Refelctions on Undoing Racism

Reflections on the Undoing Racism Project. By Angela Rines

There are many complex issues we face today, that figuring out alone almost seem insurmountable. How do we reconcile our faith with the daily prejudice various groups face? Whether it is due to gender, race, immigration status, sexuality, economic background, or any of a number of signifiers, there is no end to the ways we divide ourselves.

There’s that old saying: “How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.”

Several months ago I began to hear rumblings about a project on Undoing Racism with Rendall Presbyterian in Harlem, and I felt God’s spirit began to prompt me that this was something I should get involved with. Not only as part of my role serving youth and young adults, but also for myself and my own spiritual growth.

From the beginning my parents raised me with an appreciation of diverse cultures. From my early years in Tucson, Arizona in a Hispanic community to growing up Minneapolis, Minnesota with African Americans and Hmong classmates, diversity was a part of my upbringing. But there is always more for me to explore.

Luke 4:18-19 is a passage that has meant a great deal to me over the years and guided much of what I do and study. It guided this prompting to be a part of the project.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free,
and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”

This passage has guided much of my personal life mission. If I am going to be a Christ follower, it is important to be about the things Jesus was about – the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed, in body and spirit.

So this past fall, a planning group of 5 of us from the Morristown congregation and 5 from Rendall Presbyterian in Harlem set out on a journey together to formulate what a group on Undoing Racism might do over the course of a year. We spent time thinking about the books we wanted the group to read, the experiences we wanted to share in, and how we would build community to together tackle this task of Undoing Racism

We crafted this Mission statement to guide us:

As we bear witness to the power and glory of God we aim to support, embrace and celebrate diversity and difference in all our work and we encourage others to do the same through the transformative power of love and relationship.

We recognize that a commitment to becoming a multicultural, inclusive and anti-racist group is not the same as actually becoming one with a shared identity in Christ.  We will listen to the experiences of one another and discuss how to break down racial divides between both individuals and institutions.

Undoing institutional racism is a term that describes our work to reverse the damaging impacts of racism within ourselves, our group, and within society.  We will work to allow the Spirit to transform and refashion us into people who more authentically and more dynamically act justly and compassionately toward one another and our human family.

During our year together and our journey through understanding and undoing racism, we will spend time exploring who God is, who others are, and how we will take this to the world. We each bear God’s image and God’s fingerprint, so it is important to take time to listen to the experiences of others. The next step will be figuring out how to live this out in the world. The question for me is always so what? How will this experience change me and my faith and cause me to live differently as a result

In January of 2017, our community was formed, a group of 15 from our church in Morristown and 15 from Rendall in Harlem began meeting together. In preparation, we were assigned readings and videos to immerse ourselves. One of the books we read was Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong Paperback by James W. Loewen

We began with an opening weekend retreat. This was an opportunity to break the ice, share our stories and backgrounds, as feel as set a foundation for the year. In order to delve into this deep and important topic, trust and understand both need to be present.  We then took a day trip to Harlem. The day began with a tour or Harlem. We visited old housing, historic churches, and the Apollo. We had the opportunity to hear some of the stories of this community, past and present. We taking on a project such as this, it is important to make it contextual. And to immerse yourself in a new community and hear new stories. Later we shared lunch together at Sylvia’s. Food is so important in building community and also experiencing culture.

Finally, we ended the day with a viewing of the Documentary I am Not your Negro by James Baldwin. I Am Not Your Negro is a 2016 American documentary film  based on James Baldwin‘s unfinished manuscript Remember This House. The film explores the history of racism in the United States through Baldwin’s reminiscences of civil rights leaders Medgar EversMalcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.  I remember sitting there at the end of the documentary thinking that we could not have started with this documentary, that it was only once community and trust was formed that we could delve into this material together.

Over Lent we are meeting with our own congregations and reading the Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone. I have been leading a small group with some young adults in our congregation. It has been an opportunity to share what I have learned and my experiences in this project, as well as to continue to learn from the experiences of others. Each week our conversations delve a little deeper into the issue of race, as we make our journey to the cross by way of the lynching tree.

Through the year so far, my own perceptions and privilege have been challenged. And the darker corner of my own heart when it comes to racism. I am looking forward with expectation what God does through this experience and where the journey continues to lead.