Part of what we do as Christians is repent, to turn away from sin and toward God. Part of what we do as ministers is to repent out loud, in public and in front of other people. The Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ gathered for the longest consecutive clergy gathering in the nation- General Association, and we know that we have repenting to do to bring healing and justice into this world.
The CTUCC has adopted a three-legged stool of justice: Economic Justice, Racial Justice and Environmental Justice. I am proud of my conference for focusing on these issues. I am also proud of my conference for not always being so proud of ourselves and instead calling each other towards repentance, with the recognition that we have a lot of work to do.
We lived out part of our call to address Racial Justice during our General Association clergy gathering. With the sage guidance of Carlton Mackey, we tackled ideologies around identity, family and vocation with four workshop modules, called "The Ethics of Identity," "Typical American Families," "Beautiful in Every Shade," and "How Vocation Becomes Action." He challenged us while he created a safe space for questions and deep inner searchings. As a cis-gendered, Black, straight man, he held a mirror up to our own beauty, privilege, brokenness, and to that of the world's.
Our time together began with a pat on the back. In his first exercise Carlton brought us through an exploration of our own identities with a tool of 10 "I am" statements. The purpose of this exercise is to notice the dissonance in how people perceive us versus how we experience ourselves. He noted that we were a rare group and that we'd get to go deep together quickly because many of the men identified their gender, many of the straight people identified their sexuality and many of the white people identified their race. Usually these identities, viewed as normative, go unnamed.
Being aware of these identities was our pat on the back. But awareness is only the first step, Carlton warned us. It is not enough. Advocacy comes after awareness. Advocacy is when we preach about racism or white privilege or homophobia. But that is not enough. Becoming an ally is next- when we stand with someone, when our inner workings change, when we have a relationship and begin to feel pain a little bit. Action comes next, where things begin to happen. And revolution is the final step, where the God we worship, the God of the oppressed, helps us break the system that works very well for the privileged but keeps the marginalized oppressed.
No matter where we are on that ladder, we are not doing enough. And that has to be our narrative, not a pat on the back. We do not get to preach on white privilege and wipe our hands of it the rest of the week. We do not get to show up to a rally for the photo shoot, because as The Rev. Dr. William Barber says, "we need a movement, not a moment." We need to radically put our lives on the line like Jesus did when he stood with the least among us, when he lifted up the lowly and celebrated the identities of those people who were outcast. We also need to admit that sometimes we have no idea how to do that, or do know how, but fail miserably.
Because we are in the business of repentance, I must confess a moment where I failed, where we failed, as a gathered body at General Association. Many of us were aware of our failure to name this verbal transgression during the workshop gatherings led by Carlton Mackey, but none of us said anything. The transgression occurred when a white colleague of ours asked a question about the evolution of names that Black people call each other and during this question he said the "n" word. The energy in the room sank. I waited for Carlton to say something, to keep him in check. Then I realized it was not Carlton's role as a Person of Color to say something. White people have a responsibility to dismantle white supremacy by keeping each other in check in moments of transgression and violence. Often People of Color are bombarded with questions and treated like a walking educational manual in these white spaces. This word coming from the mouth of a white man hung in the air like the violence of strange fruit and Jim Crow and mass incarceration- and it went unchecked.
I learned at General Association how my white silence became violent. Many white people, myself included, are still figuring out how to become allies. How do we create an intersectional-movement that breaks the systems of oppression when some of us benefit from these very systems? For the real work to begin, we must repent from our idealized view of ourselves, to the reality that even on our best days, we as white people are recovering racists.
Our Conference Minister The Rev. Kent Siladi calls us to take risks, calls us to celebrate our failures because it means we are trying. Carlton Mackey told us that when we think we have it figured out, that is precisely the moment we most certainly do not have it figured out. We are called by Jesus to repent, not to pat ourselves on the back, but to turn away from sin and toward God. Racism is a sin that lives in the water we drink, and in order to turn away from sin and toward God, we need to name and repent our racism. And Lord knows we have a lot of work to do. I am proud of my Conference for being able to do justice work as imperfect people who fail and repent again and again. Failing publicly is part of the Jesus path.
The Rev. Julia Burkey is pastor of First Church of Christ, Congregational, in Middletown.