Illinois church member addresses structural racism in her community through the congregation’s share of the Peace & Global Witness Offering
April 13, 2021
Early in 2019, a crop of strange, new signs started springing up everywhere across the yards and businesses of rural, predominantly white Macomb, Illinois, like so many cornstalks in Iowa’s neighboring fields.
The signs, which called for the ouster of Western Illinois University’s (WIU) then president, Dr. Jack Thomas — the school’s first Black president, who ultimately resigned in June 2019 — struck fear into the hearts of Macomb’s citizens of color.
“They saw this as a reminder of lynching times,” said Dr. Sarah Schoper Salazar, a member of First Presbyterian Church of Macomb, who previously served on WIU’s faculty in its department of Education Studies. “The signs, which read ‘Fire Jack,’ were clearly racially motivated.”
As a direct result of the racial tensions that rose to the surface in Macomb during that time, which culminated in Thomas’ resignation, the city’s mayor and WIU’s new interim president organized a committee called Move Macomb Forward, designed to address structural racism in the community.
While Salazar saw these efforts as a promising beginning for her city, she — with the encouragement of First Presbyterian’s pastor, the Rev. Erin Marth — knew that she could do even more.
With God’s help.
Salazar was bold to approach her church’s Service and Justice Committee — which had just voted to become a Matthew 25 congregation, naming Salazar as their liaison and primary spokesperson — proposing to teach a series of workshops on race and racism geared toward white people.
“As I watched people in the community continue to dismiss the thoughts of people of color, I reflected on my own journey of learning what it is to be white,” she said, “and I thought, we need to do something to help white people know that they’re white. They can’t as easily dismiss me.”
While designing, planning and promoting the five interactive workshops that were approved by the committee, Salazar continued to familiarize herself with the three focuses of the Matthew 25 invitation — building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism and eradicating systemic poverty — even being called upon by Marth to preach a sermon on Matthew 25 in April 2019.
“When our congregation signed up for Matthew 25, we took on all three focuses, because we couldn’t separate them,” she said. “They all work together.”
In fact, “working together” is just how she envisioned workshop participants — not just sitting and learning about structural racism, but rather engaging the challenging material and each other together.
“We need people to be learning this [racism] alongside others, not as individuals,” she said.
And although Salazar willingly rose to the challenge of facilitating the workshops, she admitted to being “terrified and nervous.”
In 2015, she had what she has called a “life explosion.” A pulmonary embolism, which led to life-threatening complications including 57 minutes of cardiac arrest, resulted in her losing contact with the entire left side of her body. She spent eight months relearning how to walk, questioning every day why she had survived.
She needn’t have worried about her and the workshops’ success. Because the 2019 workshops consistently drew some 40 people from the congregation and the broader community, they eventually led to another workshop series taught by Salazar in the spring of 2020, “Examining Our Commitment to Racial Justice,” which was sponsored by the Interfaith Alliance of Macomb. At least 30 people participated in this round, which wrapped up right before COVID-19 hit.
Because the series hosted by the Interfaith Alliance was promoted on Facebook, the Rev. Ryan Landino, Lead Presbyter for Transformation, Presbytery of Great Rivers, saw and shared the post in the presbytery’s e-newsletter. “All of a sudden, people across the presbytery were driving to Macomb to attend,” Salazar said. “A farmer and his wife drove over an hour in the snow to attend the workshops after seeing Ryan’s announcement in the Great Rivers e-newsletter.”
Throughout the planning, development, and implementation of all of First Presbyterian’s anti-racism initiatives, finding available funding was never a concern. The cost of the original series of workshops was fully covered by First Church’s Peace & Global Witness Offering, 25% of which is retained by the local church for its own ministries of peace and reconciliation.
Emily Enders Odom, Communications Specialist, Mission Engagement & Support, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Today’s Focus: Structural Racism
Let us join in prayer for:
Let us pray:
Gracious God, give us humble hearts so that we can recognize the gifts of others and encourage the use of those gifts for the building up of your church and for the fulfillment of your mission. In Jesus’ name. Amen.