2003-02-07 Lakeshore Press Churches have key role in Summit on Racism

Churches have key role in Summit on Racism
Lakeshore Press

Confronting prejudice, discrimination and race relations sometimes are unavoidable in today’s workplace, schools and governments.

The one arena of life where, by its nature, racism should be a matter of the highest priority is the church. Still, Sunday finds most people of faith in their “most segregated hour” and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to it in the 1960s.

“For me, the hope is that churches would be spearheading efforts” toward racial reconciliation and finding coice to bring race issues to the public forum, said the Rev. Andres Fierro, pastor of the bilingual Crossroad Chapel.

Fierro, who also is chairman of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, will help facilitate the “Faith Communities” action team workshop at the third annual Ottawa Area Summit on Racism, to be held Tuesday at Hope College.

While Fierro said he remains hopeful that more churches will speak out on race issues, he said he is somewhat disappointed that “churches are not there, as they should be.”

In an interview this week, Fierro suggested churches could take a meaningful step in demonstrating the importance of having a voice at events like the summit. Congregations should be willing to sponsor members, especially lay leaders and clergy, to attend.

The summit’s fee is $25 per person, including the cost of lunch, for the daylong event.

Churches need to realize that they can be a significant force in “enabling, equipping and supporting” racial understanding and healing through the community, he said.

To achieve this level of commitment, churches must see that confronting race issues are as non-negotiable for them as it has become in other sectors of society. Today, business and industry, health, education and government cannot hide from, discount, or avoid dealing with race relations.

“In churches, understanding this as a sense of urgency may be in their hearts, but it is not at the door,” Fierro explained. “It is still a voluntary” matter to get involved, but it should be “a matter of conviction.”

While the dominant culture can decide to make a “commitment” to act against racism, “for people of color, racism is a way of life,” Fierro explained.

Those who do attend the summit’s faith community workshop will have an opportunity to hear about strides that have been made since last year’s summit.

Strategies will be on the table for discussion, along with progress reports on church-focused sessions called “institutes for the Healing of Racism.”

These institutes usually are 10, two-hour dialogues between a small but diverse group guided by trained facilitators. Some churches and other agencies have hosted intensive, weekend sessions to accommodate less-flexible schedules.

Mary De Ridder, director of outreach and witness ministries at First United Methodist Church in Holland, is working with Holland resident Carla Vissers to encourage more churches, schools, businesses, and agencies to host these institutes.

She said their goal is to link, through the LEDA website, a listing of all upcoming institutes, with dates, locations, and possible online sign-up.

During the summit, participants will have opportunities to sign up to attend Institutes for Healing Racism sessions, De Rider said.

Institute discussion include topics such as how racism is perpetuated, stereotypes, unity in diversity, healing the disease of racism and other matters. Faced candidly, participants hear each other’s stories on how racism has affected their lives.

“You have to first understand each other,” Fierro said, before any real progress against racism can be made as a person or a society.

“As long as it is being discussed, as long as there is a dialogue, there is hope,” he added.

“You realize how much you need to be changed,” when one engages in race dialogue, Fierro said.

“Too often, people try to fix something without learning how to listen. It is encouraging when people come not with an agenda, but willing to make an adjustment” in their own ways of thinking and living, he said.

For more information, visit www.ethnicdiversity.org