barn raisers

For the last few (too few) years, I’ve been learning and lamenting the white supremacy and racism that shapes everything about our world here in the U.S. White supremacy lives in policies and political structures, institutionalized assumptions and interpersonal interactions, and white supremacy lives in me, too. There is no perfect way to talk about this: I’m a white lady who arrives in every situation and to every page with my white lady formation and white lady assumptions, and those things shape my understanding and my action, all the time. The trick, for me, is balancing that self-awareness, inner work and humility with necessary boldness in joining in, showing up, and participating in collective moves toward change.

To be honest, I prefer the inner work to the showing up. In a job interview last week, the interviewers asked about my commitment to and experience in working in racially diverse contexts, and I had to answer that while I have a deep commitment to racial justice, most of my professional life has been in primarily white institutions, which have struggled (and sometimes outright refused) to incorporate racial diversity or even racial awareness into their corporate realities, and I have not been sure how to address that in good, generative ways. The action part is hard for me. And, thanks to friends and colleagues who insist on it, I am learning.

This fall, I joined a cohort with the Barnraisers Project. I first heard about founder Garrett Bucks when he was interviewed in Anne Helen Petersen’s newsletter, Culture Study (the best thing in my inbox each week, go subscribe.) I was taken by Garrett’s combination of deep analysis and humor. The cohorts that he and the team at Barnraisers run are designed to move white people from that space of feeling guilty and knowing we should do SOMETHING to figuring out what that something might be and how we can go about it with integrity and care. The cohorts teach a model of organizing. Every session, Garrett told us a story about real white people in history who acted in cooperation with people of color to make real, material, visible change in the world. And every session, we entered into scenarios where we imagined ourselves into figuring out what we would or could DO in situations where it would be easy, a piece of cake, really, to avoid taking some risky action needed to connect, challenge, and love the white people who disagree with us.

I struggled with the work of this cohort. I am in a weird place, vocationally, and it was hard to imagine the specifics of scenarios, hard to grasp the particular context in which I could or would be organizing other white people. Other folks had clear and specific goals, already: one pastor was working with a community organizing group in his city, and had already been about the work of instigating and entering into pointed listening conversations with his congregants. A young woman in D.C. wanted to know be a better ally with BIPOC people in the very white reproductive justice space there. I felt adrift, not quite sure that “organizing” was an entirely ethical thing to do with the same people that I pastor, and also not really connected enough in other spaces to imagine doing the work elsewhere.

But the real struggle was Garrett’s insistence on loving other white people. Look, I’m a pastor. Loving people is literally my job. But in this organizing context, the context of hard conversations that include a lot of listening and lead to something specific and concrete, loving people means not only accepting who and where they are at any given moment (which I am practiced at doing) but ALSO being confident that they are capable of engaging, listening, and changing their mind. Loving people in this way means trusting that they are just as complicated as I am, that we are both doing serious internal work, that their commitments and concerns are valid and worth hearing, that there can be common ground for us, even if that common ground is our struggle to find common ground.

It is hard to love people like that in the contexts where I am working. Just last week, some of my colleagues were upset with me. I don’t know exactly why they were upset, because instead of respecting me enough to reach out directly, they called my District Executive to tattle and complain. I do not trust that other white people in my networks are capable of engaging, listening and changing their minds, in part because they have repeatedly proven otherwise. And that leaves me in a bind, spiritually as well as logistically.

And how, after telling you all that, am I going to land this plane on the promised runway of HOPE? The Barnraisers cohort pushed me to consider my antipathy and start moving beyond it. Our homework assignments included a worksheet called “loving yourself/loving other people,” which instructed us to list our own strengths, and those of others: “What amazing things could be true if this person were committed to anti-racism?” And later in the semester, we were assigned a “love/struggle” story, where we had to dig down to the vulnerability in our own anti-racist journey and figure out ways to share THAT, instead of just our superiority and successes. I’m slowly – very slowly – starting to understand that connection begins in shared vulnerability, that there is no traction or prize in being a “good white person” who has figured SO MUCH MORE out than these other people. I have started asking myself why these folks continue to upset me so much and if, perhaps, it has anything to do with my own tentativeness and failure in the same arena.

I’m still struggling. My pastor job is shrinking to 1/4 time in the new year and I am actively interviewing for new full-time jobs, most of them not at all related to church work. I have no idea what kind of organizing I can or should be doing. I’m still way more comfortable with the quiet inner work than the active outer work. (See: this blog post. See: my every blog post, ever.) But Garrett’s good humor and insistence that we won’t get anywhere by blaming and shaming other white people, the work of entertaining those simple questions oriented toward compassion and benefit of the doubt, paired some practical tools and skills around organizing have moved me closer to taking the leap. I still do not know what that leap is, and I mostly feel stuck in mid-air. But I am more hopeful than I’ve been in a long while that something else is possible and that I can be a part of its arrival.

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