Rachel Lyons of Old St. Patrick's Church reflects on lessons learned at the 30th Annual Social Action Summer Institute at St. Xavier University in Chicago.
Escape routes white folks use. Black Lives Matter and the Catholic Church. Restorative justice, community organizing, food access, worker’s rights, mental illness. Our church is full of these ideas and issues and many more. This summer, I had the chance to explore them at the Social Action Summer Institute 2016 under the theme, "Who is My Neighbor? Discipleship in the Year of Mercy."
This conference was my first experience with the Social Action Summer Institute, and I was grateful for the opportunity to hear the wisdom of the Spirit from so many angles: prophetic speakers during conference sessions, powerful community leaders on site visits, dedicated colleagues in dinner conversations, and heartfelt ministers during liturgy and prayer. The week balanced the necessary aspects of a faith that does justice not only by lifting up and affirming the good church already happening through participants and speakers but also by giving breathing room to challenge our assumptions, question our strategies, and emphasize the radical call of the Gospel. The attendees gathered (over 135 total over five days) needed the time to move back and to listen to God's voice outside of the day-to-day tasks. SASI allowed for us to gaze upon our work as a whole and to critique it lovingly.
One way I felt called into greater alignment with my faith and values was hearing from Dr. Elizabeth Vasko about white silence during the conference. She spoke about the lack of true solidarity and action from white people (particularly white people of faith) in the work of racial justice in the United States. Dr. Vasko’s talk was entitled, "From Bystander to Allies: Seeking Authentic Relationships in Community," and I walked in thinking that clearly I was not a bystander. As someone who works in a church and strives to instill a lens of racial justice in our social action and outreach, I was already in the "good" white people group, right? Well, then came the escape routes. Escape routes give white folks an "out" in dealing with racism that make us feel like we are addressing the issue - when, in fact, we are participating in the oppression.
For example, I often conflate sayings with doings. I thought about the prayers of the faithful during Mass. Yes, prayers of the faithful are important, and the language we use matters. Absolutely. And we cannot spend the energy crafting prayers that speak of living justice and walking with those on the margins if we do not also make the prayer concrete in our own mission and ministry programs. I know we can fall short in saying the prayer that feels ‘‘right’’ or ‘‘radical’’ in its vision for our communities while not doing the hard work of building pathways to make that ideal world come to life, however slowly and awkwardly and beautifully that process will be.
Another escape route in the session was about quickly moving past the pain whiteness and the dominant culture has caused and still causes without sitting in a critique of it for a lengthy duration. This escape route tells us white folks can 1) move into a confession of our own privilege and subsequent guilt and/or 2) immediately give in to impulsive actions that are short-term and not rooted in collective organizing or long-term sustainability. I felt a tug at my heart - what am I actually calling our church members into at Old St. Pat’s? How will we sit with the pain of racism and ground ourselves in the dignity of every human life so that our relationships are deep and our actions have longevity? Who do I listen to in terms of a critique of the dominant culture...and do I always trust that critique when I have been socialized to trust people who look and act like me?
As the week went on, we dove into answers to questions like these and heard again and again the importance of community organizing and instilling the skills of leadership development for our church. Jesus gathered a group of people around him and poured the Spirit into them. He developed them as leaders in the midst of their doubt, self-righteousness, confusion, and resistance. He built relationships. He listened. He trusted in God and in the apostles who would take on this work when his time on Earth was over. I saw how fruitful listening can be when my small group visited St. Eulalia and met the leaders of Mujeres Unidas, a Latina-owned catering worker cooperative. The church made space for them and invested in them because it listened to their desires and saw their gifts. I heard stories from Michael Nicolas Okinczyc and the leaders in VOICE Buffalo and NOAH who held bishops accountable to our faith values by supporting a pastoral letter to address workforce diversity and criminal justice issues in the region. They used their power and relationships to effectively improve their lives. They did not only say prayers - they took action. They did not look for a quick fix - they dedicated years to building community and making a movement.
And all of this takes time. And a lot of listening, especially for churches with predominantly white members, like mine. We can continue to find escape routes or say we are doing better than other churches or white communities, but that does nothing to improve lives of People of Color and those most directly targeted by racism and injustice. Standing on our faith, we can choose to take risks and follow Jesus's lead to center the voices of people impacted by violence, unemployment, discrimination, and environmental destruction. I left SASI making notes on organizing training for our church members, looking into our Board of Advisors in terms of demographics and how they are chosen, and recommitting my efforts to build relationships toward a larger vision of racial justice. We have the incredible opportunity to live in a time when racial justice is at the forefront of countless conversations in our country and in our world. We are called to read these signs of the times, and we can make racial justice at the forefront of our Church's conversations as well.
This conference asked, "Who is my neighbor?" I answered that my neighbor is the person on the side of the road AND the robbers who stole from them in the Good Samaritan story. My neighbor is the person shot in gun violence in Chicago AND the person who pulled the trigger. May we continue to pray for God's mercy to see the structural injustices of our time, to recognize the long road ahead of us, and to call our churches into greater accountability to take action and build a movement.
Author's Note: I use 'us' and 'we' throughout this article, referring at times to the participants who attended the SASI conference and at times to white people in a broader sense.
Rachel Lyons is an organizer for the Social Action Ministry at Old St. Patrick's Church. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.