Today in the Mission Yearbook

Chat with author yields advice on how to get rigid churches to talk about race


The Rev. Dr. Carolyn Helsel and the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins offer tips as newly revised book is released

October 23, 2021

During a virtual discussion on helping white people talk about racism, a compelling question popped up in the chat box. The gist: How can a person bring up antiracism in a church where most members don’t want any more change and would prefer to go back to “better times”?

That was one of the topics on the minds of more than 40 people who gathered to hear author and Presbyterian minister Dr. Carolyn B. Helsel chat with the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, Associate Director of Advocacy for the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The online event dovetailed with the release of the second edition of Helsel’s book, “Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White People Talk Faithfully About Racism” (Chalice Press).

In response to the question about bringing up antiracism in a rigid church, Helsel reached back to ancient times as a way to suggest offering personal testimony.

“The leaders of the young church were constantly evolving and being converted anew into new ways of thinking and new ways of interacting with one another, and they had to tell other people about their experience,” including receiving visions from God, said Helsel, Associate Professor in the Blair Monie Distinguished Chair in Homiletics at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Taking a similar approach today, a person could explain how they’ve changed and grown as a result of conversations and interactions with people of color, Helsel said. For example, you might say, “These are the gifts that I have experienced as a result of these friendships and … hard stories that have been shared with me, and this is the hard story of my coming to realize this for the first time.”

Such testimonies “can help us enter the conversation and bring our churches to a more open conversation” about this topic, she said.

Hawkins offered advice about how to approach people and advised against expecting a quick fix.

“I think oftentimes we have to make people feel that their position is being treated fairly, that people are being heard,” he said. “But, again, it’s a process that you have to go through. There’s not going to be any easy answer to changing a church culture that has taken 100 years to develop.”

He went on to stress the importance of being “willing to walk with people, and again, making people feel that we’re in a level of engagement with one another,” rather than trying to shame people, he said. “We all are flawed children of God,” but at the same time, “there is a calling from God for a more just society, for a more beloved community,” and racism hampers efforts to achieve that.

He also talked about incremental change. “I think one of the things that we can do is make sure that we’re presenting the issue of race in a way that people can begin to at least sit down at the table and begin to engage in a conversation, and then as we go along, to make it more in-depth … dealing with issues that are right there in front of us,” he said.

Getting young people to speak up can help, he said. “We’ve got to acknowledge the leadership that young people have to bring us to a different place and challenge us in ways” that might not be comfortable, he said. “Members who are hesitant will take it a lot better from a young person than they will from the minister or from an elder in the church.”

Earlier in the discussion, Helsel expressed appreciation for the advocacy work of Hawkins and the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness, which he leads.

“For me, learning about the work of my denomination and what they’re doing on a national level has been inspiring for me on the local level to show up at the Texas Capitol when they’re talking about … voter registration laws that are going to make it harder for folks to vote and standing up and making a statement,” she said. “So having some greater courage because of the gifts that I have witnessed has helped me live out my faith” in a new way.

Darla Carter, Communications Associate, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus: Antiracism conversations

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Jacqueline Boersema, Director Financial Education, Board of Pensions
Raymond Bonwell, Corporate Secretary, Board of Pensions

Let us pray

Gracious God, may we be open to your freshness and your recreative work in our midst. Repurpose us to do your work as we live into your kingdom. Amen.