By M. Garlinda Burton
“I don’t always understand; I mean I can’t pretend that I know what it’s like for her, but I’m willing to listen and have her back.”
Elliott Chiasson, 14, has been friends with Lauren Jordan, 15, for nearly four years. They bonded in band class—both play cello—and because they had similar taste in music and friends. These days, they say their musical tastes have diverged, but the friendship is solid. They attend the same school, talk by phone regularly, and help each other cope with the typical challenges that teens face.
The trust they have, Chiasson says, makes it easier for them to talk about really tough issues, such as the current state of race relations in the United States.
Chiasson is white, the only brother of three sisters; his parents and his siblings are active members of South End UMC in Nashville. Lauren is black, an only child who lives with her mom, a Nashville educator. Both say that, although racism is different than it was for their parents and grandparents, that there are times when tension over differences is palpable among their friends and classmates.
“Like when this whole Ferguson thing happened, there were people who said really stupid, hurtful things to me about black people,” Jordan says. “Instead of asking me what it is like to be a person of color watching what was happening, some of my white classmates told me that race had nothing to do with it.”
Chiasson nods in agreement. “I think if you’re not a minority—if you’re white, not gay, not poor, you know—then you just don’t get it and you shouldn’t dismiss other people’s experiences. That’s not fair. I figure, if you’re a real friend, you need to try to see things from another point of view.
“Lauren’s an African-American girl, and I have no idea what that’s like, so it’s not right for me to minimize her struggle,” he adds.
Jordan says she and Elliott tend to gravitate to like-minded friends at school, so that they share a common view of justice issues. Still, she says, “I feel like I’m giving a lesson on race” when people dismiss race as an issue or tell me, ‘I don’t see race,’ or ‘I don’t think of you as black.’”
“That’s not a complement; my race is not all of who I am, but it is part of it, and ignoring that is not right.”
Although, like friends that poke fun at each other, Jordan appreciates that she and Chiasson can “talk about most stuff,” she says.
“I’m not afraid to talk about stuff that’s uncomfortable, and that’s important in a friendship,” Chiasson says. “I’m just honest about what I don’t know and so is Lauren; and we share what we know.”
A 43-year, barrier-busting friendship
Like Chiasson and Jordan, Barbara Thompson of Silver Spring, Md., and the Rev. Nancy Grissom Self of Redlands, Calif., enjoy a friendship based on mutual respect, affection and shared values. Thompson and Self have been sister-friends for 43 years.
The two women met in the early 1970s, first on a church-wide committee on the structure of what is now United Methodist Women and later on the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (GCSRW), which was created in 1972.
Thompson, an African-American laywoman, was elected the first president of the commission, and Self, a white clergywoman, was one of the agency’s two general secretaries. Almost immediately, Self, Thompson and other GCSRW board members agreed that tackling institutional racism should be a high priority for the women’s commission.
“It wasn’t so much because of what was going on outside the Church. Those of us inside the Church had serious challenges around the issue of race,” recalls Thompson, a native of the Washington area who worked for the U.S. government from 1956-1985.
“To make sure that as many different voices as possible were at the table, the women’s commission agreed that our board would include at least two or three people from different racial groups—black, Latino, Asian-Pacific, Native American,” adds Thompson, who also served as women’s concerns coordinator for federal government workers.
“Nan and I were both committed to fostering cross-cultural conversations about racial justice, prejudice, and the misconceptions we in the Church had about each other and finding ways to work together, respecting our differences,” she says.
Thompson and Self remained friends throughout two decades of change and growth. Self was a member of the GCSRW general secretariat from 1973 to 1991, and Thompson was board president from 1972 to 1978. Thompson went on to become the chief executive officer for the General Commission on Religion and Race, serving from 1985-1998.
Throughout their friendship, even now when they are living on opposite coasts, they talk by phone “at least every other day,” discussing personal issues, family concerns, church tends, and the state of the world—including the current concerns about mass incarceration of black men, immigration, violence, and the seemingly deepened racial divide in the United States.
Both women agree that the Church as a whole (as well as individual congregations) has not done enough to create opportunities for people to come together and talk frankly about race and racism—or other hot-button issues.
Church is still ‘segregated’
“Barbara and I have become family—we can talk about anything because we have earned each other’s trust and we each respect the other’s point of view. So, if the topic of the day is what happened in Ferguson, Mo., we talk about it,” Self says.
Thompson agrees, lamenting that Christian congregations are still “very racially segregated,” with regard to worship, ministry, and interaction, which makes it more difficult for Christians to interact or talk across lines of race and culture,” adds Thompson.
“Most of us still worship in segregated settings and have no Christian context for addressing tough topics,” she says. “You can’t go from having no context and no relationship to saying to someone from other group, ‘Let’s talk about race!’ It doesn’t work that way.”
“Right. Barbara and I don’t say to each other, ‘We’re now going to have a philosophical conversation about race,” adds Self. “It comes to us and, as family, we’re used to talking about hard things and dealing with whatever comes.”
As “spiritual sisters,” the two say their common language includes honesty and directness. “I don’t pretend that if a black person robs a liquor store or pulls a gun that I believe he should be handled with kids gloves,” Thompson says.
“And I don’t pretend that color and race are not factors in how people are treated by the police in this country,” Self says. “We have the kind of friendship that allows us to speak out truth, not just spout a party line.”
“We don’t get enough of that in the Church,” Thompson adds. “Building that kind of relationship requires time, authenticity, and a willingness to confront our own biases as well as those of others.”
Both women say the United Methodist Church and its leaders must become more creative and courageous when it comes to helping congregations and small groups grapple with pressing issues of the day.
“Many pastors preach from the Revised Common Lectionary, but they don’t have resources that offer interpretation of Scripture and preaching notes about these kinds of social concerns that are very much Christian concerns,” Thompson says.
For laity and clergy, Self recommends that United Methodists take up a practice started by the late Dorothy Height, a Civil Rights icon and president of the activist group National Council of Negro Women from 1957-1987. In 1964, also known as Freedom Summer, Height and others organized “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” in which interracial groups of middle-aged women traveled from states in the northern U.S. to talk with women in Mississippi about everything from poverty to racial justice to voting rights.
Through these regular gatherings, often over meals, relationships were forged among women who otherwise believed they had nothing in common. It also helped overcome stigmas about what the Civil Rights movement was about and who its leaders were.
“My wish is that we in the church would create opportunities for people to get to know one another and learn how to live together,” Self says. “There is no quick fix or shortcut—we’ve got to do the work by spending time together and talking through our diversity and differences with respect.”
Lauren Jordan and Elliott Chiasson would agree. “If you’re a person who really wants to learn about race and other issues, you have to be brave enough to talk about it with people who may not think like you,” Chiasson says. “You have to be willing to admit what you don’t know.”
Talking frankly about difficult issues, such as race relations, requires a high degree of trust and takes time. For pastors and laity in leadership:
- Develop and schedule a monthly Bible study or discussion group, with a meal, for members of your congregation and those from a church or churches of another racial group. Let the conversation grow from less volatile issues to more complex themes as trust and comfort grow among members.
- Participate in interfaith and ecumenical clergy associations in your community that address pressing social concerns (i.e., literacy, immigration, after-school programs, poverty reduction, prison ministry).
- Swap sermon notes and resources with a pastor of a racial/cultural group other than your own. Talk about how images and Biblical stories are interpreted and received in diverse racial/cultural groups, and incorporate new ideas into your sermons and Bible studies.
- Re-examine your inner circles. Do you have opportunities to talk with and learn from people of racial/ethnic/cultural backgrounds other than your own? If not, expand your circles by connecting with and joining in ministry with others.
- Create opportunities for youth and children to interact with young people from diverse backgrounds. Plan a joint mission project or a joint Bible study with a congregation of a different racial/cultural group, perhaps monthly or quarterly, so that the young people get to know one another.