Elona Street Stewart

Standing in solidarity with those who have been impacted by racism and hate is good, but making a real difference will take time, understanding, and some tough conversations. That was the message from Ruling Elder Elona Street-Stewart last week to members of the Wyoming Interfaith Network.

The Co-Moderator of the 224th General Assembly (2020) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was a guest speaker for the network’s annual conference. The topic of the conversation was “Restoring Hope: Combating Racism Through Interfaith Work.” The conference highlighted diverse voices around issues such as race, equality, religious freedom, the environment, and interfaith cooperation.

“My work in the PC(USA) has shown me that we all want to defeat racism, end poverty, raise our children’s children in a world where Black lives matter and treaties matter, where leaders say no to oppressive security and nationalism, where the Earth is protected,” she said. “But in order to build communities, we have to walk carefully and deliberately down a path to restore and repair what has been broken before we can run to that goal.”

Street-Stewart said people can’t talk about justice if they can’t imagine a truth and reconciliation process.

“We’re called to build integrity in our relationships by creating trust. When we care about people, we form trust and trust builds hope,” she said. “Think of hope as a genuine gift of purpose, directed beyond ourselves to the next seven generations. It feels like hope is buried beneath the pandemic, but it will rise.”

Street-Stewart told the group that hope is in the solidarity of truth-telling about the brokenness of communities.

“When we repent about what caused the real loss and pain deep in the core of our humanity, when we walk together as faith communities and we offer restoration together, then we can proclaim hope,” she said.

When it comes to healing, wholeness, and belonging, Street-Stewart says people must be actively engaged in their communities.

“If we want to change policies and laws, plans and social structures that perpetuate exploitation, we have to do that by being engaged,” she said. “During the racism and COVID pandemics, we are seeing demographic and social change in this country and around the world. They are accompanied by media and political narratives that message fear, hate speech, and acts of violence. But we can’t run around it — we must continue to walk straight through it if we are going to repudiate it.”

If faith leaders are going to reach out and engage in interfaith dialogue, Street-Stewart says they must transform misinformation into inclusive policies, decolonize practices, and invite those of diverse traditions to work together to build structures that are welcoming to all.

“It’s not easy. It will be a challenge to open space and wrestle with history and purpose. Successful advocacy reflects necessary repair of our fragmentation from each other and the Creator,” she said. “It is time to combat racism and reimagine, repair, retool, reward, redistribute and reinvest in hope.”

Street-Stewart says the only way to do that is for the inclusion of Indigenous, Black, and other people of color to inform political outreach, work on developmental strategies, and reshape family services among others.

“These are all of the unexpected places where our wisdom and expertise as Black, Indigenous, and people of color is very much needed,” she said. “Unless we confess how much we have misused the gifts the Creator gave us, we will continue to break our relationships with each other, continue to perpetuate our fears by blaming victims for the injustices they suffer.”

Street-Stewart says people need to learn how to engage in the uncomfortable conversations to combat racism and restore hope by determining who is benefiting and who bears the cost.

“Don’t try to understand our culture without understanding our struggle. If you show up for ceremonies, show up for us in other ways. We don’t need any more cultural hitchhikers,” she said. “We know it will take more than one book, conference, march, or all-night conversation to bring about the change that is needed. People want to do something, but don’t always know what that is.”

The Wyoming Interfaith Network works with faith communities to promote social and environmental justice through prayer, dialogue, advocacy, service and study.