This year we partnered with the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) as they were working to build deeper conversations around race and how to be a more welcoming, inclusive community.
Dr. King famously said that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours in Christian America. And as a member of the ELCA, I can tell you from personal experience (and a quick Google search) that it is one of the whitest denominations in the country. 96% white. I can also tell you from experience that people and leadership are making the effort to change that.
But even when there is good intention behind trying to change that demographic reality and welcome new voices, it is a slow process to make that change. It takes self reflection. It takes time. Change happens at the speed of trust. And there are historical truths that need to be reckoned with to build that trust.
So I was excited to work with the church around stories of feeling welcome. That was our original idea. We wanted to ask, “When have you felt a sense of inclusion in a group or community?” We wanted to model examples of success and amplify them as a way to light the way forward.
But the more we talked—and here’s the key—the more we included staff in the conversation who were not white, the more we realized that only asking about an experience of inclusion was missing the mark. If we were going to have an honest conversation, we would have to open the door to stories of exclusion as well. Stories that could shine a light on times when we have missed the mark. Stories about experiences that have caused harm and pain. Stories that can serve as a cautionary tale of unintended consequences or worse.
To do it any other way is whitewashing. It’s diminishing the honest challenges that we face together. It’s toxic positivity. Collectively, we don’t heal unless and until we acknowledge the wound that has happened.
So we changed the question and instead we asked, “When have you felt included or excluded from a group or community?” And it was insightful, to say the least, to hear what people shared.
We gathered these stories at a January gathering of the synod and then shared them back during their June gathering. At the start of each general session, 300 people gathered and watched a short video of some of the stories, which then led to time for conversation. For reflection. For considering new realities.
The series did what these stories do so well again and again. It opened a space for thoughtful dialogue. It gently addressed honest pain. It held up an example of where we have done well and where we have room to grow. And it allowed people to feel seen and heard and valued.
The work is not done. It never will be. It was a step in the right direction.