Encouraging diverse groups to exist together in Christ is the objective of a series of virtual dialogues hosted by the presbytery’s Black Caucus.
At the first session on September 24, more than 40 participants came together to explore America’s racial divide by sharing their experiences and learning from each other. Participants represented churches within our presbytery as well as ones in neighboring presbyteries and other denominations.
In the opening prayer, Rev. Darren Utley, associate pastor at Fairfield Church in Hanover, acknowledged that, through Jesus’s death, God has already built a bridge of unity. Utley asked, “Fill us with your spirit [to] remake us into a new humanity, united in your one true holy name.”
Peggy Fox, moderator of the Black Caucus and an elder at Woodville Church in Richmond, shared an overview of racism in America today and outlined steps we can take to come together.
The first step in eliminating racism, she stated, is acknowledging the “embers of this fire [that] have burned our nation for a long time.” To address racism, she continued, we must understand how systemic bias subtly influences the way one thinks about people of other races.
“[To some people,] a white teenager wearing a hooded sweatshirt is viewed as just a teenager,” she explained, “while a black teenager in the same clothes is seen as a suspect, a thief, or a threat.”
A particularly poignant moment in the evening came when Rev. Ulysses Payne, pastor at Westminster Church in Petersburg, shared a conversation he had earlier that day with students at the school where he works.
“They asked me, ‘Do people care about us?’ It hurt my heart. That’s the tough conversation that [the Black] community is dealing with,” Payne acknowledged.
The students’ concern was prompted by news that a grand jury declined to charge officers in the death of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police in March.
Dr. Shirl Leverett, who attends Antioch Baptist Church in Henrico, agreed that it can be difficult for people to be compassionate when their lives or experiences are not the same.
To illustrate some of these differences, she shared lessons that African American parents teach their children: Keep your hands on the steering wheel if you get pulled over. Don’t argue with the police officer. Make it home.
She also required her sons to get a receipt and a bag for every purchase, even when they were buying something as insignificant as a candy bar.
“We did this to protect them because African American youth are more likely to be accused of theft.”
However, she said, “It is important for African Americans to also teach our children to forgive others as Christ did. And how to recognize love when they see it and reciprocate.”
For Rev. Robert Johnson, pastor at New Hanover Church, serving as a missionary in Pakistan helped him empathize with the “tension and minimization” black and brown people face in the United States.
“We were on the outside and were stared at. It changed our family in the way we looked at things,” he shared.
The experience of being in the minority is one he feels could benefit more white Americans.
To move forward as a bridgebuilder, Fox encouraged participants to shift from sympathy to compassion.
“Whenever Jesus had compassion for somebody in the Bible, it moved him to do something,” she noted.
Taking action can be through having uncomfortable conversations about race and getting to know people of other backgrounds, both facilitated by the night’s conversation.
Bronwen Boswell, general presbyter of Presbytery of the Shenandoah, plans “to be intentional” in developing relationships with folks who don’t look like her.
As a Presbyterian leader, she concluded, “I’m [also] hearing a call to help others find opportunities to make those connections.”
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Becoming a Bridgebuilder for Racial Reconciliation
- Acknowledge reality – racism exists
- Recognize the spirit of evil behind racism
- Understand concepts like systemic racism and Black Lives Matter
- Move from sympathy to compassion
- Have uncomfortable conversations
- Get to know people of other races
- Don’t just see color, celebrate it
- Be in it for the long haul – transformation takes time
Join the Series
Develop your skills as a bridgebuilder for racial reconciliation by joining in the two remaining events in the series. On February 24, Rev. Payne hosts Finding God in Moments of Crisis. The final event, What Would Jesus Say to Society Desiring to Heal Racism, will be held April 14. Learn more.