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Union Presbyterian Seminary panelists share their thoughts on just leadership and the care of souls

While developing empathy requires work and emotional energy, it’s a source of hopeful stories

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Joel Muniz via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — White Christians who do the hard work of educating themselves and empathizing with the centuries of racial trauma their African American siblings have endured can produce hope and healing that’s badly needed, members of an online panel convened by Union Presbyterian Seminary said Tuesday.

The Rev. Melanie C. Jones, director of the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership, moderated Tuesday’s panel, which discussed “Pastoral Paradigms: Just Leadership and Care of Souls.” Panelists were:

Tuesday’s discussion was part of the seminary’s Just Talk/Talk Just series. The 66-minute conversation is available here.

“I think there is something celebratory about Blackness in America,” White said. “Despite the trauma, African Americans as they customarily do organize toward programming, policy formation and advocacy and advancement. It’s a rich legacy. People know how to take catastrophe and transform it into something rich.”

The Rev. Dr. Rubén Arjona

When it comes to pastoral care, the practice has shifted in recent decades from focusing on the individual to placing the individual in context — both the internal and external dynamics, according to Arjona. Even more recently, it’s been focused on racial and economic justice, he said.

Asked by Jones to name roadblocks to healing, Cannon said for white churches, it’s “their inability or unwillingness to look at their racial histories, the reasons they have been instrumental in some of the trauma caused to some of our congregations.” Many “are unwilling to apologize or acknowledge there has been any harm done. That only causes more harm for people of color.” Roadblocks for Black churches include “the inability to be seen and heard” which “allows them opportunities to navigate the harm done to them,” Cannon said.

When people of color are othered by white people in places like churches, “the reason [white people] cannot hear the hurt is because they can’t empathize,” White said. “They keep othering us rather than looking at the history that brought us to this moment.”

Empathy, according to Arjona, is “the ability to enter the other person’s world with your imagination.” That requires “great willingness and emotional energy,” but “some of the most hopeful stories I have seen come from people who have done this work, people who can imagine the realities of oppressed people.”

“If it was up to me — and I know it never will be — every church interested in the experience of Black lives in America” would take an introductory course on such topics as racial history, White said. “Maybe that will unlock some empathy, some understanding.”

While “I hear my white siblings say they can never fully understand what it was like to be enslaved,” Cannon said, “I maintain that you may not walk in my shoes as an African American female, but you know what pain, embarrassment and grief feel like. … You don’t have to walk a mile in my shoes. You can find your way in through those pathways.”

Arjona sees the journey coming through empathy and compassion to solidarity, “a word that Latin American liberation theologians cherish. It is giving of oneself toward a goal or a commitment.”

The Rev. Melanie C. Jones

How, Jones wondered, can faith leaders help stir their congregations out of complacency?

The prophetic role includes “tough talk about issues of ethics and morality and the like,” White said.

In many ways, pastoral and prophetic roles “feed each other,” Arjona said. “Kindness can be deeply prophetic and political. Don’t discount kindness and compassion as prophetic acts.”

Reaching out to other faith communities affected by issues of race “is a good way for a pastor to lead the way,” Cannon said. “If you can build bridges across the divide, that’s a way to begin the disruption of comfort for white congregations.”

After discussing the process of discernment, panelists turned to atoning.

White sees actions including paying reparations “as low-hanging fruit,” but when empathy is blocked, the process is more difficult. “Before we can sit down at the table, you have to acknowledge you have harmed me. Otherwise, I don’t trust you,” White said. “You parlayed [the work of enslaved people] into an empire and now you offer me to sit down and have a cup of coffee while you enjoy deliciously what you have done to me? It is disingenuous.”

“You’re not going to do that if you value me, if you see me as an equal,” White added. “When we reconcile, let’s do that by bringing me to the center along with you, and then we can have a real relationship.”

The Rev. Veronica Cannon

“You can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge,” Cannon said.

Bringing people to the table “is a good step, but that’s not enough,” Arjona said. “The question has to do with who controls the table. If it’s still being formed by white self-sufficient men, the table remains relatively the same no matter who you bring to it.”

“Do we need a table, or can we use another structure?” Arjona asked. “People of color might use a round table, or no table at all.”

Jones asked panelists for strategies for promoting healing and wholeness.

“It’s complex. Maybe it looks like a revolution,” Cannon said. “But at a personal level … given the history of trauma and racial injustice in this country and my place in the system, what do I owe to my siblings? It might mean money, my gifts, my time. Each of us, especially our white siblings, has to ask that question seriously.”

The Rev. Chris White

“To be sure,” White said, “white Americans have played a critical role toward justice, liberation and freedom, and we should acknowledge that. That history informs the present moment. Abolitionists and those who marched with Dr. King, those who supported Ida B. Wells — in a real sense they have been a model from history. If you are really serious about liberation and advancement, initiate relationships and do so with humility. Acknowledge what has occurred. You don’t have to be responsible, but the moment you know what’s going on, you are accountable.”

“And when you find some form of empathy,” White advised white listeners, “step up like your ancestors did.”

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