An invitation to come to the table can be warm and welcoming. Often it means someone has prepared a meal for us to enjoy. For me, the idea of coming to the table has taken on new significance over the past six years.
Whenever I have moved to a new church I have made it a practice to be involved in the ecumenical ministerial association in the area. A little over a year after I moved to Hickory, North Carolina, a group of ministers committed to spending several weeks together going through a study from Sojourners entitled “Christianity and Racial Justice.” When the study was completed, some of us decided we wanted to continue coming to the table. Friendships were being deepened. We were learning to look at the world through the lens of others.
Six years later I continue coming to the table with these friends. Our racial reconciliation group meets bi-monthly, building relationships through discussions that are honest, substantive and consciousness-raising. We leave each time with a stronger sense of understanding and community and a commitment to take action outside the group in our circles of influence.
From the beginning we have abided by a two-fold covenant of confidentiality that is meant to create a safe space for speaking honestly about sensitive topics. What is discussed in the meeting will not be discussed in another setting with another participant except in general terms and without mentioning any names. We also agree to avoid public conversations with each other in front of people who were not in the meeting.
In keeping with our covenant, I will not share names or details from our conversations. But I do want to acknowledge some of the ways the group has changed me as a Christian and as a Christian pastor.
I have had to face the reality of the privilege accorded to me as a white male. As is the case with most white people, when I was first introduced to the idea of white privilege I tried to distance myself with rationalizations like “not me; my family is not rich.” Even though I grew up in a low to lower middle class income household, my race and sex carry with them unearned benefits in our society. One of the African-American members of the group, a retired Methodist pastor who, sadly, is now deceased, recounted to us that his grandmother was an enslaved person. Suddenly the things I had read about in history class took on new significance as flesh and blood before me.
I have had to wrestle with the issue of voter suppression. On the one hand, I might be tempted to say, “How hard can it be to verify your identity?” However, neither I nor any of my ancestors have had voting rights denied or even questioned. Now I sit at the table with people who are as American as I am but their right to vote has been questioned. Voter redistricting has taken place in such a way that the courts have determined these efforts have been done with racial bias and racism conducted with surgical precision.
I have gained a different perspective on current events. In February 2012 when Trayvon Martin was gunned down in a Florida neighborhood, at the table I heard from black parents about “the talk” with their children about the dangers surrounding any encounter with the police and other authority figures – dangers that my children never have to think about. At the table we have discussed at length the difference one’s skin color makes in how traffic stops are experienced. African-Americans and other persons of color talked about being stopped for a taillight being out or failure to use a turn signal. Two ministers in the group said one reason they always dress well is for their protection if they were to be stopped by police. If they are well dressed, perhaps they will be treated with more respect and deference. I habitually drive a few miles over the speed limit and sometimes neglect to use a turn signal, but never with a concern that the consequences could land me in jail – or worse. My friends at the table face worries I never have to think about.
After the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, our racial reconciliation group helped organize a service of reconciliation at Lenoir Rhyne University where I teach. Two years later, we grieved together over the hatred, overt racism and violence at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Please do not misunderstand these examples. Our group is not about condemning the police or governmental officials. In fact, one of the things that has made the table so significant is that elected officials from the city as well as members of the police have made this group a priority. These relationships around the table have served Hickory well. On two occasions in recent years there have been shootings involving white officers and African-American assailants. Largely because of the relationships around the table, efforts by outside influences to enflame these events were unsuccessful. Our group supported a commitment to transparency from local law enforcement officials. We were able to share accurate information within our spheres of influence about proper steps taken to ensure justice.
These challenging issues have not been completely resolved, but people are talking with each other as opposed to talking at or about each other. As a result of the efforts of those at the table, the racial reconciliation group was honored last year with the Hickory Community Relations Award.
Recently our meetings have dealt with a variety of topics. One meeting was held in the “colored balcony” (no longer in use) in the local theater. The hard benches, high above the stage, offered an obscured view. For decades plays were presented in this arena but many in our community were treated as less important than others. Several of our meetings have been devoted to issues of immigration. We are fortunate to have involvement from the local Hmong community at the table as well.
I have learned that coming to the table takes time and intentionality. Everyone at the table has busy schedules and other obligations. We do not always agree. I am regularly uncomfortable as I am forced to reflect on my own prejudices. Relationships have grown stronger, but we still struggle to communicate about some issues. Perhaps it will always be that way. But I can tell you that my circle of friends and my circle of concern have grown because of coming to the table. Each of us is regularly reminded to look at life through the lenses of others. And I thank God for that.
The Brookings Institute predicts that by the middle of this century the United States will become a nation of minorities. Non-whites will account for more than 50 percent of the population. There are abundant examples of how this reality is experienced as a threat by many. And that makes it all the more important for people of faith to come to the table. Will you set the table in your community and invite others to join you?