Incidents of racially charged violence across the country—from Ferguson to Baltimore, and in many other cities in between—and the public reaction and outcry for justice that followed each have once again brought to light underlying racial tensions that exist in American society. While many victories have been won in terms of legislation over the past several decades, women and men from racial minority communities still face obstacles of prejudice and stereotypes that have yet to be dismantled.
In an effort to begin to work toward dismantling the underlying racial tensions and systems that keep racism alive in our society, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)— specifically the office of Gender and Racial Justice in Racial Ethnic & Women’s Ministries—has begun hosting conversations focused on cultural diversity and humility with various groups across the country.
“Conversations like these are a stepping stone for the church—for individuals, churches and congregations—to begin to move toward deeper engagement,” says Sera Chung, associate for Gender & Racial Justice in the Presbyterian Mission Agency. “Each training is different, based on the audience, the location, etc., but the framework remains essentially the same. This allows us to create a space where conversations about tough topics like privilege can be addressed in a unique but open and honest way. It’s in the sharing of individual stories that the most impact seems to happen.”
In its creeds and confessions, form of government, and General Assembly statements, the PC(USA) and its predecessor denominations have long affirmed their intention to embrace diversity of God’s creation. It also acknowledges that while the church has done well at times, too often it falls short of its objectives. Having taken steps toward achieving God’s vision of the beloved community, these trainings acknowledge many more steps are left to take.
“We must continue to ask questions about how the church can continue to work to move toward deeper interracial and intercultural engagement with our sisters and brothers in Christ,” says Chung.
Two recent conversations were held at Austin Theological Seminary, highlighting the need for pursing extensive education on the topic.
One student participant at Austin said that exploring the concepts and themes in the training helped her look at “the fabric we are all woven from and some of the systemic problems that still exist in today’s society in a new way,” which helped deepen her understanding of the ways in which people of a variety of races and cultures engage with one another and the world.
Another participant noted that it was eye-opening to understand that everyone we encounter “is coming from a different experience and cultural truth,” which makes the importance of approaching intercultural engagement from a place “free from any assumptions or preconceived notions” critical.
Part of what makes Austin Seminary unique is the work the institution is doing in the realm of cultural diversity. Through its Education Beyond the Walls program, clergy, church leaders, congregations and communities have access to lifelong learning opportunities and fresh, innovative and expansive theological education—including courses and trainings that focus on cultural diversity.
“We recognize that the days when schools can function solely in a receptive mode are over,” says Jackie Saxon, vice president for student affairs and vocation at Austin Seminary. “[We] also understand that we can’t fully serve the church by only taking in people with a call to ministry and serving them with a classical education, that we need to be more expansive in our mission and our reach. Through our Education Beyond the Walls program and other efforts, we seek to truly meet people called to ministry where they are, in their own journeys. Trainings like the one offered this past fall help students and staff better understand what it means to do just that as we strive to be an inclusive and expansive institution…a more welcoming and engaging church.”
The conversations on cultural diversity at Austin Seminary have focused on explorations of ways the church can confront racial oppression through prayer, discernment, and worship-based action and on ways we can work together as allies with those who have different experiences than we do.
“Before we can begin to work to change systems of oppression and racial injustice, we must first understand both power and privilege,” says Chung. “These two things often determine who is at the table, who has access to tools, resources, and so on, and who can and will make decisions. It is imperative that we begin these conversations and explorations by addressing these two concepts.”
For more information on antiracism or cultural humility training, please contact the office of Gender and Racial Justice in Racial Ethnic & Women's Ministries at www.pcusa.org/racialjustice.