Two years ago my husband Brad and I received an invitation from the Bishop of our Nebraska Lutheran Synod to join an anti-racism committee. Honestly, I couldn’t have imagined a more unappealing idea at the time. Discussing racism with the Bishop and a bunch of church people, all of whom were strangers, sounded like a decidedly uncomfortable endeavor – one I frankly wanted no part of.
Then again, who says no to the Bishop? Not me, evidently. Not Brad either.
At the first meeting we sat with 20 or so others around a large conference table, and it was as awkward and uncomfortable as we had imagined it would be. Several people – me included – talked far too much. A few shared very little or were completely silent. The man sitting next to me wept. I remember thinking, Lord have mercy, please get me out of this.
Most of the people who showed up for that first meeting never returned (God apparently answered their prayer). Others faded away over time. In the end, we were left with seven regularly participating members.
Though we are small in number, we have made some decent progress over the last two years. We’ve completed several projects, including an online annotated resources list and a small group film discussion guide. More recently we developed and have begun to present a workshop at retreats, churches and gatherings around the state.
Honestly, I would have been content to create the online resources and call it good. Truth be told, I would much rather compose a study guide safely seated behind my computer screen. Or better yet, declare my opinions about racism in a Facebook post, where I can quickly disengage by simply logging out.
In-person dialogue, on the other hand, is unpredictable by nature. The truth is, walking into an unfamiliar setting amid a group of strangers and knowing I could receive a confrontational response or a challenging question makes me palm-sweating nervous. Co-leading in-person racism awareness workshops is infinitely out of my comfort zone.
And yet, I know it is exactly this kind of in-person dialogue that will help us move the conversation farther as a whole. As author Jenny Odell asks, “What if we spent our energy on saying the right things to the right people (or person) at the right time? What if we spent less time shouting into the void and being washed over with shouting in return – and more time talking in rooms to those for whom our words are intended?”
As someone who has spent more than her fair share of time, energy and words “shouting into the void” of social media, Odell’s questions give me pause. What if?
I think what’s more important than any of the tangible things our group has accomplished or produced is the fact that together we are practicing what we preach in real life and in real time. I can’t help but see that something beautiful, hopeful and real is being born out of our small committee and the work we are doing together – in large part because we are doing it in person, “talking in rooms,” as Odell says, both with one another and in small gatherings.
Two years ago the seven of us convened at a conference room table as strangers with seemingly little in common. Five of us are white; two are black. Some of us are pastors, some laypeople. Some of us are members of large urban congregations, others belong to smaller churches in rural communities.
We began by listening to one another, and, over time, shared our stories with increasing vulnerability and candor. Our “meetings,” which started in a church conference room, eventually moved to our living room, where we now sit on the sofa and nibble on snacks around the coffee table. We’ve enjoyed holiday meals and shared our favorite dishes. We have grown in community, discovering along the way that we are much more alike than we are different.
This past Sunday Brad and I attended our friend and fellow committee member Miriam’s ordination and installation at a church in Omaha. As Miriam kneeled at the altar, a diverse group of pastors from a variety of ecumenical traditions gathered around to lay their hands on her. In the pews, we stood shoulder to shoulder with the many colleagues, friends and family, black and white, who had come to celebrate with Miriam. At one point Brad leaned toward me and whispered, “Why can’t the church be like this?”
It’s true, for the most part it’s not like this – not yet. And the truth is, most days the very small work of our very small group feels like little more than a drop in the proverbial bucket. At the same time, though, I know and can feel in my heart and soul that this small work is in many ways the most important kind of work. I see promise, possibility and hope here. In our small group I see the promise and possibility of what we hope for the church, for our country and for our world.