Privilege? Nah. Not me.

Guest Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Chris Keating
Pastor of Woodlawn Chapel Presbyterian Church


                I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with words like “privilege” or “bias.” There was little about my childhood that could be described as privileged—at least not in the way some might use the term.  Middle class, certainly, but hardly privileged. And while I’m far from perfect, I tend to think my biases are primarily focused positively in favor of certain baseball teams and warmer climates and negatively against a particular chain of restaurants.

That’s not unlike a lot of people I’ve encountered. Few persons I’ve known in ministry feel comfortable defining themselves as privileged. They are the first to tell you they have worked hard to overcome obstacles in achieving success. They point to ways that others had advantages they never had. Their lives reflect grit and determination and the can-do spirit of many middle-class families.

Privileged? Nope. Nah. Not me.

But then I remember the time as a teenager that I spent an afternoon wandering through one of Los Angeles’ finest department stores. The store clerks didn’t watch my every move; they handed me a credit card application. Likewise, unlike some of my friends who are black, I have never been questioned by the police when I was parked outside a west St. Louis county grocery store or at a church. I’ve sat unnoticed in coffee shops for hours.

Got privilege? It’s time to realize how these invisible systems and structures are present everywhere, and they disrupt life in the kindom of God.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the 19th annual White Privilege Conference, a large national gathering of students, educators, school employees, social workers, activists and others. The conference is an intentional gathering of diverse perspectives and voices and is dedicated to exploring solutions to achieving a more equitable world. In a very broad sense, it’s a chance to check your privilege.

I’m immensely grateful to both the Presbytery’s Dismantling Racism and Privilege Team and my congregation for offering me the opportunity to attend. While WPC is a secular conference, faith groups were represented. At a time when divisions in our world seem to be growing, I was amazed at the way organizers worked to be truly inclusive—much more inclusive, in fact, than most church gatherings.

It didn’t escape the attention of leaders and attendees that this year’s gathering was held in a Grand Rapids, MI convention center that bears the family name of our current Secretary of Education.  Likewise, the convention’s main hotel was the prestigious Amway Grand Hotel, which is also owned by that same family. I joked that I couldn’t afford to stay there because I was unable to recruit at least three other potential business partners.  Privilege drips from the walls of those buildings.

But the conveners reminded us that this is perhaps the point. Privilege is an everyday reality that benefits white people and creates disadvantages for persons of color. It’s the silent part of structural racism which many white people either don’t see or choose to ignore. Either way, it is antithetical to the sort of world God envisions.

Yet, as we well know, these are not the sort of conversations that happen enough within our congregations.  We may feel overwhelmed by the topic, unsure of where to begin. Additionally, we’re nice Presbyterians whose stomachs get queasy thinking about potentially controversial topics. Given the divisions in our world, sometimes we’re just not willing to broach topics like racism and privilege.

What I’ve learned—both through our own congregation’s efforts and through conversations at the conference—is that reaching beyond our silos of isolation results in unimaginable blessings.

Rev. Steve Miller, an African-American graduate of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, offered reflections about the racial reconciliation ministry he leads in East Texas.  In his words, Miller works nearly exclusively with “groups of white, conservative Trump-loving Republicans” to create dialogue and lasting change. He has learned what we have learned at Woodlawn Chapel: the best conversations begin by focusing on building relationships. By hearing and honoring each other’s stories, trust emerges. Focusing on love brings people together.

This work is not about making white people feel guilty. It’s not about bashing each other. It’s about creating community. That theme was reiterated in workshops that brought together film makers and world-renowned educators.  Researchers and activists mingled with high school students and middle-aged white guys like me. Keynote speakers connected racism to environmental justice, awareness of differing abilities, and sexuality and gender issues.

I was moved beyond words by the witness of the 125 or so high school youth from across the country. They came from every sector of society and offered a witness for change through storytelling, hip-hop poetry slams, spontaneous laughter and heart-felt tears. Their experiences and commitment are reasons for hope.

Listening to the youth is also where I heard the greatest challenge. Often conversations about racism in the church exclude youth.  Yet the organizers of WPC have found success in empowering youth, motivating them to undertake change. It’s astonishing. Their voices are valued, their presence is encouraged.

I wondered if these same passionate and committed youth would feel welcomed in our churches? Would we see them as leaders?  Would we listen to their stories? Or would we instead ask them why they don’t show up to Sunday school more often? Any effective strategy for racial reconciliation must include youth.

I left Grand Rapids with a suitcase full of resources and plenty to think about. I left more aware of my privilege, and less hesitant to examine it.  I have begun assessing my own automatic responses, and unchallenged assumptions.  I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. But there are plenty of ways I have benefitted from being white—even when I did not know it.

Privilege is as wild and pernicious as brush honeysuckle. It’s time to name it, own it, and begin to understand just how damaging it is to our environment.

Privilege? Me? Yes, Lord, yes.

Rev. Dr. Chris Keating

Two Mentally Ill People

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard

Transitional Leader of the
Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy
choward@glpby.org 


Beginning in 2011, I spent a year doing fundraising for Bethesda Lutheran Communities. I worked from the corporate office in Watertown WI. I helped fund group homes throughout the Midwest. Bethesda has resources for congregations that help welcome and minister to the mentally disabled. The PC(USA) is greatly lacking in this area. So, when Johanna Wagner and her spouse Michael Coyle developed the idea of Caritas Presbyterian Fellowship (CPF), I saw real possibility.

Johanna writes about Caritas saying, “CPF’s mission will be to provide opportunities for people with mental health issues to benefit from membership in a community focused on spiritual growth, and to educate churches interested in developing programming supportive of people with mental health diagnoses on how to do so effectively. Initially, the focus of CPF’s programming will be serving people diagnosed with mood, anxiety and thought disorders.”

Caritas began by serving the community at the Independence Center in St. Louis. Now, Johanna and Michael have launched a podcast called Two Mentally Ill People!

As I listen to the first podcast of 2MIP (which can be heard here http://2mipeople.org/ ), I understand what they are doing. Johanna and Michael are attempting to remove the stigma that surrounds mental illness by helping us to see life through their eyes. By sharing their lives and examples of the daily challenges and opportunities they face, Johanna and Michael make the difficult subject of mental illness and emotional disability approachable.

I have a daughter who suffers from depression. She was first diagnosed while in college. I see the challenges of her life as her brilliant mind struggles with emotional inconsistency.

2MIP is for people like my daughter. She’ll learn that life can be full, even with depression. 2MIP is for people like me. Listening to Johanna and Michael dialogue with love, helps me to see through the false screen of limitations society places on my daughter and the mentally ill. Because those who suffer from emotional and mental disabilities are also God’s children living in grace, faith, and love.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

The In-Between

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Transitional Leader of the
Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy
choward@glpby.org 

 


If you have ever moved, or done renovation, or had a home built, you know the frustrations of dealing with transition and contractors! I am working from home the next two weeks as our office transitions to our new space. We find ourselves caught in an in-between space. The Tower Grove office is packed up in boxes, and ready to be transported. Our new office in Creve Core awaits a final inspection approval before we can move in. In the meantime, I and the staff are working from home, and I do not like working from home!

Living in-between characterizes our current office, but also describes the life of many congregations and the presbytery. This place of liminality is described by Murray Stein in the book, “In Midlife.” Stein speaks of liminality as being in a place of drift, alienation, and marginality. It is a place of floating. A place where clearly defined identity fails; there is no “this” and “not that.”

Living in liminality describes many of our congregations. We are operating with a model of ministry that is struggling for survival in our current time. One example is membership. The church seems out of step when it comes to membership and requiring people to join. Counting members goes back to the book of Acts when thousands joined on the day of Pentecost. Throughout time the size of a church as measured by membership has become a badge of prestige. There is nothing wrong with having a large congregation. It is just that we have fewer large churches, and many more congregations under 100 members.

We now live in the Facebook generation where friends are on internet, learning is by Google (for free!), and the focus is on the individual consumer, not a certain community. Membership is in decline everywhere from boy scouts to bowling leagues. People still bowl, but many bowl alone.

People may not join, but they still attend. People may not want to make a public confession of faith, but they want to serve and feel a part of something bigger than they are.

Using the example of membership, how do we let go of the way we value joining, and the way we structure ourselves around numbers? Is there a way to shift our focus from butts-in-the-pews to hands-serving-community? Are we counting the wrong thing? If so, what should we be counting?

Before we can really get at these questions, we may need to let go of our value of membership as a number to be counted. For example, we may focus instead on membership as action. Who participates. How many are served and how many are serving. This may not make denominational sense, but perhaps participating and serving gets us a step closer to the gospel.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Leadership At The Rock

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Transitional Leader of the
Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy

choward@glpby.org

 


This year I spent Easter service at Rock Presbyterian church in Imperial MO. I have been observing Rock’s statistics and am amazed at what is going on there. Rock is one of only two congregations in our presbytery that has grown in membership each year in the past five years. The other congregation is Third Presbyterian (which broke 500 members earlier this year!). Rock is a small congregation that boasts 36 members. It is located south of St. Louis on I-55. I’ve learned that the further south I go in Missouri, the more Southern things become! The folks at Rock were extremely warm and hospitable, and greeted me with smiles of welcome. When I told the members that I was there because they are a vital and vibrant congregation in the presbytery, they informed me it is because of the leadership of their pastor, Stephanie Knopf.

Stephanie is not ordained. She is a Commissioned Ruling Elder (CRE). Stephanie is proof that a CRE is not second-class leadership but can be a powerful presence in leading a healthy and vibrant congregation.

Often, CREs are ruling elders who feel a call to serve the church in preaching and the sacraments. What makes Stephanie’s story unique, is that she chose to become a CRE while in seminary. She said, “I knew at some point I would serve small churches unable to afford the pension dues.” So, she graduated with the Master of Arts, with a focus on pastoral care and Bible.

The CRE program in the denomination was created to help small congregations in rural areas provide pastoral services when an MDiv trained minister is unavailable. The program has since expanded and often includes immigrant congregations, small urban congregations, chaplains, and associate pastors. The decision to allow a congregation to use a CRE is up to the presbytery.

Giddings-Lovejoy does an excellent job commissioning and training CREs. The presbytery has designed a two-year program which includes Bible, Pastoral Care, Reformed Theology, Field Education, and more. A new cohort will begin soon. Stephanie serves as the dean of the program.

If you feel called to expand your role as a ruling elder, or if you know someone who may have gifts in pastoral ministry but does not desire ordination, contact Stephanie at sbknopf@yahoo.com.

Rev. Craig M. Howard