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.)