'Agents of discomfort' needed in churches to combat racism

By agency reporter
June 24, 2011

Church leaders from across the Americas and the Caribbean are meeting in Managua, Nicaragua, to discuss and seek action on the violence of racism, and the challenges it poses for churches and ecumenical organisations.

The conference is sponsored by World Council of Churches (WCC) in partnership with the Latin America Council of Churches (CLAI) and brings together people working with Afro-descendent and indigenous communities across the region.

Dr Rolf Malunge of Brazil opened the first panel discussion with a presentation on the reality of racism in Brazil, where thousands of mainly young people have been killed in violence in recent years.

“Many more black people are killed than white people, and many of them are killed by the police,” he said. “This is systematic, state-sponsored, and it is year after year, the statistics show it.”

“Racism isn’t just about violence though, it is also about opportunities”, Malunge added. “Many more white people go to university than black people in Brazil. Some people say that this isn’t a race issue, but a class issue, but the fact is that the lower class in Brazil is predominantly black, so in actual fact it is both a race issue and a class issue.”

“The question is what should we be doing? We are not prepared to deal with racism as churches. In Brazil, at least, the theological colleges do not offer courses on ethnicity or race or racism,” Malunge said.

The Rev Alfredo Joiner, CLAI regional secretary for Central America and the organiser of the event, says that this meeting “is an exchange of experiences between church people who see racism on a daily basis. We understand that there are racist and discriminatory attitudes and behaviours and practices, even policies, right across the region.”

“We have been called primarily to seek the kingdom of God and its justice. But there cannot be justice while racism continues, so we have to do something about it,” he said.

“The idea is to come together, to unite forces and build up our struggle against racism. This is an ongoing struggle, and to be successful we need to be united and strong. We want to build a network among our churches and organisations, to strengthen each other and to strengthen this struggle.”

The Rev Karen Georgia Thompson, minister for ecumenical and interfaith relations at the United Church of Christ in the USA, says that “there are many threats that connect the plight of Afro-descendent people globally. The systems that created racism are the same across the Americas. We share a lot of history, and that informs our present.”

“I want to see those who are here name what is happening to them, and see from wherever we are in the world how we can connect, how we can coordinate together against racism.”

The Rev Dr Deenabandhu Manchala, programme executive for the Just and Inclusive Communities programme at the WCC asks how we can deal with racist attitudes and values in the churches, and he questions what we have done recently in our churches to combat racism.

The WCC has a history in the struggle against racism worldwide. One of its founders, J.H. Oldham, wrote the foundational 1924 text “Christianity and the Race Problem”, and the inaugural WCC assembly in 1948 recognised “prejudice based upon race or colour” and “practices of discrimination and segregation” as “denials of justice and human dignity.” During the 1970s and 1980s, the WCC Programme to Combat Racism coordinated many churches’ opposition to apartheid in southern Africa as well as cultures of racism found elsewhere.

Manchala affirms that “we should continue to be agents of discomfort in our churches. We need to be troublemakers. We need to work constantly to destabilise oppressive structures and cultures.”

The next two days of the conference will receive presentations on racism from countries including Colombia, Peru and Honduras. Working groups will give deeper consideration to the implications of racism for the churches and ecumenical groups and will make proposals for follow-up work.

A publication bringing together the presentations, conclusions and recommendations of the meeting will be produced with the aim of strengthening the struggle against racism.


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