The work goes on

SPREADING LOVE: The Rev. Claudia Jiménez of Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville says racial justice work requires humility and accountability. Photo courtesy of UUCA

The murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020, spurred nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. In Asheville, Floyd’s murder had the immediate effect of religious institutions looking inward and engaging with their congregations around racial justice.

More than a year on from those events, many faith communities have continued that work. Religious leaders say that they’ve strengthened initiatives that were in place before 2020 and started new efforts to face the social sins of racism.

The racial justice healing group at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Asheville, for example, met monthly for several years prior to last spring, says Pastor Matt Smith. But as the national racial justice movement swelled, St. Mark’s’ relationship with the WNC Baptist Fellowship Church — a historically Black Asheville congregation — brought the issue of police brutality and other consequences of racism into sharper focus. The two congregations occasionally share meals and hold joint worship services.

“Our existing relationship with a Black congregation made us feel the effects of the George Floyd murder in a different way,” explains Smith. “It didn’t seem like an anonymous problem. This could have happened to our Black brothers and sisters that we have been worshipping with and breaking bread with.”

Called to action 

Witnessing the impact of tragedy on others has been a catalyzing force for many of Asheville’s faithful. The Rev. Claudia Jiménez, minister of faith development for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville, says her congregation’s Anti-Racism and Immigration Justice Action Group became more active following Floyd’s murder and the inequities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The UUCA had a history of social activism, Jiménez says, such as providing sanctuary for undocumented immigrants and advocating for legalizing same-sex marriage. But the events of 2020, she continues, caused congregants who may not have previously recognized examples of white supremacy culture to witness its devastating effects on people of color, especially those who are economically insecure.

“With the pandemic, that vulnerability could no longer be ignored,” she says. “Especially since there were so many people — usually people of the global majority — who were considered essential workers and yet whose salaries did not reflect how essential they were to us.”

Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville also had a history of racial justice work within its congregation prior to 2020. For five years, says the Rev. Marcia Mount Shoop, the church’s Power and Race Team has brought in speakers such as Tema Okum, author of The Emperor Has No Clothes: Teaching About Race and Racism to People Who Don’t Want to Know. PART also partnered with The Cathedral of All Souls, an Asheville Episcopal congregation, to travel to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (informally known as the lynching memorial) in Montgomery, Ala.

During 2021, Grace Covenant met the financial devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic by asking congregants to donate their coronavirus relief checks. Parishioners donated $35,000, says church spokesperson Anna Louise Murchison; Grace Covenant then asked partner organizations led by people of color to distribute those funds directly to families adversely impacted by the coronavirus.

Another religious institution in Asheville is factoring racial justice into its future plans. Biltmore United Methodist Church announced on July 19 that its congregation had voted to sell its 1.9-acre of its property on Hendersonsville Road.

In a press release, the church shared that the endowment from the sale of the property may be used to support local racial justice initiatives. “The hope is that Biltmore will be able to support several organizations that work to address multiple forms of injustice within our community and the greater Asheville area,” Pastor Lucy Robbins tells Xpress.

Learn and live

Other racial justice work in faith communities has focused on education. In November, the UUCA board formed a Racial Justice Advisory Council with a goal of making the congregation anti-racist. The council published a glossary of language around racism and white supremacy for parishioners in April and held a Zoom meeting to introduce congregants to the resources.

And in May, UUCA ministers created an assessment on a Google Form to ask parishioners about their experience of race at the church. As of June, 90 people had responded out of a congregation of 450.  Jiménez says the goal is to look at the church’s hiring practices and other operations to uncover any existing racist structures.

Faith-based reading and discussion groups also bolstered their efforts. Shoop says Grace Covenant’s Racial Justice Book Club, has read a book with a racial justice theme monthly since 2018. And amid the Black Lives Matters protests of the last year, 150 congregants participated in two months of reflections on the themes in Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad. UUCA also organized small groups to read Me and White Supremacy, and Jiménez says the positive experience may lead to the formation of a congregationwide racial justice book club.

Robbins says that 20 congregants of Biltmore United Methodist Church held a reading group for Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving. “We had a good turnout for the book study, which indicates an interest from folks in learning about their own racist tendencies and how we work, individually and corporately, to overcome them,” she says.

She adds ​​that she has preached several times since May 2020 about racial injustice “and how we are called as Christians to stand against these practices that oppress and marginalize our sisters and brothers of color.”

From the top

As these ministers tend to their flocks, one faith leader is tending to the ministers — and encouraging them to do their own racial justice work. The Rev. Tami Forte Logan, the former pastor of Pharr Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, says she was called to form the interfaith group Faith 4 Justice Asheville following the killing of Jai “Jerry” Williams by Asheville Police Department Sgt. Tyler Radford in 2016.

“This constant, what felt like a barrage of Black bodies — in particular, Black men — being shot and killed by police was disturbing to me,” Logan explains. She convened local faith leaders to assess how best to respond. “I wanted to hear from folks, ‘What is our role? What are you thinking? What are you feeling? How do we provoke justice for Black- and brown-bodied people in this particular time?’” she recalls.

Faith 4 Justice Asheville’s first meeting in 2016 brought together 25 multiracial and multidenominational clergy members. The group has taken numerous public actions over the years: prayer processions, candlelight vigils, writing letters, speaking before Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. The interfaith group, now a mix of about 30 clergy and laity, continues to meet monthly over Zoom.

More white people have joined Faith 4 Justice Asheville since it started, and the number increased during the group’s past year of Zoom meetings, Logan says. The demographic change has demonstrated to her the need for racial justice to take place in churches.

“More and more, I have recognized the need of white congregations to do this work,” Logan explains. “When you look at history and the support of white supremacy in this country and all the policies that follow, white churches have been highly complicit. … There is a responsibility and accountability that white churches have to own and do their own work around that.”

Addressing unconscious biases may be especially necessary, Jiménez says, for denominations that have historically been progressive. Pastors and parishioners may push back against racial justice work under the assumption it is other people who have the most work to do.

It’s internal work that Jiménez, who is Colombian, is doing herself. Even though she has Hispanic heritage, she says, she’s been influenced by white supremacist beliefs throughout her life, and so has her denomination.

“One of Unitarian Universalists’ principles is respecting the inherent worth and dignity of everybody,” explains Jiménez. But despite a history of allyship and advocacy for social movements including racial justice, the denomination hasn’t always held itself accountable for its own complicity in structural racism. “We never really had a reckoning with the role white supremacy had,” she continues.

Addressing racial justice in Asheville’s faith communities is not simple, nor will it be short-lived. It’s not a matter of “‘I’m going to read a book and be in a book club and I’m done,’” says Jiménez, wiping her hands for emphasis. “This is ongoing work, and this work requires curiosity and humility and vulnerability, as well as accountability.”

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