A couple weeks ago I dropped by the John Whitmer Historical Association’s annual meeting on “Race, Gender, Ethnicity, and the Restoration”; I was impressed to see Community of Christ scholars beginning to really think seriously about issues of race within the church. Then today I received an email newsletter from the Community of Christ’s young adult network with the theme of race and nationality, linking to this blog posting Mariana Coradeli Medeiros-Shelton, a translator for the church. These two things have inspired me to write a few reflections on race in the Community of Christ.
The Community of Christ membership is overwhelmingly white, and as William Russell argued in 1979, has tended to follow mainstream North American thinking on race rather than be on the cutting prophetic edge. This ambivalence is displayed in Joseph Smith III’s instruction to the church in 1878 that the church should “ordain priests…of every race”, but nonetheless “Be not hasty in ordaining men of the Negro race….”
Similarly, during the Civil Rights Movement, the editor of the Saint’s Herald, (the church’s magazine, not this blog), urged members not to participate in civil disobedience and instructed blacks in the segregated South to “obey the local laws” even if the “feel they are the victims of discriminative laws.” When William Russell wrote a pro-Civil Rights editorial in the Herald, the church leadership responded by dimissively saying the “internal racial problems in our church have been very minor.” This was despite an earlier article by the African-American pastor William T. Blue, Sr. decrying the existence of segregated RLDS congregations in the south. For more on the church’s history of attitudes on race, click here to read a college paper I wrote on the topic for my Civil Rights history class.
It strikes me that the Community of Christ could benefit from a spending some time reflecting on its ‘whiteness’ — defined by one scholar as the phenomenon of “how white skin preference has operated systematically, structurally, and sometimes unconsciously as a dominant force in American—and indeed in global—society and culture.” What does whiteness mean in the Community of Christ? I would like to open a discussion of what this means by inviting readers to reflect in the comment section on how race has manifested itself in their lives and in the church.
Rather than speak for anyone else, and to get the ball rolling, I thought I would begin by writing here a reflection of my own. It is adapted from a response to a question I had to give on in a job application form recently. I thought it would be appropriate for this setting too:
Growing up a white kid in a primarily non-white neighborhood and schools, I noticed that my friends, close to me as a small boy, become more mistrustful and uneasy around me as we grew up and realized our ethnic differences. It was a hard finding out I was white and part of the group identified as the oppressor. Nonetheless, given my wide exposure to a diverse mélange of peoples as a child, I largely considered myself immune from racism and when I went to the overwhelmingly white church college, Graceland University, in the US, I felt a sense of superiority over my Midwestern classmates who had had very little interaction with other cultures.
However, this self-righteousness was shattered when I went on a WorldService Corps volunteer assignment in Kenya during one of my college summer breaks. For the first time, I really recognize my whiteness and what it meant in terms of power and privilege. I realized that I had never had to question my worth as a human being, whereas too often cultural and religious imagery elevates whiteness and denigrates blackness. For instance, at the Community of Christ congregation in Nairobi I attended one Sunday, the Sunday School children were quizzing the adults with trivia questions such as “Who killed Goliath?” and so on. A little boy stepped forward and asked the congregation “I am black as charcoal, who am I?” The congregation shouted out various answers such as “A child of God” but all their answers were met with a shake of the head. Finally they gave up and asked the child what the answer was. He replied, “Satan.” I was suddenly struck by the fact that had never had to face anyone telling me that my skin color associated me with something sinful and dirty. I did not know what it was like to be nagged by constant messages that something irreversible about myself was deeply and profoundly wrong.
At the same time, travelling around a society that still plagued by feelings of racial inadequacy and a legacy of colonial elevations of whiteness, I was disturbed to find myself secretly enjoying the trappings of white privilege. I had never been treated with such pomp and circumstance, given more credence than my 19 years deserved or considered to be so important with so little effort of mine own. A couple of months into my term, I broke down with the realization of how, below all the layers of tolerance and acceptance that I tried to project, there was a closet racist. Embedded deep in my subconsciousness was a person who took advantage of the power, status and resources that my white skin offered, and enjoyed it. This was a horrifying realization for me, one that shook me to the very psychological core of who I thought I was. As I have spent more time on the African continent over the years since, I have come to realize just how ingrained the colonial mythology is in my mind. It can be very difficult to rid oneself of the imagery rooted in tales of Livingstone and Stanley, Hemingway hunting big game and Robert Redford and Meryl Streep waltzing on the savannah. (Click here for more of my reflections on whiteness in Africa)
Acutely aware of the cultural and experiential gulf that separated me from my Kenyan friends and colleagues, toward the end of that summer I began to despair that I would ever be able to bridge that gap and bring healing to the incredibly complicated and deep-seated racial systems that divided us. However, I got a small glimpse of what the answer might entail one day while we were meeting with Community of Christ members in their homes in the Western part of Kenya. Entering the compound of one family, fenced off by dried rushes, we passed a large middle aged man chopping firewood. As we approached, I called out “Amousi!” to him in greeting and then followed my colleagues, ducking into the low doorway of a nearby hut. I had only just gotten myself comfortable in the rough wooden chair, when suddenly the man with the ax appeared in the doorway, his huge frame blocking the sunlight that had lit the room. He began talking excitedly, with great emotion. I started feeling afraid. I could not understand his language and I do not generally feel comfortable around huge overexcited men carrying axes. And then the translator began to explain what he was saying. The man said that the last time a white man had come to his village was when he was a small child under the British colonial regime – a regime, incidentally, in which my great- great- great- uncle, as the Anglican Bishop for East Africa, had played a role. White schoolteachers had come to the village and forced him to go to school, beating him severely with a stick and prohibiting him from speaking his mother tongue. However, he said that this time, the white man (me) had come bearing no weapon, only a wave, had shouted at him only in greeting, and had used his mother tongue. Visibly moved, he wanted to thank me. I was shocked and humbled. All I had done was said hello. And yet this simple, everyday act had recognized him as a human being, who deserved the respect and dignity of a greeting. Without even trying, without any thought or effort on my part, my presence had channeled a small element of healing to one life bruised by the injustice of imperialism. Somehow, no credit to me, I had atoned in a very small way for the great sins of my colonial forebears. Some mystery, even divine grace, had appeared in a deeply broken situation and created a moment of healing.
And yet I still have the nagging feeling that these small moments of grace are not quite enough to create systemic change with the church. I wonder whether we are open enough to allow them to speak to us, whether we are willing enough to live in the discomfort and psychological dissonance that a recognition of one’s privilege provokes. I do not really know the best way forward. I invite you all to share your thoughts.