Area church leaders address racial injustices with book study

Members of the Whatcoat and Wesley Methodist church book study on “So You to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo meet over Zoom. The group of 47 would discuss new topics centered on the book, and scripture, through smaller break out groups. Submitted photo

DOVER — It was after the Black Lives Matter protests that spanned the nation following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer that two United Methodist church leaders wanted to address racial injustices facing the country.

Eventually that led to the two churches — one with a predominantly white congregation, the other with a predominantly Black congregation — to one joint sermon and a book study tackling anti-racism.

Rev. Dr. Turhan Potter

“We serve a God who was on the side of the oppressed,” said Rev. Dr. Turhan Potter of Whatcoat United Methodist Church. “This is part of our responsibility, as the church, to seek justice, to walk humbly with our God, to love one another. Those are our basic principles, Christian principles. So, if we fail to address issues such as racism, homophobia, just other types of different issues that plague our society today, we fail to be the church.”

After their joint sermon — conducted virtually — Rev. Potter and Rev. Amy Yarnall of Wesley United Methodist Church, put together a book study on “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo.

The conversations began in September, with 47 participants, almost evenly split between the two congregations.

Rev. Amy Yarnall of Wesley United Methodist Church

The group met every two weeks over Zoom (with cameras on), with introductory large group time before the nearly 50 participants would move to six- to eight-member breakout groups to discuss the topics outlined for that week’s conversation.

Topics stemmed from chapters in the book, addressing: Is it really about race? What is racism? What if I talk about race wrong? What are microaggressions? What is intersectionality and why do I need it? Is police brutality really about race? What is the school-to-prison pipeline? Why can’t I say the “N” word? Why are our students so angry? What is the model minority myth? I just got called racist, what do I do now? Talking is great, but what else can I do?

“This one really turned out to be very readable and very accessible for people, the chapters are not really long, it’s not like academia, it’s just a really good starting place,” Rev. Yarnall said.

The success of this has led the churches to planning a second book study — slated to start in February — with the hope of creating other projects between the two.

“In some ways the church is better positioned than a lot of other corners of our society to have these conversations, because our core values are humility, grace, loving one another as sisters and brothers simply because we have the same faith — and loving people beyond who have the same faith as well,” Rev. Yarnall said.

Race — and racism — aren’t always the easiest topics to discuss. Dr. Potter noted that there is an atmosphere where in “just a couple of words” people are ready to dismiss each other.

“To have a safe place like that will actually help break down barriers and hear other people’s experiences rather than just your own, it forces you to be able to look at yourself and say, ‘You know what I never thought about that,’” he said. “To be able to have spaces where people can actually feel free to talk brings about unity, it brings about transformation and it also brings about a sense of love and grace for one another.”

At first, the meetings were a bit awkward, noted Georgeanna “Gigi” Windley, a member of Wesley.

“Then by the end, we were just all together, and we didn’t want it to end because it was such a great experience,” she said. “I think the reason it was such a great experience was that we could see people as individuals, we could see issues more wholly and we could consider each other’s views and this whole study enabled us to do that.”

She has always thought it was important to have conversations like this, to target judgement and get rid of it.

It was similar sentiments that prompted other members to join and even act as facilitators for the small group conversations. Sonja Brown, of Whatcoat, was interested in various personalities and cultures, and sharing different perspectives. Reba Hollingsworth, of Whatcoat, believes that “we are all one people and ought to know each other a whole lot better.” Connie Strickland, of Wesley, was thrilled at the idea of the two churches working together for this.

“Too often we’re not aware of some of the prejudices that are part of our culture. And it’s just an awareness,” Ms. Strickland said. “The best way to learn about others is to do something with them. And I found that in our sharing time of the groups, at the end of each session, that there was a wonderful feeling of love where everyone was in it together.”

Dr. Hollingsworth found it as a way to talk to people and “get rid of some of the fears that people had for each other.”

“I think that often people don’t relate to each other because they have had so many negative comments over the years about each other and so rather than to actually get to know each other, it’s easier to run away and say, ‘No, I can’t be bothered,’ but this was an opportunity for people actually to come together and to open themselves up to learn,” she said.

While Whatcoat and Wesley have worked together before — the two are joined under one district superintendent — there is history there as to why the two churches exist.

“It says something, I think, in our community that we have two United Methodist churches on either side of downtown, one that’s predominantly white and one that’s predominantly Black,” Rev. Yarnall said. “We need to acknowledge and recognize that that is still our reality. And there’s a lot of good reasons for that, and yet if we are really going to be the church and bear witness to United Methodists, it’s important that we do that together.”

Ms. Windley said that the congregations do sometimes go to each other’s churches from time to time, but there can still be a bit of a divide.

“The funny part is that, gosh, I can walk to Whatcoat, but I have to drive to Wesley,” she said. “It does show that we have more work to do. And I think we’re committed to that work.”

Getting beyond discussion and moving into action is important for Rev. Potter and Rev. Yarnall, the two agreed.

One of the parts of the book that opened the readers’ eyes was conversation on the school-to-prison pipeline, and how the church could help there.

“Churches and teachers go together like ice cream and hot fudge,” Rev. Yarnall joked. “Churches have teachers and ours both do, so it’s a natural affinity.”

Rev. Potter said that they are thinking of offering classes for the police department or community agencies that “may be afraid to have this conversation, to share our experiences and testimony,” he said.

Generally, though, the bridge forged between the two churches is strong because of the open dialogue. Ms. Strickland said that there were promises of lunch when they were able to all get together, inside jokes formed through getting together.

Ms. Brown noted that when the conversation would begin, some participants talked about the way they were raised and the discussion was an eye opener. But, through the church, they all understood they were united in that central belief.

“To actually interact with persons of different races and see them as people and, especially a Christian, to know that we have one goal, and that is to be good to other people and to worship God — knowing that I think also helped our bond,” she said. “Seeing that we were wanting to do good, we wanted to be good Christians, we want to love our fellow man but how can you love your fellow man if you don’t even respect them, you don’t understand them, you don’t want to get to know them? That too became an eye opener for many of us in the group that I was in because we came from different backgrounds, different experiences.”

“That gets down to love thy neighbor,” Ms. Windley added. “And we’re getting closer to that with this group, which is a terrific thing.”

Those interested in joining the next book study don’t have to be members of either church. Email Whatcoat.Wesley@gmail.com to inquire.