On Friday, July 27 as I sat in the General Council meeting, a flood of emotions, thoughts, and reactions washed over me. I had no idea that the plenary would have taken the direction it took. I listened and heard the stories, some of which I had heard before and some which were new to me. I said to myself, “Now I will be blamed for being the reason which led to the derailing of the meeting.”
In many ways the 43rd General Council stopped, it did not end. It stopped because we had to, people were hungry, some had to go to the washroom, and there was a Moderator to be installed. There was no wrapping up everything neatly with the satisfaction of knowing that we had completed the business agenda. Instead, what we had was unfinished business. It stopped because there were important things to be said which had been waiting too long.
In October 2017 the Alberta and Northwest Conference held a two-day symposium called “An Awkward Conversation.” It was a time to discuss the issue of racism against Black people in Canada and within the church. At the last public session of the symposium at which Moderator Jordan Cantwell spoke, I said to her, “What was done by Alberta and Northwest Conference will be but an arrow shot in the dark unless similar events and dialogues are not organized and held in every Conference of the church.” I felt then, as I do now, that the way forward must be to listen to the stories.
It was the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA that developed the slogan, “ACT Now to End Racism.” ACT for them was a call to the church to “Awake, Confront, and Transform.” You will note that in the reflection I gave to General Council, my call was for The United Church of Canada to Acknowledge, Confront, and Transform. The change to “acknowledge was intentional”; it is a call to the church to recognize what we are seeing and not to explain it away, ignore it, or pretend that it does not exist. The call continues to be for every member, community of faith, region, and the denominational council to ACT Now to End Racism.
So where do we go from here?
To be honest I am still reflecting and discerning about what must now be done. But I think the new process of doing business at the General Council may offer to us a possible way forward. At GC43 the process was Listen, Discuss, Decide. I wonder if we are now in the listening phase. The truth is that conversations about racism in the church have been happening for a long time; for at least 10-15 years now. The listening started from then and continued in Alberta in October last year. Listening continued at the General Council. Now may be the time for us to determine ways that we can continue the listening in every Conference and region of the church. The same point is made by Jim Wallis, founder and president of Sojourners, when he calls on the church to have “focused, honest, serious, and disciplined conversations on race between White people and people of colour” and to believe each other’s experiences.
Until we have had these types of conversations I am not convinced that we will be able to put forward proposals. Yes, this will take time, energy, and resources to listen and we are eager to do something now.
But some things, my grandmother always says, take time and it makes no sense rushing it. This process of listening must involve all of us. It is not a time to cause anyone to feel guilty and it certainly is not time for cheap shots to be made at anyone’s expense. What is clear, however, is that in this process of listening it will be up to the White members of our church to listen to and understand the stories of the racialized members. And, through listening, it will be the White members of our church who will need to begin to take greater initiative to bring an end to racism.
Some have described the experience at General Council 43 as a kairos movement of the Holy Spirit. Some have argued that it was an experience of making White people feel guilty. I disagree with the latter point of view. The determination of what it was will be up to us. If we are unwilling to do the work that needs to be done, then it was an experience as ephemeral as a snow ball during a heat wave in summer. If we are willing to do the work, then change can occur. Let us not fool ourselves, this will be a marathon and not a short dash. But I am convinced that until we do this work we cannot be the church that God wants us to be.
It may well be that it was necessary for the General Council to stop and for us to know that there is unfinished work still to be done. This is what we must now get to if we are to truly bring to a proper conclusion the work of the church. In the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago the Calypsonian Christopher “Tambu” Herbert sang that “The journey now start.” Indeed, we did not end a journey when the 43rd General Council ended, the truth is that the church has just began another journey. Let it be that we will listen, discuss, and then make decisions that will be to the glory of God.
The journey now start!
—Paul Douglas Walfall was an Intercultural Observer at the 43rd General Council. He is the ministry personnel in the Fort Saskatchewan Pastoral Charge in the Yellowhead Presbytery, Alberta and Northwest Conference.