Today’s writer used a question in Now Is The Time: A Study Guide for ELCA Declaration to People of African Descent as the starting point for her blog. In Session 2 of the guide, a small group discussion question is posed: What shift might happen within us when we face history and listen with an open heart, not out of guilt but out of grief?
“The Declaration of the ELCA to People of African Descent” is an acknowledgment of the church’s complicity in slavery and the perpetuation of systemic racism. Now Is The Time: A Study Guide for ELCA Declaration to People of African Descent focuses on deepening understanding of that history and engaging white people in conversation on the meaning and impact of slavery and systemic racism. Participant materials are available in addition to the study guide.
by Lorie Garcia
Growing up I always thought of racial bias as something that happened in history, “way back then.” Of course I did. I am a white Gen Xer in a Latine-majority midsize city in South Texas. The adults around me, in school/Girl Scouts/church, all taught me that everyone is equal and that the civil rights movement had fixed the problems of our racist past. Why would I question any of it when I didn’t see anything overt? Then college not only broadened my exposure but taught me to pay attention to what I had blissfully ignored.
My journey of learning about the realities of both our history and our present has seen me wallowing in a lot of guilt along the way. How did I not see this? How could I have continued to perpetuate harm against people I claim to care about? Let’s be honest, this guilt looks a lot like shame, and this shame made me want to hide from it.
There are pretty much two responses to this guilty feeling—tears or denial. The tears make the situation about me—my sadness, my feeling of hopelessness, my need to be made to feel better. Denial puts up a wall and shuts down everything. My defense mechanism statements of “I didn’t own slaves” or “I’m not a racist” put up an immediate barrier to any learning or conversation. This guilt implies culpability so putting my head in the sand is how I can protect myself. Avoiding the uncomfortable notion that I might have benefited from a system is simply easier.
While these might be the first and admittedly more comfortable responses, they do nothing to reflect nor bring about the kingdom of God. They keep us from being vessels of God’s grace for our neighbors.
What if we fully embraced the promise of the Holy Spirit to be with us in all we do? What could happen if we shifted from guilt to grief? Because it IS uncomfortable, it IS terrible, and we should grieve the tremendous harm done to our siblings both in the past and today. And in our grief, we can use our indignation to dismantle unjust systems, to humbly accompany those who are harmed and together create change, to open our hearts to continuously hearing what our siblings are saying.
Grief allows us to have the feelings, but also to recognize them and move forward. Grief lets us see the need for healing and demands we learn more. We can open our hearts to truth—about history, about systems we’ve benefited from, about our own daily actions and interactions.
Moving away from shame into openness helps me recognize that this is not about my needs but rather what is being asked OF me. As I continue to study and learn, deeply listen, and respond, I can be an instrument of change. That might mean advocating for systemic change. That might look like stepping aside to make space for those marginalized in the places where I have influence. I know it looks like listening and believing the lived experience of my neighbors. And I know it means that to fully believe in a God of mercy and righteousness, that I am called to active love.
Lorie Garcia, of Corpus Christi, Tex., serves on the executive board of Women of the ELCA. As an extension of her work with the Racial Justice Advocacy Network of Women of the ELCA in the Southwestern Texas Synod, she is on the task force guiding Project Radical Hospitality, which seeks to put Jesus’ call to love our neighbor into action with tangible acts through example, education and by sponsoring an asylum seeker and her son.