Arionne Yvette Williams: Let’s stop trying to convert racism deniers

I will never forget visiting Elmina Castle, a fortress in coastal Ghana that was central to the African slave trade.

Within Elmina’s whitewashed walls were two churches, one Catholic and one Protestant.

You read that right. There were two churches inside the castle where thousands of kidnapped Africans — — robbed of their homes, people and culture, never to return — were held in horrid conditions, waiting to be sold as chattel.

Only steps away from the dungeons that held the enslaved were churches where soldiers who “maintained order” (read: raped, tortured and otherwise brutalized them) apparently worshipped Jesus on Sundays.

This represents the institutional church’s full participation in slavery — the trans-Atlantic slave trade as well as the ongoing systemic commodification of people. Moreover, it shows the church’s complicity in ensuring slavery’s endurance by providing spiritual leadership and pastoral care to the soldiers who helped secure its success. This is one example. There are more.

As a Black woman, I came to Elmina expecting to leave feeling angry. As a clergyperson, I left feeling ashamed. The institution to which I vowed a lifetime of service was, in part, responsible for supporting the slavery and oppression of Black folks around the world.

Racism is everywhere, including in our so-called holy places. Though it often hides in plain sight, it is not hard to identify. We start by telling the truth about our racist history and then tracing all the ways that history has shaped and continues to shape our society, its institutions, its people.

What if the churches like those that supplied pastoral care to the soldiers of Elmina openly acknowledged the truth of that history and began to look intentionally for the ways racism still shows up in their practices and theology? What if our American institutions did the same?

What if we used our influence to push that agenda forward, as opposed to wasting time, energy and resources arguing about the existence of institutional racism?

People recognize that racism is systemic. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, protests erupted around the world, and you and I began receiving emails from just about every American company we have ever done business with. Organizations, public and private, and from virtually every industry, began to call out racism, vowing to reshape their policies and practices to be more inclusive, equitable and just.

Entities began to remove Confederate monuments, to highlight Black achievement and culture, to create support resources and to issue statements about their pursuit of anti-racism work. It was astounding. The system itself inched toward honesty about its own racism.

I quickly realized that the time was right to not simply rejoice that some people were finally getting it. Their reactions showed that some of them had already understood and were now desperate to prove where they stood. So why not hold them accountable to their own words?

It is time to pivot. We need to quit having arguments with the All Lives Matter crowd. They will begin to do the work of becoming truly anti-racist only when they want to, not before.

We should stop debating on social media with those who refuse to admit the truth of the oppression all around them. Instead, while we have the attention and the commitment from so many entities who claim they want to fix this problem, let’s engage them, their energy and resources in the work of doing just that.

More plainly, for the justice seekers, our energies are best spent doing the work of identifying how systemic racism is functioning in the spaces where we have influence. Look for it. It is there.

We do ourselves no favors by pretending that our own organizations are doing all things well just because they have yet to be embarrassed by some racist event going viral online. The best approach is to regard oppression as embedded. Find it and address it head-on. This includes the church, which is not innocent!

I am convinced that we lose hard-won ground when we waste time arguing with people who have no desire to go with us. Abandon the myth that your debating will convince people who are committed to misunderstanding. Such activity is a drain; it robs us of what we need to do the real work.

Free yourself to be aligned with those who want to see change and are determined to accomplish it.

We don’t need everybody in order to secure wins. All we need is a focused few to combine our talents, strategic brilliance, privilege and power to begin uprooting racist practices, policies and people in the places where we have a voice, a vote, influence or authority.

Our children and grandchildren are depending on us to deliver them a better world. Moreover, God has called us to this work. The time is now; the world is ripe for change.

We already have everything we need to be successful: faith, willing workers, and God’s power and blessing. As a preacher of the gospel, I am mindful that through Christ we already have the victory.

“Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest’” (Matthew 9:37-38 NRSV).

May we be those laborers, the answer to Jesus’ prayer, and start bringing in a harvest that overflows with the fruit of justice, freedom and true devotion to God and community.

I didn’t set out to watch the video, but I saw it anyway — infinite minutes of agony.

I did not intend to witness yet another brother dying on the pavement. I didn’t seek to hear someone with brown skin like mine struggling for his last breath.

But avoiding it became impossible. Looking at social media or turning on the news meant being accosted by the images.

I grappled with yet another reminder of the violence of racism. I watched as protestors took to the streets, their anguish and anger fueled by the continual losses of people of color, particularly Black folks, whose deaths at the hands of those in power are minimized and disregarded.

I had planned not to watch videos of another person who looks like me dying, because as a psychologist, I knew the cost of repeated vicarious trauma. And as a Black woman, I knew that the only way I would be able to function would be to avoid such horror.

And then, in May, I heard George Floyd cry out for his mother as he died.

The terror of racism is enough, but to have it preserved on an endless loop is to be reminded of how perilous it is to be Black in America. Trauma upon trauma.

It is unnatural to watch a murder on replay.

Simply trying to survive racism is exhausting enough; add to that the repeated, unavoidable witnessing of another human’s death, and the exhaustion escalates and intensifies almost beyond bearing.

Because this happens again and again, we know the drill. A video is released; outrage ensues. Within 24 hours, the villainization of the victim begins and the gaslighting of those who demand justice follows.

We reckon both with the horror of the loss of our family and with the pain of the invalidation that follows. Racial trauma resides in our DNA; it courses through our nervous systems; it exhausts our spirits.

This is the trauma that leads to anxious watchfulness over our children, to fervent, restless prayer for the safe return of our fathers, husbands and brothers when they are late arriving home. This is the trauma that weathers our bodies and our souls, literally shortening the amount of time we are expected to spend on this earth.

This repeated violation leaves us feeling unsafe, unheard and unprotected. It seeds a buzzing hypervigilance in our bodies and in our spirits. The constant miscarriage of justice coats our mouths with the bitter taste of cynicism as we reckon with the fact that the justice system has sided with the status quo against us again and again. Trauma upon trauma.

James Baldwin put it so simply and so truthfully: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time.” We do our best to tame this rage, to go on about our lives and seek joy wherever we can find it.

Sometimes the only way is to cut it out of our awareness and push it down until it bubbles up again. It is this rage that has fueled protests all over the world. It is also this rage that keeps alive flickers of hope despite what history tells us.

With cynicism, rage and wariness, we monitored Derek Chauvin’s trial. I didn’t dare openly expect a guilty verdict, because I could not bear crushing disappointment again. Repeated trauma has a way of eroding our optimism like that; if we manage to hold on to it, we keep it secret and protected, lest someone threaten to snuff it out.

I knew that no matter how many community members wept, how many experts made it plain, or how much video was shown, there were no guarantees. Chauvin’s own former colleagues testified to the excess of his actions. Charles McMillian and Darnella Frazier sat on the stand sobbing as they bore witness to Floyd’s death and their attempts to intervene, forced to relive that horror in an effort to do after his death what they could not do in his life. Trauma upon trauma.

Yet even as this trial played out, another Black man was killed by police mere miles from where Floyd died. Daunte Wright would not go home to his son after what should have been a routine traffic stop. Trauma upon trauma.

We waited and braced ourselves as the jury deliberated. Between the news that a verdict had been reached and its announcement, I willed myself to breathe. I braced for disappointment but hoped for the first steps toward accountability.

The celebrations that followed the guilty verdict were tentative and unsteady. George Floyd is still dead, and nothing can restore him. After the rush of relief immediately came the awareness that this is one “success” in a constellation of letdowns and injustices.

This one verdict will not and cannot change a violent and racist system. The proof of this harsh reality was evident throughout the trial with the deaths of at least 64 people — more than half of them Black or Latino — at the hands of police between March 29, when trial testimony began, and its end. And on the day of the verdict itself, before we could lay our heads down for some semblance of rest, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was slain by law enforcement officers in Ohio after her family said she had called police for help.

This verdict is a short-lived victory in an endless, exhausting struggle to survive.

For Shayla Harris, working as a producer and director on “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song” offered the opportunity to go beneath the surface of a topic many think they know and to discover rich pockets of new information.

The four-hour documentary series provides a lens for reconsidering how faith has formed and guided members of this nation’s Black population from the time of enslavement to the recent protests for racial justice.

“I really think that the biggest takeaway is that the history of the Black church is the history of America — that even within that very specific lens, there are a lot of universal themes that continue to emerge throughout the history of America about hope and healing, resistance and resilience,” Harris said.

She spoke recently with Faith & Leadership’s Aleta Payne. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: You have quite the breadth of work. I’m wondering what drew you to “The Black Church” as a project.

Photo by
Stefania Rousselle

Shayla Harris: I think one of the biggest themes about my career is that I’ve always sort of felt like an insider-outsider, somebody who is able to go into spaces that maybe people who normally look like me would not necessarily be able to get access to.

The story of the Black church, for me, as someone who grew up Catholic, was an intriguing opportunity, largely because the Catholicism that I experienced was not what most people would think of as a typical Black church experience.

I had done a lot of work around African American history and had always had this fascination with religion and its role in the Black community. And certainly, the chance to be reunited with Dr. [Henry Louis] Gates, who had been an executive producer on “Who Killed Malcolm X?” [on which I also worked], was just incredible.

He’s one of the preeminent scholars and storytellers around the African American experience, and so I thought this would be an incredible opportunity, to have four hours on a platform like PBS to really dig into this iconic institution that has touched every heart of the Black experience in America.

F&L: One of the themes running throughout the series is that Black church history is Black history is American history. Could you speak to that, particularly for people who may not have seen the series yet?

SH: I think that was also one of my biggest takeaways — that even though the series sounds like it’s about something really specific, when we talk about “the Black church” or even Black churches, and people who grew up [outside the church] or don’t consider themselves Black may not think that this is a story for them, what we dig into is really the experience of the first Africans who arrived in this country and who brought their faith practices with them. [They] adopted and adapted the Christianity that they encountered during their enslavement.

The adaptation that they take really pushes back on the experience of slavery, which is about oppression, which is about subjugation. The Christianity that those early Africans embraced and continued to put forth is this one of redemption, of triumph over oppression, and really pushing this country to reflect the ideals that it says it believes in.

At every turn, we see the Black church at the forefront of that conversation, whether that’s under slavery, whether that’s during reconstruction, whether that’s during this moment of the civil rights movement. Even today, a lot of the legacies of that are still pretty present in the social justice events that we see.

At every moment of American history over the last 400 years, the Black church has been at some piece of it, pushing it to be the best that this nation could be.

This is not just a story about the Black church and the African American community, but it’s really a story about America and the people who have experienced the worst of what this country has offered but who have, through their faith, helped transform it.

F&L: You all do not frame this as a neat narrative. It’s not, “The Black church was a wonderful thing, and everybody got along, and they moved forward together.” You get into the messiness.

SH: It was really important for this series to not feel like this was just a love letter to the church. Certainly, there are aspects of the church in its role and the support that it provides to this community that should be celebrated. When you look at instances like the civil rights movement and the changes that came out from that — certainly, that should be celebrated.

At the same time, from the very beginning, there are lots of questions about people feeling marginalized or not fully given access to power within the church — when you talk about women, when you talk about issues of sexuality.

There still remains a very strong thread of conservatism in the Black church that we saw emerge in the civil rights movement, when not every Black church was marching at the forefront.

It was important for us to show that the Black community is not a monolith. There’s a lot of complexity; there’s a lot of diversity within the community. This seemed like a really important opportunity to reflect that.

F&L: What are some of the pieces that you carry with you, that resonate with you?

SH: There’s a lot. It was a really emotional series to work on, and it was certainly for Dr. Gates. The scene at the end where he goes back to his home church in West Virginia, the church where he was raised, where his mother prayed and worshipped — [he] has a really powerful return to that community.

For me, the biggest takeaways are just the idea that no matter how far away you’ve been from this church home, when you need it, you can go back to that place, and that the community that raised you will embrace you. It’s this sanctuary for the community to come and feel loved and feel supported so that they can go back out into the world and fight the good fight.

There are a lot of examples that we saw over the four episodes. One of the most intriguing things to me in terms of the complexity that I spoke earlier about is the footprint of the earliest Africans who came to this country. We see that a lot of those folks when they came over actually had their own faith practices, including Islam, which I think has this resurgence in the 20th century, but I don’t think a lot of people knew about that footprint from those early days.

Some of those early practices reemerged during the Pentecostal movement, reemerged when you think about gospel music and how that has evolved. Those legacies are all still there and still carry from the past and into the future.

For me, what was really profound about the series is with every episode, we noticed that there were a lot of echoes of all of those themes throughout the ages, and it was just really beautiful to see that arc.

F&L: There is such breadth to this — the people and the music and the places and all of those things. It is difficult to imagine capturing all of that. I don’t know how many hours of tape you ended up with, but could you speak to just the challenge of that?

SH: There’s so much that we couldn’t include. But one thing that was incredibly helpful for us is that we had a team of scholars and academic advisers who gave us some [historical insights]. You have to have these things in your series; otherwise, nobody is going to take you seriously. We had those to start with.

We also wanted to not just talk to scholars about their understanding of that history, but we also wanted to talk to religious folk and clergy to get some insights into their process and their approach to their faith.

[We also interviewed] notables who people may know about their backstory, like Oprah and John Legend, who grew up very raised in the church, to make those connections that it’s not just people who are a part of the church every single day or who go there on Sundays, but it’s really part and parcel of a lot of people’s experiences in the Black community.

It was important for us to try to get a sense of that breadth in the series and talk to many different people about their experiences and, as I said, paint this portrait of the fact that this community is not a monolith and they don’t all want the same things. It was important for us to also keep that at the forefront with this inspiration as well.

I should just note that we worked on this series for over a year, and we interviewed, I would say, more than 60 folks on camera and visited as many different kinds of churches as we could — everything from a tiny praise house to a megachurch — just to give the diversity of the Black church: North, South, East, West, big, small, rural, urban.

F&L: A good portion of the last hour focused on young people, on young Black people, and what the church is and is not to them. One of my favorite moments is when the Rev. Traci Blackmon says, “The Ferguson uprising was church.” Could you speak about the role of the Black church as it is emerging for young Black people?

SH: I don’t know that I have a full answer, because I think that history is still being played out at this moment. It was really important for us to reflect that there is a generational shift within the Black church. A lot of younger people are incredibly progressive.

A lot of them, if they’re younger Black people — that may not be their primary identification. They may identify more strongly with their gender or their sexuality or their geographic location. The fracturing, I think, of those identities, which reflects the diversity of the African American community, has led to this moment where the church is trying to figure out how to service people and to meet people where they are.

What I also really loved about Rev. Blackmon’s statement is that sometimes church doesn’t exist within those four walls, and so maybe there’s an expansion of that definition that needs to happen in terms of the church’s role going forward.

Maybe a protest is church, and maybe some of these other moments that certainly folks have experienced in the last year are church or reflective of where the church is, and meeting people where they need to meet them.

That’s going to be an evolving question for the church, and how it reflects the desires and needs in this new generation, and also how this new generation takes up that mantle and creates their own version of church, which is what we are starting to see happen.

F&L: Is there something you would want to make sure people knew about your work in this, about the project itself?

SH: I feel really honored and humbled to have worked on this series. We started it in 2019, which seems like an incredibly different world than we are in right now. I feel really grateful that this series is coming out right now, because I feel like this is the moment where people are most open to this conversation, especially after this year of loss and grief and anxiety and despair.

I think the themes that we explored in this series have more resonance today than maybe if we had come out a year ago or before any of this had happened.

As my mom said to me when this came out — this was supposed to come out sometime in 2020 — “It came out in God’s time. It came out when it was supposed to. It came out when people were ready and open to hearing this information.”

I hope that it encourages [viewers] to go and read more, make their own stories, fill in the gaps with some of the stuff that we weren’t able to get into and keep the conversation going.

When Jennifer Harvey wrote her book “Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation,” she couldn’t have imagined the context in which it would be published.

Just weeks before the book came out in 2014, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, and a powerful advocacy movement burst onto the national scene with a simple message: Black Lives Matter.

In the wake of the protests, some white churches were confused, even shocked, at the “grief-filled rage” shown in Ferguson, Harvey said.

And some of those churches turned to Harvey and her book for education.

book cover“The book is for white Christians … who are asking the questions, ‘Why are our churches built so white? Why don’t we have more multiracial communities? Why do we seem so divided and alienated still?’” she said.

Her book, the second edition of which was released last summer, helps white Christians understand how the history of Black Power movements informs current organizing efforts and calls to redistribute resources.

Understanding and heeding this history, she says, is a prerequisite to moving toward the Christian vision of reconciliation.

Harvey is a professor of religion at Drake University and an award-winning author and public speaker. She is also the author of “Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America.”

Harvey spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about the importance of knowing the history of Black Power movements and the differences between the paradigms of reconciliation and reparations. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: How important is it to know and teach history that doesn’t whitewash civil rights?

Jennifer Harvey: One of the things I excavate in the book is the degree to which Black Power movements are obscured in how we remember history. What I explore in the book is that these power movements were not only part of the civil rights movement but they also had Christian elements.

It’s critically important that we know these histories that many white communities, and in this case, white Christians, either haven’t been taught, have ignored or have been taught to ignore.

I was raised in the church. I’ve been a Christian my whole life. I didn’t learn any of these histories until I was doing my Ph.D. at Union Seminary. I had even gone through an M.Div. program without learning this history.

F&L: Can you describe the importance of Black Power movements?

JH: The history of power movements helps us reckon differently with what came out of the civil rights movement. It wasn’t wonderful progress where white Christians and Americans started doing better around Black demands for racial justice; white Christians started to reject and step back from civil rights when it made progress.

We have to learn this history, because Black Power movements made different kinds of demands from calls for integration. They demanded power and resource redistribution, and part of the crisis we’re in today is directly related to how deeply we have — not just white Christians but white America — ignored and rejected those calls for power and resource redistribution.

Knowing that history is important for that reason, because our actual racial story is not the story we often tell in the white church. So that’s one piece of the reason why it’s so important.

The other reason that it’s so important to excavate and remember these histories is that the erasure of those histories is itself a form of racial harm.

It’s not just an accident that we don’t know the history of Black Power movements inside the white church — the way James Forman and other activists, including Black clergy, for example, made calls for reparations to white communities in 1969.

It’s actually a site of sin, is how I would talk about it. We actively rejected the history of Black clergy in Black Power movements, and then we pretended those calls had never been made.

There’s been this kind of amnesia from white Christians; we don’t even know the sins that we’ve committed, and so we’re stuck in our calls for equity and reconciliation and diversity. These calls are so hollow, but we don’t even know that, because we haven’t named and confessed the erasure that we actively committed moving out of the civil rights movement era.

I say this in the book, but it’s critically important to see that many of the things Black Power advocates were naming and predicting about the reality of racial relationships is what we’re seeing right now. In the last five years, this beast we have never repented from or repaired has created our national climate. I feel very clear about that.

It’s past time to confess what we’ve done and pick up partnership with those communities who have never stopped making those same demands.

F&L: Were Black Power movements prophetic?

JH: I think “prophetic” is the right word to use. They were telling us that integration — or reconciliation, which is the way we talk about it in the church — was going to fail without massive resource redistribution.

To be clear, I long for reconciliation. I do think that’s the space to which we are called, but just making integration the solution to racial injustice and racial violence is misguided. You need to change the systems of exploitation.

Black Power movement leaders and the diverse communities that were organizing with them were calling for things like reparations to enable resource redistribution that would enable Black self-determination, Black business cooperatives, Black media networks and outlets.

They called for a radical transformation in how we thought about public education. If you have inequitable school systems, where Black children don’t have access to high quality education because of segregation and racial injustice, just integrating kids is not a solution. It’s important to reject segregation, but simply putting some Black children in a white classroom with a white teacher who doesn’t even know how to love Black children is not necessarily better.

You need Black teachers. You need Black principals. You need to shift all the power structure so that resources are distributed differently.

They also called for a radical rethink on policing. Police violence in the ’60s was creating these instances of just community rage and grief because of the way policing happened in Black communities, which is still very relevant today.

We cannot be siblings to one another in a genuine, mutual way if we haven’t repaired the harm and the exploitation that were not only present in the foundation of the United States but are actively constructed even today.

We need to repent and repair those things in order to even begin to talk meaningfully about beloved community. What I’m trying to get us to think about as white Christians in the book is that history had prophetic things to say to us about who we actually are and how we could be converted to become something different.

F&L: You make this delineation in the book between a reconciliation paradigm and a reparations paradigm. Can you explain both of those?

JH: The reason I use the word “paradigm” is because I think that helps us think about what kind of lens we are using. I believe as a Christian that reconciliation is a state to which we are called, but the framework of reconciliation is a problem, because of what it teaches us to be.

For example, a reconciliation paradigm is universal. It would say things like, “We need to come to the table and celebrate and embrace our differences. We need to come together across our diverse experiences and learn to love each other more fully and truly.”

The problem with reconciliation as a paradigm, again separate from actually being reconciled, is that it assumes that our differences are equally problematic. A reconciliation paradigm assumes that I as a white person need to better come to love Blackness, Nativeness and Latinoness and also implies that Black, Native and Latino people should better love my whiteness in order for all of us to reconcile. But it’s not a moral parallel. Blackness and whiteness are not moral or cultural or political parallels.

White people owe something different and distinct if we are going to be reconciled. So a reparations paradigm says that the crisis of racism and racial injustice is a multiracial crisis and we each have a different location in it.

In particular, it says historically white communities, whether actively or passively, have engaged in perpetrating harm. We have unjustly reaped economic benefits from that harm, and we’ve also been spiritually and morally malformed by our participation in that harm.

So if we want to be at a multiracial table, then we name that and repair that as the way we come to the table. There’s no responsibility of Black people learning to better appreciate and understand white people. It’s about, “How do we together address and redress the structures of harm, violence and unjust benefit that exist between us?”

If we can redress those and redistribute resources from white communities to communities of color, that actually might make us beloved to one another. But the repentance and the repair piece is how white folks show up to the table in a reparations paradigm.

F&L: You say that you’ve seen progress since 2014. Can you talk about ways in which you’ve seen white Christians moving forward and how some of the gaps remain?

JH: I tried to include in the book’s appendix some anecdotal examples of reparations-informed movements that have begun to emerge in the last four years. They’re scattered all over the place, but they’re worth naming, because it’s an energy and sort of responsive kind of percolation that is starting to happen.

The Minnesota Council of Churches is starting to unroll a 10-year project of reparations relative to Native communities in a central way, but there is also language for reparations toward African American communities.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation has a national reparations and truth telling campaign that has gotten underway. I’m seeing in my local community in Des Moines in the last year all kinds of white clergy who have — not just as individuals but speaking in the name of their church — have been not just putting signs for Black Lives Matter on their churches but have been out organizing with Black Lives Matter movement leaders.

They are organizing by asking, “OK, what do you need us to do? What role do you need us to play? How do you need us to hold the police authorities accountable?” That’s another example.

It’s just new for white communities. I think a lot of people are still asking for a model out there that we can just implement here in our church — but there’s no universal model out there.

We are actually the ones who have to do the thing. There are some landmarks, some language, some principles we need to try to embody, but we haven’t corrected this injustice before, and so we literally are the ones who have to figure out what it means. And it’s going to look different in each local context.

It’s new to white people, but there is a different kind of sharing that is happening. And it’s because, I think, of the leadership and insistence and ongoing tenacity of Black Lives Matter movement leaders over the last seven or eight years that we’re getting to this inflection point.