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When things aren’t right, start turning the tables over

A basketball coach and a preacher talk about benching our biases

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Charlie Copp, a member of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia, is the assistant men’s basketball coach at Emory University.

LOUISVILLE — An African American preacher and a white college basketball coach formed a formidable duo teaching Presbyterians how not to let first impressions based on bias form lasting impressions.

The Rev. Amantha Barbee, senior pastor at Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia, and Charlie Copp, who played basketball at the University of Pennsylvania and four five years has been the assistant men’s basketball coach at Emory University — and is part of Oakhurst’s Race, Ethnicity and Diversity team — led a workshop called “Bias thinks first” as part of Saturday’s 2020 Intercultural Transformation Workshops.

The workshops, put on by the Presbyterian Intercultural Network, the presbyteries of Sacramento and Stockton and Charlotte and the Presbyterian Mission Agency, conclude Sept. 26.

Oakhurst Presbyterian Church’s RED team, as it’s called, has put on bias training and held other training events, including a 21-day racial equity challenge during Lent. Oakhurst members have also worked on affordable housing initiatives. “We’re making sure we have a voice in the city of Decatur,” Copp said.

“It’s mandatory work, I think,” Barbee said of anti-bias training. “Our first thoughts guide us in so many ways. We come to so many conclusions based on the first things we see.”

A big part of Copp’s work is recruiting new players for Emory, which has high academic standards and tuition that’s not affordable for everyone. When he evaluates prospective players competing in a high school tournament, “I must give each player the appropriate attention and evaluation,” he said, without allowing bias to summarily disqualify a player who doesn’t appear prepared to handle Emory’s academic rigor or whose family may struggle with tuition bills. “If they’re good enough,” he said, “you go after them without letting your biases make a decision.”

This year’s squad will have 10 white players and seven Black players, he said. “I’m not saying we have the most diverse team Emory has ever had,” he said, but the program has created an environment that promotes diversity. The pool of potential players “should be so big it’ll include all kinds of people,” according to Copp. However, “we don’t have a Black coach on staff, and we should,” he said.

The Rev. Amantha Barbee is senior pastor at Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia.

“If you need my help,” Barbee said with a smile, “let me know.”

“It’s just how we are programmed,” Barbee said about bias, noting she’s looking to help hire an administrative assistant at the church. To keep her own biases at bay, she’s numbered each person’s application in case she knows the candidate. Only after the list of applicants has been pared to the top five will she begin contacting references. “I understand I have biases,” she said.

Humans were created to be in community, Barbee said, and the world is becoming more diverse: “Our congregations, workspaces and neighborhoods are all becoming more diverse,” Barbee said. “God didn’t create subsections of people not to be in community.”

“Your biases manifest what your process looks like,” Copp said, whether it’s hiring people or intentionally working to make organizations or worshiping communities more diverse. “It amazes me how difficult it is for Christians to connect with fighting racism. I thought I was supposed to take Jesus seriously and turn over the tables when things aren’t right.”

Barbee predicted that the small-group discussions at the heart of the Intercultural Transformation Workshops will prove valuable for participants.

“These are hard discussions to have,” she said. “You will hear things and learn things that are difficult to hear, but we cannot grow if we are not honest with one another … We create how we are in the world when we understand our biases.”

Among the pair’s discussion questions: How do you choose leaders? How do you get buy-in from members? What outcomes are you expecting? Have you done the work yourself?

Jesus himself had to deal with bias, according to Barbee.

“Jesus had an altercation with a (Canaanite) woman who needed food for her children,” she said. “He had to check his biases.”

“If you are a pastor and are uncomfortable preaching these texts, call pastors who are not uncomfortable preaching them,” Barbee suggested. “If you expect your congregation to flip in a six-week period, that is not a realistic goal. Do you want to increase conversation? Grow in faith? Then have detailed and measurable goals so you will see if your work is in vain or not.”

“If we do the work and become good, strong anti-bias leaders, we will affect our congregations, presbyteries, neighborhoods, states and our country,” Barbee said. “We must do the work.”

The workshops and accompanying study guides are available here.

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