We recently took a small risk together. A Black male pastor trained at Liberty University and a white female pastor steeped in feminist liberation theology, we jumped into the maelstrom of distrust and division awhirl in our community.
Bryan and I took a friend up on her offer, leading a study on conflict resolution at a white church during the weeks leading up to and through the presidential election.
The potential for conflict in our town of Lynchburg, Virginia is immense. Deeply seated racialized trauma lives side-by-side with vocal white Christian nationalism. The river that flows through our town once carried the raw materials of capitalism in the form of tobacco and cotton. Our quaint hillside cemetery holds the remains of Confederate soldiers alongside the enslaved people whose stolen labor grew those crops and formed the bricks of our trendy downtown lofts. The residue of these deep disparities lives on in our public schools, our police department, our jails, our segregated neighborhoods, and the armed militias of neighboring counties.
These disparities were never far from our minds when Brian and I began gathering regularly at the sunny deck of the Depot Grille, shortly after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Baltimore. We sought each other back in those earlier days of racial unrest, wondering how we might build a relational infrastructure—one that could sustain us as agents of hope in the racial discontent that was then rumbling just under the surface of our daily lives.
We knew then that our humanity was tangled up together: Our ancestors, our histories, and our shared faith called us to pay attention to the possibility of friendship as a balm to the deep and tragic wound of enslavement and its ever-present aftermath. We started small, sharing meals, and listening deeply to one another’s griefs, fears, and loves.
Over a few years, we discovered one another’s quirks and uncovered subtle ways we wander from the labels—progressive, liberal, evangelical, feminist—used to describe us. Defying unwritten rules, we learned to trust, question, disagree, and express gratitude for one another from our very different corners of Christianity.
Thankfully, our friendship is neither unique nor unusual. Thankfully, people like us regularly cross racial and theological divides all the time to explore shared values and companionship, quietly out of the limelight.
In addition to pleasure, these friendships have purpose: it is part of our vocations as Christians to lead lifestyles that transform conflict into energy for good. So, when a mutual friend asked Brian and me to help her address systemic racism at her mostly white, mostly upper middle class church, we didn’t say no.
Why did this feel risky? Christians in this town can easily trace their generations back to slaveholders and enslaved people alike. Like most towns across the US, congregations here hold the pickup truck driving, flag-wielding members of the pre-election Sunday Trump Trains as well as the people of all races who show up at Black Lives Matters rallies. It felt risky because it is much easier to keep our noses to the grindstone, doing the work before us, instead of opening to the “work our souls must have,” an evocative phrase used by the late Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Canon to talk about the deep purpose to which God calls us.
We titled the course “Together in Love: Christian Tools for Times Like These” because, sadly, we knew a course addressing systemic racism head-on would bring out only those already committed to working for racial justice. As it turned out, we attracted those already committed folks anyway: people in the fields of law, higher education, counseling and other helping professions. It turns out the already-committed were hungry to immerse themselves in a refresher course on why Christians should be at the forefront of peace and justice.
Over our weeks together, we focused on four disciplines my co-authors and I write about in the book Another Way: Living and Leading Change on Purposes * (co-authored by Stephen Lewis and Matthew Wesley Williams). The disciplines, summarized in the acronym C.A.R.E., directed us each week to:
-Create hospitable space, where people slow down, listen generously to one another, withhold judgment and turn to wonder when perspectives clash.
-Ask self-awakening questions, practicing the art of holy listening, without an agenda, as if we expect the Holy One to appear in the face of our neighbor.
-Reflect theologically and critically together, lifting up scripture we know by heart, and re-examining it in light of our current cultural context and systems of power and privilege.
-Enact the next most faithful step, each week trying out one new practice of conflict resolution in our interactions with friends, families, neighbors with whom we hold differing values.
Community grew. Each week, the space between us thickened. Tears flowed as people shared the interpersonal difficulties the heightened atmosphere of conflict was wreaking in our daily lives. In the midst of the social isolation of the pandemic, we welcomed the simple warmth of a circle of sharing as each Wednesday evening Zoom call rolled around.
When invited, the prayers, practices and scriptures that tacitly guide everyday actions around conflict resolution bubbled up. We pulled them out to examine them more closely.
Remember when the stones fell from everyone’s hands, as one simple question de-escalated a would-be execution? Remember when Jesus turned the tables in the temple to call attention to injustice? Remember the central claim to love one’s neighbor, repeated over and over in multiple iterations throughout the Judeo-Christian sacred texts? Then there is the prayer on page 824 of the Book of Common prayer. The Beatitudes. The Breath Prayer. The list went on.
Soon we could envision a toolbox, collaboratively filled with ancient practices that could be pulled out today, tomorrow and in the weeks ahead, as winners and losers meet over holiday tables and family Zoom calls.
Reflecting theologically in community over four weeks provided the opportunity for us to update our spiritual values and tether them to action in the world. The pastors honed the habit of sharing the task of generating new theological commitments, decentralizing action from the congregation outward.
Our journey together ended with a question: What is the connection between the small acts of neighborly love that most Christians don’t think twice about in our everyday lives—stopping by the road to help a stranded traveler, stocking the local food pantry, helping an elderly neighbor take out her trash—and the larger, necessary acts of love that look like public policy?
How do we transfer Christianity’s toolbox for conflict resolution from individuals to the collective, so that we begin to link the deep spiritual resources with those of other traditions to design a world in which no one gets left out? How does our faith help us imagine such a just and equitable world?
We ended with many questions, lingering uncertainties. But we had become clear about one thing: a small cohort within one congregation is a good-enough starting place. A collective muscle for justice gains strength when we start small, learn to listen, and remember what we know about transforming conflict into energy for good.
*Readers can learn more about the book here.