The call to anti-racism is a call to transformation
Acknowledging Indigenous territory
I write to you from Treaty One Territory: the land of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene Peoples, and the homeland of the Métis Nation. I acknowledge that from time immemorial, Indigenous Peoples have lived as stewards and defenders of this land. This important stewardship is ongoing.
For me, acknowledging territory is worshipful and prayerful. It grounds me in my current context: this time, this place, the need for reconciliation between Indigenous and non-indigenous Peoples, the need to address racism in all its forms, the need for healthy relationships with the Earth. It opens me to God’s call and encourages action.
The church is called to be anti-racist. Recently, I heard this quote from Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want To Talk About Race:
“The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.”
I find this quote provocative because I struggle to live in actively anti-racist ways. I find it provocative because I continue to detect in myself a desire to avoid admitting the racism in me and in my faith communities. Based on several recent experiences, which were simultaneously painful, frustrating, and holy, I have no doubt about the truth of the words it’s the only way forward.
In the early church, a conflict arose between “Hellenists” and “Hebrews” regarding the inequitable distribution of food (Acts 6:1-7). What started as an act of charity became entangled in a controversy that was rooted in ethno-cultural bias. The church’s response to the conflict is revealing: the problem is acknowledged, leaders listen, the church restructures, and new and gifted leadership is identified.
The problem is acknowledged
During my first experience of anti-racism training fifteen years ago, I felt like my soul was being stomped on. It was required training because I was serving as an ecumenical partner on an Anglican Committee. I felt upset by one of the exercises. As we debriefed this in a small group, I began to complain. One person in my group, who is a black man and a priest, looked me in the eye and, with an abundance of grace, asked me: “Paul, how often do you think about the colour of your skin?”
“Almost never,” I had to admit.
He replied, “I think about it every day.”
It was, for me, a transformative moment that marked the beginning of a long and ongoing journey. The words “I think about the colour of my skin every day” continue to echo within me. They changed how I listen to stories of racism and analysis of injustice.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) documented systemic racism in the Canadian context and provided Calls to Action and Calls for Justice. Most of my opportunities to engage with these realities have come in ecumenical contexts such as KAIROS and Anglican Indigenous Ministries.
The United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (IDPAD) invites the global community to recognize that people of African descent represent a distinct group whose human rights must be promoted and protected. In January of 2020, the United Church of Canada invited the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) to consider becoming more engaged in lifting up IDPAD. The truth is that before being invited to that conversation, I was not aware there was an IDPAD. In subsequent conversations, I learned much about the importance of specifically naming anti-Black racism and the value of honouring the uniqueness of each story shared with me.
I was raised to believe that racism is wrong. But I was not raised to understand how systemic racism has affected me. Racism was something that other people do, not something done by my brand of Christians, my country, or my family. Looking back, I recognize my horrible lack of awareness. Both Sunday school and my grandmother taught me racist songs; those tunes are still inside me, even though I don’t want them to be. I learned very little history of Indigenous Peoples and nothing about residential schools. As a life-long Lutheran, I was taught to confess my sins, but not my sins of racism.
We all swim in the waters of a racist system and are all affected by it. And the reality is that the painful, harmful, and deadly consequences of racism are not distributed equally. Moreover, dominant cultures have ways of trying to silence the voices most harmed by racialization; these ways may be intentional, unintentional, and/or systemic.
I am concerned that “listening” is going to sound like a simplistic response to a big problem that requires action. Nevertheless, for me, listening is a pathway to encountering truth, to changing my behaviour, and to hearing the Spirit’s call. I have come to understand that perfection is not an option, and I am going make mistakes on my journey to let go of bias. There can be a difference between the intention of my actions and the impact my actions have on others. The only way to learn about the negative impact of my behaviour is to listen.
One explanation for why Jesus is so angry when he cleanses the Temple (John 2) is that the courtyard where the money changers have set up shop is the only place where Gentiles are allowed to pray. The issue is not only too much commerce and excessive user fees but how people are prevented from praying. Jesus makes a whip and drives people out of the Temple. At first glance, this behaviour will get Jesus in trouble with public courts and church discipline committees. But a deeper message is how offensive it is to fail to create truly diverse and welcoming communities. For me, the call to listen deeply includes stepping past communication styles and hearing the truth being spoken.
The church restructures
In Acts 6, the church restructures to distribute food more equitably, and a whole new order of ministry is born. Racism is a big problem, and I think God is calling us to make big changes. Today, I do not have any answers to how the church should restructure, but I feel the need to acknowledge that the call to be anti-racist is a call to transformation. It is a call to be changed by God for the good of the world and for the love of neighbours. This call is simultaneously urgent and long-term.
Paul’s words invite us to see things from God’s perspective: There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). These words are intended to promote respect. They are not intended to erase anyone’s identity. Through grace, it is possible to live into the reality that we are one, we are many, and we are unique. We are each loved and valued by God. We are all loved and valued by God.
New and gifted leadership is identified
Anti-racism work is inherently ecumenical because of the many and various people the Holy Spirit calls to assist the church in transformation. So long as the sin of racism prevents some people from being treated as full members of the body of Christ, the vision that all disciples will be one is compromised.
The people chosen in Acts 6 are full of the Spirit, wisdom, and faith. I am grateful for so many leaders who have been, and are, my teachers, mentors, examples, and friends. They have come from both the ELCIC and a variety of ecumenical communities, including KAIROS, the Forum for Intercultural Leadership and Learning, the Commission on Justice and Peace of the Canadian Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, various denominations, and the ELCIC Task Force Addressing Racism, White Supremacy and Issues of Racial Injustice. For me, these leaders have been witnesses to God’s love and enriched my faith, especially when I have made mistakes. I am so grateful that I do not walk alone.
God keeps calling more people with fresh gifts to take on this important work. If we were together right now, and the conversation had gone well, I might ask you: “What is your next step in ending racism?” And then we might pray together for ecumenical anti-racism work and the courage to fight racism wherever it is found.
Rev. Paul Gehrs serves as Assistant to the Bishop, Justice and Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, with the national office of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. He lives on Treaty One Territory in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
This article was originally published in Salt + Light Media’s ecumenical blog, One Body on July 19, 2022. Reproduced by permission of the author.