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Take one concrete step to help dismantle systemic racism

Matthew 25 course concludes with participants devising a practical and personal next step

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — Monday’s final installment of “Awakening to Structural Racism” provided the more than 200 online participants with a tangible tool: a method for forming a concrete first step that individuals and congregations can take to dismantle systemic racism even as recent news reports indicate those first steps are sorely needed.

Alison Wood, a facilitator, learner and anti-oppression educator in Tucson who spoke during the first online course on Aug. 10 used a guided journaling technique to get participants to come up with that first step they or their congregation can take. Wood explained she was speaking chiefly to the white people taking the course.

Before forming that first step, class members had to assess their current position in their community and in the world, including:

  • Their leverage points, including their access to power. “Who listens to you?” Wood asked. What power do you have access to in order to effect change?
  • What do you need to do to make peace with losing some of what you have in pursuit of racial justice? To speak against white supremacy, “you may lose all these things,” she said, “but we could gain our humanity and our lives.”
  • What is that one action, that step you or your church needs to take in the pursuit of racial justice?
  • Where does the motivation for change come from? Is it from an organization led by Black, Indigenous or other people of color (BIPOC)? “If not,” Wood said, “ask yourself, ‘Is this the right thing to do?’” She said her church had some money to donate and selected the local chapter of Black Lives Matter. The problem was that chapter did not accept donations and wanted the church to instead donate somewhere else. “It sounded like a total no-brainer,” she said. “It was a no-brainer in that we hadn’t actually thought about it.”
  • Where is ‘white saviorism’ showing up in your action, and how can you get it out?
  • In what ways are you co-opting BIPOC ideas, leadership, stories and voices without compensating them? How can you stop it? “Maybe you need to lead, but maybe not,” Wood said. “How can you collaborate to follow the lead of a BIPOC-led group?”
  • How will the action burn you out? How can you prevent that?

Participants then broke into small groups to discuss their initial steps.

Alison Wood

Earlier, Wood displayed a chart of contradictions and circumstances white people can face as they do racial justice work. Among them:

  • Since white people are part of the problem, they must be part of the solution — which strengthens the roster. “The movement requires new people to join,” she said.
  • “People will rightly mistrust us and be hard on us,” she said, because “we benefit abundantly from white supremacy and the oppression of our siblings.”
  • “It’s good to be nice to yourself and patient with yourself, even as people are hard on us,” she said.
  • A role for white people is “to be tough about holding one another accountable” while at the same time “extending care to other white people.”
  • Dismantling white supremacy “requires giving away our power” while “using it strategically rather than hiding it or denying it exists.”

Especially for Presbyterians, “our idolization of ‘decently and in order’ holds us in white supremacy and leads us astray,” Wood said. “But I’m not saying we should become reckless or act only when it’s perfectly decent. We need the action now.”

The most compelling argument is that lives hang in the balance.

“We are called to do racial justice work because our neighbors are being killed,” Wood said. “It is easy to see after the past week that we must act quickly to prevent further lives from being lost.”

At the outset of Monday’s session, Special Offerings Director Bryce Wiebe concluded his Bible study of Jesus’ parables in Matthew 25 and a few teachings before that as well.

In his Matthew 25 teaching on the Judgment of the Nations, Jesus divides the sheep and goats. “They all see the need” for clothing, visiting and feeding people, Wiebe said. “They are separated based on what they do in response.”

“If we commit ourselves to do the healing work we must do,” Wiebe said, “we will see Jesus and be seen by him.”

On Monday, “Awakening to Structural Racism” course co-organizer Rick Ufford-Chase announced an upcoming four-part series, “Underpinnings of Systemic Poverty,” which will begin online from 7-9 p.m. Eastern Time on Sept. 21 and will run four consecutive Mondays, concluding Oct. 12. The course, offered under the leadership of Stony Point Center’s Ufford-Chase and Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary’s president, the Rev. Paul Roberts, is designed to be a further exploration of one of the three focus areas of the PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 invitation. Course pricing is on a sliding scale. Register here.

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