Presbyterian churches in St. Louis confront, engage in work of racial justice

Churches continue ‘Sacred Conversations about Race,’ which began three years after Michael Brown was killed

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

ST. LOUIS – Three years after the fatal shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer, churches in the Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery continue to learn about the complex issues of race and reconciliation as they work for racial justice in their communities.

At Oak Hill Presbyterian Church which began its “Sacred Conversations about Race,” right after Michael Brown was killed, multicultural members are joining the predominantly white congregation. Neighborhood youth are beginning to hang out at the church, which recently started an open gym night.

On the first Sunday after Michael Brown was killed, it was the Rev. Erin Counihan’s third Sunday in the pulpit. Tearing up her sermon, she immediately began talking about police violence, white supremacy, white privilege and racism.

“Those are hard things to talk about in church,” Counihan said. “We tend to put up walls and barriers when we hear those words.”

Fortunately, Oak Hill had a partnership with Metropolitan Congregations United (MCU) that had created a resource, “Sacred Conversations on Race + Action.” Using this tool, MCU helps churches facilitate and guide conversations on race around two questions: “How do we define racism?” and “How do we understand white privilege?”

There was a lot of pain during that time,” said the Rev. Michael Trautman at First Presbyterian Church in Ferguson. “Expressed both on the street and in the church, sometimes the pain in those two places never met.”

At Oak Hill, Counihan challenged folks to recognize that systems are set up differently for whites by telling them a story about her and her biracial daughter. When they walk into the Family Dollar store, Counihan is left alone, but her daughter is approached at the door and asked to leave her backpack there because of how she looks.

Brittini Gray, a community organizer who worked at MCU, said Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson helped shift the conversation they were having about race. Alongside partner churches they began to focus more intentionally on the way race operates systemically.

“The system that we are living in right now is a system built by and for white people,” she said. “With the death, murder of Mike Brown, people had to face reality that we continue to disenfranchise and discard black and brown lives in this country.”

In Ferguson that reality continues to haunt Trautman. To this day, three years after Michael Brown was killed, he wonders if he did enough.

“Did I make a difference in the words I’ve said? Or have my words just fallen empty? Whose fault? The only way I can give answer to that is to say that it’s all our faults.”

Gray believes this is “where the common work is” — in understanding that each person, regardless of race, has a stake in working for racial justice.

“We can either continue things as they are, or dismantle and create something that moves us closer to what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the beloved community.”

For additional resources on racial justice and reconciliation, go to facing-racism.pcusa.org.


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