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Book discussion groups promote understanding


North Carolina church welcomes all

March 2, 2024

Participants of the How the Word Is Passed book group at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Va.

Since early 2021, I’ve been participating in weekly book discussions via Zoom, designed to bring together all kinds of people for meaningful conversations, particularly about race, but also any other lines that too often keep us separated from each other. These book groups and other activities have been hosted by the First Presbyterian (of Salisbury, North Carolina) Race Task Force, which formed in 2019, brainstorming how they might promote such connections within and outside our congregation. In the book groups alone, co-leader Barrie Kirby estimates that 60–70 participants have been involved in at least one of the 15–20 book and video studies, some in all of them.

The usual format has been one book group that meets on Sunday evenings (led by Esther Atkins and Elizabeth Cook) and another on Wednesday evenings (led by Monica Green and Kirby), sometimes reading the same book, sometimes separate ones. The participants usually read one chapter during each week, then come together to discuss that chapter, sharing reactions and insights.

Most participants have been local, but, because of the Zoom format, we have had at least four participants from outside the area. The group is racially diverse, with maybe one-third of the participants African American on any given evening, and religiously diverse, with participants who are Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian (including a moderator of Salem Presbytery and a moderator of Salem Presbytery Presbyterian Women), Jewish, Buddhist and other affiliations. There are clergy members, educators, political leaders, social workers and homemakers. There are medical professionals, writers, counselors, bankers and so many other represented professions.  All these perspectives together make for some of the most interesting learning opportunities I have experienced.

Recently, for example, our Jewish participants shared some thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian War, and we were reminded of a common theme in our discussions: that all Jewish people, or Muslims, or Baptists, or white people or Black people, do not share the same perspective. We are all individual thinkers with diverse experiences even within our labels. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to “What do Hispanic people think about this?” or “How do Presbyterians feel about that?”

Sometimes trips or events are attached to our readings. For example, after we finished reading How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith, 11 of us made a trip to Monticello for their “From Slavery to Freedom” walking tour.

Locally, the Race Task Force and book groups have toured Livingstone College’s campus, walked Salisbury’s African American Heritage Trail, participated in Passover Seders and Wealth Gap simulations, supported the local NAACP and Juneteenth celebrations, provided speakers for First Presbyterian Lenten breakfasts, and attended the solemn events around the dedication of the historical marker commemorating Salisbury’s lynchings.

There have also been post-book and holiday social events in homes. These opportunities, says Susan Lee, are “important supports and are balanced in such a way that the social activities don’t overshadow the emphasis on social justice.”

Lee has participated in most of the book groups and says she is strongly supported by the “ongoing weekly opportunities to discuss race and justice — and the shared commitment among members to attend regularly.” The additional opportunities, she says, like the Wealth Gap simulation and the EYES Table, keep a flow of new people coming in and keep the groups from becoming insular and self-focused. “The overall impact is a sense of support and connection around issues that are of deep moral concern to me,” she says,

“I think a huge benefit of the studies,” says Mike Drinkard, who participated in four of the book groups and has done some deep research into the slavery history of First Presbyterian, “has been getting to know folks from different faith communities.”

Debbie Collins, one of the leaders of the Race Task Force, is grateful that Salem Presbytery and the senior staff at First Presbyterian are supportive of growth in relationships across differences. “These conversations continue to build around our history, through community programs, group discussions and trips, and social gatherings. Deep friendships across multi-racial denominations and religions are enriching the lives of all participating. With the Holy Spirit’s guidance,” said Collins, “hearts of love and acceptance are growing.”

Kathy Vestal is a Ruling Elder at First Presbyterian Church in Salisbury, North Carolina.

Today’s Focus: First Presbyterian (of Salisbury, North Carolina) Race Task Force

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Sharon Castillo, Director, Delivery & Administration, Benefits, Board of Pensions
Laurie Cato, Director of Marketing & Communications, Board of Pensions

Let us pray

Loving God, Creator of us all, we long for a seat at the table with all your children. Guide us to seek, join, and create the tables that are long enough and wide enough for the whole family, for it is there we shall more clearly know you. In the name of Jesus who taught us to love. Amen.

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