- Rev. Barbara Ballenger
Rector’s Note: Racial Justice is Core Work- 5.18.2023
In addition to being St. Peter’s rector, I am also the co-chair of the Diocesan Anti-Racism Commission, which foster’s racial justice in the diocese through workshops, resources and consultation. This week during our LIFT Book Group discussion, in which we’re reading Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s book Love is the Way, the participants asked if I planned to bring some of that experience to St. Peter’s. We talked about what the work might look like now, and discussed the significant anti-racism work that is already part of our parish’s legacy. Coincidentally the discussion occurred the same day that I was to give the keynote presentation on anti-racism at our Deanery Convocation. I share it below, with a few edits, as an introduction into my thinking on the work of anti-racism in the parish, and how it is core spiritual work that strengthens all muscles.
I look forward to helping St. Peter’s continue to develop its own anti-racist practice as we continue to discern our spiritual charism and plan programming for the next program year. – Rev. Barb.
Racial Justice Strengthens All Spiritual Muscles: Anti-Racism as Spiritual Practice
Eight years ago, before the protests and street marches over the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Brianna Taylor, a group of families from Northwest Philadelphia was preparing its own march to protest racial violence. This was in the wake of the racially motivated murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and a string of others that were occurring in late 2014 and early 2015.
So in an effort to create a space where families with children could lament those deaths and condemn racism and talk about racial violence in ways appropriate for kids, several of us put together a march down Germantown Ave in Mt. Airy. About 100 people gathered on a rainy cold January day. We chanted “Black Lives Matter! Love and Justice! We sang songs and carried signs, and closed the day with family-friendly activities and discussions. We called it the Philly Children’s March, and it has since grown into a racial education organization called Philly Children’s Movement.
The question at the time was how would we continue the work of racial justice beyond a march, how would we keep the conversation alive in our families and schools and neighborhoods, so that marching led to real change?
One idea was to meet as families at one another’s houses and talk about our experiences with race and racism. I recall us gathering at the home of a fellow organizer, a Black neighbor on the next street. She said, “I can’t do this unless the White people have done their work.”
And I thought, had I done my work? I had helped plan the march. I had worked for racial justice for years, been involved in advocacy and protest of issues that affected Black people. I had promoted racial justice training at the parishes that I attended and worked at.
But had I done my work as a White person? What was that work? And how was that work connected to the physical and emotional well-being of my neighbor?
As a Black mentor of mine later put it, when White people do their work, I am safer.
How did doing my work make my Black neighbor safer?
Working with this little organization at its start, and with my colleagues at St Martin-in-the-Fields in Chestnut Hill, where we were asking similar questions, I began to understand that the work of racial justice is not solely addressing and fixing disparities or injustices or inequities out there. It is also understanding where they are rooted within me as a woman who benefits every day from her White skin color, and who is still steeped in norms and practices and assumptions that flow from the privileges of race..
I have learned over time that I can’t make this reality go away, but I can resist it, combat its impulses, and make sure that my racial justice work is informed by self-understanding. I’ve found that this internal work of anti-racism strengthens my spiritual core, and everything connected to it.
I learned this by doing Pilates.
A year ago in an effort to combat the degradation of my 55 year old body, I downloaded an exercise app. For seniors. I was won over by the cute animation of the plump little silver haired woman doing leg lifts and half crunches – she reminded me of… me. In reality, the actual videos are of lithe ballerinas who don’t seem to ever wince in pain, but even so, I have committed to spending about 15 to 20 minutes each morning strengthening my core.
Strengthen the core, and the rest of the body, which is attached, also benefits.
“Strong core muscles make it easier to do many activities. When your core muscles are strong, it's easier to swing a golf club, get a glass from the top shelf and bend down to tie your shoes….”
And that’ s not me talking, I stole that from the Mayo Clinic’s web site.
But as we talk about strengthening spiritual muscles, especially the ones that we use to serve Christ and foster justice on a community scale, it’s helpful to think about what is at our core – what weakens and what strengthens it.
In anti-racism work I have often come across folks who would rather talk about other more familiar problems like sexism or poverty. Someone often wonders why we aren’t giving equal time to these – why spend so much time on racism when there are such a wide variety of social sins to address, maybe ones more relatable to the people in the room?
It’s not a bad question. They are all sins of dominance after all; they are intersectional, and people affected by one of these kinds of oppression are usually affected by layer upon layer of them as well.
But I think it’s also helpful to think about racism as a sin of the core – so central to the functioning of the American body, that it impacts all the muscle groups – all the policies and laws and the institutions – including the church. You simply cannot address the other injustices and ignore racism, it’s too central, too integrated into the body.
That’s why I like to say that anti-racist practice is a core practice that strengthens all the justice muscles. It doesn’t replace the other injustice work, but it is connected to it and can inform it.
When we practice racial justice as people of faith it strengthens our spiritual muscles too. Because as a church, we too are a body. And we have invested a lot over many thousands of years in developing the processes and practices that keep the body going. So we know a thing or two about transformative practice. It requires grace and wisdom and humility, as well as admitting that we sin regularly and that we have to renounce that sin all the time. Or nothing changes. That is why we need a savior, why we rely on grace.
The purpose of racial justice as a spiritual practice is not to make me feel good in my own skin, or to improve my spiritual journey, or get me to heaven. The purpose is to go where Christ sends me.
The measure is whether my Black neighbor and her children are safe and their wellbeing secured. And that question is not mine to answer but hers.
But there is work that is mine.
So what is the essential spiritual practice that anti-racism teaches? Writ large, I believe it teaches us how to die, and to accept the life that God provides in its place. And it teaches us how to live into that life diligently and collectively.
When those early followers of the Jesus movement talked about dying to an old way of life and rising into a new one, they weren’t just talking about being thrown to the lions and waking up in heaven. They were talking about living in a way that defied the power structures of the day, a way that could not be conquered by torture and death, a way that created a new world right in the midst of the old one. What we call the Kingdom of God.
The churchy word for this is Kenosis – that outpouring of power, that laying down of privilege, that embrace of vulnerability that Jesus modeled in the incarnation, in his public ministry and in his death on the cross. It is the very same of movement that we are called to practice as members of his body, knowing that the trajectory of this outpouring of self, this laying down of power and pride, is life with God.
Anti-racist practice makes very clear what this look likes because it demands a setting-down of race-based power, of domination of others based on race. It demands a change in who controls access and resources. It acknowledges that those of us who are White are swimming in a kind of privilege that we didn’t ask for and that we can’t fully extricate ourselves from. And so for us, it requires a rejection of a system that benefits some at the expense of many, and that harms all of us in the end. This is the initial turn of repentance.
But White work is only part of it. Ibram X. Kendi in his book How to Be an Anti-Racist insists that the racist system draws in everyone – regardless of race –so that if you aren’t actively working to resist it or dismantle it, you are supporting it. He uses his own life as an example. People of faith have a particular responsibility in this work. The Church in its many forms has been instrumental in legitimizing racist ideology for hundreds of years. But it also holds within its theology and ritual ways of living into anti-racist practice. I have found that for me, anti-racist practice informs my spirituality, and my spirituality informs my anti-racist practice.
So what are exercises of anti-racist spiritual practice that help strengthen the whole body of Christ?
I’ve put together a handout of 12 spiritual practices (see attached) that I have learned from anti-racism work, and that I believe are helpful in any work that requires us to put down power, lay down dominance and practice mutuality. I started creating this list when I was leading our anti-racism work at St. Martin-in-the-Fields when I was on staff there. At the time we were asking ourselves how our parish leaders might weave anti-racist practice in their own ministries.
So this is my starter list, which was honed a bit in committee discussion, and is still a work in progress. There is a great deal to add to it, and I’d be interested to know what you think about it.
This list includes familiar spiritual practices like repentance, and relying on the grace of God; humility and upholding human dignity. But it also lists growth-edge practices for the church like inclusion, having courageous conversations, practicing empathy, developing self-understanding, acting with transparency and seeking help. These are just the umbrella practices. Crammed into the explanatory boxes are skills like compassionate listening, laying down power, considering whose images are on our stained glass windows and walls, creating safe spaces for healing or lament.
And you’ll find as you look at them that there is a great deal of overlap, working on one will employ others. Take empathy for example.
I heard a report on NPR’s Hidden Brain awhile back that discussed empathy as something to be a little cautious about. That’s because empathy is fairly easy to generate among people who have the same experiences or backgrounds, and it can sometimes enforce exclusion of those with whom the group doesn’t relate. Empathizing with people who have diverse experiences can be difficult for people who do not live in diverse settings or have fled or avoided them.
So racial empathy requires experiences of and appreciation of racial diversity and diverse settings – it requires listening to a story not our own. If our churches are almost all White, we cannot make them diverse overnight, but we can find ways to cultivate voices, artwork, learning, role models and intellectual ideas from racially diverse people. The fact that our many Episcopal churches make up a diverse community that gathers around Common Prayer, a common table and a common story, invites a practice and a pathway to unity in diversity. All strengthen that spiritual practice of empathy.
Another skill that strengthens empathy is compassionate listening. This is the act of listening without fixing, of listening in a way that helps someone get their own story out so they can learn from it. The act of supportive listening helps build common cause, make spaces of trust and healing. There are trainings that you can take in this. There’s a wonderful practitioner at St Martin’s named Bill Jacobsen who would run trainings in it for us, and we often used this practice in our own anti-racism workshops there.
I also want to touch briefly upon the spiritual practice of getting help, which is number 12. Justice work is hard, and anti-racism work is incredibly difficult. It requires painful self-exploration, and advocacy for change that is hard fought. We don’t always see results. The dominant White culture loves to see measurable results and progress, and loses interest if it doesn’t happen right away. And People of Color are often waiting in pain and exhaustion for those results to happen. So we need to help each other along the way. This is something that faith communities do very well in our prayer and our ritual and our celebration of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.
As the co-chair of the diocesan Anti-Racism Commission, I want you to know that we are here to help you as well.
The Anti-Racism Commission offers a five-part series whose sessions repeat each year so if you miss one, you can pick it up later. It’s on zoom. It covers the basics of racism from the perspectives of history, institutions, racial identity, and active accountability. It’s a great way to get parish leaders oriented and introduced to the concepts of anti-racist practice. Anyone can take it.
This year we began to offer Racial Healing Circles on Zoom for people of African descent led by our facilitator Lailah Dunbar who is African American.
We have numerous resources for prayer, action and learning on our blog site, The ARC, and on our Facebook page and in our monthly e-newsletter.