By Hope McCormick, Community Development VISTA for Communities of Transformation South Walton, and Emily Proctor, Director of Outreach at Caring and Sharing of South Walton
Amid heightened racial conflict across the US, many in our local community are wondering how they might contribute to reconciliation, justice, and equality. Irene Fowlkes, a Black woman living in Santa Rosa Beach, believes dialog is essential to bring people together. She knows firsthand how people of different backgrounds can end up avoiding or disliking each other based on misunderstandings. “It’s easy to react quickly and negatively,” she said, but she strives to follow the Bible’s guidance. For example, Philippians 2:3 teaches that Christians should esteem others better than themselves. Irene takes that to heart and does her best to treat everyone with kindness and respect. Irene shared an experience she had during a faith-based study group, made up of Black students, except for one woman, who was of a different ancestry. The woman kept to herself, sitting at a little distance from everyone else, and from all appearances was focused on reading while everyone else was talking. Soon she gathered her belongings and left.
When they gathered again, the woman who’d left early shared that she was offended by their behavior and that she felt excluded from the discussion. Rather than dismissing the accusation or getting defensive, Irene chose instead to hold the woman in high esteem, as the Bible directs, and have an honest talk about the incident. Irene explained that she had interpreted the woman’s body language and focus on a book to mean that she didn’t want to participate. Furthermore, Irene said she assumed if the woman did want to contribute to the conversation, she’d have spoken up and joined in.
The woman appreciated that the slight was unintentional. She shared further, explaining that English is not her first language, and she often has trouble understanding Americans. “She needs people to speak slowly, and it helps if they make eye contact with her, because reading lips helps her figure out what’s being said,” Irene said. Once they understood how to approach each other, a meaningful friendship bloomed.
Irene and her friend aren’t the only locals who believe in the power of dialogue. Three White members of Christ the King Epsicopal Church in Santa Rosa Beach were talking amongst themselves about the division and rancor our country is experiencing over the killing of unarmed black people by police, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the call for changes in policing.
Libby Fisher, Mimi Gavigan, and Krissi Finch agreed to take concrete steps to promote reconciliation between races. “We wanted to offer a racial dialogue program at Christ the King,” Libby said. “From there, we found the Sacred Ground curriculum and had a great response from folks interested in participating.” The program is designed specifically for White Americans to educate themselves about race and become more racially self-aware. It lasts 10 sessions, and participants are meeting in small groups either online or in person. Homework includes watching videos and reading assignments, including the books Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman and Waking Up White, And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debbie Irving. It requires a significant time investment, but Libby believes some people feel compelled to make a real effort to work for positive change. Libby added, “I don’t think it’s an option for Christians to ignore the unrest in our country right now, and to be on the sidelines tolerating racism. Even if we are not ourselves overtly racist, we can unknowingly participate in and benefit from racial prejudice.”
“As Dr. William Barber III, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, preaches, chapter 5 in Amos calls out the Israelites for caring about the trappings of their faith as they ignore the downtrodden in their midst,” she said. “And my personal mantra is Micah 6:8. God calls us to ‘Act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.’ ” In addition to participating in the Sacred Ground groups, both authors of this article agreed that we needed to facilitate a conversation about race in Caring and Sharing of South Walton’s weekly Communities of Transformation (COT) Zoom meeting. One reason for doing so is that members of COT are of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and have families directly impacted by the unrest and division. As the Apostle Paul states in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 12:26), “When one member of the body suffers, all suffer.” We felt it was important to take time to “listen to our [collective] body.” Secondly, conflict mediation is one of the core skills we try to develop in both our Awaken students and our volunteers. Having difficult conversations about emotionally charged issues like race is one way we can practice the skills we are learning, such as active listening and the use of “I-statements.”
To this end, we began our conversation about race, by asking participants to commit simply to listening to one another share about the emotions stirred up for them by the topic of race and the racial unrest in the news, as well as experiences they might have had in their past that influence their current feelings and views on the matter. The emotions shared ranged from frustration to despair to guilt to fear to a cautious hope. This sharing and listening was followed by the sharing of some basic definitions about race and racism that the group will reflect on and discuss together. Our hope is that others in the community can take inspiration from this article to brave having difficult conversations with friends, family, and coworkers in a way that models humility, compassion, and openness. We encourage all–in both the realm of politics and theology–to lead with a practice confession rather than accusation.
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