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5 Key Factors To Consider Before Leading A Conversation About Race

Photo: Fizkes
racially diverse group of adults talking over pizza dinner

I am a spiritual leader. I also am an African-American woman who lived through the Civil Rights movement and who is living through the highly charged political climate of the 21st century.

I believe that knowledge is power. And knowledge coupled with empathy and reinforced with deep understanding can change the world.

Because of this, and because of the fraught discourse about race that permeates our society, for months I considered the idea of introducing real talk about race and ethnicity in our setting for worship. I knew it would be complicated. Conversations about race frequently are difficult.

I prayed and went back and forth.

Then I realized that no one else was going to do it. It had to be me.

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And as a National Training Laboratories (NTL)-trained facilitator, I know how to hold my own space, how to intervene when needed, and how to manage boundaries. Not only that, I'm very much in touch with my own internalized biases — and can help others recognize and process theirs, as well.

The experience was enlightening, and I would like to share some takeaways that might help others make connections through tough, but important conversations.

Reasons for reservations about race-related conversations

If you are a minister or a spiritual leader — or if you occupy a similar leadership role — you might find yourself hesitant to dive into conversations about race. It's not unusual to be afraid of a potentially uncomfortable and possibly confrontational experience.

These concerns are valid. No one ever said exploring the complexities of race and ethnicity would be easy.

In fact, there are five identifiable reasons why a spiritual leader might hesitate to initiate a discussion about race: 

  • People come to Sunday services to be comfortable and connect with others and build relationships.
  • First-time visitors might be turned off.
  • Potential controversy might limit the growth of the congregation.
  • We are a 501c3 non-profit and can't be political. 
  • Talking about race makes everyone uncomfortable — including the spiritual leader or minister.

A leader might wonder what would happen if he or she said something controversial. Or there might be a concern that someone could respond to an open, frank discussion of race with violence. 

Again, these concerns are real and should be taken into account. Every circumstance is different, and there is no perfect answer for everyone. 

Still, if there is an opening to educate and enlighten a group of people about the implications of race in our society, it's worth considering.

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An uncomfortable but important conversation

Over the course of 13 months, our racially diverse community talked together and learned. We studied two books, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, by Beverly Daniel Tatum; and Waking Up White, by Debby Irving.

We sang. We prayed. We conducted short readings centered on race. And always we adhered to this spiritual principle — we are all one.

We also used the conversation-friendly round tables in our meeting space to break into groups that consisted only of people of color and white people. No racial mixing, only homogeneous groups at each table.

When I asked them to divide into these groups, an uncomfortable silence engulfed the room. I heard someone say, "That's segregation."

And I told them yes, it was temporary segregation — with a purpose. The idea was to begin the conversation about race by bonding around shared experiences, speaking honest thoughts and gaining insight into the experiences of others who look like you. 

At each table, people leaned in and listened, and asked for help from each other when they didn’t understand a concept or process. I felt the change in the energy in the room as each table engaged with questions and activities and connected around their shared experiences at home, in school, and in church.

No judgment — just sharing what happened.

Once community members returned to their original seats, I asked each person to think about what worked about the experience they just shared, and what they might have done differently.

What follows is a list of factors to consider based on that experience and the entire, year-long, ongoing conversation about race. Leading such a conversation was not easy, but it was well worth the effort.

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5 factors to consider when leading a discussion about race

1. Make it clear why you're talking about race in a religious setting

Think about how talking about race fits with your religious or spiritual teachings. Consider principles of "love one another," "we are all one," and the "universal law of abundance."

Then think about how talking about race fits with the vision and mission of your religious organization or spiritual community. Does your mission support the idea that "we" are an inclusive community that embraces individuality and welcomes all without regard to gender, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, previous religious affiliation, class, age, or where you are on your spiritual journey?

Think next about what you intend when talking about race. Is it for information only, to educate, to raise awareness, civil rights advocacy, and societal healing?

2. Make sure your leaders are on board with a conversation about race

Can they support and explain what you are sharing? Do they understand their own personal perspective on race?

Have you provided opportunities to have conversations about race during your meetings, leadership sessions, or retreats?

Have they agreed to have you or others speak about race on Sunday? How frequently?

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3. Do you have spiritual and technical support?

Do you have a prayer partner and/or groups to support you before and after your messages are delivered?

Do you have a relationship with facilitators or consultants who are skilled in facilitating messages, conversations, and activities around race that you can partner with?

What is your training and skill level when it comes to talking about race?

4. Are the persons who share about race diverse?

Make sure the message is engaging and experiential. It should not be a sermon or one-way communication.

5. As the senior minister or spiritual leader partnered with another leader to conduct the discussion?

It’s important that you be a part of the community while it is learning and experiencing this conversation about race.  If the spiritual leader is the only one leading the conversation or activity about race, it will severely limit the degree the community will push back and be honest.

Make sure lessons and activities are followed up, debriefed, and integrated with the life of the community; be open for feedback and making changes.

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Rev. Ruth Littlejohn is a spiritual and life coach, ordained Centers for Spiritual Living Minister and DEI facilitator; Co Spiritual Director of Magnificence Collective Focus Ministry.

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