Justice project important part of multicultural congregation
By Lindsay Peyton
Westbury UMC’s tagline is “a church for all people with more than enough love to go around.” The congregation fulfills that promise by being intentional about welcoming all persons. The goal is to mirror the diversity of the kingdom of God. Being truly inclusive, however, requires further analysis and reflection. Westbury is now embarking on a journey to find new ways to build equity and promote social justice – and is inviting others to join them.
“If we are a ‘church for all people with more than enough love to go around,’ then we have to embrace that – in the real sense of what it means,” longtime Westbury UMC member Johnhenry Coker said.
There are many aspects of that vision, he added. Taking a deep dive into important issues – and being willing to grow and change – is key to developing diversity and equity.
Coker has become a ministry leader in the church’s new self-evaluation effort entitled, Justice Transforms. This project is a continuation of the work Westbury was doing along with other churches, following local nonprofit Project Curate’s curriculum on building transformational leaders.
Community Pastor the Rev. Hannah Terry led a group of three ministry leaders, including Coker, in the work. The churches gathered monthly on Zoom to learn about transformative justice work. Then, the representatives from Westbury reconvene to discuss how their own congregation can respond and grow from these lessons.
Creating its “Justice Transforms” is one of the next steps for Westbury UMC, Coker explained. The process will begin with deep listening sessions – and creating affinity groups where members can open up and feel comfortable sharing their experiences.
“It’s just to get their views on what they consider to be diverse – and where they see Westbury,” Coker said. “What are their expectations? Do they feel their voices are being heard? What would they like to see?”
Other questions he hopes the groups will consider are: How do they feel the church services are being conducted? Do they feel they belong? What would increase their participation in the congregation? What made them want to join Westbury in the first place?
“We’ll see where that is going to go,” Coker said. “This will be the first step.”
Westbury will be able to take that feedback from the affinity groups and develop projects to further its commitment to diversity and inclusion. “We’ll use that as a model and get involved in creating more equity in our own congregation – and make sure everyone has a say in what’s going on in the church,” he added.
Coker said that sometimes churches shy away from difficult conversations. That’s where Project Curate comes in. The nonprofit develops curricula designed to build racial justice and equity. The group also offers training, consultation, research, organizing, public events and multimedia interventions.
The involvement of the entire church – the clergy, lay leaders and members – on this journey is essential, Coker added.
Westbury’s commitment to diversity is part of what attracted him to join 30 years ago. At the time, the church was homogenous and white. Then, a member who is a friend invited him to attend.
“When I got there, with my family we were received with open arms,” he said. “We felt comfortable there. From then on, the church has grown more diverse. I see the church progressing, and that is what has kept me there over the years. “
Coker believes that this new transformative justice project is an important step in continuing to build a multicultural congregation.
“Based on what’s going on these days, it’s one of the things I wanted to be involved in,” Coker said. “What can we do within our congregation to address those issues that are now front and center? I decided to join this to see what we could do to increase diversity – and see what we could do in terms of bridging the gap toward racial equity.”
Senior the Rev. Pastor Danny Yang said learning more about each other, building relationships and sharing experiences is simply a launching point.
Talk about diversity
“That’s where we’ll start. We’re not sure where it will lead,” he said. “The point is to talk about diversity, not just make it an assumption, but instead discuss why we value it and why it’s important.”
Discussions about how to change power structures will be an essential part of the conversation, Yang added. “The goal is to decenter power. We want people to feel that if the Spirit moves them on an idea or project that the church is there to empower them,” he explained.
Terry explained that inclusion is the goal. If multiple ethnicities are part of the church, but the power structure is still white, then there’s a major problem, she explained.
“We have to do better and be better,” she said. “Transformative justice is a movement right now in the community, a movement for change in the world. The church has a lot to learn – and a lot to lean into.”
Planning for the new project at Westbury has been in the works since the fall, Yang said. “They’re doing the groundwork and legwork to set this up,” he said. “This work is making sure that the church we’re seeking to be reflects what God has in members’ hearts.”
Part of the genesis of the current project occurred during a vigil Westbury hosted lamenting the killing of George Floyd last year. “The church showed up; the community showed up,” Yang recalled. “One of our lay leaders said, ‘What are we supposed to do now?’ This is slow work. It’s about creating a space for people to grieve, lament, and cry out – and now to make sure people share stories.”
Education, discussion and examination
An even more difficult task is discerning how the church can change to become more equitable, Yang added. The work involves education, discussion and examination.
“I have to ask myself, ‘Are there any voices that we’re not hearing?’ You have to notice if anyone isn’t speaking up – and who is at the table,” Yang said.
Then, Yang continued, we must ask why – and what can be done. “As we hear more stories, we become more sensitive to the paths our church needs to pursue,” he said. “We want to make sure everyone who comes through our doors feels welcomed and loved.”
Terry said that part of the Christian journey is to learn, confess, ask for forgiveness and seek to find a better path. “Growing as a disciple is painful and hard,” she said.
Her thoughts go to John15:1-2, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”
Finding the branches that need to be pruned will allow a plant to grow and bear fruit is what this process is all about, Terry explained. “If we look at building God’s kingdom, the church should be the place where we are ground zero for reordering ourselves to be part of God’s justice,” she said.
It’s imperative that other white clergy join in this work, Terry said. “If there is oppression or injustice anywhere, we are all bound up in that,” she said. “No one is free until we all are free. Recommit yourself to being part of making things right.”