“Loving and Most Graceful God, may the words of my keyboard, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be pleasing to you. Amen.”
I don’t even know how to start this blog other than to say I honestly wondered the other night if we were watching different General Assemblies. Because of that, I am writing this primarily to my white siblings to share my focused experience of this year’s PC(USA) General Assembly. There is a good chance I might make you upset by this blog. Please know I love you, and we are all in this together.
First, let’s start with that there is so much to celebrate: the Co-Moderator election of Ruling Elder Elona Street-Stewart and the Rev. Gregory J. Bentley is a GIFT to the Church and I could not have been more #HippopotamusHappyAndDinosaurDelighted! Running an all-virtual General Assembly was also a career highlight logistical and technical masterpiece for the technical crew that I first encountered backstage at the last in person G.A. Rev. Tricia Dykers Koenig shined as parliamentarian which put on display for the world why so many of us absolutely love her. Of course the reelection of the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson alone is worth 14 years of Jubilee. Making funds available for some of our longest continuous worshiping communities for our Native American siblings was another highlight. Item 00-29 on anti-racism was made stronger, and passed, and that’s fantastic. I am proud of my OGA colleagues and the commissioners of Great Rivers Presbytery where I serve as its Lead Presbyter for Transformation.
While this was my first GA as a presbytery leader, this assembly I watched it particularly through my lens as a member of the Special Committee on Racism Truth and Reconciliation (I am a white male who uses he, him, and his pronouns). I was first challenged to put on this lens by our committee’s amazing resource person Ruling Elder Valerie Izumi, who challenged our committee to engage the GA by listening with an eye for the structures of racism, exhorting us to watch for norms and “listen with your eyes as well as your ears.” Her challenge ahead of this General Assembly is consistent with the way that she has walked side by side with us since the beginning, encouraging, challenging, correcting, and lovingly holding us accountable for the things we overlook. This blog is an evolution and culmination of social media exchanges that were inspired by her challenge, as well as long processing phone conversations with fellow white committee member Rev. Fran Lane-Lawrence, as well as chats with other beloved members of the committee.
Now that I am at the other end of this General Assembly, I am going to be honest: I have never seen my fellow colleagues of color on the committee so tired and weary and heavy-hearted as I have seen them at the end of this assembly. This General Assembly ended in a lot of spirit-crushing heartache, and I don’t think everyone understands why. I admit freely that watching this assembly alongside my siblings in Christ on this committee absolutely colored my viewing experience (sure, pun intended), but because I have learned so much from my colleagues of color, I don’t think I could have NOT seen what I saw if I tried.
So what I did this assembly was notice. I noticed observations while following the #GA224 hashtag on Twitter, I noticed what my fellow committee members were seeing, and I noticed what I was feeling as I followed the livestream (or caught up with the posted video if I missed it).
What I saw was whiteness on full display; the norms, attitudes, and assumptions that are a natural byproduct of white supremacy culture that our majority white denomination has been co-collaborating with and preserving for 250 years.
I’m not going to take time to explain what that means much further, so if you are confused, perhaps this might be a good time to read this: https://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/white-supremacy-culture-characteristics.html and then come back. Like you, I am still learning and I frequently need to put bookmarks in things and return later after more study as I need to.
Okay. Are you with me? Good.
Here are some ways I noticed whiteness muscle its way into the General Assembly and try to keep itself at the center:
1. Determining the pace of racial progress, ie: “this is too much for my people” (echoes of the eight pastors’ concerns that prompted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail)
2. Neglecting to be informed by the unique perspective of people of color.
3. Ignoring the unique perspectives of people of color once educated by them on the spot.
4. Rendering people invisible by removing (or keeping removed) their demographic mention from items that specifically address their needs.
5. Resisting efforts to rectify number 4 once that invisibility was publicly identified.
6. Patterns by white people across General Assemblies of exemplifying more intense questioning of financial implications for social justice items exclusively addressing inequities carried by people of color (and particularly items impacting people who are Native American) than other items that carry financial implications.
7. White people creating labor for people of color to carry the burden of racism without putting their own skin in the game (more on this soon).
8. Creating “new” initiatives, often through commissioner resolutions, that do not take into account the volunteer and professional work that is already being done and has been for years in those particular areas, largely by people of color.
9. Short term institutional memory of inequity that creates rehashing of issues and lines of question from GA to GA particularly affecting people of color (more on this this later).
10. Different racial and cultural understandings of congregational “viability.”
11. Stopping discussion at good intentions before fully considering impact on people of color (definitely revisiting this later)
12. Not having a shared covenant of understanding of race, white supremacy, racism, gender, identity, use of pronouns, or a clear space to achieve shared vocabulary that can be consulted without interrupting business so time can be taken so white people can be educated.
13. Acting to “help” people of color when the real motive is self-serving so white people look virtuous (white saviorism)
I’m sharing this not to “pick on” individuals—I’m talking about patterns (only seeing things through an individualist lens at the expense of understanding the collective is another dynamic of white supremacy).
That being said, there were some individual moments that highlight some of the above and shaped the meeting.
The first has to do with the item that specifically affects our committee. Here is where I revisit #7 from the list above–that pattern of creating work for people of color with the expectation that they will be the ones responsible for the work dismantling white supremacy. A quick history first: our Special Committee on Racism Truth and Reconciliation was originally mandated in 2016 to have 75% people of color. Now this had good intentions, but the impact (see there’s #11) that it had was it required the Co-Moderators at that time to recruit people of color of specific demographics already burdened by white supremacy to do the work of anti-racism for an majority white denomination. (This was rectified in 2018 when the General Assembly changed it from a commission to a special committee, which effectively loosened some technical restrictions that permitted other Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) to serve who couldn’t under the previous rubric). We ended up with ten people of color and four white people (now nine people of color and five white people). For the sake of making observation on patterns we’ll see later, the original charge reflected a larger pattern in majority white organizations asking people of color to be the burden-carriers for work within the organization, despite even really good intentions.
Still with me? Good. Now. Flash forward to this General Assembly. The substitute motion on anti-racism that put a lot more meat on the bones of Item 00-29 effectively added to our mandate as a Special Committee, and not unsubstantially. At that time, resource person Rev. Denise Anderson stood up and said this “vastly broadens what [the committee] is being asked to do, and it should be named that the committee is already midway through what their original mandate is, and I would seek their guidance on whether or not they can achieve what is actually being asked of them in this particular item of business.” At that point, no one appeared to have entered the queue to ask, “Yeah, should we ask if the committee has everything they need before we vastly broaden their charge, midway through their work?” Now I want to clarify that the emotions I experienced and I think were shared by many on the committee were mostly confusion and attentiveness to what the assembly was asking of us. I understood expanding our work as an expression of confidence in our ability to meet good goals. I will say again and again that we have an amazing committee with amazing people and I believe I speak for all of us when I say we’ll do the work that needs to be done. But by way of observation on how collective whiteness functions in our spaces, even with the best of intentions around this action, it still seems to fit into the pattern of having the impact of folks of color carrying the work asked of a majority white denomination, and in this particular case, as doesnnot hearing the Black woman who just spoke and checking in to see if the majority person of color committee needed anything to adapt to the new charge given them by a majority white assembly. Again, cultures steeped in white supremacy will stop at good intentions, without fully exploring impact. At the time of this writing we are still collaborating on how this changes our approach.
Putting a little more salt on this meat, there is something about a denomination that asks other people to do the work but is resistant when our own skin is in the game. This was on stark display upon the celebrations of 00-29 “On the Church in This Moment in History – Responding to the Sin of Racism and a Call to Action” when it successfully passed, but then it came to the attention that racism against Black women and girls went explicitly unaddressed in that item.
I have been learning more and more that there is a growing awareness now that #BlackLivesMatter applies in our cultural imagination more to unarmed Black men, while leaving victimized Black women and girls (including Black trans women and girls) out of the discourse. One of the taskforces that was postponed because of the pandemic was the “Disparities Experienced by Black Women and Girls Task Force,” which had some pretty robust recommendations that now need to be postponed to 2022. Diligently, this was raised by the body that something was left out and a motion to reconsider was made, supported by valuable perspective from Rev. Kerri Allen, Moderator of the Disparities Experienced by Black Women and Girls Task Force, and the Young Adult Advisor Delegates. Considering that we are experiencing a second pandemic of police violence that is killing Black people RIGHT NOW, I understood the move to reconsider as a way to say “I see you and your work, I see you Black women and girls, while we can’t take up as much of the fight as we want to now, we acknowledge that we are in this.”
I want to invite you to consider the impact that it has when the response is “you know what, it’s getting late, this really isn’t important enough to render Black women and girls visible on our anti-racism action as a denomination at this time.” I experienced the crushing vote not to reconsider as a message that “Black Women’s and Black Girls’ Lives DON’T Matter as much as my bedtime.”
However, the assembly had a night to sleep and come back and figure out a way to rectify it in the morning. Sure enough, a motion came to suspend the rules to make reparation for the harm done the night before, which I felt was an amazing way to recenter Black women, Black voices, Black lives, Black work, and Black validation by the majority white assembly.
When that rectifying motion lost by twenty some votes (out of approximately 470), I saw friends and colleagues who earlier had been wounded by a kick from the left foot, were now being kicked again by the right.
Well, that was it. That ended the assembly. But it didn’t.
One of the saddest things I have learned in Mid-Council ministry is that right when you think it can’t get any worse, the church WILL show you how it can get worse.
The celebrated final anti-racism Item 00-29 that ultimately intentionally neglected explicit mention of Black women and girls had required the assembly to end with a moment of silence for “8 minutes and 46 seconds as a symbolic representation in solidarity with our Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) siblings, and of corporate lament and personal introspection of our complicity in perpetuating systemic racism and racial injustice before the adjourning of the 224th General Assembly (2020).” During that time, a teaching elder commissioner felt the need to derail that moment by holding up a sign in his video that said “Pre-born Lives Matter.” His screen was blocked and I understand he was ejected from the meeting.
I want to stop and consider the impact of that moment.
When I look at the robust anti-racist action Item 00-29 that the assembly approved, do you know what the easiest thing of ALL of the items to achieve was? Nine minutes of inaction. With your video off. On a zoom call. At your home.
White people, this was our chance to do what we are best at. SIT THERE AND DO NOTHING. It was literally the easiest f@$&ing thing you could have done as a white person.
During a time specifically meant to provide solidarity with the Black women who were effectively silenced (twice), it was presented that pre-born lives, lives that PHYSICALLY DO NOT EVEN EXIST, are more important than Black lives. In other words, it was a statement that NOTHINGNESS is more important than the lives of the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.
And THAT, my friends, was how the 224th General Assembly came to a close.
I have a world of respect for the way Moderator Elona Street-Stewart moderated through the tone of that moment.
Now you might say that that was just ONE person, that is an unfortunate act of whiteness by one person. I disagree.
“It’s just one person acting up” was said earlier when in the assembly another teaching elder, a white man, spoke with shameful condescension to the moderator, a Black man, not once but twice, verbatim (for those who missed what sounded and looked to me like growling words and piercing eyes: “If I’m out of order, rule me out of order. Sir.” “What did you say?” Pause, and again growling words and piercing eyes, but slower. “If I’m out of order, rule me out of order. SIR.”).
So how did the Whole Body respond to Just One Guy? As a pattern, whiteness is so good at naming injustices that happen somewhere else, especially if it requires the labor of someone else, but when it happens right in front of us, we (I use that to say white people and also to include myself) are silent. There should have been twenty white people in the queue calling our brother out. Alas, it was a Black man who spoke to the inappropriateness of the moment, again leaving it to people of color to address white supremacy in a majority white assembly.
And that’s why the “it was just an isolated incident” doesn’t work. Those moments of passive- or micro- or any other softening word we use in front of the word aggression all reflect behavior that is just the fastest growing weed that pops up in the soil we all share. Soil that constantly refuses to actually acknowledge its complicity in having a weed problem. In other words, we white people all own that behavior. That behavior is a product of our system, and we gave that behavior power of vote and voice at a General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). What accountability measures do we have in place when behavior like this pops up? What protocols will we white people use to address whiteness run amock in our spaces? Or will we leave that to people of color as well?
This is especially notable for a particular assembly that claims it was 68% liberal/progressive. Being progressive is not a vaccine against being participants in white supremacy. If anything the “I’m one of the good ones” attitudes that come with being progressive (this includes a self-critique) makes us even more blind to our own racism.
This is why we need to be careful leaving this assembly that we are mindful how we celebrate how well we performed in using our words to condemn racism, when we yet to show a willingness across our majority-white denomination to truly put our skin in the game and confront the white supremacy in our spaces.
Because on the whole, we show a stunning record of passing bold words against racism. Now, since the assembly expressed interest in asking our committee to take a look at our history around our response to racism, here is a little taste, only from the last seven General Assemblies.
GA2020—passage of 00-29, “On the Church in This Moment in History – Responding to the Sin of Racism and a Call to Action” passed in virtual plenary by a vote of 407-72. YAY! NEWS ARTICLES ON THE ACHIEVEMENT
GA2018—passage of 11-11, “Declare an Imperative for the Reformation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in being a Transformative Church in This Intercultural Era,” passing in committee 50-0, then in plenary, 440-59
“…Immediately denounce the persistent and demonic presence of racism and the misuse of power and privilege in our individual and institutional lives…Strongly encourage mid councils and congregations to hold white privilege recognition, cultural humility, and antiracism trainings throughout the church and commit themselves to disrupting racism and intersectional inequality, including intercultural and intracultural realities…Urge the session of each congregation, as well as each mid council, seminary, Presbyterian Women’s groups, and other entities, to take action to be intercultural in their life, work, and worship…Encourage synods and presbyteries to institute dismantling racism programs and encourage all staff and clergy to take the training every three years in like manner of PC(USA) mandated sexual abuse policy…Provide regular white privilege recognition, cultural humility, and antiracism trainings at presbytery gatherings…”
2016—passage of item 11-22, “Facing Racism: A Vision of the Intercultural Community—From the Presbyterian Mission Agency”, passed 62-0 in committee, and passed in plenary by voice vote
“… do a personal self-examination of its participation in structures that support and maintain racism regardless of the good intentions of individual Presbyterians…urge mid councils to provide an annual one-day event dedicated to antiracism, similar to sexual harassment, abuse prevention, and officer trainings…encourage congregations to offer at least one annual adult education series on an article or book written by a person of color…”
2014—passage of Item 08-06, “A Resolution to Develop a Churchwide Antiracism Policy—From the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns,” passing 64-1 in committee, then passed by consent agenda
“…that mid councils provide antiracism training and dialogue for staff, teaching elders, committee members, and congregations…that congregations provide antiracism training and dialogue for staff and members, to strengthen evangelism and mission, to increase awareness of racial justice issues in their communities, and to discern racial justice issues in their own staffing….tools, assessment instruments, and training materials for the presbyteries and congregations in order to develop clear and effective understanding of systemic racism, including white privilege, power, and prejudice in relation to race.”
2012––passage of Item 11-17, “Privilege, Power and Policy: The Church as an Employer—From the Climate for Change Task Force,” passing 51-0 in committee, then in plenary by voice vote
“…urges synods and presbyteries to adopt affirmative action, supplier diversity, and cultural proficiency policies and practices consistent with the General Assembly, to promote the denomination’s continuous work and commitment to be a diverse, inclusive, antiracist and culturally proficient church…”
2010– passage of Item 10-07,” A Resolution to Explore the Intersection of Gender and Race” passes 52-0 in committee, then in plenary by voice vote
“…request that presbyteries explore local resources and conduct training in cultural proficiency on the intersection of race with gender…”
2008—The passage of “Hearing and Singing New Songs to God: Shunning Old Discords and Sharing New Harmonies.” Item 09-13, #13, passed, 67-3 in committee, then by voice vote in plenary
“Reaffirm the General Assembly policy commitments to race and gender justice, including the church’s commitments to ensure racial ethnic and women’s representation in decision-making bodies. Urge all nominating committees, committees on representation, and policy-making bodies to be mindful of the intersections of race, gender, and class.”
As you look over these actions on anti-racism passed over the last seven General Assemblies, what do we see? What patterns do you notice? It’s almost as if we seem to LOVE to do things, but at the same time we don’t like to get things done.
Something they teach us in systems theory is that a system is designed to get the results it gets—or not get.
In other words, systems designed to create white supremacy will continue to create white supremacy.
And this is why I say that white supremacy was on display and continues to be on display by our majority-white denomination, even in this General Assembly that by all other measures and on paper comes across as a tremendous success. But again, I told you my focus was particularly on white supremacy, and white supremacy is sneaky because it works between the lines.
Now, I WANT to believe that all these truly commendable anti-racism efforts are cumulative, building on each other, making us stronger and bolder, and that we are indeed going somewhere. That we are going three steps forward for every two steps back again and again. I am reminded of the metaphor of the person hammering a brick wall, again and again and again and again, and one day, due to exceptional persistence, the hammer will break through to the other side.
I hope that would be the case. Because what I don’t want to do as a member of the Special Committee on Racism Truth and Reconciliation is co-author this BEAUTIFUL REPORT that condemns racism in the church from top to bottom, and the assembly passes it with a vote of 460-13, with YAY! NEWS ARTICLES ON THE ACHIEVEMENT and then…the pattern continues of bold words and little action at the 226th, 227th, 228th, 229th, 230th, 231st, and 232nd PC(USA) General Assemblies.
I hope this helps us share understanding for why I was so tired after this GA, why it was harder for me to lift up the celebrations sooner.
But I also share this because I want you to understand how freaking resilient our frontline laborers are to still be in this work. And we are going to continue to stay in this, even if it takes to the 257th PC(USA) General Assembly to defeat racism in our church.
I thank you for your love and labor for the sake of having beloved community among us, even if we need to tear some things down before we can build them back up.
And as the 224th General Assembly winds to a close, its work is truly just beginning.
For the love of the Church,
Rev. Ryan J. Landino,
Lead Presbyter for Transformation of Great Rivers Presbytery
Member of the Special Committee on Racism Truth and Reconciliation
I reserve the right to edit upon recommendation from my good colleagues on the Special Committee on Racism Truth and Reconciliation should it help to more accurately reflect our experience.
[Edit: 7/2/20] While I have reserved editing ability for typos and additional feedback from my committee members, there are some specific editing commentary I wished to provide so I can make this a clearer and safer read, and secondarily to ensure that lessons learned may be preserved in this space.
- Previously, I had used descriptors of “resource person and moonlighting superheroine Rev. Denise Anderson,” “resource person and Amazon Warrior Ruling Elder Valerie Izumi,” and “heavy metal rock star Rev. Fran Lane-Lawrence” to describe my colleagues in this work. While there has not been communicated to me the experience of harm, however, I am nonetheless removing these descriptions. I confess here that using this language asks of the reader the presumption of acceptable playfulness without context of knowing whether such familiarity has been earned. It carries with it too a history of white men using uncalled-for descriptions and even pet names in reductionist ways against women and Black women in order to diminish their professional authority (notably in courtroom settings). There is also the issue of categorizing a Black woman with imagery rooted in Black women’s bodies, particularly with the Amazon Warrior image for Valerie. I believe the truth of the strength, wisdom, and character of these three siblings in Christ is self-evident in other ways, and after consulting with Valerie, Denise, and Fran each, as a measure to reduce the risk of perpetuating additional harm, we share wisdom that these descriptors should be removed.
- In the original writing, I had named “victimized women, girls, and trans women,” and it has been brought to my attention that the way that sentence is constructed communicates that women are separate from trans women, effectively stating that trans women are not women. I have corrected the language to say “Black women and girls (including Black trans women and girls)” as a corrective to more accurately communicate my understanding that trans women are indeed women—corrected with appreciation.