Back in July 2020, in the thick of the pandemic, book clubs from Forest Hill Church (FHC) started meeting, via Zoom, to read and discuss Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad. The Presbytery of the Western Reserve, catalyzed by the Race Action Network, worked with leaders in our own congregation including Ajah Hales, Marcie Denton and Mark Wedell. They chose Saad’s text as a community-wide read, created helpful guides and a Facebook page with additional content to support the work, and three Forest Hill groups were up and running quickly.
One group, consisting of 6 white women, scheduled their original meetings as outlined by the book. As this small group’s facilitator, Lisa Vahey describes it “Me and White Supremacy is organized into four ‘weeks’ of learning, each with a theme and seven lessons. Every single day — 28 of them — brings knowledge about white supremacy. Each day asks us to unpack and deeply understand our complicitness, despite our good intentions. And if we were still bravely reading, we were then invited to reflect and pushed to write – by Layla Saad and by the good work our group was doing.”
That “good work” continued, and the group kept meeting: reading, writing and staying engaged through conversation and activism work. Grounded in faith, the members have a strong focus on sustained action and have fostered a culture of vulnerability and accountability. Danielle shared that the reason she decided to become invested in the group was because, “we have a moral imperative as Christians to work against white supremacy in the community.” Others agreed with the sentiment that because of the white supremacy that our country and communities are steeped in, they reached a point where they felt compelled to act. “Through reading the book, I learned that being a liberal white person does not exempt me from being racist. Because our society is inherently racist, we are influenced by what surrounds us,” Danielle explained.
Julie Lustic said that the journey of beginning antiracism work was uneven, “Gradually, I came to see that I did want to be involved in antiracist work and that it would take time, study, introspection, discussions and trust to overcome my reticence.” Members stressed the intimacy of the small group setting to be a key factor in beginning to feel more willing to open up. “I feel like a tremendous blessing was given to me; I did not know any of the women in our group before our first call. And yet, it is not ‘magic’ that our group coalesced so quickly. It is the product of each of us coming with an open heart, a commitment to this work, a desire to show up to every call, no matter the other distractions in our lives — distractions that easily could have been an excuse to ‘not work on white supremacy now – I’m too tired,’” Lisa said. Vikki Nowak agreed that the smaller size of the group helped her feel more comfortable sharing, and less daunted by the fear of being viewed as ignorant. “It was a safe space to share deeply personal stories and unpack them, relive them through a new lens,” she said.
Melanie Alban shared that she reached a point where she felt she had not confronted her own racial identity head on. “Now, I realized how limited my dealing with my whiteness has been. I needed to crack open my thoughts and dig into the issues that have continued to fester in the world around me and in me,” she said.
Danielle thought that the consistent meetings and discussion of tough topics was crucial to the formation of such a supportive group. “I believe that getting together and meeting week after week to talk about white supremacy and racism was extremely beneficial to us. It helped us to grapple with these issues and helped us determine how we could use these insights to create change in our own lives and make change at Forest Hill,” she said.
Another essential takeaway for some was navigating how to keep from freezing into inaction when moving forward feels challenging. “Looking at the results of the RIC survey are painful and may be shocking to many of us who think of our church as open and welcoming. We need to recognize and accept perspectives and experiences of our brothers and sisters that are different from ours and have serious discussions about what we need to change so that all feel welcome and accepted,” said Linda Martin.
Julie notices the need for this work, as well, even when it’s difficult, sharing “It is an expression of white privilege to choose to NOT look and not think about inequity. This work makes me uncomfortable because racism is so ingrained, that I failed to recognize it before and sometimes I still fail to recognize it… I need to be careful of letting white voices influence me and to not let myself fall back into the trap of complacency.”
Lisa agreed, saying that something that stuck with her was, “I can be so very uncomfortable: vulnerable in what I don’t know, fragile in my feelings, embarrassed by my actions, defensive of my intention. I can be uncomfortable and in that space, that is where I change. Facing truths about my beliefs and actions and rebuilding my beliefs and actions in antiracist, socially just ways.”
A central theme shared by the participants was the importance of an ongoing commitment to anti-racism learning and action. Melanie reflects that “As a white member (of Forest Hill Church), I share responsibility for addressing this work and inviting others to join in.” Some of the ideas raised for future action for FHC and its community members included inviting others to join in and continuing to work towards accountability, encouraging FHC members to attend and learn from Black Caucus book club readings and events, increasing Adult Education experiences focused racial equity study, maintaining the FHC website as resource site for more opportunities on anti-racism work, encouraging participation in Saturday “Walking Care Groups” that Julie started (see below for more information), looking at new ways the church can incorporate a broader representation of cultural traditions in its worship services and welcome input on this topic, embracing the recommendations of the Racial Equity Survey and the Long-Range Plan, and offering trips to places of racial historical significance.
Vikki also calls out the importance of forming new relationships in this work, noting FHC’s encouragement to seek out racial equity buddies. She has two! “One White and one Black, that helps me feel less lonely working through news, issues and holding me accountable. My time with them has become my favorite days of the week.”
Melanie said, “From my perspective, the work to be done includes ensuring that all groups have a seat at the table to lead, worship and teach; that there is creative outreach to individuals and families of color; that there are opportunities for leadership development, as well as a time to rest for those who have served and are tired.”
The members of the group continue to meet, sharing learning experiences and moments of growth together as they do the tough, internal work of taking a hard look at their own white identities and how they can continue to work fervently to be active allies of BIPOC. Linda reflected, “What I am learning over and over is that racism is a religious issue. Loving our neighbors as ourselves means fighting unrelentingly for justice for Black and Brown people and figuring out ways to dismantle oppressive structures of racism.”
“We are so blessed to have a church so committed to social justice. And we do the work with grace, education and professionalism,” Vikki expressed. She continued that doing the work of active antiracism can be as simple as shared responsibility. “The good news is that we can combine our learning and action with hope, making a commitment that if we all embraced a new view of racism, our country can live up to our promise of freedom and justice for all.”
|April 2021, on a Saturday morning||Join the Black Caucus in reading The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison. Email email@example.com to get information about the April dates and future reads|
|Saturdays||Contact Julie Lustic to be added to the email list for Walking Care Groups that walk in the community every Saturdays (some groups early morning, some in the afternoon): firstname.lastname@example.org|
|PWR updates||Follow the work of the Presbytery of the Western Reserve via their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/preswesres/|
|Matthew 25||Learn more about the larger mission of becoming a Matthew 25 church: https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/matthew-25/become-a-matthew-25-church/|
Taking action, learning locally
|The YWCA’s 21-Day Challenge for Racial Equity and Social Justice starts March 1! Register here: |
Reading, understanding history
|My gift to myself this month is Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America 1619-2019, edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain. Eighty different writers have each chronicled a five year span of Black America’s history, and every section ends with a poem.|
Learning through music
|Sacred Notes Music Blog by Ruth Draper (Lakewood Presbyterian) is a place to learn how we can grow through music:|
Taking action, building a network
|Showing Up for Racial Justice hosts a learning call the first Wednesday of each month from 6:00-7:30 pm for those interested in ending white silence (a core concept from Me and White Supremacy): https://www.facebook.com/surjneo/|
Reading, social justice in our world
|Sojourners magazine and newsletter founded by Jim Wallis. They focus on the “biblical call to racial and social justice, life and peace, and environmental stewardship.” Check them out at sojo.net|
Learning through art
|For art lovers, events, exhibitions and virtual discussions The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts & Culture https://www.ganttcenter.org/|