Our Response to Racism: ‘The duty of a generation’

By Dan O’Mara

More than 400 clergy from across the South Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church gathered virtually recently for a wide-ranging conversation about one of the conference’s most important initiatives in recent years: Our Response to Racism.

The 2021 Spring Clergy Orders Virtual Gathering, held March 11, invited all South Carolina clergy—Order of Elders, Order of Deacons, associate members, provisional members and local pastors—to open their minds and hearts to a new way of addressing systemic racism.

“Our presence today is a testimony that the time is now to get people together—to work together, to find a way to have some understanding as we build bridges of racial reconciliation,” Bishop L. Jonathan said. “That’s hard work. It’s painful work, but it’s God’s work.

“We are told to do whatever it takes. We’re called to reorient ourselves, reset ourselves, restore our lives to the one who is more powerful.”

Our Response to Racism is a resource commissioned by Bishop Holston through The Cabinet and designed to provide tools to address racism through a response of love, education, communication and scriptural background. These tools are intended to help groups learn about the history of racism in our nation, how to listen and hear often-difficult personal stories, and how to lead discussions that will form and strengthen relationships.

“The work that is represented in Our Response to Racism is not meant to be simply a pleasant, comfortable sociological discussion,” said the Rev. Steve Patterson, the Anderson District superintendent who led the commission that developed the resources. “It needs to be deeper than that. It needs to have more to it. This is pledging our allegiance to truth and committing our voices to truth-telling.

“It is not an attempt to be politically correct, but a sincere drive to become spiritually alive. This is no trend that we are following, the momentary cultural respectability. We’re not cleaning up our act, so the activists will leave us alone. We’re not doing this to cloak our complicity with our own history’s racism.

“Brothers and sisters of the church, this is the direction we must intentionally turn to if our witness in this world is to have any integrity whatsoever.”

Patterson called on all clergy, but especially white clergy, to take up “the duty of a generation.”

“Think about this,” he said. “It is unfair and unholy that the majority of voices speaking out against hate crime come from the minority of the population. That is not complicity with racism. That is endorsement. White people who say they want racism to end must stop expecting people of color to do it for them.

“Those of us who are yet alive must not die silently believing that racism is wrong. Make sure your legacy on this matter is more than an inner shadow cast by immobile rusting potential. We pray that these materials will give you enough tools to find your passion and break your silence and encourage your people to do the same.

“We acknowledge that this material is not all that is needed, but we hope it is a seed worthy of your fertile minds.”

The Rev. James Friday shared a personal experience as a black 9-year-old attending an all-white school. He spoke of his own pain, but also acknowledged the pain of some of the white children he called friends.

“It was there that I first experienced what I now know as racism,” said Friday, the conference’s director of congregational development. “Many of the young white boys that I played with on the farm, at school they did not want to play with me. I could see the pain in their eyes. Many of them would look back as they walked away—but they did not want to be labeled as an N-lover.”

But there were two white students the young James met at his new school who became his friends. For that, he said, “they were called N-lover, but it didn’t seem to bother them.” The two boys—Ricky and George—were “called all kinds of names, but they stood by me through that time.”

Later, in high school, Friday recalled one morning he had gone to school, proudly sporting plaits in his hair, wearing bellbottom pants and a fine polyester shirt. He was stopped in the hallway by a teacher who asked, “Where do you think you’re going, looking like that … looking like a pickaninny?” She ordered him to go to the restroom and “take that mess out your head” because “you are better than this.”

The teenage James had to go to the library to look up the meaning of that word, pickaninny, in an encyclopedia. He learned it was a word used to describe Black children during the time of slavery in the United States. It also had an even darker connotation in Southern states, he said, where white supremacists would “pick a n----- to be tossed in the river.”

“I closed the book,” he said, “and that was the last day that I can remember ever having plaits in my hair, and the last week I ever wore an afro—all because of that encounter, that that teacher made me feel uncomfortable about a history I had no idea existed.

“And so, if we feel uncomfortable in these conversations, know that it is not one-sided. We have to have this conversation, because it is this kind of tribulation and perseverance that produces character, that gives us hope because of what God has done through his son, Jesus Christ.”

Patterson and the Rev. Jim Arant, a conference congregational specialist and member of the commission, walked through the six responses found in “Our Response to Racism:”

  • Response 1: District Clergy Meetings
  • Response 2: Small Groups
  • Response 3: Cross-Racial Exchanges
  • Response 4: A Season of Jubilee
  • Response 5: Healing Through Preaching
  • Response 6: A Call to Accountable Honesty in Society Beyond the Church

“When you see the resource, you’ll notice it says ‘seasons’ and not ‘meetings,’” Arant said. “We’re asking people to talk about seasons because some of these things may not happen in one meeting. We want this to be a journey—not just one, two, three, four, five and we’re finished.

“We want this to be a conversation, with diverse groups building understanding between one another, listening to each other’s stories.”

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