Vital Conversations: Maine churches facilitate community discussions on racism

The first of seven Vital Conversations on race at the York (ME) Public Library.

February 19, 2018

Author James Baldwin said “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

The Rev. Effie McAvoy, who serves York/Ogunquit United Methodist Church in Maine, knows that facing the issue of racism is not easy, and she wants congregations to know they don’t have to do it alone.
This Lenten season, Rev. McAvoy and ecumenical partners in the York community have begun a seven-week series of community conversations based on the Vital Conversations: Race resources created by the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR). These are the same resources that were distributed at the 2017 Annual Conference session.
Rev. Effie McAvoy (click for larger image)
“Until we learn to talk to one another and be in community with one another and be in conversation with one another,” Rev. McAvoy said, “we won’t be able to make confession to one another,
and get past that which separates us to see that which unites us.”
The weekly conversations take place from 10-11:30 on Saturday mornings at the York Public Library; the sessions began Feb. 10 and will continue through March 24, 2018. All are welcome. First Parish Congregational United Church of Christ and St. George’s Episcopal Church are hosting the conversations along with York/Ogunquit UMC.
The clergy worked together to adapt the GCORR program to make it “less churchy” in an effort to speak to all denominations as well as to those of other faiths or no faith.
At the opening of the first conversation, Rev. McAvoy told those gathered: “I have a heart for service and the empowerment of people, and a call to transform systems. These conversations we’re embarking on today are designed with the idea of empowering people to find their voice and learn how to move toward positive and courageous action.”
The event opened with the reading of the Baldwin quote above and lighting of a candle. Sitting at tables with a clergy facilitator at each, participants engaged in exercises and had structured conversation.
One exercise is the “face test.” Precipitants are asked to draw one component of a human face (eye, eye, nose, mouth, ear, ear and hair) for every ‘yes’ answer to statements such as:
  • At least one family on my block (one out of about 10 homes) is of a racial/ethnic group other than my own.
  • At least one of the friends with whom my parent(s) socialize and regularly invite to our home is from a racial/ethnic/language group other than their own.
The more experience with diversity you have, the more complete the face becomes.
The Rev. Calvin Sanborn is rector at St. George’s Episcopal. “The conversations at my table were rich,” he said. “After the face exercise, people felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem – the challenge of talking about race – and were maybe feeling a little bit guilty about maybe not having many parts to the face.”
But Rev. Sanborn sought to encourage people to see that the exercise is not about judgement, but about raising awareness about “how our experiences with people who are different than ourselves – or lack of experiences – really affects who we are.”
The group watched the Vital Conversations video “Deconstructing White Privilege” with
Dr. Robin DiAngelo, author of “What Does It Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy.” The video was followed by some questions for each group to consider.
Rev. McAvoy, who is also the chair of the Conference Committee on Religion and Race, said that she hopes this series can serve as a model “for others who are fearful about having this conversation, and to say that you don’t have to do it alone.”
“The clergy in this community are very open to working together and trying to make positive things happen in our community to see how we can better live out God’s will in our community,” said Dan Hollis, associate pastor, First Parish Church. “We’re not doing this as a PR stunt to get people to come to our churches. We’re trying to step out of our walls in order to do what we’re really called to do among everyone - from all corners of belief and nonbelief.”
Rev. Hollis said he hopes that participants and facilitators will come away from the seven weeks able to “at least start a process to be better members of the human family and to be more caring, and kind, and respectful to each other. Then start laying the groundwork for some societal change here in York and elsewhere.”
Rev. McAvoy echoed that sentiment.
“A lie that we tell ourselves is that we don’t see color or color is irrelevant; that’s not true,” she said. “So, let’s step outside that lie and say, OK, society sees color: How can I, as a person who strives to be a decent person in society, work so that all peoples’ cultures and heritage are given equal opportunity to be and to grow and become more. How do I do that?”
Rev. McAvoy said she’s happy to talk with churches about how they can use the Vital Conversations materials to start discussions in their own communities. While these conversations are just a starting point, Rev. McAvoy said she was encouraged by what she’s seen so far.
“I think people spoke their truth and were open to hearing other points of view,” she said. “I think folk were excited to have this opportunity to work on figuring this stuff out.”