Preaching progress: Religious leaders advocate racial justice as in-person services resume
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As restrictions under the COVID-19 pandemic continue to thaw, some churches in Steamboat Springs have begun to resume in-person services.
For many, it has come as a relief, offering the chance to regain the closeness of their spiritual community, despite mitigation protocols that limit gathering sizes and require face masks, among other guidelines. Others, particularly those considered among the vulnerable populations, remain wary of attending events for fear of being exposed to the virus.
But a more profound change has occurred among local religious groups since the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a violent encounter with Minneapolis police officers. Faith leaders and members alike have taken up the fight against racism and oppression, using the fundamentals of their faith as fodder. They have found innovative ways to take an active role in the movement despite the limitations dictated by the pandemic.
One of the most recent examples came from a diverse group of religious leaders, known as Exploring the Sacred, which published a declaration in Thursday’s edition of Steamboat Pilot & Today in support of demands for racial justice and equality.
“Unitedly we declare that the answers to racism, prejudice, discrimination and hate will not come from government or law enforcement alone. Solutions will come as we open our hearts and minds to those whose lives are different than our own, examine our own biases, work to build bonds of genuine friendship and to see each other as brother and sisters, “ the declaration begins. “As religious leaders of Steamboat Springs, we commit to do our part to transform fear and hate into trust and love in order to create a kinder, wiser and more compassionate world.”
It was the first time Exploring the Sacred, which formed in 2004, has taken a stance on a particular issue, according to co-founder Marchele McCarthy. The group meets monthly and discusses topics as a way to invite varying opinions and viewpoints. McCarthy explained the shift is a result of both the issues happening outside of Steamboat and the prejudices and oppression that exist within the community.
“This was the first time the group agreed we need to say something and we need to have a unified voice to be really clear that it’s not OK,” McCarthy said.
Addressing the issue
One of Exploring the Sacred’s first steps to progressing racial justice and bias was to host a panel discussion with its members on Thursday evening called “Heal Oneself, Heal the World.”
Panelists included Maggie Taylor, associate pastor at Heart of Steamboat United Methodist Church; Bishop Newel Linford with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; Tim Olmsted, spiritual director at the Buddhist Center of Steamboat Springs; Steve Aigner, a practitioner of Islam; Rabbi Scott Segal with the Har Mishpacha Jewish congregation; Father Ernest Bayer with Holy Name Catholic Church; and Karen Post, a psychotherapist and local leader of the religious study group, “A Course in Miracles.”
The virtual talk, broadcast on Zoom and posted on social media, delved into some of the grittier truths about pervading oppression, and it sought ways to improve diversity and inclusivity among local congregations.
As the participants openly acknowledged, religious groups have prejudices to reconcile in both the history books and contemporary practices.
Until the 1970s, for example, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints did not permit Black members to participate in important rituals and prohibited Black men from becoming priests.
But with a varied mix of progressive and conservative congregations, the Methodist church has since formulated a plan to split the denomination. The “traditionalist Methodist” denomination would uphold the bans, while the United Methodist Church would become a more liberal-leaning denomination allowing same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy.
The Heart of Steamboat United Methodist Church has spoken out against the conservative bans and emphasized its commitment to inclusivity. Partly in response to the global debate, the local church organized a series called “Being Human,” featuring bimonthly workshops meant to foster compassion and understanding.
First steps in a long journey
The idea that racism is not a major issue in American society is a misconception among certain communities throughout the country, religious or otherwise, according to Post. She recounted recent discussions with people who said they thought racism ended with the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“If some people thought this was a ’60s issue and it’s over, we have to start talking about this a lot more and not let it leave people’s consciousness,” Post said.
The first step toward progress, according to Rabbi Segal, is to acknowledge that racism continues to be a problem, even within religious communities. In thinking about this, the panelists discussed their ideas on the more general idea of bias and where it comes from.
Segal argued bias is a social construct informed by one’s environment and culture. While bias is not inherently bad and in many instances people are not aware of the subtle ways bias plays a role in their thoughts and perceptions, it can take negative forms.
A major tenant of Buddhism, Tim Olmsted explained, is to flesh out whatever prejudices or beliefs one has about the world and to call them into question. One goes through life thinking one’s perspective is reality. The truth, Olmsted argued, is much murkier and multi-faceted. He compared this idea to a group of people who watch the same movie but who all leave with unique opinions and perceptions, informed by their past, wildly varying experiences. To change negative perceptions, one must first identify them, Olmsted said.
“The problem is not so much that we have bias, because we all do. (The problem) is that we actually believe we don’t,” he explained.
Maggie Taylor differentiated explicit biases from implicit ones, the latter being more difficult to identify but perhaps more insidious because it implies a person does not acknowledge the prejudice and therefore does not try to resolve it.
Part of the process of breaking down bias involves putting oneself in the shoes of others. To use a famous quote from Abraham Lincoln, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”
Post recounted an experience working as a social worker in Compton, a section of Los Angelos, in the ’90s. Most of her coworkers were Black Americans, as were most of her clients. As Post, who is white, explained, it was the first time she had ever worked in an environment where she was the minority. It brought a certain degree of discomfort, Post admitted, but it allowed her to learn and care about issues that she never would have known about otherwise.
“I had never experienced or heard of what the challenges were that they were coming up against,” she said.
Post sees it as one of the most educational and meaningful experiences she has ever had.
“We have to get out of our bubbles,” she said.
Continuing the conversation
A question posed to the panelists asked what role religion should play in addressing these biases amid the racial justice movement. Among the primary roles, Taylor argued, is to speak out against forms of oppression, from social prejudice to systemic inequalities, such as redlining in housing policies and gerrymandering in the voting process.
At her church, the Heart of Steamboat United Methodist Church, a new discussion series, “Conversations on Racism and Christianity,” had its first meeting this week. Loosened COVID-19 restrictions allowed a limited number of people to gather in the church’s courtyard. One of the main topics they discussed, Taylor said, is how to become an anti-racist church. The term anti-racist refers to the process of actively opposing racism and supporting racial tolerance.
These can be uncomfortable topics at times, Taylor recognized, but that is exactly why she believes her church needs to talk about them.
“Through discomfort comes learning, understanding, listening — and that’s where we get to the place to be able to transform the systems that are creating so much heartache, so much death, so many of the problems we are seeing today,” Taylor said.
People might be clumsy in their terminology or make mistakes in these discussions, she added, which is why she wants the group to be a place of grace rather than guilt.
Going forward, the series will include an online talk of a weekly shared reading, which will be posted Tuesday on the church’s Facebook page. On Wednesday, a limited group of people will gather at the courtyard to have a deeper conversation on the themes and ideas in the reading.
Other religious leaders discussed different ways they contribute to change. Rabbi Segal said he encourages members of his synagogue to be active voters and to use their democratic power to elect officials who align with their values. Father Bayer has included social justice messages into his weekly homilies that relate scripture to the everyday lives of parishioners.
These are introductory steps, but they pave the way for deeper progress.
“Change is very possible,” Taylor said. “It might take longer than we want, but it will happen if we continue to work at it together.”
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