By the Rev. Rebekah Hatch of West Hartford CT
TLDR: If you’re wondering, like me, why the conversation about racism in the church seems so awkward, dated, difficult and fraught with baggage, I think - especially after attending the White Privilege Conference - I have a clue. We are an institution founded squarely within patriarchy and white supremacy, with a robust financial foundation, on which we still stand, built on that intersection. And we’ve just begun….barely. There are myriad scholars, mostly of color, who are far more capable than we are, who have done far more work than we have that are leaving the church in the dust. (If you read more, there is hope, I promise.)
Backtrack with me: two years ago, I went to hear Debby Irving. I’d begrudgingly read Waking Up White, found it surprisingly helpful, and, when a too-convenient opportunity to hear her came about, I went. She introduced me to the White Privilege Conference, run by the Privilege Institute, founded by Eddie Moore, Jr. Intrigued, I checked out their website and made up my mind to go.
In March, using funds procured through a grant from my diocese (The Episcopal Church in Connecticut), I made my way to Cedar Rapids, IA. Alone. I didn’t go with anyone. I didn’t know anyone going. I had no idea what I was getting into. Here’s a brief rundown.
Day One: Over a dozen preconference offerings. The one I registered for: Navigating Triggering Events: Critical Competencies for Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race, Racism, and White Supremacy. What?? How much of my life as a young-ish-clergy-woman-in-a-diocese-that-just-launched-a-season-for-racial-reconciliation-married-to-a-black-man-raising-brown-children-mama does this describe?? For an entire day, that’s all we did. Unpack triggers. The whats, whys, what-to-dos, what-to-don’ts. Goals for the workshop included “learn to helpfully synthesize emotional responses to triggers” and “choose appropriate responses that further the conversation, but stop violence”. How do we show up as leaders as a clearer instrument so that we might shine light on the white supremacist spaces in our collective lives together? And, for me/us, in the church? We were left asking quite a few questions - you can imagine - but here’s one to take with you: What can you do to clean up your side of the street, essentially leaving you in a space to better navigate hard conversations.
Funny sidebar story: I showed up for the workshop I thought registered for. The room began to fill up, with mostly people of color. As we got closer to the start time, the room was filled with only people of color (and me). A quick glance at the workshop list to just make sure I was in good shape…and, in fact, I was in the wrong workshop. A workshop that was, in fact, intended for people of color. Only.
Y’all. That was Day One.
Two more FULL days, with workshop options that blew my mind. Here’s just a sampling: Answering the Call: Exploring Post-Traumatic Master’s Syndrome and Embodied Racial Justice; Birth of a White Nation: The invention of white people; Changing the Narrative: Storytelling that de-centers whiteness; Decentering Whiteness and Building Multiracial Community; Dismantling the Racism Machine: Myths Taught to White People that Perpetuate White Supremacy; Power, Privilege and the Unconscious Mind
It was during a keynote address by Dr. Heather Hackman that I wondered if the church I love so much actually suffers from Post-Traumatic Master Syndrome, leaving us in a position where we can’t adequately synthesize our feelings around racism because we’ve spent far too long convinced that white supremacy and “our way of doing things” is okay. I was faced with having to wonder how much trauma we’re all collectively carrying with us, and how that, specifically, is playing out in the church. “How do you go to church in the morning and a lynching in the afternoon without any cognitive dissonance?” I don’t know, but I know white folks did. And, it’s part of our country’s and our church’s DNA. There’s vestiges of that practice all over the place.
Dr. Hackman urged us to not just make room for people of color, voices of color, non-white systems of leadership, but to leave the table, cede the ground back, give up the seat.
On and on. Mind blowing encounter after mind blowing encounter.
But here’s what changed me, most. 1300 people from all over our country gathered in one place to hear more, think more, and do more about the sin of racism. And not just white folks. And doing this in a way that was FAR from elementary, ground level and quite frankly, unenlightened, which is how I see so much of our church family working through this. I felt urgently the call to get on board, speak up and amplify the voices of so many experts who are fighting the good fight and doing hard, in depth work.
Ritu Bhasin, one of our keynoters & author of The Authenticity Principle, left us in a space of such great hope in the midst of work and information that can, quite frankly, leave me, at least, feeling helpless and paralyzed. Bhasin reminded us that we have to cycle through woundedness with wreckless abandon, addressing anger and white supremacy head on with love: “every drop in the ocean matters.” We can, in fact, counter the narrative of white supremacy and anti-blackness with positive truth and evidence, group healing and self-work. We can, in fact, make new tools, not keep using the master’s tools (Audre Lord’s voice, there).
There’s no doubt I returned feeling overwhelmed and uncertain of how to use my voice. And. Here’s what I know, now. I have fewer excuses to simply tolerate the status quo; fewer excuses to not rock the boat; and more tools to use to speak up and out. I can amplify voices of people of color who are already doing work that I don’t need to claim. I can leave the table and give territory & space back to people who have long had it before me. And I can keep doing my work with God that might, indeed, trouble the waters. The prayerful, transformative work that the Holy Spirit invites us to with each breath. There’s hope.
Rebekah Hatch is a parent, partner, piano player and priest living in West Hartford, CT, working part-time at St. Alban’s in Simsbury, CT in The Episcopal Church in Connecticut.