Breaking the Soil of the Human Heart

When Melinda McDonald, a Disciples minister here, told me about Ronald Smith’s work leading Courageous Conversations on racism in Greenville, SC, I knew I had to interview him for my blog. If you’re a Yankee living in the South and don’t learn something new about race, you’ve missed something crucial.

But I must admit to a barrier writing this post: the feeling that all I can focus on is how we haven’t made any progress at all with what Jim Wallis has called “America’s Original Sin.” It’s the thing that won’t go away, whether you live in the North or the South.

Ronald Smith is a northerner: before moving to Greenville in 2014 to be closer to their grandchildren, he and his wife spent the first half of their life in St. Paul, MN, where Smith was involved in the creation of Unity Baptist Church through the 1993 merger of Park Baptist, a white congregation, and Open Door Baptist, which was black.

The merger process actually took longer than that. We in the US think we’ve come further on dismantling racism, I think, because we’ve underestimated how deep it goes, and how integral to our nation’s history it is. This plays out in all kinds of social groupings, not least in local churches deeply committed to reconciliation.

After Smith and David Johnson, Park Baptist’s pastor, met at a neighborhood clergy group in 1991 and became friends, in 1993 they involved their congregations in a series of “Dismantling Racism” workshops sponsored by the Minnesota Council of Churches. This gave the two churches common ground on which to build a relationship, and by 1998 Unity Baptist was well underway.

Smith is a realist. Shortly after he and his wife moved to SC, Dylann Roof shot and killed 9 members of a Bible study at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston. That was his introduction to the South and race. Making a pilgrimage to Charleston and “standing in the trauma,” as he says, was an important introduction to what he would face in Greenville.

I asked him what the differences are in how North and South deal with racism. “In the South,” he says, “to be black is to be publicly silent and privately outspoken. In the North, you are free to be yourself, but ostracized and silenced.”

In both cases, the things we don’t talk about are the barriers to dismantling racism. There is no reconciliation without truth-telling. “And getting people of color to the table to do the work of this shared journey is hard,” says Smith, “because you have to be clear in speaking about who you are as a black person, and not fall back into the Southern heritage.”

As a white Christian, I fall for the myth that we’ve come farther than we actually have. As a political progressive, I am invested in the illusion of progress on race, so I fail to acknowledge my part in structural racism.

In seminary, I was taught that racism is Prejudice plus Power. This was helpful, because it acknowledged both the individual (prejudice) and the systemic (power) roots of racism, and pointed a way toward how change could happen.

In leading Courageous Conversations, Smith adds to these two factors three others: Privilege, Policies, and Profits, the last one discovered in South Carolina in the past few years.

The Conversation process begins with spiritual grounding and deepening through song, scripture, and centering as a group, then moves to having participants define terms like “bias,” “race,” and “racism.” A common language is important for conversation that leads to understanding instead of misinterpretation. Then, participants write “spiritual autobiographies” through the lens of race, remembering the categories of Prejudice, Power, Privilege, Policies, and Profits. “What has it cost you to take on this white identity?” “What IS ‘whiteness’?”

After that, Smith gives them homework: Over the next 24 hours, in your thoughts and interactions, use “white” as a modifier the way some people use “black” or “Latino.” For example, “My white doctor said...” in all kinds of situations, and then reflect on how that felt, how it changed the way you thought of people and yourself.

Then, try rewriting your spiritual autobiography the same way, adding a sense of white racial identity to the narrative.

How do we break the soil of the human heart so that seeds of reconciliation can take root?

Courageous Conversations emphasizes getting to “We’re in this together,” says Ronald Smith. “Once we see each other, we can move forward.”

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