Last month, a few dozen Christian leaders gathered at Duke University to discuss issues of racial and ethnic reconciliation. The meeting was called by Chris Rice, coauthor of the landmark book More Than Equals and director of Duke Divinity’s Center for Reconciliation. I was invited to attend the event, but unfortunately I could not (I hope to be there next year). However, my friend Michael Emerson, coauthor of another landmark book, Divided by Faith, was able to attend. I asked him if he would do a guest-blog post about the meeting, and he graciously complied. (Thanks, Mike.)
Reconciliation Leaders Gather at Duke—and Some Sparks Fly
By Michael Emerson
Last summer my family and I left North America for the first time. We went to see the hometown of my grandparents in Sicily. While there, we went to Mount Etna, an impressively high, beautiful volcano on the east coast of Sicily, not far from the hometown of my relatives. The lands surrounding Mount Etna are some of the world’s most fertile for growing olives, grapes, and citrus, enriched by “the Etna’s” many historical eruptions.
We were struck by its calm beauty, but we were also reminded by our tour guide that we were standing on the most active volcano in Europe. Just a few months after we left, Mount Etna erupted with such force that it could be seen from outer space. It has erupted several times since. Appearances can often be deceiving.
Race relations in the United States are like this. Often, on the surface, this nation’s mosaic of racial and ethnic diversity can seem beautiful and even awe-inspiring. People of every conceivable background working hard to achieve their goals in this free land.
But this nation is a racial volcano. We know we have had major eruptions in the past, killing and scarring many. But like tourists to Mount Etna, we often assume that such eruptions are only in the past, that below the surface is calmness, not a boiling cauldron that must erupt periodically to release pressure.
The United States has never gone very long between eruptions. Yet, not long after each one, many tend to think that should do it. The last vestiges of hot lava have flowed.
We completely misunderstand race relations when we take this view.
The presidential primaries provided occasion for some significant eruptions, exposing the divides between racial groups, and especially the divides between Christians of different racial groups.
We can deal with each eruption as it occurs, and leave it at that. Or we can work to reduce the boilers below the surface that lead to the eruptions.
From May 12 to May 15, about 70 hand-picked reconciliation leaders were gathered by the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School. Paying their own way, the leaders came to learn, to renew, and to rededicate. Leaders were selected from grassroots organizations, from among the clergy, and from the academy.
The time was first and foremost one of worship, focusing on the Power that enables change, justice, and righteousness. The conference opened with worship and concluded with a tear-filled time of commissioning, in which the most experienced leaders laid hands on the younger generation, praying for them to lead the justice and reconciliation movement further down the road, despite the costs.
In between was a time of intense networking and what all agreed were incredible sessions of knowledge sharing, including talks from many of the nation’s reconciliation leaders and even a discussion with a Sudanese Catholic Bishop.
Let me give you one specific example that encompasses learning, networking, planning, and doing. It produced sparks that could have led to an eruption, but in a gathering of dedicated reconcilers, it instead led to understanding and action.
The overarching goal of the conference was to determine some of the main below-the-surface boilers that threaten true reconciliation, and create networks to begin dismantling them. The meeting was punctuated by some serious challenges. Rev. Walter Contreras, director of Mission Mobilization and Connection in the Department of World Mission of the Evangelical Covenant Church, passionately challenged the participants to see the immigration issue as a moral issue, one that is separating families, denying the opportunity to survive economically, and reeking havoc on human communities. Can a person be an illegal human being? Or is it rather that they do or do not have official permission from authorities to be where they are?
This topic came to be perhaps the dominant theme of the conference. Where, he asked, are our black, white, and Asian brothers and sisters on this issue? Why does the evangelical church sit silently, or worse, support laws and practices that hurt fellow Christians. Are we Americans first, Christians second?
He was challenged by some in the room, and the discussion intensified. But through the initial conflict, eyes were opened and new understandings reached.
Many in the gathering were so moved that a make-shift meeting was called during a lunch hour. The group prayed, discussed the issues, came up with a plan, and prayed again for guidance and strength.
In Houston, where I live, conference attendee Rev. Harvey Clemons, pastor of Pleasant Hills Baptist Church and president of the Fifth Ward Community Development Association, called a meeting of Latino leaders and immigration lawyers, as well as a few others (such the guy writing this guest blog). From that meeting, we saw the need to create a citywide, interracial steering committee made up of the movers and shakers in the Houston region—the heads of organizations working on immigration justice issues and other influential people. That committee is currently being formed, and our goals will include ministering to families suffering from family separation and economic and educational dislocation; helping provide education on the issues; and ultimately getting laws changed on the local, state, and national levels. We are hoping to connect to such groups in other cities.
The justice and reconciliation movement continues forward. The Duke Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity has committed to hosting yearly conferences. Undoubtedly, who attends will broaden. If you have passion for seeing God’s people treated as God’s people, consider the conference next year. Check out the Center’s website at www.divinity.duke.edu/reconciliation.
I’d be remiss if I ended this guest-blog post without first inviting a dialogue. What do you think are the most pressing issues in race and ethnic relations today? Why? We would love to hear from you.
Michael Emerson is the Allyn and Gladys Cline Professor of Sociology and founding director of the Center on Race, Religion, and Urban Life at Rice University in Houston.