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Congregations Make Conversations About Race A Priority

Emanuele Berry | St. Louis Public Radio

Martin Luther King once said that "it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o'clock on Sunday morning."

Rev. Dietra Wise Baker says it still is, which is why Baker and more than 100 people from churches across St. Louis gathered to talk about race on Sunday. The event was the first in a series of Sacred Conversation About Race.

“The church has work to do on itself as it tries to call moral and ethical standards to the community and point the finger ...” she said. “We have to be on the road before we can invite people along for the journey.”

Sunday’s discussion at Saint Louis University was organized by Metropolitan Congregations United. Baker who also serves as co-chair for the MCU clergy caucus, says following the shooting death of Michael Brown she was shocked by church members and leaders who didn’t want to talk about Ferguson or racism.

She said a lot of people were saying that there was no need to address race in the church because “we’re past that” or “we live in a colorless society.”

“People didn't understand that stance was actually a white privilege stance … and it was painful and shocking because I thought we were already aware in some groups of people,” Baker said. “But one of the things that Ferguson revealed to us is that we weren’t.”

Getting Uncomfortable

For the first part of the session, several speakers addressed both systematic racism and personal prejudice. The goal of the conversation was to stretch perspectives, build awareness and unity. However, as Deborah Krause, academic dean and professor at Eden Theological Seminary noted, achieving that goal might require some discomfort, something Krause delivered as she spoke about white privilege, white supremacy and systemic racism.

Credit Emanuele Berry | St. Louis Public Radio
More than 15 churches took part in the event.

One phrase Krause uttered that she knew would cause some discomfort: Black Lives Matter.

“Perhaps you’ve heard a little interchange like this, “ she said to the crowd. “One person asserts black lives matter and another person replies in counterpoint, almost like a corrective ‘all lives matter.’ ”

Using this exchange Krause explored the psychology of racism and racial systems.

She said in the United States we live “under a kind of mythical banner of equality and freedom.” Therefore some people hear black lives matter as an affront to that idea of equality. “In this sense the corrective rhetoric 'all lives matter' can come across as a well meaning attempt to be inclusive,” she said.

“The problem with this bold stand against prejudice, a stand which claims that it does not see color, is that it fails to take into account several important things about the social constructive and systemic realities of racism,” Krause said.

The reality is that in our society black lives have “been deemed to matter much much less,” Krause said.

Krause said she knows  some people in the audience were uncomfortable with her words, but that's what she hopes the conversations do.

“I hope they leave them with a sense of new tension and discomfort," she said. "I hope they are that significant that nobody is going home with warm fuzzies, but maybe even something that really bothered them, or maybe even hurt them. That might spur them onto greater reflection.”

After a large group discussion, attendees broke out into small groups where they built timelines focusing on events and actions that separated races and the region. Housing covenants, the “Great Divorce” of the city from the county and the integration of schools were all issues discussed.

Jacqueline Tyler of Glory to Glory Christian Church - United Church of Christ in Soulard said putting everything out on a timeline helped her see the connection between systems.

“A lot of the St. Louis history is hit or miss in our community, so the timeline structure really worked because it puts things back into context in the St. Louis area,” Tyler said.

Context is also something Diane Gozdzialski of St. Cronan Catholic Church in the Grove is grateful to gain. She and her husband have been attending a YWCA workshop calledWitnessing Whiteness. Gozdzialski says she’s learned a lot about privilege.

Black lives matter
Credit Emanuele Berry | St. Louis Public Radio
John and Diane Gozdzialski pick up a black lives matter yard sign.

“African Americans have it really hard and to be honest I had never really thought about it,” she said. “My African-American friends are middle class. I’ve never thought about how difficult it’s been and the struggle, I mean I know about the racial struggles in Selma and all that, but to really know what has gone on in our country and what has happened and how unjust and unfair, I mean, that has blown my mind and it’s like 'Enough.' We’ve got to change this. We’ve got to change this.”

Gozdzialski says she hopes the Sacred Conversation on Race are another way for her to carry on what she’s learned.

“Hopefully we are going to continue this dialogue into action,” she said. “I think the dialogue part is important but I also hope that somehow we can't start changing the systemic racism that is so infesting our society, that’s so unfair.”

The next set of conversation will be held an individual churches. Congregation members who attended Sundays event will organize discussions with their own churches. The first, in February will provide a space for churches to reflect on their experience around race.

The second session will bring churches with different racial backgrounds together to broaden perspectives.