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Grants help community dismantle racism

Kansas City new worshiping community grows a more multiracial church

By Paul Seebeck | Presbyterians Today

The Open Table KC, a new worshiping community that started four years ago in Kansas City, Missouri, recently received grants enabling its leaders to continue offering a place where spiritual formation, discipleship and social justice are served along with meals. Courtesy of The Open Table KC

When leader Nick Pickrell heard that The Open Table KC, a worshiping community in Kansas City, Missouri, that gathers for dinner and fellowship, would receive a $25,000 1001 New Worshiping Community growth grant from the Presbyterian Mission Agency, he thought, “What? What!”

Four years ago, The Open Table KC received two grants to help start and make progress in the desire to create a multiracial church.

“There were eight of us who wanted to create a church we wish we’d had growing up. We wanted a church that was concerned for people living under any form of oppression,” Pickrell said.

Today, 25 to 30 percent of those at Open Table KC are people of color, and the community is growing in spiritual formation, discipleship and social justice.

According to its website, The Open Table KC is “a community of inclusion, rooted in a Christian tradition of mysticism and liberation. We believe God breaks all chains, boundaries and categories, and we invite others to share in the freedom and challenges that come with this belief. In a world defined by division, we align ourselves with the marginalized and oppressed.”

In 2017, the organization used a $50,000 development grant from Leadership Education at Duke University to train 10 people of color and 10 white people — with a variety of religious and racial backgrounds — to lead antiracism training for a variety of Kansas City organizations.

The Open Table KC was the only church invited to participate in Kansas City Mayor Sly James’ “Race and Equity” public conversations and training events in 2018.

“We’re helping people recognize the need for a common definition of racism,” Pickrell said. “And how to recognize it in their institutions and systems — and how to dismantle it.”

After training one of Kansas City’s downtown restaurants, Pickrell received a call from the owner, who’d been concerned that white servers were quick to call police if they saw a person of color walking around outside his restaurant.

One server had approached him about a person of color with apparent mental health issues talking to himself and pacing up and down the sidewalk.

“What should I do,” the server wondered, “if white customers want to call police on this person who’s doing nothing wrong?”

“This staff person wanted to let the white customers know that this person is OK to be where they are,” Pickrell said. “Even if he was speaking to himself, that doesn’t mean he should disappear.”

The Open Table KC has become a worshiping community that not only addresses racism and seeks ways to dismantle it, it has also become a new worshiping community incubator for new leaders in the area. Nick Pickrell

Stories like these leave Pickrell proud, but humbled. Increasingly, he recognizes how racism affects everyone.

“We’ve all been socialized into racism since we were born,” he said. “Racism isn’t just about black or white. White privilege affects everyone.”

Recently, The Open Table KC received a $30,000 Paragon Grant from the Synod of Mid-America to develop discipleship curriculum this year.

Based on studies Pickrell has done on the Gandhian movement, the curriculum will include practicing habits for self-transformation to create capacity for a person to love God, self, friend and enemy — and some self-interrogation around the impact of the various “isms.”

There will also be opportunities for direct service work based on Matthew 25 to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and those in prison.

As the discipleship curriculum work begins, The Open Table KC will be hosting, coaching and training two 1001 New Worshiping Community residents this year.

They’ll be an incubator of sorts for new leaders to plant their own worshiping communities throughout the presbytery.

All white when it began, The Open Table KC now has a diverse 15-person leadership team. It includes people of color and LGBTQ+ members, with a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds.

“This leadership team is empowered to lead and drive our culture, ensuring that we create a community that is actually inclusive,” said Pickrell.

Twice a month, The Open Table KC gathers in the Fellowship Hall at Second Presbyterian Church for dinner and conversation around social issues.

One of their antiracism gatherings drew 170 people.

“We’re interested in questions like, ‘Why did Jesus die? Why was he executed by the state?’ Religious and nonreligious folks identify with the work we’re doing and are now participating in doing good for the community,” Pickrell said.

Paul Seebeck is a communications specialist with the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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