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Doing the Good Trouble. Rev. Dr. Nancy Niero

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

Community UCC, July 30, 2023

Nancy’s Land Acknowledgement

Summer 2023

This sermon was written in Denver, CO, on land that was traveled by the Cheyenne, Kiowa, Ute, and Arapaho Indigenous people for centuries. I acknowledge this land, this place, is the ancestral home where the people hunted and traveled. It is important for me to acknowledge the land as a Christian pastor and immigrant and honor the original inhabitants. As an activist, I pledge myself to the work of disrupting systems of oppression that led to the dispossession of Indigenous people from the land and have continued to deny their rights to self-determination.

The Cheyenne, Kiowa, Ute, and Arapaho people are not a people of the past. They are a people of the present.

Doing the Good Trouble of Decentering Whiteness IS

Loving Your Neighbor

Listen to the words of Rep. John Lewis from Georgia...“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful. Be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way.”

These words from Rep. Lewis, a Black congressman who served 17 terms in the US House of Representatives, were written in a tweet in June 2018 almost two years before he died. They have become a mantra for me and my doctoral study for four years while I discerned and struggled with what is white silence in church and how do we… we as community…. Dismantle it.

Jesus’ commandment is not for the neighbor sitting next to you this morning, but of neighbor and stranger… in the grocery store… at the park….at the gym…. the library… the bar… the concert… the hiking trail… this is how others will see you and me outside of these four walls.

Concurrently, I wish we spent much more time listening to and understanding the day that the Holy Spirit blew in on those gathered and the Church with a big C began. This text reminds me that those gathered in the thousands, spoke many languages, heard many languages, understood each other’s languages, and who came from many parts of the world. Let us not forget, our church was born out of a celebration of diversity that day.

How can we live into this commandment and call in the 21st century in Colorado, as individuals and communities of faith, where there are complicated racial justice histories, and speak up, show up, and stand up, and welcome people who look very different from me, and from you?

Maybe you have a complicated racial justice history in your family? I know I do. I suggest all white people have a complicated racial justice past. Whether you call it moral courage or spiritual courage, speaking up, standing up, and showing up with people of color is not just an exercise for white people of faith, it is a call to be faith outside this space.

One of the many questions I was asked early on in my study, was how do white people de-center whiteness in a community that is mostly white? I found that answer when I discovered Dr. James Cone’s 2004 essay titled “Theology’s Great Sin: Silence in the Face of White Supremacy.” Dr. Cone, the founder of Black liberation theology writes that there are four realities for white theologians and scholars around racism … whites do not talk about racism because they do not have to, white theologians avoid racial dialogue because talk about white supremacy arouses deep feelings of guilt… whites avoid talking with African Americans about race because whites fear engaging Black people’s rage.. and finally, whites do not say much about racial justice because they are not prepared for a radical redistribution of wealth and power. Dr. Cone writes that “confronting these realities gives theologians an opportunity to develop antiracist theologies that go beyond simply condemning racism because they engage the histories, cultures, and theologies of people of color. This,” he writes, is the work of love and justice because it is work that enhances our humanity.”

I discovered Dr. Cone’s essay in June 2019, and it changed my trajectory of white silence. Days later, my beloved professor, Dr. Regina Stoltzfus Shands, said “Before you dismantle white silence, Nancy you need to know how it’s mantled.

Here's what I discovered… white people of faith have been silent when it comes to racial justice history in America, for centuries. White people of faith failed miserably when Jewish people tried to come to America by boat during the Holocaust and were turned away. White people of faith were silent when Japanese Americans were forced from their homes after Pearl Harbor, and were sent to internment camps, like Camp Amache, in southeastern Colorado. You may say, well, those decisions were made by white people of power in Washington, DC… and I would add… who went to church too.

Except for a few loud abolitionists in the 19th century, faithful white Christians did not work towards ending the enslavement of Black women, men and children. And Dr. Cone writes in his essay that in white North America male theologians hardly ever mentioned the sin of racism in their public lectures and writings in the 1960s and 1970s. He writes, “it was as if they were intellectually blind and could not see that white supremacy was America’s central theological problem.” He added that white scholars of religion in 2004 were well aware that all is not well on the racial front. He wrote, “They know that white supremacy is a horrendous evil that must be destroyed before humanity can create a world free of white arrogance.” Again, his essay was written almost 20 years ago.

In our denomination, the United Church of Christ, racial justice history has been silenced, hardly spoken of, and swept under the rug. Here are four examples of what a denominational history, written by white people, looks like in the UCC.

Congregationalist missionaries arrived in Hawaii in 1820, and their descendants in the Hawai’ian Evangelical Conference Association, which later became the Hawai’i Conference contributed to overthrowing Queen Lili’uokalani (pronounced as Lili-uok-alani) in 1893. A public apology happened almost 100 years later at the 1991 General Synod.

New England Congregationalists saw an opportunity to missionize the Black South after the American Civil War ended, and through the church’s American Missionary Association brought Jesus of the Congregationalists to the formerly enslaved people of the South. These families had already had a Christian faith in the stories of liberation in Exodus, Jesus the healer, woven in the stories of survival found in the spirituals. Their faith looked very different than the white New England Congregationalists. Over time, those missionaries built schools and universities, but by 1920, the missionary association and the Congregationalists abandoned the Black South. In 2007, of the more than 500 original missionary schools, only six were still related to the UCC.

And there is very little evidence of UCC pastors in mass showing up in the streets of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, as Dr. Cone refers to. Occasionally, one will read in an obituary of a white pastor who marched, like last year when I read of the passing of Rev. Rob Lapp, your Rob Lapp, who served in our Conference and who participated in the civil rights movement. In his obituary.

Look for racial justice history references in our various UCC publications, and there is little. Look at our website, and you will not find much. As a denomination, we are relatively silent about our very own complicated racial justice past.

And finally, just this month, the UCC’s former general minister and president, John Dorhauer apologized for the denomination’s failure to recognize the Afro-Christian Convention as one of the major faith traditions that created the UCC…. In 1957. He said the absence was “a white supremacist rewriting of our history. I hereby issue an apology for my and our complicity in and with the manifestations of white privilege that motivated some of us to set this table without you.” I would suggest, not some of us… but most of us. There was no asking for forgiveness in this apology.

The ongoing work of naming, speaking and writing about UCC racial justice history with people of color, ensures that it is not lost history, or more importantly an intentional “hidden history.” Acknowledging a complicated and messy racial justice past, is the only way to be accountable to it today with lament, hoping and praying for a healing and reconciling future.

I grew up in a very white suburb of New York City. I never went to school with a child of color until I moved to Flagstaff, Arizona as a junior in high school, where white kids were fewer than Navajo, Hopi, Black, and Hispanic. My locker mate was Ladonna Williams, whose family lived in Tuba City, and she lived with a white Christian woman in Flagstaff when she was at school because Tuba City on the Navajo Nation didn’t have a high school.

I haven’t always known how to stand up, show up, and speak up with people of color. Maybe that is you, too. I was afraid of saying the wrong thing. It is one of the symptoms of white fragility that Robin DiAngelo writes about. I ultimately overcame my fear by surrounding myself with others who wanted to say something too. You may think it’s easy to be silent. That it’s easy to not challenge systems of injustice or oppression that exists in our country or in the town we live in. I suggest it’s not easy at all, especially if we are to truly follow Jesus’ commandment and call.

It's not easy at all to be silent and stay silent. White people have white ancestors of faith and resistance who can inspire them. We are not meant to do this work alone, as individuals. We need each other to build a new way… build a new world that embraces a messy and complicated racial justice history, and a way forward to love the neighbor in spite of it. More importantly, doing racial justice work without community is a very, very lonely journey.

As I close, Dr. Vincent Harding, who wrote speeches for, and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had already retired from Iliff School of Theology when I showed up in 2006. But he taught students a freedom song… a song of resistance…that I’d like to teach you today. Singing freedom songs together in community IS an act of resistance. In fact, we spoke his words in our call to worship this morning. It goes like this to the tune of “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder…

“We are building up a new world. We are building up a new world, we are building up a new world, builders must be strong. Courage sisters don’t get weary. Courage brothers don’t get weary. Courage people, don’t get weary, though the way be long.”

The words of today’s liturgy is written by people of color. The hymns are from the spirituals. It is all part of the intentional work of dismantling white silence AND lifting up voices of color in church. Let’s make a sacred promise together to “Love your neighbor” in ways that will challenge us, move us, inspire us, make us feel weary, help us find courage, do the work of love and justice that James Cone asks, that makes us at times uncomfortable… maybe very uncomfortable, to heal, to forgive ancestors, to grieve together, to do good trouble together like John Lewis asks, and be who we are called to be. Jesus has commanded nothing less. This is my prayer this morning.

May it be so. Amen.

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