After the election of Donald Trump there were some difficult moments when the conflicts between political parties were being played out in our church pews, online, in the vestry and in the choir. Tensions were high and it wasn’t just in our church, of course. Friends were sobbing over ruined Thanksgivings. Co-workers were beginning to make offensive and defensive comments. F-bombs were being dropped by folks who you’d never expect to curse in public. Everyone was raw and on edge.
A few of us at A&HT were concerned enough that we organized a 6 week workshop with a professional small group conversations facilitator, Elaine Hansen, called “Restoring Conversations.” We hoped to learn and practice the skills we need to have an open and compassionate conversation with someone, especially if the topic was a contentious one. We hoped it would help our church be a place of strength because of our diverse opinions, not divided because of them.
We were not the only ones craving connection and better communication. There were almost 60 people from all over the tri-state area who attended the workshop for all or part of the series. After the workshop ended, those of us who were especially passionate about continuing these new kinds of conversations decided to meet each month to discuss a hot topic. We called this next meeting concept “Up For Discussion”.
Feeling confident in our new conversation skills, we chose to start with the topic of Racism.
I will point out now what you may have already guessed, this conversations group is primarily comprised of well meaning, liberal-leaning, college educated, middle class white folks. Despite our yearning for diversity, this is who shows up for this kind of thing. However, determined to add new perspectives and be challenged in this topic of racism, we all made a point to invite friends of differing backgrounds, and particularly friends of color. I wanted to prove wrong the accusations from some of my liberal friends that these conversations were just a feel-good echo-chamber. Also, I wanted to get my white biased brain’s ass kicked. I knew I needed it.
On the day of our first racism conversation, it was tough not to notice that we were still just a group of white folks who get our kicks from talking and listening. In spite of that, we did have some excellent conversations, and were able to ask some challenging questions of ourselves. We listened to each other’s stories and heard how much we wanted to make some positive change to help the problem, but weren’t sure how. Then someone finally said it: “But how can we really fix this problem if our black friends won’t even show up here to talk with us about it?”
Someone replied, “I think it’s because we are the ones with the problem.”
Oh, the truth of that was so, so good. In an instant, I realized that the hand-holding, let’s work this out together idea I had in my head was so utterly egotistical. Having a person of color at our conversations would be a jewel in our liberal-let’s-just-love-one-another crown. “See? We are fixing this racism problem,” it would say. My God, have mercy on me.
This is the real truth: I’m the one with a problem with racism.
My problem is that I want change to happen within my comfort zone.
My problem is that I can’t change anyone but myself.
My problem is that I expect someone who feels afraid and angry to “Feel the love that exists.”
My problem is that I don’t like to believe that someone thinks I’m unsafe to be around.
My problem is that I don’t speak up fast enough when I hear a racist comment or joke.
My problem is that I still worry that if my child goes to a predominantly black school, I think it might be a disruptive non-learning environment.
My problem is that I feel just slightly more hesitant reaching out to my black neighbors than I do with the white ones.
My problem is that I’m impressed when I meet a black doctor or lawyer.
These problems are sins that live deep within me. I don’t like them, but I won’t pretend they’re not there. I also won’t feel guilty for them. To feel in any way bad that the beautiful and fortunate life I lead because of my skin color, my family, and my education is anything less than that would also be a sin. God gave me those gifts. Because of those gifts, I can feel safe enough to dig deep into my bag of sins. I can pull each one out, examine it, and decide to release it if I don’t believe it’s in God’s loving image for me and for my fellow humans. My bag of sins is Pandora’s Box. The more I pull out, the more I can see is still in there. It’s constant and humbling work, but I know it’s right because I feel better when I do it.
Our Up for Discussion was again on racism. I shared the meeting among my friends and did invite friends of color but I did not do it with any expectation that they would join in. I was ready to do some more work on my problems and I don’t always need a person of color to do it. Interestingly enough, we did have a black woman attend. She was excellent at sharing her perspective on issues of racism and we all listened carefully to her every word. I found a few more bits and pieces in my bag of sins to bring into the light and examine. If she doesn’t want to come again, I won’t take it as a failure in The Cause. I’ll assume that she is doing her soul work in her own way, or resting if that’s what she needs. She doesn’t have to wave the banner of peace for us and make me feel better for my efforts. Of course, I would love it if she did join us again. We aren’t always going to discuss racism and she definitely has more to offer a conversation than just her black perspective.
And so I continue my work to reflect the divine love in me and in each other. Staying in a relationship and forming new relationships is the most powerful way to do this. If you would like to join in the discussion group, please followand know that you are welcome. You’re welcome to bring your bag of sins too. We can empty it together.
Margot Madison is a working mother of three, wife to one, and an Episcopalian/Christianity newbie.