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Town Hall forum sees anti-racism progress in the PC(USA) but plenty of work remaining

More than 200 people take in the webinar, part of the Presbyterian Week of Action

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — More than 200 people listened in Tuesday while some of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s deepest thinkers and most effective practitioners of anti-racism work shared their hearts and their experiences during a 90-minute Town Hall, part of the Presbyterian Week of Action. View the event here.

Christian Brooks, representative for domestic issues at the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness, moderated the panel, which included:

“Give us attentive hearts and minds,” Anderson prayed before Brooks opened the discussion. “Let us receive what you have to say to us and let us receive it in joy. Propel us to do your will.”

Dr. William Yoo

Asked by Brooks to briefly trace the history of racism among Presbyterians and their forebears, Yoo said that “for all the sins Presbyterians are trying to combat, one they took a pass on is anti-Black racism.” One historical argument from pro-slavery Presbyterians directed at pre-Civil War abolitionists went like this, he said: “If you are saying we are dealing with stolen property and kidnapped human beings, what about the stolen land? It was taken either by force or fraud.” Abolitionists “really went silent” on that argument, he said. “One said, ‘It was too long ago. How can we return it to the rightful owners?’”

Presbyterians “tell the church to reform and always be reformed into something it never was — a safe space for Black people,” Hassan said. “The Holy Spirit is put on timeout less she make us do something indecent and disorderly, such as listening to the voices of Black women and girls. And still we rise.”

the Rev. Denise Anderson

While it took the PC(USA)’s antecedent denominations more than 120 years to come together after splitting over enslaving people, “somehow, some way, Black Presbyterians continued to thrive in many ways,” ways that have been sometimes hindered by the 1983 reunification, Anderson said. “There’s always a tendency to determine timelines for our freedom and our regard, or outright ignoring us — either being bhyper-visible or invisible,” as the Rev. Kerri Allen, moderator of the Task Force to Research the Disparities of Black Girls & Women, told the 224th General Assembly this summer.

“My heart was broken at how those things went down,” Hassan said, referring to an effort by some commissioners to convince their colleagues to take up the task force report during the online assembly rather than referring it to the 225 General Assembly (2022). “Folks had energy for other things, but when it came time (for this report), all of a sudden folks ran out of gas.”

Christian Brooks

“The option to get tired and not address issues regarding Black women and girls is privilege,” Brooks said. “I don’t have the option to turn away from Black women and girls’ issues. To do so is to stand in white privilege and white supremacy, which is what we are supposed to be dismantling.”

Conversations around race and the Black Lives Matter movement can be very different in predominantly white congregations than they are in congregations with more people of color as members, according to Helsel. She noted Black Lives Matter was founded “on a love letter” following the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman on charges he killed Trayvon Martin. But that founding story is being overrun by narratives that Black Lives Matter “is an anti-government, anti-authority movement coming into towns and doing violence,” Helsel said.

the Rev. Dr. Carolyn Helsel

“We are in a season of fear already because of the pandemic,” Helsel said. “Our bodies are stressed, and our fear of ‘the other’ is played up by our political divisions. I tell white churches that racism is never partisan, but it’s always political.”

It’s an important time, she said, for white Presbyterians “to think about what are the stories we tell ourselves about our whiteness and what it means to be Presbyterian.” White Presbyterian churches with resources can consider paying off the mortgage on Black Presbyterian churches, she said, especially for churches struggling for their continued existence as a result of the pandemic.

Having hard conversations about racial injustice — even when they’re painful — can lead white Presbyterians to “experience some gratitude in the end, not guilt or shame ,” Helsel said. There is “gratitude we already feel for the grace of God that has called all of us to this work, that grace that enables us to feel gratitude even while we feel bankrupt.”

White Presbyterian churches “can expand our emotional stamina and invite the Holy Spirit” into anti-racism discussions, she said. “You don’t have to prove you’re the ‘woke white person.’ We can’t make ourselves into good white people, but we can do our best to walk by faith, knowing that we will stumble and make mistakes. The blessings are so worth whatever little difficulty we experience.”

Samantha Davis

Asked about the meanings of Black Lives Matter and defunding the police, Davis said talk of liberating people and building a safe and just world for all people “is not possible with a carceral system designed to oppress.” Adjustments made to police funding is about “shifting public funds for new services,” including housing and recreation and having mental health counselors and others available to respond to crisis situations while unarmed. “It’s about learning that safety safeguarded by violence is not really safety,” Davis said.

Chanelle Helm

Helm said the Black Lives Matter Louisville organization “talks about what it means to move dialogue for reform into actionable steps.”

“How do we go to work when society is rocked by violence?” Helm said, suggesting a general strike be organized “against this type of violence.”

Asked about centering efforts on identifying the disparities experienced by Black women and girls, Hassan said, “We can’t allow the narrative to be just about what happens to Black men. It ignores ways Black women and girls aren’t safe in their or white communities. It’s a real thing. It’s an incomplete and unsatisfactory conversation if we don’t center the voices of Black women.”

A goal of diversity, Yoo pointed out, is for the PC(USA) to “look more like heaven,” since God “is a god of diversity. Can spaces like this that center Black women create a more heaven-like Earth?”

“If we want multicultural, multi-ethnic spaces, I have to ask myself, ‘What am I willing to do to get to that goal? How will it change the way I think and vote?’” Yoo said. “Until we do that, we aren’t going to make the progress that Chanelle and Samantha have elegantly pointed us toward.”

the Rev. Kamal Hassan

“White supremacy keeps white people in bondage as well,” Hassan said. “We’re not asking you to do us any favors … There is still some work to do.”

“We need white allies,” Davis said. “We need everyone to truly and actively commit to the journey of unlearning all of the horrible things we have been conditioned to learn … For white allies, it’s investing in the leadership of Black people and having different conversations with your people. Those conversations might end friendships or cause conflict in your family, but work through them as a community so you can come to the spaces convened by Black people whose bodies are on the front line.”

Brooks asked each panelist for a takeaway by which to end Tuesday’s discussion.

“We have work to do,” Hassan said, “individually and collectively.”

“Every day,” Helm said, “we have the opportunity to be revolutionary.”

“Black Lives Matter is a complete statement,” Anderson said, “and doesn’t need to be qualified.”

Yoo quoted Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States”: “Living persons are responsible for the world in which they live — which is a product of the past.”

Helsel suggested “looking up the community activists in your area. What is one Black-led community agency you can contact and learn from and get your congregation to be in conversation with?”

“By centering the voices of all Black lives, we are lifting up all people,” Davis said. “The movement for Black lives promises a more liberated world for all people.” She quoted the author and activist Fannie Lou Hamer: “But if I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom. I’m not backing off.”

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