The following is from St. Paul’s, White River Junction parishioner Diane Root:
It began with a group of parishioners distressed by increasing news reports of black men and women dying at the hands of white police officers, trials ending in acquittal, and political campaigns encouraging bigotry. As a first step, the group planned a non-traditional Advent service in recognition of racial injustice, and invited the larger community. They hoped that a few more than their own group would attend, and were stunned when more than 40 showed up. In response to this interest in learning more about racism and the issue of white privilege, the group decided to launch a book study. The book chosen was Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
It was important that the book study move the parish outward into the community, so it was held in the town library, not at the church. Religious and “faith talk” was not the focus, though participants were welcome to share those perspectives along the way if they were so moved. The study focused less on analysis of the book, and more on the reader’s response to it. Sessions were led by various members of the congregation, and leadership was shared. The book study was announced to other churches and the larger community in multiple ways. Participants included members of St. Paul’s and other faith communities, as well as the activist group Showing Up For Racial Justice. There were more than 40 people in attendance at each of the four sessions.
The deepest learning came from sharing in both small groups and plenary time. In Between the World and Me, Coates shines light on the effects of pervasive, unchallenged racism in our society, and holds a mirror up to white privilege and willful blindness. The book is densely written, evocative, and painful. Reflection on the realities exposed by Coates, and his lens for viewing them, led participants to share their own struggles to understand racism in themselves and others, and to open their experiences to one another. It was a challenging book and a simple format, and people expressed strong appreciation for the opportunity to speak honestly together. One community member said, “There was no religious talk, and that made it possible for me to be here.” Another spoke of how the experience helped him appreciate “not being white.”
The event’s planners found a number of valuable take-aways: the strong need people feel to share their experiences around race and racism, the value of church offering a safe context for difficult conversation, the hospitality of gathering in a place familiar to the community, and the importance of networking with community groups working on the same issues.