An Awkward Conversation was the name of a symposium on Racism in the Church that was held October 4-6 at the Providence Renewal Centre in Edmonton. The planning and local arrangements were made by members of the Conference Intercultural Ministry Committee and the symposium was facilitated by General Council staff persons. The guest speaker was Dr. Anthony Reddie who is a Learning and Development Officer for the Methodist Church in Britain with a special interest in Black Theology and in Racism. We also heard from the Rt. Rev. Jordan Cantwell, the Moderator of The United Church of Canada, who presented a theological reflection of the day’s discussions.
There were 83 participants, of whom almost half were people of colour. This means that the other half were people who enjoy white privilege. The groundwork was laid for table conversations that exposed vulnerabilities and opened our eyes. I am grateful to those who told their personal stories of hurt, fear and daily struggle. We came to understand that we were participating in something new and very valuable.
Dr. Reddie asked us to understand white privilege as a “colour-blind racism”. In the church, we make rules that seem equitable and fair for the majority of ordered clergy. For example, a minister who wants to come to Canada to serve in the United Church can only be appointed for one year. However, Immigration Canada does not consider that annual appointment sufficient to grant a VISA. This causes great anxiety and panic for both the minister and the congregation.
Equality and Equity are not the same things. Some people need more support, more understanding and extra help to obtain equitable access to opportunity. For example, at an annual meeting of our own Conference, the Children at Conference program turned away the children of a new immigrant ordained minister. He did not fully understand the rule that the children must register ahead of time for the program. The program leader said that there were only enough craft supplies for the number of children who registered. She believed she was treating everyone equally. But some exceptions must be made for everyone to be treated equitably.
Dr. Reddie also talked about “colour coded racism” which can also be interpreted as white supremacy. A black minister, even Canadian born, has to apply a great many more times in order to be called to a pastoral charge. A white minister does not have this same difficulty. It is no accident that many ministers of colour are working in isolated rural pastoral charges who receive fewer applicants to their vacancies.
We in The United Church of Canada would like to believe that we are not racist and that we treat everyone fairly. This is simply an assumption until we ask ourselves, “Who is not at the table?”
We need to look at the life of Jesus and the company that he kept for a model of what we are called to do.
We hope that the Awkward Conversation does not end with this first attempt at dialogue and understanding. At its meeting on October 12th, the Conference Executive Committee passed the following motion:
May it be so.
Blessings to all,
Dr Kathy Yamashita
Yamashita is President of Alberta and Northwest Conference as well as a Family Physician in Lethbridge, Alberta.