Stepping out of our Comfort Zones

That ends the reading of the Pastoral Letter on Racism from the UCC Collegium of Officers, which will be reprinted in our newsletter. It was a long letter, I know. And I want to thank the Worship Committee and Consistory for saying, “Yes, this is important, and sacred conversations on race are something we should pursue.” For some, racism is not an easy thing to talk about. I grew up in New Orleans, an African-American city, knowing and spending much time with African-Americans, but also coming to know people of Hispanic descent as I had one neighbor from Guatemala and two from Argentina. They celebrated different customs from my family, but they were wonderful families that opened my eyes to difference.

Why is race something important for us to talk about today? Is it important simply because of the comments of Jeremiah Wright that unleashed a storm of controversy around the country? I hope many of you watched the Bill Moyers PBS special which explained some of the sound bites that were taken out of context from sermons years ago. When those things were explained to me, I had no problem with them placed in the context of his sermons even though they might raise eyebrows even in this church. Those of us who heard the context of those sermons would probably say, “Yes, it’s upsetting, but I can see where he’s coming from.” Much of that had nothing to do with Jeremiah Wright, but had to do with a candidate for President who happens not to be white. It comes from forces that wish to see that the Presidency remain one race, which is unfortunate. And some may say that it’s simply playing politics.

But as these things emerge...and things will probably continue to emerge throughout the presidential only brings to the surface tensions which are right under the surface, tensions that I have seen in Taneytown which have nothing to do with this election but have everything to do with race. As a pastor here in this church, I’ve been to City Council meetings (especially on the difficult topic of illegal immigration, which is very complex and has many nuances, and will find us in different places based on our discussions of the issue) where I heard attacks on people of a specific race simply because this community is predominantly one race at this time, failing to recognize and honor American citizens who happen to be of those nationalities and races and who also struggle today to be accepted in society.

For many of us, we see ourselves as people of Christ, people who love all people and care for all people -- and for the most part, I believe we are. When I went to seminary, a fellow seminarian spoke to us in a class on racial justice looked us and said, “You are all racists.” And that was highly upsetting to me as a person who grew up in an African-American city and who never considered myself a person with any tendencies toward prejudice or racism. But after taking the class...which gave us more information and knowledge about subtle and overt forms of racism, about what exists as white privilege in our nation which many of us have probably not read much about...a lot of things came to the forefront and helped me, at least, to realize that even I had biases and prejudices that I was unaware of, things that didn’t come out in overt conversations, but may come out even in my thoughts.

To all of us today who would proclaim ourselves to be free of racism or bigotry, I give an example. If you were to break down in a poor Baltimore City neighborhood and a group of young African-American males approached you on the street, would you feel comfortable in those moments? Though I try to look for the best in all people, my red flags would go up. And in that way, it means that even I feel racial bias. How many of us would feel comfortable taking a stroll down certain of Taneytown’s streets at midnight? I have a feeling that many of us who know about the complexities even of our own town would not do such a thing.

The racial bias that is in us comes from all avenues. It’s not necessarily taught to us by our parents or grandparents. We see it in the news every night. If there is a shooting or a murder in the inner city, it is often a young African-American male between 20 and 30 being sought, raising suspicion in all of us each time we see an African-American male. These things are present all around. We cannot escape them. It is part of what our society has become. And though our society has had tremendous race issues in the past, those issues are not over today by any means. When we hear these discussions, it’s often easy for us to say, “Well, that’s just people playing the race card.” But if we sit down and truly listen and open ourselves up and let our barriers down, we may begin to realize that even people of faith in the United Church of Christ, a church that embraces diversity and loves all people...have limits within us that we did not know were beneath the surface.

This is why these conversations are important for us because, even in people like us who have worked for justice in society, these biases and isms still remain just under the surface. And if it remains in us, what can we say about people who are not church people? What can we say about people who do not proclaim to want to see a society of equals? What can we say about our nation? It is difficult and it is painful, and it is unnerving. I do not expect everyone to excitedly jump up and say, “Yes, let’s have the conversation,” because it can be difficult. It can bring tears. In our course on justice ministries in seminary where we had to talk about the issue of race, many of us had a couple of very tearful classes where, when we had to look back over our lives and see things from a different point of view, we recognized the pain that we had caused others. And even I was not exempt from that.

During the summer, I hope to offer several conversations on race...not just for our church, but to talk about our communities, our cities, our states, and our country...and where we are with this issue and who we, as people of faith, need to become and the things that we need to do. Not just to challenge ourselves, but to challenge the powers that be that keep these things in force, whether they be governmental powers or powers of financial power, which is an even bigger issue. In these offerings, that’s where the real conversation will begin, when it will become a two-way or a three-way, or a five, or ten, or twelve-way conversation between the people who come and want to explore not only in prayer, but to look at and to try to understand the complexities of this issue.

And if we think it may not be important to discuss race, let me share from these statistics from that original Pastoral Letter written in 1991. Progress has not always been made from this list;; some things may have gotten better and some things may have actually gotten worse.

  • 1 out of every 4 children under the age of 6 in the United States lives beneath the poverty level. 60% of these children in poverty are children of color.
  • African-American children are 3.4 times more likely than European-American children to be poor. Latino children are 3 times more likely to be poor.
  • Poverty among the Asian-Pacific-American population is 1.5 times higher than that of non-Hispanic whites. In Metropolitan areas with high concentrations of Asian-Pacific-Americans, the poverty rate is roughly twice as high as that of non-Hispanic whites.
  • More than 38% of the Native American population has an income below the poverty level. Though many reservations have successful gaming casinos as a way to resolve poverty and unemployment, there is still public state and federal opposition to this direction of economic growth. This opposition threatens self-determination of the tribal governments.
  • In 1994, African-Americans were 2.3 times more likely to be unemployed than European-Americans. 41% of African-American men nationally are without employment. The average full-time employed African-American person makes 77 cents for every dollar of the European-American. An Hispanic worker makes even less.
  • The unemployment level for Native-American young people on some reservations is 80-90%.
  • Latin American women are twice as likely as non-Latin women to be employed in service occupations, which are usually very low-paying jobs).
  • Nationally, 25% of the Asian-Pacific-Americans aged 25 and over have less than a high school diploma and/or possess limited English skills; therefore, disadvantaged Asian-Pacific-Americans have a low labor force participation rate, only 63%, and only 32% work full time, usually in low-skilled occupations. Approximately 90% of this disadvantaged population are immigrants, 2/3 of whom entered this country as adults and 1/3 having been here for five years or less.
  • Native American health care is 20 to 25 years behind the national average and life expectancy is about 1/3 less, even though the federal government’s Indian Health Services was created to provide health care to residents of Indian reservations. Most Native Americans living in urban communities have no health insurance nor do they qualify for Indian Health Services care.
  • The U. S. Department of Housing & Urban Development found that in 40 metropolitan areas, 70% of all rental applicants and 90% of potential home buyers were steered into separate African-American and European-American neighborhoods. Continued residential segregation is the result of organized, purposeful exclusion on the part of European-American residents, exclusion which can also include harassment, assault, vandalism, and arson (that actually happened in Maryland a year or two ago in a new neighborhood for wealthy African-Americans where houses were being burned; I don’t know if you remember that in the news, and it was racially motivated).
  • In the criminal system, studies have shown consistently high populations of African-American and Hispanic and Native American people. Studies have also shown these population groups receive harsher sentencing than European-Americans. In California, which has been using the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ law, 57.3% of African-Americans convicted have been sentenced under the law compared with only 12.6% of European-Americans.

When we read this, it’s important for us to remember that many of the injustices are caused by racism. The reality, as evidenced by these statistics, is that the effects of racism are as damaging as ever. While laws no longer allow clearly overt racism, subtle and covert racism is still strong. It is in the context of this reality that we are to engage in these purposeful sacred conversations.

So what is it that we are asking you to do? To come and be a part of sacred conversations where we can be in a safe place, where we can honestly speak the truth in love but also respect each other’s dignity and share openly. We will seek to improve our understanding of the types of racism in our society that are not just personal, but are institutional and internalized. We will explore the roles of prejudice, bigotry and personal bias and examine the meaning of privilege that all white Americans enjoy, but seldom are aware of. These gatherings will be sensitive and respectful, but also honest and sacred, as we will begin each segment with prayer and time of silence. Those who wish will be able to share, but it’s not required. One can simply come and listen. But we will try to take more of a hard look at ourselves, at our church, at our community, city, and nation. It is important for us not to let this opportunity pass us by citing that ‘we’ or ‘I’ have no problem here. This problem is in our own town, in Taneytown. Sometimes it is in our houses even without us being aware. Some of you who may be new to town may not know that the Ku Klux Klan used to rally here and have a stronghold here in Taneytown. They are no longer here; they have moved on. Many of the voices of the combined church community and people looking for equality in Taneytown had a part in moving that group and their campaign of hatred from Taneytown. The town is to be applauded for that. But some of the remnants of that still reside here and are still present in ways we may not be aware of.

Racism is a problem for all of us, not just for those who are people of color or a different race. If one of us hurts, all of us hurt. The lack of change in the larger society may be due to the apathy of so many of us who demonstrate that these aren’t problems that we really have. So as a pastor, and just as an American citizen, I invite you to come and to brave the waters of truth so that we may find deeper healing, not just for ourselves, but for everyone in our community.

Read other Sermons by Pastor Steve