Response: March 2015 Issue

The Enduring Call of the Charter for Racial Justice

The Enduring Call of  the Charter for Racial Justice
Rosa Maria Narvaez, Lydia Mejorado, Elizabeth Jimenez, Elva Guzman sort donated clothes at Holding Institute in Laredo, Texas.

As United Methodist Women's executive for racial justice, I conduct racial justice trainings with directors and members all over the country to work toward the elimination of institutional racism and help our organization identify and support the key racial justice issues of our time. This final piece of my work has been particularly fraught over the past year. When I think of the vast array of racial justice issues happening in the world, I experience an overwhelming sense of urgency to respond, particularly as a child of God. But at times, I also just feel overwhelmed.

Can you identify with these feelings of confusion and dismay? What is clear to me through all of my travels and conversations is that the question of how we must contend with the racial realities swirling around us remains as urgent as ever.

From the alarming number of unarmed black men being killed by law enforcement and vigilantes, to the seemingly unending wars being fought in our name, to complex trade agreements and foreign policies pushing migrants out of their homes and to our borders, we are constantly seeing images of injustice and racial inequality that test our resolve. We live in a hyper-racialized world where immigrants are treated like commodities who are often economically and physically exploited for their labor, and where a model of economic development abounds that's unaccountable to our indigenous brothers and sisters, on whose land we live. Indeed, it is most often people of color who live closest to the dangerous pollution emitted from our extraction, production and waste facilities.

In times such as these, United Methodist Women members are called to reflect on what the Charter for Racial Justice means for us today as we grapple with the persistence of racial injustice at every level of our society. How are we called to do racial justice in our times?

First, the charter's mandate is very clear and very practical: "Work for the development and implementation of national and international policies to protect the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of all people. … Increase our efforts to recruit women of all races into the membership of United Methodist Women and provide leadership development opportunities without discrimination." Still it can be difficult to know how to accomplish these objectives in a time in which racism can be covert and obscured.

For example, in the face of public manifestations of racial progress—such as the election of the nation's first black president—many proclaim that we have entered a "post racial" era in which race no longer plays a significant role in the opportunities or outcomes of individuals and communities that once faced overt discrimination on the basis of race. A post-racial lens sees progress but is blind to modern racism's covert workings and de facto effects. A post-racial lens might see, for instance, "Our conference has more women of color than ever before!" But a post-racial lens does not acknowledge the concerns that those women of color have about decision-making powers that somehow skirt around them and back to their white sisters.

Our United Methodist foremothers who drafted the Charter for Racial Justice in 1952 recognized that our work to undo racial injustice must happen precisely within the institutions where we exert the most influence and power. To know how to undermine racial injustice in our institutions and lives, we must first set the stage by acknowledging some basic truths.

First, white people must participate in deep listening to the racial realities of people of color without judgment, defensiveness and without being buried under a torrent of guilt and shame for being white and having privilege and power. We are all impacted and brutalized by racism, white people included. But the gulf between the racial realities of most people of color and most white people is immense, and in order for real dialogue to happen, that gap must begin to be bridged. The racial justice educator Joseph Barndt says in his book, Understanding and Dismantling Racism: the 21st Century Challenge to White America, "No one has all the answers on how to end racism. There is no instant way to bring racism to a screeching halt." Mr. Barndt says all of us involved in the struggle to end racism are "making the path by walking it.'" Listening and dialogue are a step on this path to us all being free.

Another basic truth we must accept is that racial injustice will not be solved at a personal level, because personal prejudice is only a small part of racism. We must, together as a society, begin to examine and attack systemic racism, which was imbedded in the founding of all of our society's institutions and persists in every institution to this day. So while dialogue and listening is critical, we must also go further to understand the nature of institutionalized racism and how we can undo it. Again, Mr. Barndt explains: "The distinctive mark of racism is power—collective, systemic, societal power. Not simply the power of one individual over another. …Systemic racism is legalized, institutionalized and self-perpetuating. …Racism therefore cannot be ended without fundamental transformation of the systems and institutions into which it was institutionalized."

Two actions are key to doing racial justice in the 21st century:

  • White people listening more intently and consistently to people of colors' racial realities, and
  • Understanding that if racism is about systemic inequity then undoing racism must be about realizing systemic equity, not merely personal equity.

Accepting these truths are prerequisite actions for anyone wanting to meaningfully address racial inequality, in their hearts, in the world or in their conference. These are hard truths that require a lot of us as justice seekers. The Bible can help us in this difficult task.

As a child, one of my favorite Bible stories was about Jonah. A man trapped in the belly of a whale for three days, what kid would not love that fantastical story! But as an adult, the part of the story I most identify with is when Jonah rejects God's call and flees rather than preach to those God-less people in Nineveh. Jonah was an honorable man of God, a prophet willing to boldly proclaim God's word—except in Nineveh.

Like Jonah, we are called to go to hard places—places where we may feel challenged, experience hurt and witness our own brokenness and how we are implicated in the brokenness of our human community. God did not call Jonah or us because this is an easy job.

As followers of Christ and as part of the Wesleyan tradition, we are called because in our time, as ever, we must do all the good we can, by all the means we can, in all the places we can, to all the people we can, as long as ever we can. We are called to pray in a quiet room as Jesus recommended, but we also pray with our feet, as Jesus did. Jesus taught us, with his sacrifice for us, that taking action to stop injustice, pain and distress is also a form of prayer that is vital to our spiritual growth. We grow spiritually through deep reflective prayer but also by actively responding to our Lord's call, in Nineveh and beyond.

Where is your Nineveh? Where are you called to address to racial injustice? How have you answered God's call?

How we answer the call to work for racial justice matters. Here are some ways to bring our faith and calling from God to the work of reconciliation and for racial justice:

  • Value mutuality. In the book Mutuality in Mission, Dr. Glory Dharmaraj, former United Methodist Women director of spiritual growth, stated: "Mutuality in Christian mission is committed to a culture of equality. …Mutuality enables [people] to communicate honestly and behave with integrity. They see the world from [one another's] perspective and [understand one another 's] mental map of the future." Mutuality is hard work. It asks us not merely to respond to injustice with our wallets and our feet, but it also asks that we work in ways that are led by those most directly impacted by injustice. It asks us not to assume that we always have the answers. It asks that when we enter into relationship with impacted people we remember the work is not just about us feeling good about ourselves but about ending injustice and realizing the kin-dom of God.
  • Listen. Listening to one another gives us the opportunity to truly begin to see how injustice is impacting all our lives and to go where God leads us, even if that means seeing how we might be perpetuating injustice. We must create spaces where this kind of deep listening and dialogue can happen.  As mothers, sisters and friends, we know about having real conversations with people in our lives.  Sometimes these conversations heal us, sometimes they challenge and change us, and sometimes they leave us with more questions, as they should. These are the kinds of conversations and listening we must undertake when we seek to address issues of injustice. You can deepen your listening and dialogue skills by using the United Methodist Women's manual, Tools for Leaders: Resources for Racial Justice. This resource is full of ideas about how to continue having robust conversations about social and racial justice in our homes, conferences and community. 
  • Take action. So, just to be clear, prayer is an action. In addition to our silent and contemplative prayers, again, we are called to pray in action. You can act publically, privately, collectively and individually. It is simply important to act, and to do so consistently.

God's call to Jonah, to you, to me and the call of the Charter for Racial Justice are loud, clear and persistent. Let's not run from the job. Let's answer the call—and go trusting Christ's promise to be with us always, even in difficult places.

Janis Rosheuvel is United Methodist Women's executive for racial justice. Her office is at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York City.

Posted or updated: 3/2/2015 12:00:00 AM