Skin deep

A Christian, a Methodist and a Quaker discuss race and age relations

Left to right: Gloria Clemons-White, Ted Firch and Cindy Fowler.

Left to right: Gloria Clemons-White, Ted Firch and Cindy Fowler.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

To help bridge the gap between the “Have-Gods” and the “Have-Nots,” SN&R brings together faith leaders and pitches them the real-life ethical questions that spring from their communities. Venturing beyond biblical references and high-minded philosophies, our hope is to give voice to the complexity, insight and compassion inherent to any spiritual calling.

There’s an unseemly piece of lore in my family that when my sister, as a love-struck teenager, casually mentioned the race of her newest paramour, my father yelled out from the other room, “I hope you just said his shoes are black!”

My dad still denies this story, and in the absence of any subsequent proof of racist idiocy, I’ve chalked it up to his small-town South Dakota roots. (For the record, he was nothing but friendly to Batron for the duration of their romance.)

But what about the grandpa who likes to crack wop jokes over dinner, or the dear old auntie who blithely calls her Mexican landscaper a wetback? For people with kids of their own, this becomes an especially tricky issue: How do we refuse to tolerate the intolerance of our elders, while still treating them with the requisite respect?

We asked Pastor Ted Firch, of East Sac’s First Christian Church; Pastor Gloria Clemons-White, of Kyle’s Temple African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Oak Park; and Cindy Fowler of the Sacramento Friends Meeting to offer some sage advice on how to respectfully put the smackdown on those bigoted family members.

I was raised in a very religious family and taught to respect my elders, which I have consistently tried to do. However, these same elders have racist, backward views. I’ve learned to just ignore them, so as not to cause unnecessary friction, but now they are exposing my kids to their racism. I want to tell them in the strongest way possible to stop, but at the same time I don’t want to come off as disrespectful. How should I handle this?

“I think that this person should be able to say, ‘For me, my understanding of the gospel is that all people are created in the image of god; and there may be differences that are rooted a little bit in the culture, but everyone needs and deserves to be treated equally with respect,’” suggested Firch.

And if the offending parties persist in sharing their racist views?

“You need to take it one step further and say, ‘This is so important to me and my family, that if this is going to go on in this household, then we’re not going to come here very often anymore.’”

Not a light statement from someone whose ministry emphasizes peacemaking and unity. As Firch explained, part of the mission of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the larger union of churches to which First Christian Church belongs, is to build toward racial reconciliation on a national level.

“I think our messages about racism are more subtle than they used to be,” said Fowler, who, as clerk of the Quaker Friends Meeting (which does not have paid clergy), presides over their silent worship service. “I remember comments at family reunions and when my uncles would get together that were startling even to me, a working-class kid in Kansas City, Mo. This was before everything was happening in the ’60s, and I was wondering why they were talking about other people that way. And yet they were in church every Sunday morning.”

Little surprise, then, that Fowler was drawn to the Quaker faith, a “small but mighty group” with a long tradition of social action. With their history in the civil rights and anti-slavery movements, the Quakers have been consistent in their stance on peace and on gender and racial equality.

Today, the kind of open racism Fowler experienced at family reunions might not fly, but, as Clemons-White agreed, “in our society, we’re more subtle in the way we deal with differences.” Raised in Mobile, Ala., in the middle of Jim Crow, she had the experience of attending an all-black school for the first half of her education, then switching to a predominantly white high school. Now, every Sunday morning, “I pastor an AME church, which stands for African Methodist Episcopalian.” There’s a reason, she admitted, for the saying that “churches are the most segregated places there are.”

In fact, a recent proposal at an AME general conference to change their name, with its implications of exclusivity, was largely opposed, despite the fact that congregations like Clemons-White’s include people of other races.

The same resistance to change can occur in families, in which case there isn’t much you can do, said Clemons-White. “But when we talk to our parents or grandparents about people who are different, especially if it’s a Christian environment, we need to talk about what that means: Doesn’t Christianity equate with love? And doesn’t love equate with being open-minded and willing to accept people as they are?”

“I believe that where we fail,” added Fowler, “is when we come up against these controversies, within our families, within our faith communities, and we separate instead of talking about it.”

Looking back on the discussions she had with her own kids, “They soaked up so much that they heard that we weren’t even aware that they were listening to. And a conversation around the dinner table about racism, started in a respectful way, will go a long way in helping the children understand that there are disagreements within their family, that not everybody feels the same way, and also make it clear about where we stand, as people of faith in our own lives.”

The dialogue, she continued, is “such a high priority, and it’s the hardest thing for us to do, especially with elders, people we’re supposed to respect, and to challenge their authority is difficult. And modeling that for our children so that if they don’t agree with us, they can come in and say, ‘I don’t agree with you on this, let’s talk about it,’ rather than, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about, I don’t want anything to do with you.’”

“I think equality and respect is more easily understood by children than racism,” Firch offered. “And a lot of valuable experience is allowing or making possible that children have experiences of other cultures, other ethnic groups, and to not just hear about ‘those people.’”

“It’s understanding that we live in a spectrum,” said Fowler, “and living at either end is not a pleasant place to be. To bring people toward the middle, where we can interact and listen to each other, is what it’s all about.”