Ecumenical visitors to US prepare report on churches’ approach to racial justice

 — Apr. 30, 201630 avril 2016

“We had heard that racism continues to be an issue in the United States,” said Dr Agnes Abuom, moderator of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC). “But we did not expect to find it so deep, so wide and so pervasive.”

Abuom spoke at a closing conference of the WCC’s US racial justice accompaniment visit, which she led from 19 through 25 April on an itinerary that included the cities of Charleston, South Carolina; Ferguson, Missouri; and Chicago, Illinois.

The team of WCC visitors who made the journey will now collaborate in preparing a report on their experience and findings, with recommendations for the next steps in a renewed and reinvigorated response to the sin of racial hatred, violence and discrimination in the early 21st century. The report will be submitted in May to the WCC Central Committee for consideration at its June 2016 meeting in Trondheim, Norway.

After due deliberation, the Central Committee will determine appropriate action for the WCC and its partners in the United States and throughout the world.

Background to a visit of accompaniment

Some members of the WCC delegation to the USA had taken part in the annual Ecumenical Advocacy Days based near Washington DC. A coalition of churches and related organizations sponsor the event as a time for spiritual devotions, addresses, workshops, sharing of information, coordination of efforts and lobbying of government officials on issues of national importance.

The theme of the Ecumenical Advocacy Days for 2016 was “Lift Every Voice! – Racism, Class & Power – Election Year National Gathering and Lobby Day.” WCC visitors met with many participants in this event, including representatives of member churches and officials of such organizations as the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA (NCCCUSA), US Christian citizens’ lobby Bread for the World, the Sojourners community, the US State Department and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and Human Rights.

Charleston and Mother Emanuel Church

The group of the WCC racial justice visit gathered on Tuesday, 19 April in Charleston, South Carolina. Dr Agnes Abuom, head of the delegation and Central Committee moderator, welcomed them alongside vice-moderator Bishop Mary Ann Swenson of the United Methodist Church. The key delegates joining the group in Charleston were Rev. Pil Soon Kim of the Korean Christian Church in Japan and Mr Omar Haramy of Jerusalem, who comes from the Greek Orthodox Church and the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre in Jerusalem. Delegates were supported by five members of the WCC staff and Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson, ecumenical officer of the United Church of Christ.

The group initiated its work with an orientation tour of the city and surrounding regions, followed by an earnest conversation with Rev. Joseph Darby, first vice-president of the Charleston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), one of the premiere civil rights organizations in the United States.

After joining Darby in prayer, the group asked him to outline issues in addressing social justice in South Carolina. Noting important items on the public agenda, including justice for victims of violence and other manifestations of inequality in education and employment, he observed that another problem was the “spotty conversations among the churches” on such matters, and expressed frustration over the “laborious process” of establishing common goals.

Wednesday afternoon and evening were spent at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, known as “Mother Emanuel” due to its position as a founding congregation of the historically African American AME communion two centuries ago. WCC visitors had an opportunity to interact with various members of the church and the wider community in South Carolina, and to participate fully in the Wednesday evening Bible study led by the church’s new pastor, Rev. Dr Betty Deas Clark.

On Wednesday 17 June 2015, nine members of Mother Emanuel including the pastor were killed by a racially motivated gunman during the evening Bible study in the fellowship hall. Photographs of the “Mother Emanuel Nine” hang just around the corner from the space where Bible study continues today.

Ferguson and the Saint Louis experience

At midday on Saturday 9 August 2014, a recent high school graduate named Michael Brown was killed during a confrontation with a police officer in Ferguson, part of the greater metropolitan area of Saint Louis, Missouri. Brown was African American; the policeman was Caucasian. By evening, Ferguson became the epicentre of demonstrations led predominantly by young African Americans charging the police with systemic racism. Mass protests grew throughout the following week, and organizing continues in the Saint Louis community and beyond.

The WCC listening and support team was greeted in Ferguson on Thursday 21 April by Rev. F. Willis Johnson, pastor of Wellspring Church (United Methodist). He introduced the group to his community, and conducted them to the scene of the shooting and sites of demonstrations. Despite all the efforts over nearly two years, he reported “change is slow and incremental.”

The following day, Johnson was joined at Eden Theological Seminary (United Church of Christ) by many area pastors, faculty and seminary students, as well as other young activists. Among those in charge of the gathering were WCC Central Committee members Rev. Dr Geoffrey Black and Rev. Dr Sharon Watkins, as well as Eden professor Leah Gunning Francis who is author of Ferguson & Faith: Sparking Leadership & Awakening Community (Chalice Press, 2015).

Rev. Traci Blackmon of the United Church of Christ argued that in times of social division, “The church must always be distinguished from the establishment.” Many spoke of a “siege mentality” in US minority communities, a feeling of oppression by militarized police forces. But Blackmon insisted that “we must not allow the siege to cut off our oxygen.” She made a plea for the WCC to find “a way to connect the dots” in the churches’ opposition to racism.

As the Eden discussion of community struggle and the quest for justice drew to a close, the group was joined by Michael Brown, Senior, the father of the young man who was killed in August 2014.

Chicago and the closing conference

Arriving in Chicago on Saturday 23 April, the WCC visitors were in the capable hands of Rev. Dr Shanta Premawardhana, president of the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE). Activities in Chicago included Sunday worship at Trinity United Church of Christ on the city’s South Side, a dinner with Hispanic campaigners for immigration rights from Lincoln United Methodist Church and a seminar at SCUPE involving representatives from diverse Christian organizations and leaders from Jewish and Muslim communities.

On the final day of the WCC visit, the group gathered at the national offices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) with leaders in the ongoing racial justice work of a wide range of the World Council’s US-based churches.

Bishop Sally Dyck of the United Methodist Church, a member of the WCC Central Committee, moderated the session. ELCA presiding bishop Elizabeth Eaton joined the discussion, as did NCCCUSA general secretary Jim Winkler. Descriptions were offered of many denominational and ecumenical initiatives touching on race relations in the United States.

The WCC president for North America, Bishop Mark MacDonald from the Anglican Church of Canada, described the situations of First Nations people in Canada and Native Americans in the US.

Delegation members Omar Haramy of Palestine and Rev. Pil Soon Kim from the ethnically Korean minority in Japan reminded the body that racism is not unique to North America but must be confronted in many societies.

Haramy noted that US citizens can base claims for justice on their constitution, whereas in other places there are no such rights to which one can appeal. “We need you to be our hope,” he concluded. “Unless you can overcome racism here, you leave us hopeless.”

Rev. Dr Staccato Powell of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church called for a season of “truth-telling” about what has been done historically in racial contexts; he urged the WCC to collaborate with the NCCCUSA and other national councils of churches as they together seek racial justice throughout the earth.

The WCC team reflected on their experiences over the preceding week, several admitting to feeling overwhelmed by all they had seen and heard. They spoke in general terms of their report and recommendations to the June meeting of the Central Committee, still a work in progress.

Rev. Dr Angelique Walker Smith, a Central Committee member who had acted as host to WCC leaders at Bread for the World when they were in Washington, suggested the recommendations “come up with practical actions that churches can undertake together. We need to find a way forward.”

WCC moderator Abuom looked forward to “a theological reframing of our work on race,” picking up strands from former decades that have been dropped in recent years. In this way, she indicated, the WCC may help churches to recover their role in addressing matters of racial justice and begin anew to undertake positive actions.

“We need space and time and an opportunity for healing,” she said. “And we need to remember that we are called to be cross bearers, to be faithful.”

Video testimonies from the US racial justice accompaniment visit:

Posted: Apr. 30, 2016 • Permanent link:
Categories: WCC NewsIn this article: racism, USA, WCC
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Catégorie : WCC NewsDans cet article : racism, USA, WCC

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