Responding to Racism: Westbury UMC “Dialogues” with the Community
Associate Pastor Rev. Hannah Terry shares ways in which Westbury UMC is pursuing and facilitating healing amidst a surge in racism-inspired division on a local, national and global scale.
At 77 years young, she recently returned from a pilgrimage with her daughter to the Whitney and St. Joseph’s Plantations near New Orleans with the Center for the Healing of Racism. A member of Westbury UMC for 29 years, Yvonne Canida has been praying and working for the deep healing of racism to happen through Westbury since 1991. “Yvonne loves serving in a multi-ethnic church whose vision is to be a church for all people with more than enough love to go around,” shares Hannah, “and she’s grateful to be able to gather with 40 other saints at round tables on Tuesday evenings within the walls of Westbury UMC –particularly the meeting where they read Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and listen deeply to Dr. King, the Holy Spirit, and one another. “
In Response to Current Events
Westbury leaders are keenly aware that vibrant congregations stay attuned to their environments and provide hope and healing in times of need. Shares Hannah, “Last year following the massacre of nine black sisters and brothers in Christ in the Charleston church shooting, Westbury heard God’s call to mourn this violence and loss and to dig deeper into the soil in which God has planted the church. Interceding for our neighbors and mission field, our congregation gathered for an evening of prayer, and lay leaders committed to long-haul justice work through the healing of racism.” In July of 2015, they began meeting together for dinner in one another’s homes to share their stories and talk about personal experience of race. They leaned on facilitators from the Center for the Healing of Racism in Houston and held an all-day workshop in January 2016. “Dialogue continued as our group collectively sought to discern next steps in responding to racism in Houston, within the walls of the church and within the walls of own minds and hearts.”
While Westbury UMC has been a multicultural congregation for decades, long-time members are talking together more openly in the current environment about how the sin of racism cripples the church community. “We are realizing collectively how it blocks members from deeper relationship with one another, with the world, and with God,” she adds. “The groups are exploring the ways the church has much to do within its own walls to say YES to freedom, YES to reconciliation, and YES to the gospel of Jesus Christ—so that the church can be a community of healing beyond our walls with the city and the world. I pray we are addressing the slow, steady and hard work of healing racism at least in our own circles of influence.”
Carlyn Chatfield, a member since 1998, shares, “When integration hit my school district in 1970, I was in fifth grade. It was the right thing to do, but it was hard to watch. The anger and fights were real and terrible; the rumors were worse.” Admits Carlyn, “At first, I didn’t think I had the energy to dive into a hard look at my own white privilege four-and-a-half decades later, so I planned to support Westbury’s conversations on healing racism only with my prayers.”
However, when Pastor Danny Yang related the issue in a context with Westbury youth, Carlyn was motivated to take a more active role in being part of the solution. She has decided, “I’m going to support the conversations with my presence. It will not be easy, but it will be the right thing to do. I hope others will join me.”
Dr. Martin Luther King has provided inspiration to this effort. In his famous letter, Dr. King wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Pastor Danny says, “Like the apostle Paul, Dr. King hand wrote this letter on stationery snuck into his jail cell by his friends. Penned in 1963, his words are prophetically relevant to our community today. He draws deep from the well of the Bible and urges the church to take a bold stance for justice. “
Earlier this month, Danny kicked off a six-week community reading of Dr. King’s letter, wherein copies are provided at the meeting, attendees read through it together and engage in questions provided at the table, and all are welcome. The electronic sign that sits at a key intersection near the church has been used to invite members of the neighborhood into the dialogue.
Pastor Danny urgently asks Westbury members to make every effort to attend the gatherings because “we need you — your stories, your presence, your voice. May God speak to us powerfully through Scripture, through Dr. King, and through each other as we come together for this important conversation. And may God use all that we learn to direct our steps as we live into our call to be a church that loves.”