Walking the walk

Racial reconciliation in a time of change

When police killed George Floyd May 25 in Minneapolis, psychologist Donna Minter ’81 found herself at the epicenter of a national movement for change. As founder of the Minnesota Peacebuilding Leadership Institute, she has trained organizations in cultural competence and restorative justice for more than a decade.

“Our organization is not a religious organization,” said Minter, “but if we’re working together to heal, and we work toward reconciliation, I think Jesus is going to be pleased.”

Todd Allen, vice president of diversity affairUsing the Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) training, she and her team had been providing five-day, 30-hour evidence-based, multiracial, multicultural training in person for years. In light of COVID-19 in March, they already had created an online version and were ready to help after Floyd’s death. As a result, the institute could provide training and healing worldwide without ever leaving the state of Minnesota.

“We’ve been talking about racialized trauma for a long time, but now the media wants to talk about it,” she said. “We have a basic human need for justice. How easy it is to get that confused with revenge. When we meet our basic human need for justice and heal ourselves, we can be effective agents of change within our spheres of influence.”

A national conversation

“George Floyd was a wake-up call even amongst some of my Christian friends who are white who have known me a long time,” said Todd Allen, vice president of diversity affairs. “On one hand, I’m glad that moment woke them up. On the other, I’ve been telling you my stories forever. OK, better late than never.”

For Messiah students who have not lived through the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the protests that erupted around the U.S. spurred some to lend support in a new way, speaking out even when — especially when — the conversations are difficult.

“Even within this campus, at times when we have these conversations,” said Nadine Mfum-Mensah ’22, a communications major of Ghanaian descent who grew up in Canada, “I’m hesitant to speak up, because I know I haven’t gone through the same deep hardships that many of the African Americans in my classes have had. In a way, as an adult, I’ve still felt powerless, but I know that showing any form of support means more than just being silent.”

The longview of racism

While many wonder how they can help during a time of crisis, before we can get to “What can I do?” we must first acknowledge “What is it that I see?” That means getting informed from a historical perspective. Christian faith has been influenced by race. From 1000 A.D. to through the 15th century, colonialism rose from Western Christendom, which gave birth to white supremacy as we know it today.

“Sometimes in the church, we have the perception that, oh, these are secular things,” said Drew Hart, assistant professor of theology. “The practice of Christian supremacy in society gave birth to white supremacy. We have a responsibility for the harm that’s been done through the church, and sometimes we’re in deep denial of that.”

Working toward justice involves examining the entire fabric of our society. What are the ramifications today of the church’s actions centuries ago? What role did the government play in redlining--the segregation of communities in the 1930s--that affects where people live today? Take a hard look at your neighborhood, the schools your children attend and your friend group. 

“Not just, oh, I work with some people of color, but what do my friends look like?” asked Allen. “If there are no people who are different from you in your inner circle, that really should make you say ‘ouch.’ Ask yourself, ‘Where am I in this race conversation and where am I coming up short?’”

Messiah’s mission

Judith Kyei-Poku ’23

That’s where the tough conversations — and reconciliation — come in. Reconciliation plays a key role in Messiah’s mission and institutional values. 

“You can’t understand reconciliation apart from service and leadership. We sometimes mistakenly talk about those as three separate things, but they’re one and the same,” explained Allen. “You cannot serve people or serve with people that you don’t see. You cannot lead alongside people you don’t love. And you can’t reconcile with people you don’t respect. Part of respecting is seeing and serving each other.”

In 2 Corinthians 5, God reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, as Christians, we are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation.

“To be an ambassador to reconciliation is central to one’s faith,” said Allen, “and it’s costly. It cost Jesus his life. If we want to do these cheap versions of reconciliation where we don’t talk about truth or apologize or lament, that’s easy, but it’s not reconciliation.”

Reconciliation also connects to the Hebrew vision of shalom, God’s desire for harmony and flourishing of all creation. Then Ephesians 2 takes it a step further. 

“Ephesians 2 also breaks down the division and hostility between Jews and Gentiles, and, therefore, any hostility and barriers that exist in society,” said Hart. “That’s really powerful.”

Breaking down barriers and hostility as it relates to racism is a critical part of loving and caring for all of God’s creation. At Messiah, students wrestle with these conversations during their academic journey and faith transformation daily throughout their college career and beyond.

“If as Christians we want to live our lives more like Jesus, why is it so hard to help your Black brothers and sisters?” asked Judith Kyei-Poku ’23, a social work and sociology double major. “I’m proud of the people of this generation for how bold they are in tackling issues of racism and the ones who are actually using their voice for good and trying their hardest to work toward a change. Hopefully, one day we will have a country where your skin color will no longer be seen as a disadvantage or a threat.”

The politics of love

In his new book “Who Will be a Witness?”, Hart discusses the importance of being in solidarity with and in proximity to those who are suffering and hurting in our communities. That means putting church first and politics last.

“So often, we start the other way around, and the political platforms become the ethics of the church,” Hart explained. “You have the Democratic church and the Republican church, and we’ve lost sight of God’s kingdom for us.”

After a divisive election year, politics still dominate the news. Keeping God at the forefront is key to working as an ambassador of reconciliation.

“The history of America is embedded in racism,” said Joshua Reid ’20, a history major. “I can’t help but wonder what the future will hold for us as a minority. I have to remind myself that although we seem to be in the darkest part of this time of racial unrest across the country, I still have faith in God.”

Restorative justice

Messiah transforms students into leaders who can break the ongoing cycles of harm and can help to bring justice in our world.

“This has been a time where I’ve been able to see firsthand the ways in which God works and moves within communities of the oppressed,” said Emoni Taylor ’21, a peace and conflict studies (PACS) major and president of the Black Student Union. “I was working on my PACS senior thesis that explored Black liberation theology, which is centered around the idea that God is the God of the oppressed and marginalized. So, having the new knowledge, I was more equipped to see how my faith intersected with justice and how this place of deep pain, anger and hurt was a space where God always wins.”

Staying vigilant

As an ambassador of reconciliation, there is no luxury of walking away from the journey.

“In a season of racial strife, people ask what gives me hope,” said Allen. “It’s because I know how this story ends, these stories from people of faith that are the foundation of our faith. So, when I think about the frustration of reconciliation, the people who think their faith has nothing to do with it, that reminds me that that is the challenge. If it were easy, there would be no need for conversation, books and articles about this. I expect there to be challenges and yet I remain hopeful in spite of that.”