Our church is coming to the end of a year where we explored, considered, and implemented anti-racist practices into worship (thanks to The Calvin Institute for Worship’s Vital Worship grants for the opportunity to grow). There were several parts to our exploration, one of which was a joint choir with an historically Black church in our area.
They were interested in incorporating more feminine imagery for God into their worship. We hoped to learn and grow within the Black gospel tradition. Each week we shared lunch and learned a song from each other’s growth area. We met for the six weeks of Lent. This month we’ll have one joint worship service together.
I remember last year when I presented this idea to my friend, the pastor of the church. He shared with me that he’d like time to think about it. Over the years they had experienced “yoke fatigue,” majority white churches like mine looking to learn and grow by proximity to his church. They’d intentionally taken a break from this kind of engagement, but this might be a way to reenter those arrangements.
Eventually we decided it would work out. One reason is that we eliminated the burden from the Black church as the teachers and educators of white participants from Raleigh Mennonite. By the end of 2019, roughly 80% of the people in our church had participated in some kind of racial equity education and training. For decades we’ve intentionally worked on the knowledge piece of anti-racism. At the times we needed to enter into the trauma and terror of racial violence, we relied upon people who were compensated for their work through film, books, and in documented history like museums and tours.
But just as important, I knew that we couldn’t rely on good will and education to build a bridge between our congregations. I also knew that relational capital wasn’t enough of a foundation for that structure.
This is often counterintuitive in the current climate of anti-racism to which I am often exposed. Relationships, this school of thought suggests, are healing. If we got to know one another, if we committed ourselves to hearing one another’s stories, we could fix the divisions between us. In this way of organizing the world, the real problem is ignorance. And ignorance can be overcome by relating.
I wrote a whole book that expresses skepticism about this way of thinking. Relationships can be a helpful tool for building coalitions and creating networks of solidarity. But they cannot, on their own, dismantle the behemoth we call racial capitalism and build something new in the rubble.
This can be discouraging. Relational connections are achievable, actionable. Dismantling a vast economic system that has its claws in every part of our lives – not as actionable. (Except it is! Small, actionable steps through coalescing power that take down specific targets and injects new possibilities into systems, or intentionally divest from racialized practices build power overs time! Persistent and consistent! You can do it!)
People bristle when I say that relationships are not an end in themselves. I don’t mean that relationships are entirely utilitarian. Instead, relationships – good relationships -- help us to identify our shared commitments, to work through our conflicts, to share our dreams for the world, and to know what we can and can’t do together. That’s significant and intentional work that I often hear confused with “getting along.”
As it is, I only came to the proposal of a joint choir after our church spent five years in an intentional organizing coalition with our neighbors in the Black church. We were one of the churches that stood beside them and helped to organize opposition to a massive development that would have led this church and its neighbors into nearly constant flooding. We worked to pressure our city council to require a community benefits agreement (they failed us!). This required months of meetings, phone calls, press conferences, and educational events.
Over those year I learned that the real work of anti-racism is trust. Trust can come through relationships and for relationships. And my suspicion is that trust, the gritty materialism of trust, is where our hopes are for anti-racist futures.
I have shared my personal experiences of racism in relationships and sometimes I've been frankly told, "I don't believe you or trust you." And other times, my experience has been dismissed as merely an individual one that needs individual healing and not organizational or structural change.
This is some hard-won wisdom. Thank you for sharing. At this point in my experience with anti-racism, I just can't trust white folks who don't hate their whiteness. If this comment gets flagged for breaching community guidelines, maybe that proves my point. If only one half of this relationship wants to exorcise the demon of whiteness, this relationship isn't going to work. Proving trust that we're both aiming in the same direction is fundamental.