Rhonda Thomas: Accurately teaching history is a moral issue

The Rev. Rhonda Thomas already had plenty on her plate as executive director of Faith in Florida.

Her organization, which falls under the national umbrella of Faith in Action, worked on issues of discrimination and disenfranchisement across a broad swath of the state. There was plenty going on before legislation was passed limiting what can be taught, said or read in the state’s K-12 public schools, as well as in its colleges and universities. The consequences have extended nationally to the College Board and beyond.

In Florida, Thomas and others have led a countermovement that has mobilized faith communities to teach what the public schools cannot. Faith in Florida has launched a multipart toolkit focused on topics like race, racism and whiteness, and Black women in leadership, centering faith communities as critical to providing accurate information and anti-racist formation.

Thomas spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Aleta Payne about the effort, which has broadened to other states. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: Could you talk a bit about Faith in Florida?

Thomas portrait

Rhonda Thomas: We fall under the umbrella of our national [network], which is Faith in Action, and we organize in 41 counties in the state of Florida — multiracial, multifaith leaders working around racial, social and economic justice. We have [statewide] campaigns that we organize, which are immigration, reducing gun violence and mass incarceration, and protecting democracy.

In those counties, we also have our local issues we organize around, whether it be public education, housing, living wages, that sort of thing. That’s who Faith in Florida is. It’s a faith-based organization that just cares about people that are impacted by all sorts of [issues], whether it be legislation, those who have been disenfranchised, those who have been discriminated against — really, really caring about marginalized communities and people in general.

Many people don’t really see Florida as being the South, unfortunately. I don’t know if they get caught up in the tourism or the beaches, the entertainment, the food, but we’re very much the South and as impacted as many other Southern states when it comes to this fight that we’re in.

F&L: How and why did you come to develop the pledge and toolkit around teaching Black history?

RT: We realized that there was an attack on public education as well as our universities on how African American history was being taught in the curriculum and that it was recommended and legislated that it be taught in a watered-down version, implying things that were not true, such as Black people benefited from being slaves.

Faith in Florida decided to do what we do, and that’s organize — organize our faith leaders and see if they will commit to teaching African American history in its realness. You cannot water down history. It is history. I felt personally that our educators were professional enough, whether it be from a public school system or from a university, that they would teach African American history in a way that it was not targeted to offend any race. It would be taught in a professional way through a curriculum that was created.

We felt like, “We’ll take it back to where it originated.” And that’s the Black church, because that history still sits in our pews. That history is still real, and it’s alive. We have always taught our history, maybe not through a curriculum, but we’ve taught it in living color.

I asked my research coordinator to create a team within our staff where we would be able to have resources, whether books or documentaries, that would give our churches the liberty to choose from the toolkit, understanding that we were creating a toolkit that will offer a variety of resources that they can choose from that can fit their own congregations.

It also is a toolkit that will be able to accommodate all ages of people, whether it is children, adults, whether they’re in the church or visiting or never attend but care about the teachings of Black history.

That’s where it all came from. Horrible legislation that came through the state of Florida. We saw where it was not right in the lenses of Black people. The toolkit also gave our faith leaders the liberation to teach it, because the Black church has always been and still is very creative in the way we teach.

It could be taught through biblical lenses, and it could be taught through art, through dance, through music, because that’s just who we’re made up of. Because we organized multiracial, multifaith leaders and congregations, then some of our white churches and mosques, they were like, “We see this is morally wrong. We understand that we may not be able to teach Black history like the Black church can, but we can teach it in a way of accountability.” And that came from our white congregations and white faith leaders. Our Muslim [leaders] understood that we have more in common than what separates us in the way we connect together as a whole. They were willing to teach Black history as well, but still understanding that no one can do it like the Black church can.

F&L: You see this as a moral issue that extends beyond Black Christians.

RT: Yes. We had an open discussion through one of our statewide clergy calls. To try to erase or water down [anyone’s history], to be watered down in a version where it does not represent the truth — it’s morally wrong.

And then Black history itself, recognizing that if we’re not deliberately teaching it in the right form, it also opens [the possibility of] history being repeated, which I do see happening in this country, and definitely in the state of Florida. It’s being repeated. We look at it in the way of how voter suppression still exists. Black people no longer have to go to the supervisor of elections office to guess how many jelly beans are in a jar; now our voting rights are being oppressed and suppressed in the way of [formerly incarcerated] citizens not having the opportunity to register to vote once they’ve served their time in the state of Florida.

F&L: While you started this curriculum for Florida, you have had enough interest from outside the state that there is an effort to broaden it.

RT: My goal was strictly the state of Florida and how do I get 500 congregations to take the pledge to teach African American history. Twenty-eight other states have now joined Faith in Florida under our leadership and are using our toolkit in teaching Black history — 28 states. That was not my goal or vision, but unfortunately, states all across this country were [thinking that] what happens in Florida can possibly happen in their states.

F&L: What do you hope other faith leaders in those states might take from this effort? What do you hope they might take forward?

RT: What has happened here has united faith leaders of many denominations. It has united us under one umbrella to see the importance of Black history being taught. I say it’s being taught raw and being taught real. It is not being taught in a way to offend anyone. If we want to talk about being offended — Black people, we have been offended since the beginning of time. As a Black woman, I would never want to teach anything that would offend others, because I know what that feels like. Seeing the importance of Black history being taught in its own authentic way, we’re uniting communities as well in a faith space, and then also recognizing that we’re operating in the power and the authority that God has given us.

F&L: Is there anything else you want people to know about this work?

RT: This work is great. This work is good, and it’s worth it. You have not asked me whether there has been any resistance. One of our churches has received a bomb threat that came through the police department. Some of our churches are getting called: “Why are you doing this?”

In my church, we have a safety plan in place, even to the point of having active shooter trainings. It’s just unfortunate that this is the way we are looking at how we protect not just the Black church.

Like I said, we organize multiracial, multifaith. There are threats not just on the Black church. Our Jewish community, they’ve gotten threats as well in the synagogues. Our mosques are getting threats. So it also takes us to a place that we have more in common than what separates us when it comes to the faith community.

I don’t think that’s ordained by God, based on my faith tradition, that we should be worshipping in a way that we need to protect ourselves and not be able to worship. Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But this is the time we’re living in.

My encounter with Tim Keller, who died May 19 at 72, began nearly 40 years ago when he was my teacher at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. I think my first semester was also Tim’s first — he had just begun to teach practical theology part time.

I had decided to attend Westminster largely because a professor named Harvie Conn was building a program there around ministry in cities. And it turned out that Tim’s encounter with Conn would be pivotal in his decision as well to go to New York City.

Tim was my professor for pastoral ministry and preaching, and he befriended me, wanting to know more about my plans for ministry, which I planned to pursue in Baltimore. In one course, he assigned me the lowest grade I received during my time in seminary. I told him that at graduation — with a smile — but in true Tim fashion, he countered by telling me something encouraging about my studies that also gave me a smile.

After I spent a decade in ministry in my hometown of Baltimore, Tim encouraged me to move to New York City and was deeply formative in what became my current project, City Seminary of New York. As the seminary grew, Tim, with his unique way of seeing what matters most, continued to think with us about our particular calling to the future of faith in the city.

As I’ve reflected on my own memories of Tim and of his journey to God over the three years since he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I’ve returned to a seminar on ministry I took with him in 1987. It was a program capstone class of sorts I took with fellow student Jeff White. After Tim founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, Jeff would join him as the first pastoral staff person. These were days that began lifelong friendships — and days when a short seminar in seminary required only 600 pages of reading and two papers!

Looking over my class notes today, I can see how what Tim was teaching would guide his ministry approach to Redeemer. This was two years before he moved to New York City to begin Redeemer with his wife, Kathy, and their sons. I can also see how God was in this part of Tim’s story, giving him time and space to prepare for ministry.

In this seminar, Tim talked about how to build up a church’s life, the role of small groups, the importance of identifying a philosophy of ministry, the need to focus on a church’s unique purpose in its context, the dynamics of the Holy Spirit in grace, renewal and change, and, of course, the place of preaching.

But it was a particular point I remembered him making about pastoral ministry, about the questions we need to ask and answer, that I wanted to search out in my notes.

I think a key factor in Tim and Redeemer’s story was his faithful commitment to pastoral ministry. He pursued the fullest potential of the gifts God had given him and seeking to build bridges of grace, conversation and friendship for people to encounter Christ.

Tim had a great zeal for proclaiming the gospel, a gift for inviting people to see Christ in fresh ways.

I can’t recall the details, but some years ago I heard Tim recount how many hours each week he put into preparing his sermons for Redeemer, of which he often delivered four per Sunday; it was days, not hours. And it was not just the effort he put in before and during preaching but a continuous process of wrestling with the biblical text, his theological convictions and context as he saw it, and the small reworkings he made as he went about sharing the fruit of that labor each Sunday.

And then there were the one-to-one meetings over coffee Tim began early on with people in New York, listening to their stories and questions about the gospel, praying with them, caring for them as he engaged his new pastoral context. It was a practice he continued over the years.

When I found my old notes, I read the series of “invitational questions for ministry involvement” with which he closed the seminar.

Is there a particular need? Are there people to work with you? What are you willing to invest? And do you have the physical and emotional resources?

These are the kinds of questions you should ask yourself before starting out in a new ministry, he explained.

It was not long after Tim retired from Redeemer that he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. But as he shared this news with those around him and wrote about it in places like The Atlantic, he did so in a way that revealed how his faith, prayer life and trust in Christ were deepening. How he was dwelling more deeply in the presence of God’s love as he faced death.

We each have strengths and weaknesses across the course of our lives. Tim’s witness these past years took place in a season marked not by physical strength and vitality but by his brokenness and tears.

It seems that this was Tim’s concluding seminar on ministry. And it came not in the form of a traditional lecture, book or sermon but in a new series of invitational questions.

How do I do ministry not just with my strengths but with trust in God to lead through my weaknesses and vulnerabilities? How do we recognize we are built for something more, something else, for God? How do I live daily life with a hope that does not deny suffering and injustice but challenges it by looking and living toward God’s new creation and the life to come?

Until the end, Tim kept living the pastoral calling and questions God had given him. And he learned what the Franciscan friar Richard Rohr has observed: that when we fall down, we may be falling upward.

Thanks be to God for Tim Keller, who lived the gospel with beauty, joy and grace, pointing in hope to the crucified and risen Christ.

The wave of white Christian nationalism sweeping through various levels of government in recent years is showing up prominently in education. Proposed and passed legislation constrains or prohibits public schools from teaching children about our nation’s history of racism and racialized violence and how society can address racial inequities and racial justice. Books have been taken off public library shelves.

In the face of these realities, what can churches do to infuse their spiritual formation curricula for children and youth with a robust anti-racist theology? I’d suggest three shifts that churches, faith leaders and volunteers can and should make to be more explicitly anti-racist: epistemological, material and structural.

Epistemological shifts

Before making any material or structural changes, those involved in spiritual formation must make some epistemological (or cognitive) shifts in their own understandings of race and racism. This means beginning to evaluate their unexamined assumptions of race, how racism works at individual and societal levels, and how predominantly white culture influences the reading and understanding of the Bible.

First, they must learn what “race” is and how race categories shape people’s life experiences. There is an abundance of materials out there that can assist in accomplishing this. One resource I’ve found helpful is “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo. This book is easy to read and addresses many common questions around race and racism with a targeted yet graceful poignancy.

Second, those involved in spiritual formation must begin to see the relationship between interpersonal racism and structural racism. One of the definitive studies on children’s socialization into race is “The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism,” by Debra Van Ausdale and Joe R. Feagin.

Van Ausdale’s research shows that children as young as 3 use race and skin color to categorize, include and exclude other children in play. Further, she found that young children learn to employ racialized rhetoric from the larger culture beyond the direct influence of family and school.

Third, spiritual formation practitioners must learn how their cultural standpoints shape their reading and understanding of the Bible. Esau McCaulley’s “Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope” challenges readers to see the Bible through the lens of Black church tradition to connect messages in the Bible with Black experiences and questions.

As churches, faith leaders and volunteers do the work of shifting their perspectives on race and racism, they become better equipped to tackle more material shifts in their formation practices.

Material shifts

My research has found an overwhelming lack of diverse racial and ethnic representation in illustrations, pictures and media. Further, Montague Williams shows in his book “Church in Color: Youth Ministry, Race and the Theology of Martin Luther King Jr.” that conversations about race and racism are typically either avoided or restricted within youth formation spaces.

Among the simple things churches can begin to do: diversify their materials. This goes beyond being “historically accurate.” Through the centuries, multiple cultures have depicted biblical characters and stories through the lens of their own ethnicities. Alongside white representations of Bible stories, those involved in spiritual formation can include renderings that are African American, Korean, Guatemalan, Navajo, etc.

They can draw from Bibles and storybooks with different racial, ethnic and cultural representations in illustrations and perspectives. These materials can easily be found through searching online or reaching out to diverse networks of practitioners in spiritual formation.

In addition to diversifying representation in materials, churches need to normalize conversations about race and racism as part of spiritual formation. There have been scant attempts at creating lessons that deal specifically with race and anti-racism. While any such attempts are a good start, anti-racist conversations must go beyond special topics or series.

Anti-racism needs to be woven throughout the practice of spiritual formation. As churches teach through the Bible, Scripture must be allowed to speak for itself on issues of race, racism, anti-racism and racial justice. They may find it helpful to use supplemental materials like “The Gospel in Color,” by Curtis A. Woods and Jarvis J. Williams (there are versions for kids and parents).

Finally, churches can tell stories of racially marginalized Christians, their histories and their experiences. Churches predominantly made up of racially marginalized people can tell their own stories of encountering God as a racially marginalized group and how their racial and ethnic identity forms them spiritually. Other good sources for stories include materials like People of Color Who Inspire, from the Godly Play Foundation.

Structural shifts

After doing the work of making epistemological and material shifts, churches need to implement some structural shifts to sustain anti-racist spiritual formation practices beyond the immediate public crisis we find ourselves in.

These structural shifts include creating external accountability to maintain anti-racism as part of the explicit spiritual formation curriculum, such as joining or creating networks of racially and ethnically diverse spiritual formation practitioners. This has become easier in the past couple of years as we’ve navigated a steep learning curve to connect virtually in various ways.

Another structural shift is to include racially and ethnically diverse voices in the leadership, teaching and oversight of spiritual formation. Predominantly white congregations can seek out such diverse voices, through books, podcasts, trainings, etc., can spiritually form and influence how congregations approach the spiritual formation of their children and youth.

Most importantly, churches need to pray for God’s help to make these shifts. They can pray for wisdom, courage and insight on providing youth and children with a robust anti-racist theology in their contexts. They can pray for opportunities to stand alongside parents as they partner in the spiritual formation of children and youth. They can pray against the sin of racism in their communities and for ways to push back on the forces that would erase the experiences of racialized minorities in the public square.

Anti-racism needs to be woven throughout the practice of spiritual formation.

The Rev. Laura Edgar said she’s long had the intention of holding conversations with her church’s neighbors at nearby Auburn University. But only recently has she learned the language and skills to do that, said Edgar, the associate pastor for youth, college and young adults at Auburn First Baptist Church.

The key, she said, is “to learn what the needs truly are, and not what we think the needs are.”

Edgar’s congregation is one of 16 to take part in The Vinery: Awakening Faith and Flourishing at the Intersection of Church and University. The program invites congregations close to college campuses that are ready and willing to build or expand relationships with their campus communities into a two-year process of congregational reflection, listening and discernment.

There are about 20 million college students across the United States, and about 5,000 churches located within 2 miles of a campus. We believe that in bringing these two communities together, the torn fabric of American life can begin to be rewoven by forming healthy human beings serving the common good in the likeness of Christ.

In 2021, the college ministry Mere Christianity Forum launched The Vinery to build connections between churches and universities with a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc.’s Thriving Congregations Initiative.

The Vinery does not focus primarily on college ministry programming or increasing attendance numbers of young people in Sunday worship. We do hope that these are manifestations of the inner work of the congregations. But before that work can begin, we invite congregations to practice deep listening.

Why deep listening? Deep listening, in simple terms, is intentionally hearing the needs and interests of others and taking them seriously. It involves listening to what is said and what is not said.

At our 2023 annual Vinery gathering, the Rev. Judy Peterson offered some guidelines. Deep listening is more than being present, having good body language and hearing what others are saying, she said. It entails exhibiting a generosity that invites speakers to talk to us from their hearts — and does not send them signals that we only have time for a summary.

We begin by asking participants to explore how they are listening to God, themselves, their congregations and their campuses. Then we ask how listening more intentionally might help them become better neighbors to the young adults, staff, administrators, faculty and alumni near them. Through their listening process, congregations can learn of needs they hadn’t anticipated or sense a call to people they hadn’t noticed.

As our first group of congregations finishes its first year, this emphasis on deep listening has made a remarkable difference.

The Rev. Bromleigh McCleneghan of United Church of Gainesville in Gainesville, Florida, said that people have started showing up in her office to talk over concerns about issues on campus and their sense of inadequacy in the face of overwhelming student need.

“Slowly, through deep listening, a nascent vision of what ministry alongside our university neighbors could be is beginning to emerge,” McCleneghan said.

Deep listening entails building relationships and allowing our learnings to guide strategic and ministry plans, rather than showing up with agendas preset by boards and councils.

Granted, it’s easier to plan a pizza party at the church than to commit to regularly eating in the student dining hall. It takes less effort to build a ministry program from a list of suggestions than to take time to learn what people really want.

But when congregations really listen to their collegiate neighbors, they can serve them better. One Vinery congregation heard from students that buying textbooks was a financial burden; the church created a fund to help them. In another congregation, young adults are finding companionship with a small group of octogenarians who drink tea and knit on Friday afternoons.

Deep listening doesn’t stop at listening, though; it merely starts there. The next step after hearing people’s needs is making an effort to meet those needs.

McCleneghan in Gainesville said the conversations she’s had have inspired her to take that next step.

“It’s not what I anticipated, but it certainly feels important. Deep listening is allowing me and the other lead team members to hear God calling us to some new thing,” she said.

McCleneghan said she has scheduled a meeting to talk with the folks showing up in her office and sending her texts — an event that will be “just the next stage of this unfolding conversation.”

Peterson, in her address to the annual Vinery gathering, said that a deep listening practice isn’t just for specific occasions or meetings; how we listen — or fail to listen — in the everyday, mundane moments of our lives creates our listening habits.

The Rev. Elexis Wilson, the pastor at Wayman African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bloomington, Illinois, said at the gathering that we have to discipline ourselves not to mentally multitask by thinking about what’s next or how we might fix the problem at hand: “Many times, the task is to just listen.”

For Wilson, whose father was a pastor, this practice has particular meaning.

“I do not think I am ever listened to without [listeners] looking for the end game,” she said. “As a preacher’s kid, I felt like there was no genuine want to know my thoughts unless they wanted something from my father or were being paid. Nobody naturally would sit and hear me.”

Deep listening is vital to The Vinery’s process. It requires that we be intentional about prioritizing listening, even when it’s inconvenient.

Can we teach ourselves not to answer the phone when we’re distracted? Can we avoid thinking about laundry or clicking on Facebook during Zoom meetings? Can we learn to say, “I’d like to hear what you’re saying, but now is not a good time — could we schedule a conversation later, when we both can focus?”

How do we listen, not only to our congregations, campuses and constituencies, but also to our co-laborers? How might our deep listening make us better disciples, colleagues, leaders and friends?

Yes, it feels terribly inefficient. Yet I know that for my life as a disciple — as well as for congregations — it’s crucial. May we help people know that they are cared for and listened to — by us and by God.

Deep listening doesn’t stop at listening, though; it merely starts there. The next step after hearing people’s needs is making an effort to meet those needs.