of the squeal worthy moments of my life was being asked to serve on
the Board of Directors for the Methodist Federation for Social Action
(MFSA). When the official request came in I was surrounded by young,
United Methodist clergy people, and the announcement led to an
immediate toast. The Methodist Federation for Social Action has been
a justice leader in both the The United Methodist Church and the
United States for more than 100 years, starting with worker’s rights.
Calls for justice expanded, as they do, because any justice work
always intersects with other justice work. By 1940 Mary
McLeod Bethune joined the board to help focus the work on combating
racism in the denomination.1
“spring” board meeting, in March, was outside of Philadelphia.
(So, it was our winter board meeting.) Trainers came from
“Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training” to work with the
board for two days. It was very different training than I have done
before. Almost all of the anti-racism training I’ve done has been
focused on the personal. That is, I’ve often looked at my own
behaviors and biases with hope of becoming more aware and less
biased. Those trainings have all been a blessing. Some educational
opportunities I’ve had have been important in educating me about the
history of race and racism in our country. Those have also been very
the training we did at the MFSA board meeting was different than any
of those. We looked at institutional and structural racism. In
fact, our training was really “anti-white supremacy” training,
and we looked at the ways that white supremacy lives in our society
and its institutions. One of the most useful ideas I brought home
from the training was the idea of the “center” of power and
privilege in our society and its contrast, the “borderlands”
outside of power and outside of privilege.
going to offer here a very extended quote because I don’t trust
myself to find the language to summarize these ideas quite yet:
is a center in US society that is considered normal:
white, male, heterosexual, married, Protestant (Christian),
Anglo-American, English speaking, upper middle class, able-bodied,
educated, middle-aged and embodying a particular standard of beauty.
It is the standard by which all are measured.
this center exist the rest of us – at varying distances from the
center. Some of us are closer and some further apart. The borderlands
surround this “center of normalcy.” Power, time, place, and
position dominate their interaction.
borderlands is a juicy place. It is a place full of possibilities,
chaos, creativity, conflict, beauty. It’s the place where harmony
and conflict exist – simultaneously. It’s a place that transcends
and defies dualism, where rigid linear reality cannot exist; a place
where multiculturalism and diverse identities mix and mingle in a
constant ebb and flow of mess, mediation, and mitigation.
institutions are structured to rein force and maintain the center.
institutions ‘embrace diversity’ people of the borderlands must
assimilate in order to come in to the center, though they will never
fully belong there. The tension that results is troublesome for the
center. It creates conflict that the center is not structured to
tolerate. Thus, brining the borderlands into the institution means
forcing it to conform, contort, and homogenize.
is peacefulness in the borderlands but not peace. The power and
privilege of the center causes separation, divisiveness, and
ultimately destruction within the borderlands. The center demands
conformity and sameness, making scarce the resources required to
creatively and collectively resolve conflict. This is the daily
experience of the borderlands.
power of People of Color and other oppressed groups is in the
borderlands. Coming to the center disempowers the borderlands and
destroys its spirit.
institutions are defined by rigid boundaries, which isolate both
institutions and the center. The challenge for anti-racism
transformation teams is to make these boundaries more permeable
and to move the institutions to the in-between-ness of the center and
through the in-between-ness brings the center to the borderlands,
making permeable the walls and boundaries of the institution. It
pushes the center out into the borderlands, making it part of its
chaos and creativity, conflict and beauty.
doing this, the borderlands becomes what is normal, diversity and
justice become the standard. The borderlands becomes the Beloved
Community for which we all yearn.”2
model of the world as it is, and as it could be, has been playing
around in my mind for 2 months, and I needed to share it with you.
It has helped me to see more clearly. Within this model it was
useful to learn that one of the ways the center maintains its power
is through the control of resources and “legitimacy” which sets
up different groups in the borderlands to compete with each other.
It was also helpful, if radically uncomfortable, to be confronted
with the idea that charity is a means by which the center deals with
its guilt AND attempts to bring the borderlands into conformity.
(I’m still squirming.)
this training, when I was invited to work on dreaming an anti-racist
United Methodist Church at the Change Maker’s Summit led by the
General Commission on Religion and Race, I was super excited!! When
I got there and started listening, I realized that my newfound
knowledge of how white supremacy works and the language I
could use to talk about it was ALREADY shared language among the
people of color I was in conversation with. I’d had this MAJOR
learning experience that had reformed my thinking, which I’m still
struggling to fully understand, and then I realized that I’m still
super far behind.
think, perhaps, that knowing how far behind I am is an appropriate
place to be, at least as long as I don’t get comfortable and stay
here. Part of the way that white supremacy, and “the center” are
maintained are by encouraging white people NOT to see the structural
and institutional ways that they’re maintained. From within the
center, things just look “good, orderly, and right.” As we
looked carefully at the sorts of factors that impact how closely an
individual lies to “the center”, I realized that I share ALMOST
all of those characteristics, and I have been socialized to seek the
sort of power that “the center” brokers, and move myself closer
and closer to the center.
be to God, I’ve also been introduced to Jesus, the Bible, the vision
of the Torah, and the concept of the kin-dom of God. The values that
I’ve learned in THOSE places are the values that led me to every
anti-racism training I’ve ever gone to, and are the values that give
me a way to counter the narratives and socialization of “the
center.” Now, to be clear, The United Methodist Church as an
institution operates with a confusing mix of the values of “the
center”, the language of Jesus, and an occasional reflection of the
actual values of Jesus. It is a very confusing place to be. That
mix of values and language pervades all the levels of the church,
albeit in different concentrations of each ingredient.
of the other take-aways from the anti-racism training is that no
person, institution, or experience is truly free from the values,
power, and impact of “the center” and we kid ourselves if we
think we are. Yet, together, we are able to make progress anyway, if
loving God and following Jesus offer us a way out of the center and
its values, into the borderlands to be part the Beloved Community in
all of its beautiful diversity. God’s universal love for all people
leads to God’s dream of world where people are able to survive and
thrive together. However, even in the Bible, that universal love of
God gets held in tension with other values and ideas.
instance, let’s take this brilliant speech of Paul’s in Acts. He
meets people where they are, and takes what they already know
seriously. He is speaking to people who don’t share his experience
of God, he started out as a monotheist and was well educated in
Judaism. He is speaking to polytheists, and he makes space for them.
I love that he notices to their humility in the altar to the unknown
God, as uses it an opening to tell about the God he knows. I also
love that he quotes one of their well-known sayings, “in God we
live and move and have our being” and applies it to God as he knows
God! I also think it is really funny that one of my favorite
descriptions of God (“in whom we live and move and have our being”)
was ADAPTED to fit the monotheistic God. I think it is beautiful
that Paul includes the people he speaks to as being children of God,
and indicating that in his faith God loves them all.
course, then the passage comes to its end, and Paul tells people that
they all have to do things his way, and follow his God while
abandoning what they’ve known, or his God will punish them all.
SIGH. Paul thinks there is ONE right way, he knows it, they don’t,
and they should all do it his way. That’s not so beautiful, nor so
welcoming or respectful of the people he is talking to. He changes
from accepting people as they are to telling them how they should be.
It is a switch from valuing the borderlands to demanding that they
comply with the center. His speech ends telling them that unless
they think like he does, they’re of less value. He requires unity
with his ideas rather than joining with the people in solidarity with
presents this differently. He shows Jesus speaking to people who
already know and love God. The speech says that God has desires for
how people act, but the desires are that people treat each other with
God’s love for them, and build communities centered in love. This
makes it clear that unless love defines actions, people are not truly
following God. There is no space for exceptions so that anyone can
be excluded, instead there is a reminder that the Spirit can help us
live as God wants us to live. We’re told we aren’t alone, and that
doing God’s work IS the same same as loving God, and then when we
want to seek out God we can do so by loving God’s people. In this
brief passage I hear the values of God and Jesus without significant
muddling of the center! (Thanks be to God for moments like that!)
God is loving God’s people. All of them. Loving people who are in
the borderlands is sometimes a challenge. So too is loving people
who live near the center. But God doesn’t make space for exceptions.
Only for love.
pretty sure that one of the most important forms of loving God’s
people is truly seeing, hearing, and knowing each other. That means
helping to loosen the walls between the borderlands and the center,
and for me at least, that’s going to require continued anti-racism
and anti-white supremacy work. But, thanks to the writer of the
Gospel of John, the Methodist Federation for Action, and this
church, I know that I don’t go it alone. Thanks be to God!
Robette Anne Dias & Chuck Ruehle, Executive Co-Directors,
Rev. Sara E. Baron
First United Methodist Church of Schenectady
603 State St. Schenectady, NY 12305
May 14, 2017