“Race and Faith” was the topic of Newtown’s second Community Conversation that took place on April 25th at the library. It was aptly billed as “An opportunity for Newtowners to engage with and hear from the community’s religious leaders as we consider and respond to matters of race, equality, equity, and diversity.” CH Booth Library and Newtown Public Schools sponsored the event which I believe was not only important, but potentially pivotal. It was a well-attended, two-hour forum with four different houses of worship represented on the panel. The four faith leaders–one Catholic, one Episcopalian, one Muslim, and one Baha’i– were well-informed, honest, compassionate, and direct in their answers to the moderators’ questions concerning what is often referred to as our nation’s “original sin”. The public was invited to share our “aspirations for Newtown” and to discuss challenges and concerns. It was an excellent event.
So now what?
First, let’s pull our heads out of the sand. Even though it may be hard for those of us who are white to hear this, our brothers and sisters of color are not experiencing Newtown the way that we are. This includes within the church. We hate hearing about racism in Newtown, in part because we pride ourselves on being kind. We don’t want to believe that Newtown is anything other than the friendly town our personal experience tells us it is. However, as one of the panelists urged, it is incumbent upon us “to listen and believe” our courageous neighbors (and it does take courage!) who are sharing their families’ experiences of racism with the rest of us.
I had a front row seat that night and could see the love and compassion on the panelists’ faces as they listened to one another and to audience members. There is zero question in my mind that they care deeply. They believe in the inherent dignity of every person and that we are called to be our brothers’ keepers. All four unequivocally expressed that it is a core tenet of their faith to value and care for all people. This seems pretty basic, but these days it’s reassuring to hear such things said out loud. So, the desire to welcome all and to love all is there.
But what is the reality?
Are white churches doing all that they can to eradicate racism within their own walls and in the communities in which they are located? One audience member at “Race and Faith” suggested that if the faces in the pews are all white, then faith leaders need to take an honest look at why that may be the case. Implicit in one of the questions from the moderators was that houses of worship should strive to be unambiguous in their message that all are welcome, all are valued, and that all are loved equally by their Creator. According to the Baha’i faith, racism is what prevents humankind from being “one family”. Baha’i readings also make clear that the onus is on white people to engage in deep personal reflection in order to dispel racist misconceptions and to stand with our brothers and sisters of color in challenging structural racism. That makes sense, doesn’t it? How can BIPOC make structural change without the efforts of those currently holding those structures in place?
I am confident that Newtown’s faith communities have it within their ability to improve the town’s problematic racial environment. The first step is acknowledging and confronting the ugly truths of our shared history and the role of the church in it (kudos to Trinity Church for doing this work). The sad reality is that the white Christian church has been, and continues to be, complicit in holding up white supremacy in our country. It is up to the leaders in our faith communities–both clergy and laity alike–to insist that their congregations have honest conversations about the role of colonization and systemic racism in the church.
In fact, could there be a place for Critical Race Theory in houses of worship?
The Project of the General Commission on Religion and Race of the United Methodist Church sponsored a conversation that I found fascinating (https://www.r2hub.org/library/what-is-critical-race-theory ). One participant posits that CRT could bring Christian churches toward a more Jesus-based gospel message. The theory is that if we are ever to become a true “beloved community”— and show with our words and actions that all are equal in the eyes of God—then we need to understand the systems that are currently preventing this from happening. Another participant challenges churches to examine the ways in which we talk about God and spirituality within the church that might further racism. She urges church leaders to avoid “the normalcy of racism” by doing a deep dive into racism within our social systems. She encourages white churches to step outside their cultural bubble and do some relationship-building with people outside their congregations. Only then will people begin to understand that what may seem like a simple norm in one church, might actually be furthering racism within it.
Race is something that just isn’t talked about in white churches—at least in my limited experience as a Methodist. I was gobsmacked when I learned that the United Methodist commission cited above had been in existence since 1968. Why had I never heard about this? Maybe it’s because pastors know darn well that their white congregations are not going to react well to lessons from the pulpit in “Our Church and Racism”. It’s pretty easy to imagine the cries of “Why does everything have to be about race? It’s divisive! It’s political!”.
I am simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic about what Newtown’s faith communities would do with the knowledge that there are children of color being teased, harassed, and bullied in our schools because of their skin color, their hair styles, and their religious beliefs. On the one hand, the influence of houses of worship is significant and when their leaders talk, people listen. And we’ve certainly seen this town accomplish amazing acts of love in the past—together. On the other hand, one dissenter at the library event declared forcefully that DEI had destroyed his church. How can white churches help children learn to be better human beings if talking about race ends in hate mail for the pastor and parishioners taking themselves (and their wallets) elsewhere?
So yes, it warmed my heart to see four local faith leaders with their heads together, (presumably) discussing where to go from here. It is my sincere hope and expectation that they will continue that conversation among themselves with the desire to make Newtown a place where all children feel comfortable at school. It is my prayer that they will bring that conversation to their congregations; that they will prioritize Newtown’s children and families who are experiencing racism in school above the comfort of their parishioners. And I hope with all my heart that when called to look within themselves, that congregations will answer with the same honesty and compassion that representatives of their faith showed that night at the library.