By Maria Hosler Byler, Associate Pastor for Youth and Family Faith Formation at Salford Mennonite
“The extent to which we are surprised by the results of the election demonstrates the poverty of our relationships. The extent to which we don’t understand the need for immigration reform demonstrates the poverty of our relationships.” As I listened to Dr. Christena Cleveland at Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s School for Leadership Training (SLT), I was struck yet again by a consistent theme: we need each other, in all our differences, to glimpse the power of God and join in the work of God in the world.
One of the things I love about SLT is that it turns people of authority into students for a few days. The ones I’m used to seeing up front at conference and denominational events are sitting and listening, taking notes and asking questions. At SLT, we participants — the majority of us white church leaders with a significant amount of agency in our daily lives — learned from keynote speakers Dr. Cleveland and Drew Hart about race in society. We were called to take our turn “at the foot of the table,” as Dr. Cleveland said. That’s how we really live into Jesus’ upside-down kingdom.
Using illustrations from scripture and their lives, the speakers explored the depth of race’s impact on our society. They explored how our racialized society maintains itself and why it’s so hard for white people to see and confront racism — why we need people with a “view from the underside,” in Hart’s words, to recognize it. They called the largely white audience to recognize how we’ve been socialized into racial bias, and that Jesus never called us to shame but to repentance and new life together. Dr. Cleveland showed us by example how to notice privilege in our own lives. We were being tutored in how to reach beyond ourselves as a demonstration of respect and also of our need.
But it’s not just that we need each other’s perspective, or that we need to learn from one another to understand Jesus’ message. No, we each have a role to play in dismantling racism, wherever we are. When we’re uncomfortable we can benefit by staying at the table and continuing the conversation. In fact, that’s what we were doing at the conference: listening, learning, checking our assumptions and discerning our next steps. One conference attendee asked Drew Hart, “What can I do about racism in my predominantly white community?” and Hart responded, “You’re right at the center of the action!” Throughout the conference I heard calls to learn and act right where we are, building relationships with our literal neighbors. I attended a workshop where we practiced listening to people we disagreed with. In another workshop we discussed what it means to “seek the peace of the city” where you are (Jer. 29:7) and spent some time brainstorming for our own contexts.
I left SLT with a clear sense of my need for others’ perspectives, and also of my ability to make a difference where I am. And I came home with new questions: Who might I need to listen to better in order to gain a fuller understanding of Jesus? Where might my privilege be causing me to miss an important lesson? And how can I stay true to what I’ve learned about power and justice right here in my daily life?
For more of this year’s School for Leadership Training check out Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s article: “School for Leadership Training addresses pastoral responses to a racialized and divided America”