly toward white preachers in predominantly white churches.
  • That preaching can be a persuasive act. “We want to persuade our listeners to think differently about racial justice,” Hardwick said. “We want to shape our rhetoric so people can actually hear what we’re talking about.”

Preachers ought to aim higher than righteous proclamation, Hardwick advised.

“When I read about racial justice and I hear people speak, it seems like the most important thing is to let people know they are on the right side of the issue,” Hardwick said. Preachers often “think less about how to phrase it in order to persuade people.”

Here’s a modest proposal preachers ought to consider, he said: If people feel they are being berated, they are not going to change their mind.

“Instead, think about racial justice as proclaiming the good news of the gospel for our listeners and for the world — not a bunch of ‘shoulds,’ but anchored in God’s generous acts toward us.”

One workshop participant said he’s “past the point of trying to persuade racists, people whose views are toxic.” Their view on race “is not just wrong — it goes against the gospel,” this pastor said. “I want to berate them. I know that’s the wrong way to feel, but that’s where I’m at.”

“I have a feeling you’re not alone,” Hardwick responded. He asked the gathered preachers to consider “what’s your pastoral role helping them change their mind and help them in discipleship?”

Another participant said speaking honestly about racial justice might well depend on the state of the pastor’s relationship with members of the congregation. “I feel like having a relationship with your congregation is a key,” she said.

“The most important thing is listeners feel like you love them,” Hardwick replied. “If not, they won’t listen to you talk about where you want them to change.”

Another key question: when listeners hear “we” during a sermon, what does that term mean?

“There are overlapping ‘we’s’ in a church. Sometimes the pastor’s ‘we’ does not include everyone in the congregation,” Hardwick said. “It’s off-putting when you don’t feel included.”

Knowing your listeners includes “articulating their perspectives charitably in a way that honors their thinking so they don’t feel berated,” Hardwick said. “It helps gain trust and helps them realize this new idea is being made with them being considered. They feel listened to and heard.”

It’s also important to know where listeners get their news, Hardwick said, identifying news sources ranging from The New York Times to Fox News. “People spend more time with these media sources than they do thinking about church,” he said. “All our thought processes are shaped by our news sources.”

Ask congregants what comes to mind when they think of white supremacists and it’s likely to be a scene from a Nazi rally. “For many listeners, they think, ‘I am not like this.’ They think of bigoted people, not structures in our society,” Hardwick said. That’s why it’s important that preachers use language that doesn’t “turn off our listeners. If you can avoid saying it, their minds don’t shut down, or they don’t walk out or quit. I know that’s counter to what a lot of people think, but if I use those words, it will be more difficult to persuade them.”

Like others in recent weeks, Hardwick relies on the wisdom of the Rev. Dr. Carolyn Helsel, the author of, among other books, “Preaching About Racism: A Guide for Faith Leaders,” published in 2018. Hardwick selected three challenges identified by Helsel with tips preachers can use to deal with each challenge.

The first challenge is coming to cognitive awareness of what racism means. “When I say racism, I have something in mind my listeners may not have in their mind,” Hardwick said. Helsel’s tip is for preachers to “try to understand how and why your listeners think of racism the way they do,” Hardwick said. What were they taught growing up? Do they have friends who are people of color? Who do they listen to now?

Move from story to story in your sermon, Helsel advises, “naming stories of change that demonstrate how racism impacts individuals on a broader scale,” Hardwick said. And show, don’t tell, like the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., did during his “I Have a Dream” speech. “King drew an amazing picture” rather than offering up “a bunch of policy proposals,” Hardwick said. “That’s why we still talk about it, almost 60 years later.”

Helsel’s second challenge for preachers is helping their listeners recognize what it means to be a member of a particular race living in a racialized society. White people, Hardwick noted, have rarely been challenged to think about what it means to be white in a society where being white is the default. “Many listeners are not accustomed to thinking of themselves as part of a racialized society,” Hardwick said. When former Co-Moderators the Rev. Dr. Jan Edmiston and the Rev. Denise Anderson encouraged Presbyterians to read Debby Irving’s book “Waking Up White,” it was one of the first times white Presbyterians “started to think about what it means to be white,” according to Hardwick.

Helsel’s tip here is for preachers to talk to their listeners about the moment they first realized they were part of a racial group, and that it mattered. In addition, preachers are encouraged to use their own experiences and feelings to illustrate what it means to be part of their racial community. What advantages have they come to understand? What burdens?

Sermons can and should include illustrations of white people fighting racism as well as people of color undertaking the same fight. “Don’t expect [Black, Indigenous and People of Color] to be the primary workers for racial justice,” Hardwick said. “That helps expand your listeners’ imagination of what steps they can take.”

Helsel’s third challenge for preachers is to move listeners away from emotional resistance and toward active antiracism. Hardwick asked his listeners to indicate the emotions they’ve experienced while preaching about race. Answers included “anxiety,” “frustration,” “regret,” “vulnerability,” “inadequacy” and “guilt over privilege and silence.”

Helsel’s tip to preachers with similar experiences is to acknowledge the emotions and realize the limitations of logic in engaging them. “We are more likely to love them into a new point of view,” Hardwick said, “than to logic them into a new point of view.”

“Paint pictures of the good news of God’s work to counter racism,” Hardwick said. “What is the good news to your listeners, and not just to the BIPOC community?” That doesn’t mean that white listeners are off the hook. Rather, Hardwick said, “If we are more faithful and just, how is that also good news for us?”

During a question-and-answer time that followed Hardwick’s presentation, one preacher said some people in the church he serves “just don’t want to be challenged. They have moved away from hearing the prophetic voice.” The pastor plans to challenge that movement by employing a time-honored Presbyterian practice, through a fall sermon series on “What is the point of preaching?”

Here’s the upcoming schedule of Synod of the Covenant webinars, all held at 10 a.m. Eastern Time on the first Wednesday of the month:

July 7 — “Preaching Justice and Hope in Perplexing Times” with the Rev. Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert of the Howard University School of Divinity

Aug. 4 — Hardwick on “Opening Your Listeners to New Perspectives

Sept. 1 — Dr. Anna Carter Florence of Columbia Theological Seminary on a topic to be named later

Oct. 6 — Dr. Shauna Hannan of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary on “The Peoples’ Sermon.”

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