What One Church Learned By Hosting a Public Discussion on Race

Over 140 people filled the pews at Lake Oswego United Church of Christ (LOUCC) on a Sunday afternoon in October to experience a service of a different sort: a presentation by historian and author Walidah Imarisha titled “Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon? A Hidden History.” This public event was coordinated through Oregon Humanities and hosted by LOUCC and Beit Haverim, a Jewish congregation which shares the church’s space.

The Racial Justice Network, a new working group of the CPC Justice & Witness Ministry Team, provides resources, accountability and support to churches in our conference engaging in racial justice ministry. The Network asked LOUCC what they learned by hosting this public discussion on race, racism and Oregon history. LOUCC’s Beyond Racism group, represented by Jane Lovelady, shared the following insights.

RJN: What spurred your recommitment to dismantling racism?

LOUCC: We were inspired by articles written by Bruce Poinsette, Jr., member of Ainsworth UCC, describing the racism he experienced as a Black man growing up in Lake Oswego. These articles spurred the formation of an ad hoc group at LOUCC in 2012 that we named Beyond Racism. We began our work by tackling our own roles in perpetuating the systemic institutional racism pervading our state and country.

RJN: What did you do to prepare for this event?

LOUCC: Our Beyond Racism group believes that work to dismantle racism needs to begin with us. We have learned that continued interactions and honest conversations have increased our ability to think about, reflect on, and consider new perspectives as we seek new ways to heal old racial divisions.

Over the last 3 years, Beyond Racism has offered our congregation a “menu” of events dealing with racism in a variety of contexts, including: book discussions; group attendance at films, plays and lectures by authors of color; speakers during worship; participation in efforts to support equality, including supporting the End Profiling Act (Oregon HB2002) and attending workshops like “Stoking the Fires of Justice: A Revival for Social Change” (at First Congregational UCC Vancouver) and “A Conversation On Race” at Hillsdale UCC.

Walidah Imarisha’s program was the first event our group offered outside our own congregation.

RJN: How do you think this event impacted your church and the wider community?

LOUCC: Our event drew 142 multiracial attendees from all neighborhoods of the Portland metro area. In a 2-hour interactive conversation, Imarisha led participants through a timeline of Black history in our state not taught in schools. She facilitated discussions about the intersections of race, identity, and power that continue to impact the lives of all Oregonians today. We heard hidden stories about Oregon’s racist past that belie our state’s progressive reputation. We were shown alarming statistics about racial disparity that are evident today. At the same time, Imarisha held out hope for the possibilities of change, growth, and movement toward equality.

142 attendees (13 to 85 years old) submitted participant evaluations at a 61% return rate. Comments expressed shock, pain, and sadness about some of the information shared as well as awe and admiration of the courage, persistence, and resilience demonstrated by Portland’s Black community over decades.

Several students hoped that the program might be brought to their high school or college. “What can I do?” and “Where do we go to help?” were frequent questions asked on evaluations. Imarisha offered resources to address these questions. Both host congregations are currently offering follow-up events focused on racism.

Samples of participant comments about the event:

An adult member of LOUCC said: “… I keep returning to our presenter’s invitation to be aware that ‘framework determines what you see, know, learn, and therefore the action you take.’ My framework widened as a result of yesterday’s conversation. I look forward to the continuing conversation as a congregation and community.”

A Lake Oswego High School student, responding to a question about the single most meaningful thing gained from this conversation, said: “I need to take action to help change institutions in which racism seems to be ingrained (education, especially) and do whatever I can to change that.”

RJN: Do you have any tips or suggestions for other churches on how to organize an event like this?

LOUCC: We believe a core of 3-5 persons and strong clergy support committed to a community-wide presentation is important. The strong, unwavering support that our planning group received from LOUCC’s Pastor Jennie Ott and Beit Haverim’s Rabbi Alan Berg gave us the courage to move into unknown territory. Pastor Jennie’s sermons, eNEWS and newsletter articles absolutely paved the way for us to go forward with this event.

The Oregon Humanities website gave us excellent tips on publicity. To promote our event, our group wrote “pitch letters” to accompany the press releases we sent educational groups and colleges, made an untold number of person-to-person contacts, mailed letters to every high school history teacher in our county, sent flyers/press releases to community online calendars, eNews, and newsletter publications, posted LOTS of flyers in our community directly (first speaking with a manager to gain permission), made personal appeals to any media contact we knew, and tapped both our Jewish and Christian denominational news outlets for wider exposure.

RJN: Would you recommend Walidah’s presentation to other churches?

LOUCC: We would recommend it without question! We’d also recommend checking out the Oregon Humanities web site for other upcoming programs about racial justice. (Editor’s Note: While Walidah Imarisha is no longer offering her program through Oregon Humanities, she can be scheduled on a private basis through the Racial Justice Network.)

Coming Alive in the Midst of Death

By Elizabeth Durant, MDiv, Member-in-Discernment, Parkrose Community UCC, Portland, OR

say-her-nameThe theme of our 2015 Central Pacific Conference Annual Meeting is “Come Alive! Passion and Vitality in the Local Church.” What a timely invitation to seek and experience the renewing power of the Holy Spirit! Declining membership rates and dire predictions, discussions about why church is “dying”, and questions about the relevance of faith are all in the news. Yet we also remember that we are “Easter people,” and that the body of God has died and risen before.

Local church, whether with 15 members or 500, is the heart of our work and life together as the United Church of Christ. Each our congregations in the CPC has a meaningful history of presence and service in the local community.

And our communities are filled with struggle and death. In a way, it seems painfully ironic to focus on becoming more alive as a church in a time when people are quite literally dying on our city streets. Yet perhaps this is exactly why we need to come alive: we need our lives to make a difference so that others may live.

In his sermon at Parkrose Community UCC in May, Rev. Cecil Prescod reminded us that Holy Spirit moves like a wind, bringing wisdom from unexpected sources, often from the very people who we overlook or dismiss as unwise. Rev. Prescod’s words came to mind recently as I stood with over a hundred people in downtown Portland to honor the life of 18 trans women, most of them people of color, murdered this year.

Volunteers shared short notes about each trans woman’s life and we called out their names: India Clarke, 25, studied cosmetology and loved to make people smile; Taja Gabrielle DeJesus, 30s, was a member of Bayview Church in San Francisco; Amber Monroe, 20, was a student at Wayne State University. Mourning each death, we acknowledged that trans people are often treated as pariahs, invisible, disposable, not worth remembering. Their grieving friends and families need support, and we are called to advocate for an end to hatred and injustice.

Our mission as church in the midst of public grief and violent death seems clear. In the United Church of Christ, we celebrate the “priesthood of all believers,” by which we mean that we are, each of us, called to be ministers. Each of us is required, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, to “bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…to comfort all who mourn.” How is your local church making a difference for people where you live?

Our annual gathering this year is an opportunity to discover how we can enliven, inspire, and encourage each other as we continue to “be church” together. Your CPC Justice and Witness Ministry Team will be extending the invitation to join a newly forming CPC Racial Justice Network. How can our conference support your local church as you come alive to answer God’s call? Join us in Pendleton to find out.

Running and Dying While Black

by Jennifer Seaich, First Congregational UCC, Pocatello, ID
being black 2A few weeks ago in Baltimore, Freddy Gray, a 25-year-old black man, made eye contact with police. He then ran and was chased, handcuffed and placed facedown on the floor of a police van. His cries for help were ignored. Six officers were charged in Freddie Grays’ death. The surprise is that police were charged, not that another young black man is dead.

A brief video in which an African American mother chases and beats her 16-year-old son in the middle of a Baltimore riot has gone viral, with captions like “Hero Mom!” or “You go, Girl!”

Facebook commenters seem convinced this mother beat her son because rioting is wrong, yet she reported she was terrified her son could be another Freddie Gray.

It’s somehow funny when a tough black momma puts her hands on her hips and smacks her boy, though few people cheer at a parent hitting a child in the grocery store parking lot.