In the fall of 2017, I visited Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. Like Mesa Verde to the north, Bandelier preserves the compelling culture and landscapes of a group of cliff-dwelling people; I was surprised when no informational sign named these people what I had long known them to be – the Anasazi. Upon research, I learned that the current day Puebloans, descendants of these cliff-dwellers, asked that the term no longer be used to describe them or their ancestors; you see, “Anasazi” was how another native tribe referred to these cliff-dwellers, and the term meant “ancient enemies”.
As people of “the Word”, we know that words matter, and continuing to use a word that means “enemy” runs fully counter to Jesus’ commission that we should all be one.
What is Learned Can Be Unlearned
The Hatfield’s and McCoy’s – two white families of European descent – settled on opposite sides of the Kentucky/West Virginia border over which they feuded for 28 years. That’s a long time to carry a grudge, and that infamous family feud could only have been continued through the teaching of the next generation that the other was to be feared and not trusted.
The fear and disdain of another must be taught – it is not inborn – and just as it can be learned, it can be unlearned.
Race is an Illusionary Dividing Line
In America we have a notion of “race” as a dividing line between peoples. That dividing line is an illusion. Rather, “race” is a learned concept, taught by one generation to another out of fear in some cases, and to gain advantage in others. Since the colonization of North American lands from the original native inhabitants, and the first abduction of Africans brought to America to build white wealth on the backs of black slave labor, this caustic notion of race has kept us — and continues to keep us — from realizing a true democracy whose ambition was “liberty and justice for all.”
What has been learned can be unlearned, and as Christians, it is our call to provide for God’s peace and justice for all.
RMC is Launching an Anti-Racism Initiative
With this call to action clear, this past fall, in the shadow of the continued strife witnessed in the murders of so many persons of color, the RMC Board of Directors authorized the formation of an Anti-Racism Ministry for the Rocky Mountain Conference. Alongside them, I believe this to be the most important work we can do in our lifetimes for the kin-dom of God. Until we take seriously the reality of systemic racism both inside and beyond the walls of the Church, the oneness to which Christ calls us will never be achieved.
Therefore, the Rocky Mountain Conference will work intentionally to shift our culture from long-instilled and to some, invisible racism, toward a full embrace of Anti-Racism. This shift will ask deep reflection and intentional action on all of our parts, and will also entail an examination and potential retooling of every process and practice of our shared ministries.
To move this work forward, the Board has authorized $450,000 over the first three years, from the Conference’s unrestricted net assets, as a demonstration of our commitment to move toward a culture of equity for all. A significant part of that set-aside is the calling of an additional Associate Conference Minister (ACM) to provide expanded resources to our Conference team. Alongside current ACM Rev. Erin Gilmore and myself, this additional ACM will provide direction and leadership to this Anti-Racism initiative. This new ACM will also provide support for search and call, churches in transition, leadership development, and other conference offerings to ensure the integration of the Anti-Racism culture we seek to build.
The position posting will be finalized on the UCC Opportunities Listings by the end of the month, and we anticipate our new ACM will be onboard in the second quarter of 2021.
Anti-Racism Ministry Team
Because change only really occurs when people work together to make a difference, a new Anti-Racism Ministry Team will also be put in place to help mobilize this cultural work. Initial thoughts on team membership includes a lay person and a clergy person from each association, along with a couple of at-large members.
While a call went out to the Conference in the fall of 2020 for nominees to this new team, it has now emerged that the new ACM who will provide direction for that team should help build that team, so also watch for an additional team recruitment announcement in second quarter. If you have already submitted your name or the name of another for that team, please know the RMC Nominating Committee still has notes of your interest and will include your thoughts as they seek to build the team with the new ACM.
For Now We See Dimly…
The task of unlearning racism and re-learning how to love and cherish one another without the illusion of race is work for each of us to do both individually and collectively. As I envision our collective investment of time, talents, and treasure in this vital work, I see multiple entry points for congregations and associations to choose as they start their work toward a culture of Anti-Racism. Please know that this work will be more fully shaped as the new ACM, the RMC staff, and the Anti-Racism Ministry Team work together to determine needs and offerings to build this new culture. And please know that the shift that will take time does not have a “one size fits all” solution. Our work will evolve over years, and yet, every step makes a difference.
And with a bit more clarity…
One thing I am clear on: we will stumble and not get it right some of the time. At the RMC Annual Meeting of 2014, the Rev. Steve Sterner admonished us to follow the path of the tech companies in Silicone Valley: “experiment, be fearless, and if you fail, fail fast, forgive faster, and get back to experimenting to find what works.”
I pray this becomes our motto: experiment, fail if necessary, forgive & learn, experiment again. Be gentle with yourself and gracious with one another.
A peek in the rearview…
It has been 60 years since Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s work to create a world of equity for all, and although strides have surely been taken, the work is not yet accomplished. Along my way toward ordination, I wrote this thought about the work toward which I felt called: “the world changes gently, one heart at a time.” While I now know the world doesn’t always change gently, I am still convinced change happens one heart at a time.
So I am inviting each member of the Conference to engage in this work of changing our hearts and changing our culture toward one of Anti-Racism. Jesus knew his commission to his followers wasn’t an easy path – but it is a spiritual one – and one we are all called to follow. While I am sure that achieving a culture of equity for all will not be the end of the journey, once we get there, we’ll see what God has in store for us next.
Praying your wholeness, your boldness, and our oneness in the Spirit of the Living Christ,
Rev. Sue Artt
Conference Minister ~ Regional Judicatory Executive ~ CEO