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Congregations find Sacred Ground for racial justice work

Congregations find Sacred Ground for racial justice work
Nina Nicholson

Are you looking for a way to create a safe environment to talk about racial justice? Several congregations have found exactly that through the Sacred Ground dialogue series, created by The Episcopal Church.

This past winter, members of at least six congregations in the Diocese of Newark completed the 10-part series, which includes documentary films and readings focusing on Indigenous, Black, Latino, and Asian/Pacific American histories as they intersect with European American histories.

“The Sacred Ground course has changed how I seek to interact with the world,” said Amy Zebrowski of St. Luke’s, Phillipsburg.

The Rev. Anne Kitch of St. Luke's, Phillipsburg and the Rev. Dr. Debra Brewin-Wilson of St. Mary's, Sparta facilitated the series jointly with members of their congregations. They also invited the congregations in their Regional Ministry Networks, Harriet Tubman (South West) and Constance and Her Companions (North West) and ended up with 14 participants representing five congregations.

The Rev. Margaret Otterburn of Messiah, Chester invited the co-chairs of the diocese’s Namaste Anti-Racism Dialogues, the Rev. Jerry Racioppi and Michele Simon, to facilitate the series with 10 members of her congregation.

“It's a 10-week course,” said Kitch, “but – this is really wise – you don't meet every week, you meet every other week. There's two reasons for that: there's a significant amount of homework between each session, you're watching videos and reading short articles, but also it's so intense that you really need that kind of time to absorb it.”

Kitch and Brewin-Wilson each led one group, or “circle,” one in the daytime, and one in the evening. They divided the 10-part series into five sessions in the fall and five sessions in the winter. All sessions were held on Zoom.

“It worked over Zoom, even though it wasn't designed to work over Zoom,” said Kitch “It was conceived to be in-person, but it transfers well. It makes it accessible to people regardless of where they are, and also there's something about the Zoom format that I think allows people to be intimate but feel a little safer at the same time.”

They found Zoom’s breakout room feature to be helpful, putting participants in “dialogue pairs” managed by Brewin-Wilson. “I tried to vary it so that people were paired up with different people. Anne and I were the swing people so if someone didn't show up one week because of another commitment then we jumped into that space.”

The Messiah, Chester group met for two hours every two weeks, also on Zoom.

“Sometimes we were in two separate [Zoom] rooms and then other times we were all together, said Otterburn.

All the materials are online; facilitators and participants get a passcode to access them. “Everything's on there so the people who are participating can go there and download all the readings, they can watch all the videos,” Kitch said.

Brewin-Wilson added, “There's training available to the facilitators so that you can feel comfortable in leading.” Kitch noted that facilitators don't even need to have reviewed the materials ahead of time – she and Brewin-Wilson read and viewed the materials at the same time as their participants.

Brewin-Wilson, Kitch and Otterburn all praised the curriculum highly.

“Whoever put it together did a wonderful job in helping us understand ourselves and everything,” said Otterburn. “We had nothing but praise for the program.”

“The curriculum piece of it is just excellent,” said Kitch. “I found a lot of the materials very recent, like documentaries that were made in 2019. Some of it's a little older but it never feels out of date. The articles are very timely. It's been a long time since I’ve facilitated something where I thought the content was so excellent and we didn't have to mess with it at all.”

Brewin-Wilson said, “I certainly had anxieties about, oh my gosh, what if this discussion just goes off the rails, but that never happened, and I think it's because everything you're provided with helps you to make that safe space, so that you feel okay exploring, even your anxieties.”

“I really wanted a forum in which you could have conversations about what you were reading with other people who are also on the learning curve,” said Kitch. “Sometimes it's uncomfortable because you don't know what's okay to say, and this is set up so that it really makes it a very welcome environment to have those kinds of conversations.”

Participant Chika Okoye of St. James, Hackettstown grew up in Nigeria, “where all the billboards are of Black people and everybody on TV is Black – only foreign films have white people in them. You don't go to a marketplace and you're the only black person – no, everybody's Black, so my perspective would be different,” she said.

“I do not realize how biased people are because it's not where I’m coming from, but I have children that have grown here and they are more sensitive to this, and that was one of the reasons why I decided, you know, maybe I should educate myself more. Because they recognize when they're being followed in a store – I don't.”

She said, “It was helpful for me because I hadn't had the opportunity to see it from the other side. I've always heard the Black perspective, but you know the white perspective is also a little bit different, because many of the participants were unaware of certain things.”

Otterburn says the course is appropriate for anyone with "a willingness to do the work. You're watching an hour-long video before every session and there's quite a lot to read."

Kathleen O’Brien of St. Mary’s Sparta was initially taken aback by the amount of material, but after completing the course, she emailed Brewin-Wilson and Kitch:

I just wanted to share with both of you something that struck me this morning. As I was walking my dog I was reflecting on the Sacred Ground course. When I first started it I thought "This is too much." But now that it's over I’m thinking maybe it's not enough. Thank you both.

All three priests are willing and eager to advise other congregations who are considering doing the Sacred Ground series.

St. George’s, Maplewood plans to begin the series in April.

“Our congregation has been discerning who God is calling us to be right now in our community, and one of the core themes that keeps being repeated is the desire to seek Christ in the world around us and to cross boundaries beyond our normal areas of comfort – particularly in the spaces of racial, cultural, political, and economic injustices,” said the Rev. Grant Mansfield of St. George’s.

“Sacred Ground is an opportunity for us to examine the deep history of racism and white supremacy in our country and Church through the eyes of faith, and wrestle with the uncomfortable truth of how this history has directly formed our individual stories and experiences of life today.

“Sacred Ground is just that, a sacred ground to do this work together.”