4 Spiritual practices for the journey towards anti-racism

“Know that it’s a marathon. It’s not a sprint.”

In our recent post on responding to racialized violence, high school ministry director Phil Lewis reminded us with these words that the pursuit of racial justice requires a long-term commitment.

When it comes to this marathon, many of us are at different points. Some may be stepping up to the starting line for the first time as news has broken about the violent and unjust deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black men and women in our country. Others feel downright exhausted from running this marathon for a long time, yet still hopeful that the body of Christ is moving in powerful ways.

Wherever we are in the journey, it’s important that we center ourselves in spiritual practices to help us engage in the pursuit of Christ-centered anti-racism. Research shows that young people are more likely to exhibit positive, responsible behavior when they have parents and other adults in their lives who model positive, responsible behavior. And as leaders, we are better equipped to help young people on their journey towards anti-racism when we are engaging in our own transformative journey.

We (Kat and Lisa) both identify as Latina women. More than ever, as the God-given sacred worth of every person continues to be ravaged within communities of color—especially the Black community—we find ourselves crying out to God. These unprecedented times have brought us to our knees in search of Christ's transforming power.

Spiritual practices are designed to do just that: bring us into the presence of God, and open the door to God’s transforming work within us. Whether drawing from classic Christian disciplines or reimagining practices for today, these movements foster humility and open-heartedness that create space for God to transform us from within.

As we journey together toward racial justice, what are ways we can intentionally enter into God’s presence?

Here are four spiritual practices that can help:

1. Claiming our own stories

"Until we know who we are ethnically, we are unable to really reconcile genuinely with others. And until we know and recognize people for who they really are—including some of their history as a people—and then interact with them in ways that actually influence how we see ourselves, we cannot genuinely reconcile with them." — Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson[1]

Recognizing our own racial identity and social location in the world is an important practice. This allows us to better understand and begin to process our own suffering, loss, privileges, and biases, and bring them before God.

Why? Because we need to put ourselves in context. We must seek to see ourselves the way God sees us: how we are loved in our suffering, where we may be complicit with systems of violence and injustice, and how that complicity grieves the heart of God.[2]

Juan Martinez and Mark Lau Branson share in their book Churches, Cultures, and Leadership, "Without self-awareness we are more prone to misunderstanding others and to underestimating the impact that our own heritage has on how we perceive and think and act.”[3] As we prayerfully consider our own life stories, how our backgrounds have impacted how we operate in the world, and how God has been present in the midst of it, tools like models of ethnic identity development can help us make honest assessments of our own journeys and discern our next steps.

Lau Branson and Martinez offer some helpful questions for prayerful reflection. A few are adapted here:[4]

  • What do you know (or can you discover) concerning the ethnicity and national origins of your parents, grandparents, or earlier generations?
     
  • Think about the phases of your life. How did your ethnic identity affect you? How has your awareness changed?
     
  • How have you experienced discrimination, prejudice, and inequality among ethnic groups? What do you remember about experiences of being treated unfairly because of cultural identity? Or of treating others unfairly?
     
  • What is the relationship between your ethnic identity and your faith?
     
  • In what ways do the stories, values, and practices of your ethnic heritage open up the gospel or what it means to be a Christian? What elements of your ethnic heritage make being a Christian difficult?

2. Learning (and re-learning) history

"Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt their pain in your own bodies." — Hebrews 13:3 (NLT)

What if we, as leaders, intentionally learned the different histories of the people groups with whom we interact—particularly those who have historically faced oppression and injustice—as an essential part of our ministry?

Histories of people of color are filled with trauma, pain, and horrific injustice, and also with beauty and incredible richness. It is only through gaining knowledge of these histories that we can take measures not to contribute to the oppression.

As we develop our personal stories, it’s also important to zoom out, looking towards the larger story of what has happened in our own histories throughout the generations. This will shed light on how both God and forces of oppression have been at work. If we personally identify as part of marginalized groups, learning the history of our own group and teaching it to our young people is critical.

And no matter what our background, taking time to learn each others’ histories can be deeply transformative as part of the multiethnic body of Christ. History around hurt and suffering is often buried, or painted in a one-dimensional, easily-digestible way. Re-learning involves first unlearning thin or false historical accounts.

This may involve practices like searching for work written or filmed by people of color, exploring parts of cultural history to which we haven’t been exposed before, or learning the names and stories of the local Indigenous peoples who inhabited the land on which we live and work today.

As we investigate these histories, we can ask God to search our hearts:

  • What thoughts and feelings come up for me as I learn this history?
     
  • Where is there inherited family generational trauma?
     
  • Whose histories have been erased? 
     
  • God, what broke your heart during this historical time period?
     
  • What are some of the effects of history that have trickled down to our own generation, and how am I being called to respond?

3. Laying all burdens and emotions before God

“Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” — Psalm 139:23-24 (NIV)

Being honest about what really happened to real people—who were fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14) in the image of God—inevitably brings up strong emotions, putting us face to face with the darkest parts of ourselves. Some of these emotions include fear, shame, and grief.

It’s common to experience grief when we do the deep, inner work of recognizing suffering—whether our own or the suffering of those around us.

But how do we grieve? How do we mourn?

First, we can set aside time to sit with our sadness, anger, or any emotion that emerges, and do so intentionally in the presence of God. When we are attentive to these emotions, we can seek God’s healing in the brokenness, reflecting on the ways healing can happen both on a personal level and on a societal one, through institutional change.

As Christians, we have hope in Jesus as the light in any darkness. Many of us want to be lights that shine in the midst of this particular dark season in our nation’s history, in which the pain of racism is so incredibly undeniable. But fewer of us would profess the desire to undergo the painful process of God revealing to us our own areas of darkness.

Sitting in sorrow and grief in God's presence allows God to open the door for us to see our own brokenness, including how we may have sinned against God or others. We can ask, with a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17):

  • God, reveal to me my own biases and prejudices, and show me how have I sinned against others.
     
  • God, reveal to me where I may hold privilege or power. Show me how I may have failed to steward those gifts.
     
  • God, what do you invite me to bring before you honestly in sadness or anger over race-based sins committed against me?
     
  • God, reveal to me if I harbor unforgiveness for those who have committed race-based sins against me or those I love, recognizing that forgiveness does not mean forgetting and is not a right to be demanded.[5]
     
  • God, reveal to me when I have stayed silent or turned a blind eye to the pain of others.

As God reveals this to us, we remember that we are rooted in a secure identity in Christ, as God’s beloved children.

As individuals and communities of faith, we can be open to the process of excavation on a deep level within our souls. This is because it is precisely through the journey of turning to God that we find true freedom promised to us in Scripture.

Tweet: As people and communities of faith, we can be open to the process of excavation on a deep level within our souls. Through the journey of turning to God, we find true freedom.

4. Practicing discernment and self-care

“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” — 1 Corinthians 12:26 (NIV)

Recent events in our country have been overwhelming, leading many of us to consume a lot of news and new resources in the name of learning. While this is wonderful, at this point it might feel like "drinking from a fire hose."

For many people of color, the constant re-traumatization by the news and other media can be overwhelming as well.

When I (Lisa) served as a hospital chaplain, I’d see family members struggle with taking care of themselves when a loved one was at the end of their life or had recently died. To take a shower, to eat a meal, to simply step outside the hospital and breathe deeply seemed dishonoring in those moments of deepest grief. There are parallels in our current climate of mourning in our country. To disengage, even momentarily, can feel dishonoring to the dead.

If we cover our eyes and ears and disengage entirely, it truly is dishonoring. Some of us are not as physically close to all the problems of racial injustice, and have the freedom and privilege to take time out much more easily than others. But even if we may not be physically close, as brothers and sisters in Christ, we are all part of one body. When one part of the body hurts, so do the others (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Let’s seek God's guidance in prayer for a healthy balance between the long, difficult, emotional journey of the pursuit of racial justice, and time for much needed rest and self-care.

For those of us who have been in this marathon for a long time, we can take intentional time to pray and discern:

  • Where and how is God calling me to act right now?
     
  • Where and how is God calling me to rest right now?

And for those of us who are newer to the journey, we can prayerfully reflect:

  • Which resources do I feel drawn to explore more deeply?
     
  • What time will I set aside to pray, seek God, and act in the area of racial justice? How will I be in community on this journey?

As we do our part in claiming our stories, relearning our histories, laying our burdens before God, and engaging in discernment and self-care, we will be able not only to lead our youth in the same processes, but also to join them in the missional work of what God is doing in the world.

This race is long, but engaging in these inward practices can position us to turn outward, engaging them with our students and communities as well. This ensures that change doesn't just happen on a personal level, but on a larger, systemic scale.

Tweet: How can we be better equipped to help young people on their journey toward anti-racism? Here are 4 spiritual practices for our own transformation.



Resources for further exploration:

Be The Bridge, faith-based resources on racial dialogue by LaTasha Morrison

The Heart of Racial Justice by Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson

Churches, Cultures, and Leadership by Juan Martinez and Mark Lau Branson

Racial and ethnic identity development models, Racial Equity Tools

Faith-based reflection on the inner work of racial justice, from an Asian-American perspective with Hannah Lee Sandoval

Brené with Ibram X. Kendi on how to be an antiracist, Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast

4 healing steps for leaders of color serving in white spaces, Jennifer Guerra Aldana for FYI

Don’t be a bystander: Resources for those in the movement for change, Jennifer Guerra Aldana for FYI

Why we must learn to grieve to confront racial injustice by Pete Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Discipleship

How can White Christians talk faithfully about racism?, with Carolyn B. Helsel

Racial and ethnic identity development from a Christian perspective, Andrew Sears for City Vision University



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1. Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson, The Heart of Racial Justice (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 88.

2.  See, for example, Exodus 22:21-27, Deuteronomy 26:12, Psalm 12, Isaiah 58, Amos 5:21-24.

3. Juan Martinez and Mark Lau Branson, Churches, Cultures, and Leadership (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011),19

4.  Martinez and Lau Branson, Churches, Cultures, and Leadership, 24-25.

5. Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson address this complicated dynamic: “Too often people in power have exhorted people under their authority to forgive quickly and automatically, without an adequate change of heart or behavior on the part of the offender. This approach has given forgiveness and the cross a bad name. If the cross means that people in power can act as badly as they wish and then expect that those who have been victimized should extend immediate, automatic forgiveness, then the cross is a farce! It has merely become another tool to reinforce the idolatry of ethnocentrism and racism and the practice of ethnic superiority. … The process of extending forgiveness allows us to bring our hurt, rage, and hopelessness into the presence of God and lay it at the foot of the cross. It is only here that we can express all the anger, hurt, and despair we feel and not be overwhelmed by it or overwhelm others. … Extending forgiveness too quickly can be an unhealthy act of denial and self-deprecation. When we are hurt, God gets angry, and it is very healthy for us to get angry, too. Then forgiveness can be profound and lasting, because it has come after we’ve fully recognized the depth and seriousness of the sin’s impact.” Salter McNeil and Richardson, The Heart of Racial Justice, 97, 99, 107. For more in-depth reflection on the intersection of race and forgiveness, please refer to this text. This Washington Post article and this Sojourners article also offer insight into this complex topic.

 

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