An Awkward Conversation: Race, Discrimination and the United Church of Canada’s Mission took place in Edmonton on October 4-6.  Thank you to Rev. Alwin Maben, Rev. Monica Rosborough and Rev. Jun-Hyok Chon for offering reflections on the three-day event.

From Rev. Alwin Maben, Co-chair, Intercultural Standing Committee and Ministry Personnel for Coronation Pastoral Charge.

Keynote Speaker Dr. Anthony Reddie

Keynote Speaker Dr Anthony Reddie

“An Awkward Conversation in the Church” – was it awkward?  Probably was in some ways but was needed, important and welcome. Perhaps, for the first time, well-meaning, good white Canadians present at the symposium were made conscious of colour blindness and culturally coded behaviour of the White Supremacist. Our Guest Speaker, Professor Anthony Reddie provided the needed fuel to this conversation with examples of his experience with the Methodist Church in the United Kingdom, coupled with subtle humour and theological reflection. It was truly an eye-opener.

The presence of our Moderator – Rt. Rev. Jordan Cantwell and her public address from the heart added more vigour to this conversation, which is perhaps of the first kind in The United Church of Canada. Should we be The United Church of Canada or “in Canada” as the church is gearing up for change in a big way? The table talks and the sharing were done in openness without fear – speaking the truth in love. We as a church were challenged to practice equity rather than equality, to follow Christ than just worship. We were reminded that God is doing something new and our future will not be like the past. God is doing the new thing, for us and with us, whether we like it or not. We were invited to be open enough to the functioning of the Spirit and dare to ask the question in all our deliberations “Who is not here?”

I hope and pray that this will not become a symposium of the past, but a symposium alive to challenge every local congregation of The United Church of Canada, as those challenged place this challenge before their own congregations, as the Spirit invites us to new ways of seeing and being.

From Rev. Monica Rosborough, Athabasca United Church

My experience with Awkward Conversations started the day before the conference when Athabasca United Church hosted 22 black ministers from as far away as Detroit and England on a tour of Amber Valley.  Amber Valley is the farthest northern settlement of African Americans from Oklahoma and other parts of the US.  First settled in 1910, they homesteaded in the heavily forested environment, clearing land to plant wheat.

Standing in the graveyard overlooking the fields helped us all understand the massive amount of work involved.  There was racism and active Ku Klux Klan members in Alberta, but these doughty pioneers persisted to survive and thrive in the harsh climate, becoming well known for their champion baseball team that travelled and entertained many folks.

The conference speakers showed similar bravery to these northern pioneers.  The stories, shared by ministers in the

Amber Valley museum

The graveyard at Amber Valley, with headstones for some of the first settlers in the area.

United Church ranged from a minister being called the ‘N’ word to the more subtle comments about accents, patronizing attitudes and comments meant to be helpful but actually quite hurtful.  I found the storytellers repeating words that I had said as an attempt to bridge differences and make people feel more at ease.  It was hard to realize that my remarks were imbued and infected with patriarchal white supremacy.

As a third generation Albertan and a cradle United Church member, learning that the church I love so much is the instrument of so much racism was very painful.

The Lectionary this fall is leading us through Exodus, the story of a stubborn people who need to leave the habits of their slave culture behind.  It is not easy to let go of what we do not acknowledge or recognize.  For the followers of Moses, this process took forty years to make the transition, and there were still vestiges of the slave culture.  But although Pharaoh let Moses go, the Egyptian culture did not undergo a similar conversion experience and eventually the Pharaonic system of leadership and oppression collapsed.
How do I as one of the ‘Egyptian’ culture become converted to God’s radical call to an inclusive and welcoming community? My commitment is to practise the five guidelines: stay engaged, allow myself to experience discomfort, to examine the presence and role of whiteness in my life and my community, to be an open and safe place to hear multiple perspectives, to keep confidentiality, to isolate and keep the focus on race when someone tells me they are struggling. This became the core of my sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday.
I also commit not to downplay people’s experiences or try to explain them away, but to listen to their stories and dare to ask, “who are we missing in our pews?” Why do we in our local context not see more immigrants from Korea and the Philippines, and, the big elephant in the room, more First Nations Canadians?

From Rev. Jun-Hyok Chon, Edmonton’s Korean United Church

Jun-Hyok Chon and Alwin Maben

   The keynote speaker was Dr. Anthony Reddie. Born in England in 1964 to Jamaican immigrants, Reddie has seen his denomination, the Methodist Church of Britain, wither away to almost nothing.

   Dr. Reddie warned us not to use the current restructuring of the United Church, which he says is designed to help us cope with more than 50 years of decline, as an attempt to resuscitate the church. Instead, he urged us to welcome resurrection. Resuscitation restores a dying body to continued life. But Resurrection only occurs after death. Resuscitation is about more of the same, while resurrection is about something new and unexpected

Because both the Methodists in Britain and The United Church of Canada are so weak compared to where we were 50 years ago, Reddie said that we now have a chance at death and resurrection. Reddie referred to the words of Paul that God’s strength lies in our weakness. I am grateful that the United Church’s leaders might finally be coming to grips with our weakness. Our Moderator Jordan Cantwell spoke on Thursday evening. She talked about her personal challenges she has experienced as Moderator the past two years, particularly on issues of First Nations, refugees, and racism. She spoke personally and emotionally, which I appreciated. Rev. Cantwell has had many challenging experiences and conversations with people of color and First Nations people in the life and work of our congregations. These challenges have changed her perspective on both Canada and The United Church of Canada. She now feels less pride about both since she has a greater awareness of how Canada was founded on white supremacy, and how The United Church of Canada has participated in the crimes of racism. The latter refers to more than just the United Church’s role in running Indian Residential Schools.

Lastly, Cantwell prayed that a Resurrected Church would be humbler, better able to listen to outsiders and be fully committed to anti-racism.

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