Becoming Beloved Community–Attending to Diversity from the Inside Out

By Virginia Holmstrom

I met Edna 32 years ago at a national ABW committee meeting and conference. She was the one who invited me to see her African-American sisters as my sisters, too. Edna wisely and quite accurately assessed my limited exposure to African-American persons when she prescribed a step-by-step journey for me to personally know and nurture friendship with black women.

Ten years later, I transferred my church membership to a Black congregation of American Baptists, largely comprised of Caribbean-born individuals and extended families once rooted in Georgia and Virginia and the Carolinas. I reveled in the spirited music that invited me to clap along on the up-beats. I learned to sing at half tempo the gospel hymns of the black church. One Sunday I brought my violin to church and began to play with the instrumental group, knowing all the while that I had no clue how to improvise for the rhythms I heard and felt.

Church services, worship styles, church-led activities, church dinners, and even women’s ministries take on the distinct traditions within a congregation; these contribute to the blessings of being an American Baptist. However, from the vantage point of our familiar church pew, we may rarely see or experience the beautiful cultures and traditions happening in American Baptist churches across the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

When your church’s AB Women’s Ministries group or circle meets, you might be surprised to learn that ABWM groups in other cities or states aren’t just like yours. The ABWM group in the next city may be praying in their first language brought with them as immigrants or refugees to this country. There’s an ABWM over in the next state that may accommodate as many toddlers as women because their congregation has plenty of young adults but is sparse on the grandparent ages. The Euro-American church across town may have monthly ABWM meetings in the church parlor, and the African-American church women in the next region are organizing their next supper fundraiser to support the church’s wider ministry.

Our American Baptist denomination is among the most diverse Protestant denominations in the U.S. in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, class, and theology. That’s a gift from God, and the stewardship of that good gift is entrusted to each of us and all of us. American Baptist Women’s Ministries, just like our wider denominational family, is greater when we can learn to appreciate and respect every individual for her spiritual gifts, her perspectives, and her service to God. Offering one another the space and encouragement to serve God according to her spiritual gifts and in her own way is a beautiful thing.

Diversity indeed resides in your church’s women’s ministry group, whether or not it’s visible at first glance. In order to lead amidst our diversity, we can learn how to navigate through our differences. Developing cultural competency is a skill that can be taught and learned and practiced. Every group can learn how to make good decisions together amid differences, similarities, and related tensions. It begins from the inside out.

Becoming Beloved Community is God’s intentional desire. God created the differences within us as a faith community. American Baptist Women’s Ministries invites you to lead and share and learn how to be Beloved Community. Practical information, how-to’s, and resources for learning will be ready for you to access in July 2017 at www.abwministries.org.

Virginia Holmstrom is executive director of American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

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White Supremacy and Me

By Rev. LeDayne McLeese Polaski

iStockphoto

As a child, I witnessed a rally of the Ku Klux Klan. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I was young enough to have been very confused by my mother’s fierce anger when the hand-made KKK signs started appearing in our neighborhood.

I don’t remember how she explained the group to me, but I vividly recall seeing the event itself as it was held early one evening in an empty corner lot alongside the state road which was the regular route into our neighborhood. Riding home in the family station wagon as the sun was setting, I saw hooded figures in bright white robes standing listening as someone with a ragged voice shouted over a loudspeaker.  I had a glimpse of flames rising high as we sped past. The fire was likely contained in a barrel, but in my mind it was a conflagration.  My vision could have lasted only the few seconds it took to drive by – but the scene has been seared in my memory ever since.

I recently asked my parents if they could confirm this happening. I hadn’t imagined it, had I? They indeed remembered the rally, and my dad was prompted (as he often is) to tell a story of how he recalled the event. A black friend of one of my older brothers had shown up at our house.  He’d been on our side of town, and the only route he knew home went along the same state road we’d just traveled past the rally. He wanted to be home, but he was too afraid to go the way he knew. My dad, who as a city police officer seemed to know every back road ever paved (or not), took the young man into his truck and together they returned to his home by a different route.

For years, whenever I have heard the phrase “white supremacy,” I have returned in my mind to that scene of flames, hoods, robes, and angry voices. Yet, in the past few years, I have begun to see white supremacy located not in an abandoned lot a few blocks from my childhood home but in a place far closer and more frightening – in my own heart and mind.

For most of my life, fighting racism was something I imagined I could do by focusing outside of myself. Only recently have I begun to grapple with the fact that my struggle is at least as much an internal one. As my eyes have been opened, I have begun to see how deeply white supremacy is a part of me.  I do not consciously think of myself or people who look like me as superior, but the vast majority of my friends are white – as are most of my co-workers and my closest ministerial colleagues,  most of the people at my church and in my neighborhood, and every member of my family. Even my Facebook page was a mostly white enclave until a friend posted the challenge “Do all of your Facebook friends look like you?” and I took steps to widen my circle of social media connections. There are exceptions, of course, but my life tilts in a particular direction, and I know I am not the only one.

This reality is not a coincidence. This is the result of my conscious and unconscious decisions within a society in which separation is often the path of least resistance. And this reality is not without consequences – it affects the way I understand the world — the stories I hear and do not hear, the things I know and do not know, and what I think of as normal, natural, and best.

I have unknowingly but regularly lived out of a supremacist framework in the groups I have joined (or not) and in how I have conducted myself within them, in the priorities I’ve set for my work and how I’ve gone about it, in how I have planned agendas and run meetings and taken minutes, in the decisions I have made and the ways in which I’ve made them, in the silences I have chosen to ignore or did not notice, in the way I have written job descriptions and conducted interviews, in the areas of my personal life in which I have focused, in the relationships that have received most of my energy – I could go on.

The same reality impacts the institutions that matter most to me. In the past few years, courageous people within BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz have raised their voices to name specific ways in which people of color have regularly experienced harm within our organization, an organization committed to peace rooted in justice, an organization with explicit commitments to welcome and inclusion. We didn’t see it. We didn’t mean it. Our intentions were beyond good. And yet, it happened and is happening.

Guilt and shame serve no one and cripple rather than motivate efforts for change. So how shall we move forward? The least that we can do is to recognize the depth of the work that is to be done and the flames of fear we’ll have to face to do it. No matter what path we choose, the road to Beloved Community runs through dangerous and difficult places, some of them closer than we’ve ever imagined.

Perhaps a different route will take us home for the first time.

LeDayne McLeese Polaski is the Executive Director of BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz (Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America). www.bpfna.org