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Messy but vital work

With great candor, NEXT Church leadership discusses the organization’s antiracism work

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — During a candid panel discussion held as part of the NEXT Church national gathering last week, leaders talked about antiracism work that’s been going on within the organization and the bumps in the road they’ve encountered striving toward greater inclusivity, especially among leadership.

NEXT Church embarked on a race audit helped by the same consultant, Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, utilized by the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

the Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis

“It’s messy to do this work, messy to witness what God is up to in the world, messy to want to be faithful in the hot mess we inherited and continue to perpetuate,” said the Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, pastor of Meadowlake Church in Huntersville, North Carolina, whose perspective was invited to NEXT Church while Starling-Louis was still a seminarian. She recalled asking even then, “Where is the vulnerability? I hungered for a church that would acknowledge that. I think that is one of the gifts of NEXT Church.”

“Shavon and others were at the table telling us that for years,” said the Rev. Jessica Tate, NEXT Church’s executive director. “I understood what you were saying, but I came to learn I did not understand what you were saying: an invitation to deeper transformation. It took too long for me and other leaders to hear that depth.”

the Rev. Adam Fronczek

“As I think back, there was an early responsiveness to you calling us to be vulnerable and getting real about not just telling the good stories,” said the Rev. Adam Fronczek, pastor at Knox Church in Cincinnati. “What’s not positive is how long it took for us to talk about the need to talk about racism. It finally dawned on us we were a 90 percent white denomination.”

NEXT Church leaders “were willing to come to the table and be vulnerable. That takes a lot of courage,” said the Rev. Amantha Barbee, pastor of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia. “We have vowed and declared to fight harder and dig deeper to find the image of God in each other.”

“We are finally becoming honest about the systems and structures we were built on, which mirrors the structure of denominations,” said the Rev. Lori Raible, pastor of Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

the Rev. Amantha Barbee

“We hit a wall” during an earlier NEXT Church national gathering, Barbee explained. “We were talking about how NEXT Church got started and there was a point when every leader in that room had a reckoning. Our white siblings said, ‘Oh my, I think we have offended our siblings of color.’ Those of us who are people of color were saying, ‘Did this just happen again?’ Our white siblings said, ‘I sat in silence and I sinned against you.’ We owned that and we are still dealing with it.”

“When we say we come to this work honestly, there is pain involved,” Barbee said. “The more diverse we are, the stronger we all become.”

NEXT Church has pledged that half its leadership will be people of color.

“I think we have come to see the amazing flaws we began with” Fronczek said, “and have started to unearth a better way to be the church.”

the Rev. Jessica Tate

“We fell unwittingly into patterns steeped in white supremacy,” Tate said, including “taking charge of the room. A woman of color named that this isn’t right, and it was met with white silence. It was incredibly painful for our siblings of color. Those are scars we carry with us to this day. I pray they are scars” in a similar manner as the crucifix and the resurrection, Tate said.

Tate said one tool Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training has used that NEXT Church leaders found particularly helpful was noting “where we see racism showing up in our work and how to interrupt those patterns, to name it and interrupt it right then before injury gets deeper.”

“We don’t know” where the antiracism work will take the organization, Starling-Louis said. “We get to say, ‘This is not the end.’ There is hope and there is joy in doing the hard work of telling the story without others feeling bogged down by shame.”

Part of NEXT Church’s ongoing outreach, Barbee said, has been empowering ruling elders through training sessions “to really give what NEXT Church has to offer to a broader audience.”

the Rev. Lori Raible

“As we move into this new phase of our life together having completed the race audit,” Raible said, “we are reclaiming ‘connectionalism’ in a way that honors that word.”

“All our offerings are not perfect offerings we have created out of our wisdom,” Tate said. “They are communal, collective, collaborative, imperfect offerings we put out in the world, trusting God will redeem them and us. They are not one-size-fits-all or 10 easy steps. They are an invitation to join us in the beautiful mess that is discipleship.”

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