We were well into the antiracism workshop at East Leonard Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., when one participant raised his hand.
“When are we going to get to the more hopeful stuff?” he asked, sounding a little exasperated.
What he had learned about the roots and prevalence of racism was making him — and I suspect all of us in the church basement — feel uneasy.
For several hours, the facilitators from Congregational Organizing for Racial Reconciliation (CORR) had been leading us through the history of racism and oppression that blacks and other minority groups have experienced in North America.
It was tough information — presented in film clips, hand-outs, and commentary — for white people such as myself to handle. Underlying the workshop was the stark reality that certain people in our culture have been given a great deal simply by being born a certain color.
The question posed by the participant who raised his hand was one many of us had: When were the presenters were going to tell us about how things could get better? What could we do right now about this issue? In response, Janice McWhertor, one of the antiracism team facilitators, said, “I’m not so sure we’re going to get there today.”
“Doing this work isn’t easy,” she said. “Today we’re getting a sense of something being off balance. But the Holy Spirit is moving to correct this. It’s important to realize that we need to take great care in changing the racial paradigm.”
I was at the workshop as a commissioned pastor at Coit Community Church, a multiethnic congregation in Grand Rapids. Our church had helped Creston CRC, a congregation a couple miles north of us, to put on this one-and-a-half day event.
About 50 people, including Coit’s pastor, Jerome Burton, and Creston’s pastor, Sean Baker, and a handful of other pastors from Classis Grand Rapids North, were on hand as CORR led us through the training.
The training at East Leonard CRC emerged out of a Sustaining Congregational Excellence Health and Renewal grant that Creston CRC received several months ago. Their project title gives a good idea of what the church is aiming to do: Becoming an Antiracist Congregation among Neighborhood Allies for Gospel Transformation.
“The event at East Leonard was the centerpiece of the grant project, but there are other parts as well,” said Baker.
“The idea behind this is that as a church we have a value to grow in diversity,” he said. “We sought God over this and wanted to redouble our efforts in this area.”
Growing out of this desire was the decision to apply for the Health and Renewal grant as a way to help the church grow in diversity.
“I think it went very well, especially because we could bring some of the key pastors in our classis together for this,” said Burton.
For him, he added, this was part of a larger vision to help make people in the classis more aware of matters related to racism — and hopefully to find ways to help church leadership, and congregations in the classis, to become more diverse.
“I’d like to see antiracism be a big topic in our classis, and for us to find ways to do things about it,” said Burton. “I’d like to see more pastors of color.”
CORR traces its history back several years as an outgrowth of Church of the Servant, Madison Square CRC, and Coit.
CORR conducts training with groups across West Michigan and beyond, often with churches but also with other organizations that seek to be more inclusive. Currently CORR is partnering with the CRC's Office of Race Relations on some events.
“Each day (during the training ) we come together, we devote ourselves to the Lord,” said McWhertor. “We pray, asking the Lord to lead us as we develop this analysis and give us the clarity to see racism as he sees it, as a sin that must be overcome by his power working in us and our institutions.”
She said that CORR starts with the workshops and then commits itself to support churches and organizations as they work to understand the dynamics of racism and to become more inclusive.
“We help them and come in and out of their lives as needed,” she said. “We feel like this is a life’s journey, and we want to be involved with churches and organizations that understand that. We want to coach them and help as they plan for the future.”
Most revealing to me during the workshop were the times when people — such as the participant who sounded exasperated — could talk and share thoughts and experiences.
Particularly moving was when a Coit member I was sitting with spoke of the difficulties and the roadblocks she faced as a young black woman.
As a single parent, she needs to work, but it was hard without reliable transportation and child care. For that matter, her race and education prevented her from landing certain jobs, she said.
But it was the often unspoken sense that she just wasn’t worthy in today’s world, in Grand Rapids, to be successful as a mother and employee. She cried as she spoke about ways in which she has been shunned because of her skin color. She talked about having an older son whom the police seemed to target because he is black.
Another man from my church talked about carrying signs and being part of the black rights movement in the 1960s and how the energy for civil rights that exemplified that era seems to have been replaced today by a sense of hopelessness.
After the workshop, Baker reflected on this and how it applies to Creston, where they try to keep in mind when they talk about racism that “Christ is the one who reconciles both sinful humanity to God and also human to human, breaking down the dividing wall of hostility.”
“Though we often falter in the work of reconciliation,” said Baker. “We have great hope that when Christ returns, the sin that divides us will be fully overcome.”