Advice for Non-Black Clergy Seeking to Dismantle White Supremacy
What Do I Mean By “Fight For Me?”: Advice for Non-Black Clergy Seeking to Dismantle White Supremacy
In the wake of the Charleston, SC Massacre, Rev. Tawnya Denise Anderson wrote a Huffington Post article entitled “‘Allies,’ The Time for Your Silence Has Expired.” Anderson conveyed that the black community is dealing with the trauma from the steady stream of evidence disseminated by the media confirming that white supremacy is alive and well in our United States. She cited a comment that I posted via social media in which I resolved, “If you love me and mine, fight for me.” I was struck by the emails I received from non-black clergy colleagues in response to her piece. My co-laborers in ministry admitted they felt convicted and expressed that they were puzzled about what they should do with that call to action. They asked, “What do you mean when you say fight for you?”
Their correspondence reveals a pervasive flaw in the current climate of ministerial formation in predominantly white seminaries, which is the lack of required training in diversity issues.
Quite frankly I am not surprised. I learned a hard lesson about the ministerial undoing that occurs as the result of diversity illiteracy, while attending an ecumenical and predominantly white seminary. Many people who heed the call to serve are apathetic when it comes to addressing issues of racial and cultural diversity. They undo the impact of their kind words and generous works when they exhibit a willful obliviousness to socio-cultural sensitivity. For example, I recall one course on culturally relevant counseling in which our professor of pastoral care prompted us to consider the ways in which we may include resources in our worship that will expose our parishioners to socio-cultural diversity. During the discussion about the reading, we went around the room sharing various scenarios and strategies. Some presumed that socio-cultural diversity meant black history month programming and not ongoing incorporation of information in their Christian education. One of my colleagues shifted his weight in chair, crossed his legs, folded his arms, and said matter-of-factly that he had no need to learn about African American culture. “There is no way that I can possibly tell anyone anything about African American culture. I don’t have time to learn it. I already know that I am being placed in a congregation in Middle America. My congregation and I are the definition of WASP. We are white, Ango-Saxon, Protestant. We can just bring someone in to do that. I doubt that I will need to learn this information.”
With that comment, my heart sank. The room began to spin and I loss my bearings. Up until then, I thought this seminarian was such a nice guy… He would congratulate me on facilitating worship in chapel and leading the black seminarians. His remarks helped me to make a distinction between nice and welcoming. I thought long and hard about the nature of my interactions with him and realized that we had never broken bread together. All of our interactions were superficial and oriented toward performance in worship contexts.
The thought that this nice, wealthy, and learned guy was disinterested in being equipped to ministering to and about people like me hurt my soul.
His refusal to be equipped to serve whosoever he encounters was one of the meanest things I could hear a pastor confess. I was exhausted by the recollections he triggered of entering various predominantly white settings as a preacher or worship leader where clearly I was the only diversity they experienced all year, for some years, or ever. I will admit that for the rest of the semester I was distracted from any meaningful contribution he made.
Unfortunately, clergy’s indifference and lack of diversity literacy is not new in United States’ religiosity. One could argue that he was set up to fail in socio-cultural diversity aptitude because he was not surrounded by a “diverse enough” student body during his ministerial formation. It is not that he and I had to be best friends or even hang out but I represented 25% of the seminarians of African descent in my graduating class at that time. There was no way we could successfully complete our study and engage the rest of the student body in lengthened and meaningful ways. We needed the institution to commit to well-rounded ministerial formation by recruiting and retaining more seminarians of color.
Thankfully, in that same class there were non-black colleagues who heard what the aforementioned seminarian said and they pushed back in class. “What do you mean you don’t need to know this? You can’t be serious. We need to know this to be prepared for every person who comes through our doors. We need to know this for our missions ministry. As decent human beings, we should want to know and share this information.”
Their pushback to that seminarian healed me and other seminarians of color present. We looked at each other, sighed, and smiled slightly.
That gesture of holding him accountable was Jesus taking the wheel.
They fought for me by standing in the gap and casting down any comments or postures that would be inhospitable.
And so, when I reflect publicly about social injustices along race and class lines, I fight passed my disappointment and think about my non-black clergy colleagues who are eager to learn and self-reflect as they servant-lead. In my commentary, I prefer to assume that there is someone out there who is in predominantly white communities and they desire to do self-guided study to spread the message of diversity.
In this spirit of information sharing, I would like to provide some introductory preaching and Christian education suggestions for non-black clergy allies, even if you are in predominantly white communities and do not have parishioners of color.
Regardless of your community’s demographic, you should still minister to your congregation about the symbolism and reality of #blacklivesmatter in the current events in Charleston and even the deportation of Haitians from the Dominican Republic.
Please do more than a vigil.
Provide a space for your parishioners of color to be surrounded by their community. Empathize but do not let these moments be about you, your outrage, and your experience.
Preach the importance of caring for the entire Body of Christ around the world and to our neighbors throughout the states.
Preach about the grounds for righteous indignation.
Describe to them the manifestations of EVIL that are revealed in racism, classism, sexism, ableism, and ageism: lack of understanding, apathy, aggression, blame, shame, desertion, distance, etc.
Model a reflection on how we serve the Other.
Preach a theology of community.
Preach a theology of hospitality.
Preach a theology of neighborliness.
Preach a theology of what the late activist, Mother Nina Simone called breaking down and letting it all out. Your people will need to release AND to be held.
Welcome wailing. Welcome groans.
Allow for silence and a loss of words.
Allow distance and mere presence (it will take a lot to even be there).
Pray for and follow-up with parishioners who are in inter-/multi-racial relationships and may be struggling to connect.
Take the initiative to immerse yourself in diversity education.
If you understand the pernicious nature of white supremacy, encourage your congregants to educate themselves in the same manner that people of color educate themselves about their cultures.
Urge your congregation to learn about the formation of African American denominations and organizations, especially start with the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Lead your members in study of them during bible study. Exploration of their formation will be instructive to your church’s local theology and ministry of hospitality in church and quotidian life.
Invite local scholars to help facilitate the training.
Contribute financially to organizations such as The Forum for Theological Education that are committed to supporting seminarians and scholars of color in religious education.
Partner with an African American or black pastor to coordinate worship AND meaningful conversation with agreed upon ground rules. Welcome them taking the lead in explaining how they need for you to respond.
Break bread and remain in conversation with people who will challenge your assumptions about society and culture.
Finally, commit to BREAK EVERY CHAIN and stronghold in your community.
I hope that you find these suggestions useful and again, please stay connected to your colleagues of color and their non-black allies. I encourage you to consider and implement them with your whole heart. I am confident that your diligence and intention will make reverberating impact.