Dismantling Racism Retreat Reflections

Members of First Church and Cherokee Park UCC in St. Paul spent the weekend of June 29-July 1 in Duluth, with the aim of learning from the work of the Dismantling Racism Team at Peace UCC.   During the weekend, the group took part in the following activities:

  • We visited the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, which commemorates the lynching of three young black men in the 1920s.  Our visit was guided by Henry Banks and Katherine Osthos, both members of the Duluth community who helped to create the memorial.
  • We experienced the first two sessions of “Cracking the Shell of Whiteness” a curriculum developed by the Dismantling Racism Team at Peace UCC.
  • Members of Peace UCC set up an excellent panel consisting of members of the Duluth community who are people of color.  We shared over three hours of honest, in depth dialogue with them about how they have perceived the efforts of Peace UCC to work on issues of racism, as well as the “Un-fair Campaign” undertaken by the City of Duluth.
  • We had a chance to visit the Science Museum’s Race Exhibit which is now being displayed in Duluth.
  • We enjoyed communal meals and potlucks with one another, with members of the panel, and with members of the Peace UCC team.  After Sunday worship together with the members of Peace UCC, we spent time with the Dismantling Racism Team learning more about their efforts at Peace over the years.
  • Finally, on our way out of town, we took part in a demonstration regarding an Un-Fair campaign bulletin board that had been defaced.

We have decided that one way we will continue our efforts during this coming year is by learning more about the US-Dakota War, given that this year, we observe the 150th anniversary of those events.  We hope to visit the Minnesota Historical Society exhibit and to read together (and encourage others to join us in reading) North Country: The Making of Minnesota.  

Here are reflections from a couple of the participants in the weekend:

Alison Killeen:

“Our trip to Duluth was unique, invigorating, mentally exhausting, but most of all: hopeful. Peace Church UCC demonstrated extraordinary hospitality to our little group by arranging for us to bear witness to their ongoing struggle for racial justice in the Duluth community–through arranging for us to visit exhibitions, memorials, by leading us in intimate conversations on our personal experiences of race, and most of all, by hosting a phenomenal panel discussion led by people of color on race, racism, racial tensions, and racial reconciliation in Duluth.

The panel conversation was the experience from which I learned the most. It is extremely rare (especially for a white person) to witness a conversation on race which is both frank and forgiving, disturbing and soul-stretching, challenging yet hopeful. The panelists were willing to share with us their experiences in an open and honest way, which was a testament to the sustained relationship each of them had with the Peace Church Dismantling Racism Team. They also gave strong critique to Peace Church and to the Un-Fair Campaign, which was listened to and will be reflected upon (I imagine) for some time.

I feel hopeful and inspired that First Church might similarly play an allied role dismantling racism in our wider (church and otherwise) community. But more than anything, I feel thankful to have born witness to the difficult and fruitful work of the good people of Duluth, who continue to struggle toward justice and the promise of beloved community here on earth. Their work inspires me to action.”

Bundy Trinz from Cherokee Park UCC

“I so appreciate having been included in the Duluth weekend. I have already shared with many others about the weekend and will be bringing back some of my experiences both to the anti-racism team at Cherokee Park and to the Emmaus Team. I’m still processing the experiences of the weekend as I speak about them with friends and colleagues. A big take-away for me already is reinforcing that we white allies must always act in concert with people of color (whose voices are not always in agreement) and that we must also take enormous risks and be truly vulnerable in order to be part of the beginnings of actual beloved community.”

Ann Gilbert (an excerpt from a note of thanks to members of the Dismantling Racism Team at Peace UCC):

“The three days we spent in Duluth were, for me, impactful; I was stretched and challenged and inspired.   My experience, especially the time with the community panel, will, I think, become an important touchstone as I move forward from here.   There were many learnings and insights that came out of our retreat; I’d like to share just a few of the things that most stand out as I reflect back on the weekend:

*  The community panel was extraordinary and was the high point of the weekend for me — so many powerful voices gathered in one room, people speaking with honesty and heart and from the depth of their own experience. I do not take for granted the willingness of people to do that in presence of strangers, particularly where there is every reason for people of color to distrust a group of unknown white people.    I felt incredibly  privileged to be a witness to the conversation that happened in those few hours.  I really appreciated the localness of the conversation — people were there, not theorizing and generalizing, but hammering things out in all their complexity in the particularity of a specific context and specific relationships.  Complexity — that’s one of the most important things I am taking away —  and how easily and naively white people can simplify matters and take actions that can have serious consequences for people of color.  I was quite struck by Janet’s metaphor of lemon squeezed into water to illustrate how the Unfair Campaign did not seem to have taken account of how stirring things up would cause backlash against Duluth communities of color — the need for white people to be prepared to stand in the fire with people of color when things do get stirred up and the imperative that we, as white people,  need to consistently ask people of color what they need from us as allies (be it lending muscle, clearing obstacles, utilizing the access we have to powerful people and institutions, etc) instead of assuming that we know what needs to be done and prescribing solutions.    Throughout the conversation, I was deeply moved by the stories people on the panel told of the relentless and daily presence/consequences of racism, how unspeakably taxing that is on every aspect of being.  And in conjunction with that, I was awed by the courage of the panelists who somehow find the spirit to continue to speak and to act in faith and hope in the possibility of a different world — a stance that can and does  incur more penalties.   I will remember that.  The willingness of people on the panel to speak so forthrightly about their experience and pain increased my sense of accountability.

*  I have also thought about Henry’s words throughout the weekend about the necessity for allies to bring heart as well as head to the work.   I loved how he carried us imaginatively back to the night of the Clayton-Jackson- McGhie lynchings — asked us to stand with our hearts in the events of that unspeakable night.  It was very powerful and a wonderful way to start our retreat.    We also had a perfect and fitting end to the weekend with the opportunity to join the gathering at the site of the defaced Unfair Campaign billboard.  I’m only sorry that we did not have more time with the Dismantling Racism Team over lunch on Sunday.

*  The intersection with Peace Church folks was great.  There is something very remarkable at work in your congregation that was apparent at every turn and I feel like I learned a great deal.  Maybe the most important thing I learned was simply through observing the non-defensive openness to hearing challenges and criticisms — there appeared to me to be a commitment to always learning and going deeper and moving through tough times and stumbles.   I heard and saw the commitment to building authentic relationship and how the commitment to those relationships is a huge part of what sustains the energy.   I appreciated the reflections of the Dismantling Racism team during our Sunday lunch about that and other factors that have created what I think is an unusual level of sustained commitment over quite a number of years.      It was striking to hear about how much there is a presence of people who have, in some way, been part of the Dismantling Racism work,  throughout the many activities that are part of life at Peace Church;  it’s moved way beyond being the focus of  “issue group” to being more widely imbedded in how Peace Church understands itself as a community.  I know you would quickly step in to say that you have a long way to go but I think you have crossed a critical threshold that most dominantly white churches have not; I am so interested in this journey you are on and will look forward to continuing to learn from you as this work unfolds at Peace Church.”

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