PCUSA Big Tent panel discusses racial issues

bigtentA panel of Presbyterian Church (USA) leaders took up the topic of racial issues during a session of the third annual Big Tent meeting at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Ky., on Aug. 3.

Linda Valentine, Gradye Parsons, Arlene Gordon, Bruce Reyes-Chow, Teresa Chavez Sauceda and Marcus Lambright had a conversation on racial matters past, present and future in the church and society in light of the Florida vs. George Zimmerman verdict handed down July 13.

Zimmerman, a mixed-race Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer, was accused of murder in the Feb. 26, 2012, shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, an African-American high school student.

Prosecutors did not accuse Zimmerman of being a racist, but they maintained that he spitefully prejudged Martin, stalked the teen and shot him because he wanted to. The defense countered that Zimmerman acted in self-defense after allegedly being attacked by Martin.

A jury of six women deliberated for 16 ½ hours before rendering a verdict of not guilty that triggered debate over the role race may have played in the tragic events that took place that night in Sanford, Fla.

While not described in its title to be the sole focus of the discussion, the Zimmerman acquittal did spark some debate toward the end of the nearly two-hour period when audience members were allowed to pose questions.

raceAudience members questioned why the panel did not include Native Americans and why there are some nationalities not represented by the PCUSA staff.

One Pakistani woman said racial tension is more than a black/white issue, saying, “Up there (heaven), we’re all going to be the same.”

A Native-American woman said she wanted to see a Native-American person as moderator of the GA and noted there should not be a need for anti-racism training.

“We are together in this. We should understand everyone’s feelings and acknowledge that we are one people,” she said.

A Korean man acknowledged that if “we don’t remember our history, we will repeat our crazy racist history.”

Some audience members asked about tools and resources that can help deal with racial justice issues, and one man from Puerto Rico asked about having materials printed in Spanish to assist people in their understanding of issues related to the church. A few moments later, he stormed out of the room, upset by Gordon’s response to his request.

“A young black man was killed, and a white man walked away,” she said. “We should have been discussing that today. Those issues we are raising, there is another platform for that.”

In his introduction of the discussion, Sterling Morse, coordinator for the PCUSA’s Racial Ethnic and Cross-Cultural Ministries, said, “As the United States continues to thrive, occasionally we have to revisit some old wounds – gender, race, class, sex – in becoming who we are.”

To that end, Moderator Nancy Benson-Nicol, associate for Gender and Racial Justice, added, “We seek to discern God’s voice in our midst – of conflict, anger, frustration – as we gather together to build hope, empowered to learn from each other.”

Reyes-Chow, moderator of the 218th General Assembly, observed that many people do not want to talk about  racial issues, but the need to do so remains present. He also added that racial conversations in America are still very black/white, often ignoring other racial/ethnic groups.

“You can pick your metaphor of problems we want to ignore. If we don’t talk about it and work through the conflict, it won’t get better,” he said. “If not now, when? I hope we commit to continue talking about it.”

Lambright, a member of the Cross-Cultural Young Adult Network, said racial issues seem to be less prevalent with his generation that those before him.

“Race is not an easy topic to address,” Lambright said. “For the generation before mine, it always lingers in the back of their head. For my generation, there is more tolerance for race. It is very personal, but we don’t have to make it as angry and as loud as some people have made it.

“I was raised to be color blind and believe we have to advocate for every race,” Lambright continued. “It’s a tug of war whether to let it go or keep talking about it.”

Parsons, stated clerk of the PCUSA, said visits to his hometown in Tennessee show people of color – black, white, brown – living in the same area, but he knows that’s just a view of the surface.

“We still don’t live together, and when we don’t it’s real easy to forget Corinthians when it says if one part of the body hurts, the other parts of the body hurt,” Parsons said. “We may work together, even go to church together, but we don’t spend enough of our lives together.

“There needs to be a realization that there still is much work to do. We need to see the world as God sees it. There is pain in our society, and we need to be able to own up to that.”

Gordon, retired executive presbyter of Tropical Florida Presbytery and president of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus, added, “The divide is a reality, and it comes from not being able to understand and communicate. If we don’t have real, honest conversations, nothing is going to change.”

Valentine, executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, expressed a desire to engage in genuine listening.

“My hope and prayer is that we continue this conversation,” she said. “We can’t ignore there are roots of racism and how important it is to engage in genuine dialogue.”

Sauceda, chaplain resident at UC-Davis Medical Center, said not addressing the racial issues plaguing society is a failure to ourselves and to the church.

“We live with very deep wounds,” Sauceda said. “We can try to deny it or distance ourselves, but it’s part of who we are.”

Since the 1983 merger of the Presbyterian Church in the United States and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America to form the PCUSA, numerous papers and documents calling for racial justice standards have been adopted. But Parsons suggested there’s more to handling racial issues than agreeing to terms on paper.

“Some of the goals we have accomplished, but when you look at the last study (2006), not a lot has changed. There’s much to do,” he said. “It’s a matter of how people perceive each other, and maybe we need to reconsider how we go about doing that, talking about how it hurts and making things the way God wants them to be. We need to move past papers and get down to honest dialogue.”

Gordon recalled a time when there were all-black presbyteries and synods, but that has passed. She said she sees a lot of different faces and wonders about such changes.

“I can’t help but think, ‘Did I lose something then that I haven’t regained in this setting?’” she said.

Valentine observed movements such as New Worshiping Communities as encouraging steps toward improved integration of various races, allowing the whole church to be equals in Christ.

Sauceda said the PCUSA has been a church that tries to hold on to its traditions, acting out of fear instead of for its vision.

“We need to ask what’s motivating us,” she said, adding that steps like printing documentation in Spanish to help a mission ministry are frowned on because of budgetary concerns. “The church we grew up in remains the same – predominantly white.  Not only do we need to change our strategies, but our perceptions … to be more willing to take risks.”

She also noted that studies have shown that minorities are expected to be the majority by 2042.

But that word “minority” did not sit well with Gordon, who opined for the elimination of such “buzzwords,” as she called them.

“Get rid of these buzzwords we have like ‘minority,’” Gordon said indignantly. “What is a minority? I’ve been a minority all my life.”

Lambright suggested an “overhaul” of the faith as a means to overcoming such racial issues through the church.

“There has to be some dismantling of what has been,” he said. “We tie some of our traditions to our faith. I feel an overhaul is what needs to happen for a significant effect in the future, so we don’t fall into a relapse of what has been.”

Parsons said there needs to be a show of solidarity among those seeking racial reform, which may involve the church being willing to take risks many people may not want to take.

“I do believe in this church. We need to dig in and find the courage to address this issue and see what is fully standing in our way,” Parsons said. “I’m praying for a mighty infusion of the Spirit and courage to do that.”

Sauceda added, “It’s about changing hearts and changing minds.”

“We need to talk to one another honestly and show people we are about the Christian life we are supposed to be presenting to the world,” Gordon chimed in.

Valentine reiterated the need for people to open up and listen to each other.

“My hope is that this is a continuation to determine the language we can use to tear down these barriers,” she said. “… we need more and longer conversations.”