I attended an anti-racism workshop held at my former parish last Saturday. The curriculum was well structured, a very model for adult education. The instructor was a pro, well versed in the subject and obviously gifted in teaching adult groups. For all of that I found it stale and vaguely offensive. There was little about it that was different from similar workshops I’ve attended over the last twenty or thirty years. The working assumption of the curriculum was that we are all white, mostly male, and largely ignorant of the systemic racism built in to our beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. As it turned out, we were mostly white, female and, with a few exceptions, reasonably well informed. The usual gang attended. Those who, perhaps, should have been there, were not, as usual. What was once fresh and challenging now seemed more like rubbing one’s nose in one’s inherent racism as a congenital disease more rampant in Northern European white Americans than anyone else. The instructor ended with the nationally prescribed conclusion that to really do something about our racism we needed to get more black members to join our church.
It seemed a little silly considering the very few who live in our community. It conjured up an image of trolling for a dark skinned persons and dragging them in to sit with us in our rather traditional Episcopalian congregation so that we could congratulate ourselves on our fine catch. The words rude and arrogant came to mind.
On the other hand, our community is ethnically and economically diverse with a considerable amount of shared ignorance and prejudice spread among us.
Maybe I’ve been thrown off track by attending too many Eric Law workshops and reading too many of his books, but it does seem to me that, at least for us, the issue has more to do with the need to learn about, learn to respect and learn from the cultures, traditions and ways of living in community that are represented in the diversity of our valley. I also think that any congregation desiring to welcome that diversity into its midst must do so through the humility of radical hospitality. Radical hospitality is difficult because it means that power relationships within the group will be changed, and giving up the systems of power with which we have become comfortable is very threatening.
If my former congregation became a congregation of radical hospitality serving the neighborhood in Christ’s name, it would look a lot different. The church is surrounded on two sides by low income rental housing – some with younger, often non-traditional, families and some limited to the more mature in age. The younger families tend to be among the working poor. The more mature tend to be the retired working poor. Up and down the adjacent streets are the homes of the solid middle class and a few of the wealthy. If the congregation was radically welcoming it would be filled with people new to Christianity, new to Anglicanism, but rejoicing in ‘their church’ as a place that is truly theirs, and not a place where they were simply welcomed as visitors. They would not be big pledgers. They would take up residence in pews ‘reserved’ for old timers. They would assume a variety of leadership roles and do new things without the advise and consent of the patriarchs and matriarchs.
Would we be worshiping in Spanish? Probably not. Would there be dozens of dark skinned persons in the pews? Probably not. Would the elders of the congregation still be respected and have a voice? Yes. Would the current ranks of extremely well educated upper middle class members still have some important role in decision making? Yes.