A Path for Cultivating Anti-racism
A Feature Review of
Wait–Is This Racist?: A Guide to Becoming an Anti-racist Church
Kerry Connelly, with Bryana Clover and Josh Riddick
Paperback: Westminster John Knox Press, 2022
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Reviewed by Jessica Groen
Anti-racism statement drafted by leaders and approved by the congregation. Check. Anti-racism committee members identified and given a mandate. Check. Now what? During our first summer debriefing session with the facilitators who took us through a March weekend retreat of anti-racism training, we discussed varying committee member desires for next steps. Sitting with discomfort and talking through our feelings and personal experiences some more? Or starting to make some agenda items to carry out tangible actions? It is a healthy but challenging part of existing as a committee with an agenda which is both a bit nebulous and critically urgent: becoming, along with our predominately white congregation, an anti-racist church. As we each have been processing some of this uncertainty between our monthly meetings this summer, I’ve read Connelly, Clover and Riddick’s book. It seems to have been written for our church’s anti-racism committee and for the process we are getting underway.
If your church is like mine, whether it has an established anti-racism committee or not, it has various lay administrative committees which wield influence in carrying out or supervising the routines of the church organization. The body of this book is sorted into chapters addressing the various arenas or possibly even the various committees which are working in tandem or semi-independently. In our church we have a Faith In Action committee which organizes various service or donation initiatives with the community, an Arts in Worship committee which attends to particulars of the sights, sounds, textures and tastes which worshippers encounter, a Finance Committee which analyzes, tracks and prepares each annual operating budget, and so on.
The book is structured to build a specific entry point of discussion into how each particular arm of church administration—building and grounds tasks, pastoral care ministry, music repertoire, liturgy crafting—has its own opportunity to perpetuate or to resist an active or passive culture of white supremacy. Each chapter presents one of these administrative arms of a church institution, applies pertinent information and examples about how racism can be supported through traditions of church life, then ends with a list of challenging self-evaluation questions which each committee chair or administrator could work through along with their anti-racism committee. If your church is not yet at a stage where an anti-racism commitment or initiative has been formally adopted, you could still pick up a chapter linked to any committee or project you are part of and consider how your influence as a member of a standing committee could be brought into the goal of moving your church toward a more anti-racist mode of doing community together.
While Connelly’s name is most prominent on the cover, Clover and Riddick are full collaborators in authorship. Each writes a significant section of each chapter with clearly labeled links of their names to their words. Reading this book feels like being in session with several consultants who take turns to instruct while adding their own personal experiences to the content. The whole book is an excellent model of collaborative book writing, which can be very challenging to do effectively and fluidly.
There are three other sections beyond the primary chapter content which give this book extra value as a textual guide for churches who are ready to apply anti-racist principles to their climate and culture. The sections are the dialogue, the glossary, and the plan.
The dialogue. Our committee chair often remarks that a primary skill which our congregation needs to collectively develop is the ability to converse while allowing space for discomfort to have a seat among us. Connelly, Clover, and Riddick emphasize this need as well, not by telling, but by holding such a conversation, then including a transcript of the frank interracial dialogue. Each of the co-authors asks a pointed question of another, then reflects some of what they heard in the response. The conversation includes topics covered throughout the book chapters, and serves as an immersive experience for white readers as we move into the posture of conversing less defensively. Kerry models how a white participant in a discussion can refrain from common habits of scurrying into protestations of personal innocence or wallowings of personal guilt when the tension takes its normal seat in this conversational territory.
The glossary. Before the endnotes section, there is a glossary of the relevant keywords which are also presented boldface throughout the content of the book. This section is valuable, not just because it defines important terms which do heavy lifting in the discourse of anti-racism work, but because it clarifies how carefully the authors hold and present these terms. Specific commentary defining each term gives a nod to the ongoing process of reifying complex concepts. For example, the glossary term “ally,” carries a lot of import and context beyond this book. It’s introduced in Chapter 8 along with the terms “accomplice,” and “co-conspirator” via a citation of activist Brittney Packnett’s commentary on their distinctions, and when it appears in the glossary, the definition again cites Packnett via the endnotes. This shows a habit of acknowledging other writers and activists who are working to develop an effective shared vocabulary. Attaching the glossary to its own batch of endnotes allows readers to dig more deeply into the authors’ choices for definitions.
The plan. The conclusion chapter titled “Your Plan of Action” is a very effective way of reminding us that reading and discussing the book is not the action plan, but part of the preparation for committee work to come: drafting and executing a particular action plan specific to our own church context. It feels so much safer for me personally to listen, learn, and learn some more, then maybe be swayed by perfectionist impulses to stay in the learning and listening mode for another few years, or perpetually. It matches the chapters of the book to a template that a specific congregation’s antiracism committee could easily use to draft actionable items related to each chapter topic, and to move beyond the gathering insights phase of reading the book together.
Each time I have been to a worship service over the last six weeks, I have recalled a different section of this guide, feeling both overwhelmed at how much needs attention in familiar worship habits, and grateful that Connelly, Clover, and Riddick have provided this resource for us, and for so many congregations like ours, to use as we take on the goal of becoming an anti-racist church.
Jessica Groen resides in Flossmoor, Illinois with her spouse and two children.