It’s okay to talk about it. It’s not taboo. How do we talk about it? How do we not get mad at people because they don’t have the right vocabulary? And then how do we learn from each other so we can interact with people on a deeper and more profound level? - Rev. Effie McAvoy on talking about racism
The theme of the 2017 Annual Conference was “Vital Conversations: Race,” and at the session, each church received a copy of the Vital Conversations study series created by the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR).
Not sounding familiar? Maybe those DVDs are sitting in a drawer somewhere …
Well, the Conference Commission on Religion and Race (CCORR) wants us to dust off those materials and put them to use.
To help, members of CCORR are conducting district training sessions to help clergy and laity facilitate these “vital conversations” in their congregations and their communities.
“We understand that talking about race and racism, white privilege and white supremacy – that’s a hard conversation to have,” CCORR Chair Rev. Effie McAvoy told those attending the Sept. 6, 2019 Vermont District training at North Ferrisburgh UMC.
“My goal is – we know we’re not going to end racism [with one training] – but if we can get people to talk to each other, to listen to each other, to be in community, and if we can get the church to actually act like the church,” she said, “then maybe we can start healing.”
At the training, folks participate in three of the exercises from the Vital Congregations curriculum; two videos followed by focused discussion, and the “face” exercise, which helps people visual their experience with diversity growing up.
The exercise asks people to draw a circle representing a face then add a feature – eyes, nose, ears, etc. – each time they can say yes to one of 10 statements such as:
“At least one family on my block is from a racial/ethnic group other than my own” or
“The school I attend is racially mixed.”
CCORR member Pastor Bob Stewart, who serves St. Paul’s UMC in Manchester, NH, began the exercise by talking about his background.
Raised a Lutheran, he and his wife were attending “a mega church” in the Detroit suburbs that operated a cooperative pre-school. They approached the pastor to talk about ways to promote and grow the pre-school. The pastor discouraged advertising as that might “bring in the wrong people.”
“I think you understand if the church is sitting on the outskirts of Detroit city proper, you know what this comment meant,” he said. They
finished the school year and left the church, “broken” by the experience. After a time away, they joined the United Methodist Church.
Filling in your face is designed to help you to examine if or how much your background exposed you to “the many textures of God’s human family.”
The exercise is not meant to make people feel inadequate if they have not had a lot of exposure to other races and cultures, Rev. McAvoy said. “No one has a full face.” It’s just another way to look at your experience.
Vermont – much like Maine, where Rev. McAvoy serves – has very little ethnic diversity. “I’m the diversity I see,” she said, but she believes these conversations are even more important in such places.
“We understand that there are parts of this Annual Conference where this conversation is more complex,” she said. “I feel there’s an even greater need because of the lack of diversity. We can become complacent because we don’t actually actively experience [racism].”
One of the videos shown at the training features author and academic Dr. Robin DiAngelo, who is white, talking about white privilege. That is a difficult topic for white people DiAngelo says, and Rev. McAvoy agrees.
“People – especially white people – struggle with the concept of institutionalized racism,” Rev. McAvoy said. That’s why I love Robin Di Angelo when she says – ‘It’s not my fault, I’m not wracked with guilt. But what can I do to bring awareness and be an initiator of change?’”
“No one’s an expert here – we study, reason, pray,” Rev. McAvoy said. “We are learning from each other.”
Helping to lead the trainings has “helped deepen my passion, Pastor Stewart said. “I’ve seen the groups’ comments, and it’s made me study harder.”
“From my perspective, he said, “if somebody walks away learning one thing out of this training session, we were successful.”
And CCORR is learning from the experience of conducting the trainings as well. CCORR member Pastor Yunki Kim, who serves Trinity UMC in Montpelier, VT, created the evaluation form. CCORR is using that feedback to fine tune the training.
One important addition based on input from the five pilot sessions was the creation of a glossary of terms, Rev. McAvoy said.
Having the same definitions and understanding of terms such as white privilege or racism is important, she said. It helps ensure that what listeners hear is what the speaker intended to say.
And that is one of the challenges of talking about racism, Rev. McAvoy said. People don’t always know the right words and may say something hurtful without meaning to.
But even these instances can be learning opportunities, she said.
“If I’m going to model what it means to have a conversation with people, if somebody says something that stings me, I going to ask another question to get clarification,” Rev. McAvoy said.
It’s important to understand if the comment was intentional or simply a matter of someone not having the right words, she said.
“So, yes, it’s a teaching a moment, but it’s also a teaching moment for me, because somebody may have said something that kind of hurt, but they didn’t mean it the way I heard it,” she said. “So then that teaches us all how to have deeper conversations.”
Two of the Vital Conversations videos used in the CCORR training feature the Rev. David Anderson Hooker and Dr. Robin DiAngelo.
If you can’t find those DVDs from 2017, don’t worry: They’re available on the GCORR website. CCORR has also created a suggested reading list for those who want to learn more (see the links below).
The CCORR team wants everyone to know that even after the training, members are available to help churches figure out how best to use these materials in their contexts – whether in small groups, as a congregation, or with the community.
Pastor Stewart suggests that small congregations may want to partner with other United Methodist churches nearby or with other denominations in their community.
“I want church leaders not to be afraid to bring this stuff to their community and their church,” Rev. McAvoy said. “Oftentimes people are not bringing this to their church because they don’t know how people are going to respond.”
We “underestimate our church people,” she said. And when we don’t raise the topic because we’re afraid to offend, we deprive people of “opportunities to gain knowledge and be in community with other people.”
Pastor Kim said just the fact that the trainings are taking place makes him hopeful.
“We’re approaching this in a systemic way – and [racism] is a problem of system,” he said. “The message we’re sending is that the Conference is supporting CCORR – this can happen. It’s not just me having a conversation with another person at a local church – that can happen, too, and that needs to happen, too – but also, at the Conference level, we all need to hear this message.”
The Vital Conversations training is mandatory for all clergy under appointment, and laity are encouraged to attend. Training sessions coming up are listed below (click the link for details about that event).