Since becoming a member of All Souls in 1980 I have been aware of the church’s and specifically John Wolf’s and later Marlin’s vision of us becoming a racially diverse congregation. In 2008 when I began hearing of the possibility that our church would be joined by Bishop Carlton Pearson’s New Dimensions congregation, I was thrilled to think our vision would finally become a reality. Eight years into the process my excitement has been both upheld and well-tempered by the reality of this undertaking.
Finding All Souls
As a lapsed Disciple of Christ and someone who had said goodbye to organized religion and its incumbent patriarchal beliefs, I was not looking for a church in 1980. At the urging of his brother, my husband Pat and I visited All Souls. The openness and light of the sanctuary, the message from the pulpit, and the church’s commitment to social justice reopened my conversation with organized religion. I bring this into the story because I think a lot of other people in our church prior to 2008 and since, may have had a similar experience in coming to All Souls. This stands in contrast to my understanding of how Bishop Pearson and his congregants came to All Souls. New Dimensions had been on a tumultuous journey with Bishop Pearson after he embraced Universalism through his teaching the Gospel of Inclusion. They were not struggling with organized religion per se but rather with finding a place to call home.
How do two churches one Pentecostal, one Unitarian each with different worship styles, cultural traditions, and yet sharing a common thread of Universalism meld together? This was unprecedented to say the least. Right away we sailed into the choppy seas of differing music and worship styles. We continue to sail those seas, ask that question, and live into the answer. We are developing ballast as we seek a steady course.
One tangible effect for me in this melding process was and still is my involvement in the Rewire program. Rewire is a racial justice group designed for white people to unlearn racism. On this path of commitment to developing an anti-racist identity I have found tools which help me to challenge racism so I can do my part to dismantle systemic racism. There is a parallel opportunity for people of color, who of course face different challenges, called Mosaic. Because of these two sister programs we have opportunities for small groups to come together for cross-racial and cross cultural dialogue. Not only for African-American and white people, but also for other ethnicities and different perspectives within our congregation.
At the beginning of this journey in 2008, I was prideful in thinking of myself as one of the “good” white people, ready to welcome our sisters and brothers of color with open arms. However, I was pretty clueless about the ways I was affected by having been raised, albeit in a family with liberal Christian views, within the broader context of a society with deeply ingrained racism. Participating in Rewire is one of the ways I continue to become aware of how stereotypes and prejudices affect my perception on a daily basis. As I illuminate these blind spots, I extend to myself and the other white members of All Souls compassion, a necessary companion to the self-examination which is part of Rewire. It is actually easy to denounce racism. It is an entirely different matter and difficult to be aware of and work with my defenses and judgments as they arise. The unpacking of those emotions and how they affect me in subtle ways is the nitty gritty ongoing work we do at All Souls. I am wholeheartedly in. That means I am often being confused, frustrated, humbled, uplifted, encouraged, and amazed by how far I have come—how far we have come as we live out and work out this dream together.
When I walk into our church foyer on Sunday morning I see many old friends and familiar faces from when Pat and I first joined All Souls. They are almost all white. I also see new friends and familiar faces many of whom are from New Dimensions. They are mostly, but not all people of color. Many I know by name and some more deeply. Eight years ago I did not have any relationships to speak of with people of color at church or elsewhere, but since then my life has been significantly enriched by these new relationships. It turns out that our community of love beyond belief is the perfect crucible for the development of diversity. In this we are both held and compelled by love.
Read more from our 4-part series:
Bishop Carlton Pearson’s Experimenting to Find our Symphony
Cassandra Austin’s Coming Home from War
Rev. Dr. Marlin Lavanhar’s Opening Doors for a new Home