by Jessica Davis
Starting a racial justice team can be a daunting task. Whether you are a person of color who is trepidatious after a lifetime of hearing the church declare that things that are white/light are good, pure, and holy, and things that are black/dark are evil, sinful, and terrifying; or a white person who knows that you have power and privilege you need to share but aren’t quite sure where to start, it’s ok to feel anxious and unsure. Justice work is never easy, and justice work that is fighting an uphill battle against the ways of the world is even harder. But “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” so take a deep breath, pray for and with one another, and start somewhere.
Having said that about boldly stepping out in faith, you may be surprised to find that my first piece of advice is to not just start doing “stuff.” It is very common that, when white folks start to confront their feelings of guilt and shame about racism, there is a fight or flight response. They either freeze in uncertainty and hesitancy about potentially causing more harm, or they jump in headfirst, taking action in ways that aren’t actually helpful to the people directly affected.
So what are the steps required to create a racial justice team?
1) First, have a series of frank conversations about where your congregation is starting from. Do the white folks acknowledge that systemic racism is real, insidious, multi-layered, and that they play a part? Do they know the general history of racism in the U.S. and the ELCA? The specific history of racism in your town/neighborhood/congregation? Do the people of color in your congregation feel safe enough there to deal with the negative emotions directed at them that are inevitable consequences of such work? If the answer to any of these questions is “No,” your team is not ready to go out into the community and start doing “stuff.” Their job now is learning and reflecting.
2) If the answer to the above questions is “Yes,” you may be ready to start taking more tangible action steps. Ask the people of color in your congregation what they need. Listen to what the people in your community are saying about their greatest struggles. If your congregation balks at their answers, go back to step #1 until they’re ready to give an enthusiastic “Yes!” to what they’re being asked to do. And do not be surprised if you don’t get that yes at first. One of the most insidious dangers of white supremacy is how it teaches white folks to believe they know what’s best for everyone. It is not at all uncommon to run into situations where the people directly affected by racism might be saying “We need you to work with us to fund our children’s schools and draw attention to the school-to-prison pipeline,” and the response from white people is “No, no, what you need is to send your children to our VBS.”
3) Join in with the work the people of color in your church/community are already doing. This includes not forcing people of color to be a part of your work or accepting your offers of help. If there are people of color in your congregation who don’t want to serve on the racial justice team or participate in your information-gathering conversations, respect their “No.” POC do not owe white folks their labor or their stories. If you have offered a POC group a particular kind of help and their response is “No, we don’t feel comfortable with that,” respect their decision. Understand that when people of color are turning down offers of help from white folks, it is because they have tried to accept that type of help before and gotten burned. Probably more than once.
Ask how you can help, and then just do what you’ve been asked. Accept that people of color are the experts on what they need. Resist the urge to start something brand-new, unless that’s what the people of color have asked you to do.
4) Listen far more than you talk. Sit in planning meetings with POC and resolve not to speak unless asked to. Spend time in the Gospels and see how Jesus interacts with people from vulnerable communities. When people are hungry, he feeds them. When they are in need of physical healing, he provides it. We worship a savior who cares about what people say they need to live and thrive. Spend time in prayer and let the Spirit of the Lord blow you onto a path that may be neither easy nor straight, but that leads to the heart of the one who gives us all life.
Jessica Davis, MA is a church consultant, organizer, and freelance writer and speaker living in the Philadelphia area. Her ministry passions include: youth ministry, church music, community visioning, and education and advocacy re: diversity, equity, and inclusion. When not doing churchy things, she can usually be found knitting, volunteering with refugees and asylum-seekers, or working as a freelance makeup artist. You can connect with her work through Jessica Davis Church Consulting on Facebook.