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The awakening continues

Hundreds of Presbyterians join Monday for the second installation of ‘Awakening to Structural Racism’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Jessica Vazquez-Torres is program director with Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training. Shown here in 2019, she was the featured speaker Monday for “Awakening to Structural Racism.” (Photo by Stephanie Fritz)

LOUISVILLE — On Monday more than 235 people from across the denomination spent two hours online exploring ways they can awaken to structural racism, one of three focus areas in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Matthew 25 invitation.

Rev. Paul Roberts, president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Rick Ufford-Chase, co-director of Stony Point Center, created the four-part online series. The final installments are set for 7 p.m. Eastern Time Aug. 24 and 31.

Monday’s featured speaker was Jessica Vazquez-Torres, program director with Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training in Matteson, Illinois. For the second straight week, Special Offerings Director Bryce Wiebe led a Matthew 25 Bible study, this one on verses 14-30, the Parable of the Talents.

Three sets of belief comprise a worldview conducive to white supremacy, according to Vazquez-Torres:


  • Genocide and colonialism, including the idea that white Americans could displace and even kill people because God made for them a New Jerusalem, in the words of the Rev. John Winthrop. Americans may say they’re not genocidal, but the policy was to “disappear people,” she said.
  • Capitalism and the enslavement of Black bodies. Americans turned both land and people into commodities. Vazquez-Torres noted that Robert P. Jones, author of the new book “White Too Long,” read for “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross the names of people who’d been owned by his middle-class ancestors. Most webinar participants had earlier listened to the Gross/Jones podcast “The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity” as a homework assignment.
  • Orientalism and war. In his 1979 book “Orientalism,” Edward Said defined the title term as the West’s common and contemptuous portrayal of the East. Think of the Cold War, Vazquez-Torres suggested. “It’s the belief that the West is the beacon of democracy, the protector of human rights and the home of peacemakers,” she said. The East “wants war and they don’t believe in Jesus Christ and individualism … It creates a world of us and them,” of “waging war against the dark forces,” she said.

In the U.S., the concept of centeredness is built on white supremacy, she said. “White people get to settle and colonize, take and own and sell human lives. They get to determine who is the ‘us’ and who is the ‘them.’” Warfare can be fought on the home front as well as oversees. Take the War on Poverty as an example, she said, in which the enemy became poor people.

Seeing people as centered or decentered is a binary outlook, she noted. It’s “good and bad,” “us and them,” “blessed and unblessed.” “It’s ‘I am blessed because I have’ versus ‘I am blessed because I am a creature of the Creator,’” she said.

The term “non” came up often in the decentered chart: non-Christian, non-English-speaking, non-white, deviants, terrorists, the needy, dependent, the disabled, women, elders, takers and those at-risk included.

Vazquez-Torres posed these questions for discussion in small groups:

  • What values, ideas and beliefs of the white dominant center were you conditioned into regardless of your racial identity?
  • What narratives about the Borderlands were you conditioned to uphold regardless of your racial identity?
  • How do these ideas of who and what is centered and who and what is marginal impact how you imagine racial justice?

Earlier, Wiebe continued to connect teachings about the harm done by white-bodied supremacy with what Jesus teaches in the parables found in Matthew 25.

“We are here to ask Scripture how we seek a world that looks like Jesus,” Wiebe said. “We will know it when we see it. Who are we being conformed to? We study so that we can be healed and become healers.”

Wiebe explored some of themes found in the Parable of the Talents, including work, value, worthiness, shame, money and ability.

“This is a story about economics,” Wiebe said. “It makes a metaphor related to preparation, readiness and vigilance.”

He urged participants to consider during the coming days the economic implications of dismantling white supremacy.

“Economics and value are so ingrained in our culture,” he noted. “We are the most fearful when something has economic implications.”

During the Aug. 24 session, participants will learn more about work being done by the PC(USA) to dismantle structural racism. Scheduled speakers are the Rev. Denise Anderson, the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s coordinator for racial and intercultural justice, and the Rev. Ashley DeTar Birt, a member of the pastoral staff at Rutgers Presbyterian Church in New York City.

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