By Neil Topliffe*
In spite of a deep commitment to the Gospel message, predominantly white churches often avoid engaging in self-evaluation or discussion on how to be anti-racist.
Yet increased awareness of the tensions, conflicts, deaths and even murder of unarmed people of color over the past year has forced a new level of reality particularly on predominantly white faith communities. What is the Gospel of Christ calling Euro-American churches to do and be? And how ought we in those communities of faith to respond as His followers?
Over the past few months, these questions drew a group of leaders at Cascade Christian Church on the East side of Grand Rapids to begin looking at how to be anti-racist allies. The result was an anti-racism workshop held a few weeks ago.
Ten members and Pastor Jill Forton, under the leadership of the Rev. Dr Kathy Bird DeYoung, committed themselves for the day-long session to share their own stories, hear the stories of Langston Hughes, Amber Ruffin, and Jemar Tisby, and be guided by scripture. They began the process of identifying how much we carry implicit biases as Whites and how much we have been immune to realizing the impact it has people of color around us.
“My desire,” in leading the workshop, explained DeYoung, “was to provide a safe, sacred space to really talk about what it’s like being White in a multi-ethic society in America today, and the impact it has on people of color.” She added, “We all have implicit biases and we white people, particularly, need to take time to realize how much they get played out without us even being aware of how much they impact those around us.”
The workshop focused in the morning on exploring Biblical roots using Acts 10 as well as sharing some initial feelings around race. The small group discussions identified personal hesitancies and fears and explored personal experiences growing up in predominantly White communities.These discussions included interactions group members had or didn’t have with classmates and communities of color. The afternoon session focused specifically on discussing their implicit biases and how they could begin to be Euro-American anti-racist allies.
Prior to the Saturday Workshop, DeYoung had each participant take the online Harvard Implicit Bias Test www.implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html and bring results with them to the workshop. Discussion around the test was energized, Kathy noted, as everyone wanted to talk about their surprises, learning and desire to discover new ways to become more inclusive and accepting.
One example used by Kathy in helping group members to understand what implicit bias means was by asking the question, “When I say, ‘Beautiful woman,’ what is the image that immediately forms in your mind?” For most Whites it’s a white, blue eyed blond, or some variation of that. “But that’s an implicit bias of our White culture,” she noted. The example reinforces how much we white people are unaware of how such biases play out and the impact it has on people of color in a white dominated culture.
The Cascade workshop was a first step in helping those participating to understand the impact implicit bias has on us and others, knowing there is more work to be done in order to become anti-racist allies. Diane Van Leeuwen, one of the participants, gave affirmation to it being a great workshop with great conversations. “It was a warm and inviting atmosphere where everyone felt comfortable speaking their thoughts and questions,” she observed.
Kathy Bird DeYoung, a Disciples clergy-person, lives in Grand Rapids where she is an Association of Clinical Pastoral Education Certified Educator and chaplain at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services. She has led several anti-racism workshops and is excited about the possibility of leading the workshop in other Michigan Disciples congregations and groups. Contact her at Kathy.BirdDeYoung@PineRest.org.
“I hope others will consider having Rev. Dr. Kathy come and assist them in this self-examination” said Pastor Jill Forton, following the workshop and reflecting on the positive impact it had on participants.
* Neil Topliffe is a retired Disciples minister, member of Central Christian Church, Grand Rapids, and serves as a member-at-large on the Regional Board of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Michigan.