Adrian Miller: It takes more than race to have a successful dialogue about race

Racially diverse group of women dining and laughing

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The best conversations about race happen among people who have something in common besides simply an interest in talking about it, says the executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches. He offers tips for black and white congregations to engage and strengthen their bonds.

“We need to have a national conversation about race.”

I’ve heard those words a lot in the past two years, in the wake of so many tragic and deadly racial incidents. Yet that much-needed dialogue rarely happens, and we continue to suffer from collective inaction both inside and outside the church.

In those few instances where people of goodwill try to initiate a conversation about race -- as President Bill Clinton did in the late 1990s and Starbucks did last spring -- the efforts, difficult to sustain, are typically short-lived.

In my own experience, it takes more than race to have a successful dialogue about race. The best conversations about race happen among people who have something in common besides simply an interest in talking about it. They like the same music, play the same sports, share the same hobby -- or they worship in the same faith tradition.

At this critical time, and because of the agape that we profess, churches are ideally positioned to convene the difficult conversations on race that we need to be having. They offer the safe and sacred space where such conversations can occur. It’s time for people of faith to lead and model racial reconciliation to other segments of our society.

In early August, the Colorado Council of Churches took a first step by encouraging our predominantly black churches and predominantly white churches to start building relationships across racial lines.

To my surprise, white churches, by a 3-to-1 margin, were far more eager to engage in conversation than our black churches were. When I asked black pastors about their reluctance, they said they were skeptical. They had seen similar sudden outbreaks of interest from white churches before and doubted that the white churches were in it for the long haul.

Black pastors told me they often get invited to address white congregations, usually around the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, when race can be discussed that one Sunday, but feel dismissed the rest of the year.

“We wonder if white pastors preach on racial justice at all when we’re not there,” one pastor said.

Given that history, their skepticism is understandable. But I believe that we have a rare opportunity before us. The horrific murders at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, have created a singular moment in which white Christians sincerely yearn for a deeper connection and a greater understanding of the African-American experience. In short, white churches are now in it for the long haul.

But how do we start the conversation? Talking honestly about race can be so intimidating. The problem seems so immense and intractable. Add to that the anxiety whites may feel about confronting racism, along with the weariness blacks may feel about once again having to educate others about race, and the challenges can seem overwhelming.

But as I said, the best conversations about race involve more than talking about race. When dialogue combines words with actions, discussions with shared activities and interests, the chances for success and sustainability are increased. Bringing people together for activities that require openness and real sharing can make everyone more comfortable so that we can then start talking about race.

Fortunately, racial reconciliation activities don’t have to be spectacular events. Food is always a great place to start. As Jesus and the disciples discovered again and again, gathering for a meal can create surprising results.

In August, when we launched our efforts to start a dialogue on race, the Colorado Council of Churches hosted 200 people for an event we called “Soulful Sunday,” featuring a potluck meal and a worship service.

We invited people from all our member churches to bring food that reflected their ethnic traditions, sit with folks of a different race and just get to know each other. As we rediscovered that day, food can indeed be a powerful way to connect people and to lay the groundwork for difficult conversations.

Food offers countless ways for diverse congregations to engage with each other in fellowship and strengthen their mutual bonds. Here are a few ideas the council put together with input from our member churches, for both food-related and other activities.

Eat together

After church, have an informal potluck meal for members of partnering congregations and let participants talk about the food they’ve brought -- how the dishes reflect their ethnic heritage and hold significance for them.

To foster ongoing engagement, form a cooking club in which members from each congregation share meals prepared from a series of agreed-upon cookbooks, including cookbooks published by the congregations. Or create an eating club in which church members gather to dine at a series of designated restaurants.

For food-related fellowship in the broader context of God’s creation, partner with another congregation in cultivating an existing church garden, or in planting a new one.

Read together

Form a book club with members from both congregations and read a book together about racial justice. The congregations should agree beforehand upon how to structure the discussion.

Reading selections might include “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. For more ideas, check out the suggested reading list prepared by the African American Intellectual History Society in response to the Charleston shootings.

Make music together

Sometimes, when a pastor is the guest preacher at another church, he or she brings the choir along. With a “choir swap,” the pastor stays put but the choirs trade places. Another option is for the choirs of several churches to collaborate and host a joint musical performance that spotlights their diverse worship music and styles.

Talk long-term about race

One way that congregations can “get real” about race is to have an ongoing race dialogue, a continuing series of discussions over time. The partnering churches should figure out the structure of the dialogue in advance. Ideally, the discussion would be led by the pastors of the respective churches, but it could also be facilitated by a third party. For ideas about how to conduct your own race dialogue, see the helpful One America Dialogue Guide, created in 1998 by President Bill Clinton’s Initiative on Race.

As the Soulful Sunday event reminded us in Colorado, little things can yield tremendous results. Race is one of many challenges facing our society, but under tragic circumstances, people of faith have been given an opportunity to show others that love can conquer hate.

God has given us a spirit for action on racial reconciliation, not resignation. We just need people of faith willing to take those first, small steps.