When I was invited to join an online panel conversation about race, mutuality, and community, I wasn’t sure what to expect. All five panelists and our moderator were at least loosely part of the same Anabaptist blogging community, so we shared some basic understandings about Christian discipleship as following Jesus, the church as a gathered community, and a concern for living out God’s peace and justice in our world today. We were three men and three women; two African-American, one of Chinese descent, and three who looked white but I didn’t know more of their background than that; five living in the U.S. and me the lone Canadian. What exactly would we talk about? And could we talk about race as well as practice healthy engagement with one another?
As I reflect on this experience, I’m grateful for our conversation and for these nine healthy practices that helped us engage one another.
When we listen, it might not look like we’re doing much, but listening is active engagement. I sensed that we were trying to listen well to one another both in our planning and on the panel itself.
- Being deliberate
As the panel was being formed, care was taken so that the dominant white culture was not the dominant voice on the panel. Our moderator was also deliberate in his preparation so that each panelist would have roughly the same number of questions.
- Yielding to one another
In addition to what was happening on-screen, we had a group chat, a question & answer feed, and questions submitted via Twitter. At one point, while another panelist was talking, I commented in the group chat that I’d like to add something too, but with so much to keep track of, our moderator missed my comment and went on to direct the next question to the white man on the panel. But my fellow panelist noticed, and instead of answering the question, he said he wanted to think about it and would first yield to me since I had something to add. That was a wonderfully practical example of what we had just been talking about, of those in the majority making room for those in the minority, even to the point of turning down opportunities.
- Speaking up
On addressing microaggressions, the question was put to me as a church leader. I responded with an example of how I addressed microaggression in our wider church context. However, I realize that it’s not always possible to address these when they occur—those in the minority may not always have the opportunity, resources, energy, will, or power to address such microaggressions and to keep on addressing them. That can be exhausting and frustrating. Those in the majority also have a responsibility—not to speak over or take over, but to work together as partners.
- Being willing to learn
Before the panel started, our moderator asked me how to pronounce my name—this is a small example, but I appreciated his desire to get it right. On a larger scale, another panelist pointed out the diversity within black culture and the importance of not making assumptions. Instead of assuming you already know, take on a posture of learning.
- Reading the whole sweep of Scripture
In the panel discussion, there was one question about Scripture that I didn’t respond to directly. I had just talked about racial reconciliation and the whole sweep of Scripture from creation to the example of Jesus and the coming together of Jew and Gentile in the early church. I felt like putting quote marks around all of that and moving it to answer this other question about Scripture too—racial reconciliation isn’t about just one verse or story but part of the whole sweep of Scripture.
- Taking time
Our panel conversation was wide-ranging and two hours long, so we did spend some time with one another. But I also found that sometimes the conversation moved more quickly than I was ready to answer—that was helpful to keep dead air time to a minimum, but it also meant not much time to think before speaking or to respond as fully as we might have otherwise. To engage others about race, we need to take time.
- Realizing that social and structural change takes more than one conversation
On a personal level, I have often come away changed by a single conversation, but social and structural change requires patient and persistent community (re-)building over time. Being part of this online panel was a healing experience for me. It modeled healthy engagement, and I hope contributed to racial reconciliation, but it was also just one conversation. Much more is needed.
- Praying and relying on the Holy Spirit
On screen, we talked about relying on the Holy Spirit, and prayer as an essential part of that. Off screen, I led in prayer before we started, and I felt our time was bathed in prayer. In the work of racial reconciliation, we need prayer and discernment to know when to be silent and simply listen; when to speak up, and how to do that without speaking over; how to act as partners instead of ignoring or lording it over one another; how to read Scripture and live deliberately as Scripture teaches; to be led by God and sustained by the Spirit.
The practices listed here are just a beginning, drawn from and illustrated by my experience on this panel. But they’re not complete. They’re not a step-by-step plan to follow. I list them here as just one way of outlining what engaging others about race looked like in one specific context. As we continue to work at racial reconciliation, we’ll need to live these out in multiple ways in many other contexts.