Undoing Racism – A Partnership

The Presbyterian Church in Morristown and Rendall Memorial Church in Harlem have covenanted to work together on a project called “Undoing Racism”.  Vernon Verhoef and Angie Rimes from the Morristown Church shared their experience with the project at the March 2017 Presbytery meeting in Morristown.

Below are Vernon’s presentation to the Presbytery

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk to you about the partnership between Presbyterian Church in Morristown and the Rendall Memorial Presbyterian Church in Harlem.

The first time I heard about this project was last fall at a Session meeting at the Presbyterian Church in Morristown.  Pastor Dave Smazik indicated that he had been approached by a church from Harlem to form a partnership in a year-long dialogue regarding undoing racism which could hopefully lead to a joint service project in the following year and may serve as a model for other churches to embark on a similar journey.  I did not have to read the proposal.  When Rev. Smazik asked for a motion to put the proposal on the floor for discussion, my response was “enthusiastically yes”.  After Session approved the motion, I was fortunate to be selected to serve with 4 others from our church plus 5 individuals from the Harlem church on the planning committee.  As we met in Morristown for our first meeting we went around the group introducing ourselves and indicating why we were interested in this project.

I remember quoting the bumper sticker on my daughter’s car which reads: “We all do better when we all do better” and then saying something about there is room at the table for everyone and that we are incomplete if we white people are alone at the table.  I was convinced of one other thing:  As I participated in this project, I would be changed.

We grew from a planning committee with 5 from each church to 15 representatives from each church for a total of 30.  All 15 representatives from the Morristown church were urged to commit the required time to this project and the necessary humility and grace to make this partnership effective.  As Angie described, we were assigned books to read, movies and films to watch, a retreat to attend, a tour of Harlem, and a joint viewing and discussion of the movie “I am Not Your Negro”.  Both churches are currently studying Dr. James Cone’s book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” as a Lenten Study in small group format.

So 2 ½ months into this process, what are my feelings, what have I learned, what have I shared, and what am I looking forward to?

What are my feelings?  I am energized!  It is not unlike my first day of school at Daytop in September, 2008.  My new job at Daytop was to teach science to teenage high school kids who were in residence, recovering from drug and alcohol abuse. Just stepping into the multi-racial, multi-class environment, knowing that I belong there and can make a contribution was huge.  The partnership with the Rendall Church of Harlem generates the same feelings.  Each time we gather with our new friends from Harlem I expect to learn something new about my community, about my fellow travelers on this journey, and about myself.

So what are some of the things I’ve learned?  I learned about Emmitt Till.  His kidnapping and murder was one of the most powerful events that spawned the whole civil rights movement in this country.  He was a 14 year old from Chicago visiting family in Money, Mississippi, in 1955.  His mother, in one of the most courageous acts in modern history, insisted on an open casket to show the world what white supremacy had done to her son.  Pictures were published in Jet magazine.  Roy Wilkins, the executive head of the NAACP at that time, spoke for many when he said:  “It would appear from this lynching that the state of Mississippi has decided to maintain white supremacy by murdering children.”  This happened in my lifetime yet I either never heard this story or never before appreciated the significance of this event.

In addition, I have learned that the segregated white churches never addressed the evil of lynching.  It is not surprising then that Ida B. Wells dismissed white Christianity as hypocrisy.  In the early 1900s she challenged the white liberal Christians to speak out against lynching or be condemned by their silence.

But I could say to myself:  That’s not me – I never lynched anyone, nor do I know anyone who has.  Besides haven’t we as a country moved on?  But as I reflect on my life – what about the white privilege that I have enjoyed – as a white person always having far more options than any person of color might possibly have imagined.  And what about the New Jim Crow? Filling our prisons with young black men and women?  Is this simply our contemporary system of racial control?  Relegating millions to a permanent second class status?  So much more to think about.

What have I shared?  I am currently leading a discussion group of about 20 people in the Morristown Church through a Lenten study of the book that I had mentioned earlier:   “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”.  It is difficult – feelings of fear, guilt, and defensiveness are so close to the surface.  My goal with this group has been and remains:  to provide a safe, sacred space where participants can be honest with themselves, can be courageous in speaking their thoughts and can be kind to each other without judgment.

What am I looking forward to?  After our Lenten study is completed – ending with our full partnership reconvening and discussing “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”, we will move on to a joint retreat in May to study together the Belhar Confession.  (You may recall that the Belhar Confession was written in South Africa during the struggle over apartheid and was adopted by our own General Assembly last year.)  Then, coming up in August, we are planning a joint civil rights tour of the south in states such as Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

In closing, I want to tell one story – a powerful moment for me personally.  The setting was our first retreat in Rutherford, NJ, the first week-end of February.  Pastor Flora Wilson Bridges was leading us in a discussion of racism and I told of my frustration with a High School student at Daytop who seemed to enjoy calling me racist.  Now I prided myself that I treated each of my students as individuals, encouraged each to engage with the school work, and treated each one fairly.  So my student’s harassment was irksome to say the least.  I am not sure what I was looking for in telling this story at the retreat – perhaps a pat on the back:  Oh Vern, you’re not racist – it was probably just a 16 year old trying to get you upset.  But Pastor Flora did not give me that response.  Rather she had all the Caucasians in the room say together loudly “I am racist” followed by all the people of color in the room say together loudly: “I am wounded”.  Then Pastor Flora pronounced to us that by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ “you are forgiven” and “you are healed”.

For me – that is exactly what this partnership is about – to bring us to uncomfortable places but in the end, point us to the cross.


Thank you.