After several online sessions, the Affinity Group for Clergy of Color recently met in personThe Conference’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion program partnered with Together We Thrive - a collaborative ministry of the SNEUCC, the New England Synod of the ELCA Lutherans, and the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment - to create an affinity group for clergy of color from the three entities.
“On Super Saturday in Spring 2021, Area Conference Minister Rev. Terry Yasuko Ogawa and I invited clergy of color to an unprogrammed lunchtime meeting," said Rev. James D. Ross II, Minister for Diversity Equity and Inclusion. "We heard over and over from folks that they felt isolated, they felt like they were not at all connected to other clergy of color and wanted the Conference to find a way for them to come together and be in community with each other,” said Ross.
As a result of that and additional conversations, the Conference and participating clergy of color worked with the Together We Thrive group and co-designed the Affinity Group for Clergy of Color.
An Affinity Group gathers several times per year around a specific topic, learning goal or type of ministry work. These groups are led by a topic expert who plans each gathering, resources the group and facilitates group conversations, and are conducive to creating a safe space in which clergy can learn and grow through deep sharing and honest reflection. Participants also are expected to experience enhanced self-awareness and strengthened leadership capacity.
Ross believes that it was because of that group effort that something really powerful and meaningful developed. “The primary facilitator, Rev. Dr. Barbara Wilson, and I held check-in sessions with participants who said the group was impactful and important to them,” said Ross. “They talked about the value of the relationships that they were building. They talked about the concrete technical learning that was taking place. They talked about how they felt in community with each other. And they talked about the ways in which this was affirming them as clergy.”
The group, which ended up being comprised of mostly people of African descent, began meeting last fall. Although all of the other sessions took place online, they met in-person for the last gathering in August.
"We clergy of color are so spread apart we don't often have the chance to come together in a safe space to talk about our challenges, best practices, things that bother us, and even our successes," said Rev. Albert Whitaker, pastor at St. Mark Congregational Church in Boston. "This was a wonderful opportunity to learn from each other, encourage one another, and even build long-lasting friendships."
Although the purpose of the Clergy of Color group is to create a mutually supportive, safe space in which ministers of color can develop deeper community, build additional skills for managing and navigating their contexts and systems, and prioritize care of self, Ross believes it also serves as part of the Conference work around racial justice.
“Racial justice work takes many forms, and one of those forms is to support and be in community with both congregants of color and clergy of color,” said Ross. “We were intentional about thinking about the structural concerns that address clergy of color, and knowing that many clergy of color are serving as associate ministers, in part-time roles, or congregations that are struggling financially, so we wanted to address the financial portion of it.”
The team worked with the Development team to conduct a targeted fundraising effort. Ross said the generosity of Old South Church in Boston; Edwards Church in Northampton, MA; Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford, CT; and Hope Central Church in Boston enabled the Conference and Together We Thrive to offer this Affinity group at a significantly reduced enrollment rate.
“Although we intentionally designed this Affinity group to include clergy from all historically underrepresented racial groups, the final enrollment was constituted primarily of people of African descent. One of our opportunities going forward is to continue to be in conversation with other clergy of color – people who are not of African descent – and learn more about their need and how we can be responsive to them.”
“I am so pleased to have participated in the African American Affinity Group,” said Rev. Sherril Willis, who is currently serving as bridge pastor at a church in western Massachusetts. “Living and working in the hill towns of Western Massachusetts I have very limited opportunities to be with black and brown people. I long for that connection, particularly with ordained minsters who are sharing similar experiences. Hopefully this group will have a long lifeline because its usefulness is beyond words."
Roslynn Hooks, Program Support for Together We Thrive, noted: "While my role was as an administrator for group-related items, the time I spent with the participants helped to refresh my soul and strengthen my faith and beliefs."
"I am very glad this opportunity took place," said Whitaker. "Historically, people get excited about a new program, but then interest dwindles. But this has momentum; the group decided it can be sustainable and we will continue to meet in some capacity."
For information about joining, please contact Roslynn Hooks at HooksR@SNEUCC.org.
Marlene Gasdia-Cochrane is the Storyteller for the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ, and a member of Tewksbury Congregational Church UCC.