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Beyond guilt or anger

Updated: Jul 13, 2023

Years ago I was working with a congregation that was interested in beginning its racial justice journey. Like many similar organizations, there were a number of people inside the congregation who had done quite a bit of training around diversity, cultural competency, anti-racism, etc. But this time it was different - the pastor and board had committed to put time, money and energy into becoming a more racially just organization.

The first steps we took were to sponsor a series of three trainings we named Beyond Guilt or Anger. To this day, the title of those workshops still feels relevant.

Guilt or anger. Beyond… Why that title you might be asking? Well, the audience was a majority white congregation that considered itself to be pretty invested in the broader community. And they were! And as a majority white body, they had a tremendous amount of privilege in deciding how to use their resources of time, money and people. That’s partly where the guilt comes in. Maybe the anger too…

Guilt in learning that the privilege they had was not because of anything any one of them nor the congregation had done. It was privilege gained simply because it was a historically white congregation. A well educated congregation - that appealed to others very much like them. A beautiful, historic building, located near the mansions and lakes Minneapolis prides. A wealthy congregation with its own foundation used to support local non-profits.

The members of that congregation felt their own guilt in many ways. Guilt their families benefited from the removal of American Indians from some of the richest land in the country. Guilt they were able to move into the suburbs to escape the “crime” of the city. Guilt they didn’t have any friends of color.

What about the anger? What did/does that look like? Often it appears as a defensive response to something we think we’ve done wrong or are being criticized for. For an organization, like this congregation, it can be the language around “we tried” We tried to hire a Black pastor. We tried to bring more people of color into the congregation. Followed by “Isn’t that enough?”

With individuals the anger often shows up as “What? Are you calling me a racist?” Sometimes it shows up as violence toward someone or something different.

But maybe the most important word to focus on is beyond. Beyond the typical responses of guilt or anger. What are they? Several come to my mind.

Willingness, patience, co-creation, learning, trust, and respect are just a few. Beyond signifies we have a choice in how we respond to the challenge of being more racially just or diverse or inclusive. Beyond implies change and learning new ways of responding. It suggests tolerance, curiosity, and an emphasis on capacity.

What does beyond look like for you? For your organization? Are you caught up in a cycle of guilt or anger? Just like the congregation referenced, understanding the various responses you or your organization have is one of the most important first steps in becoming more inclusive or just. It’s a step… a first one followed by many others. Good luck in taking the first step on an incredible journey!

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