I was recently invited to participate in an intentional process that included urban-suburban dialogue and education around racial and economic discrimination. I approached this opportunity with several assumptions: that it would include people of racial-ethnic diversity, who understand the socioeconomic realities of their respective neighborhoods, and who are voting citizens with diverse political affiliation from across the four-county region involved in the process; and that by offering the process among Christian churches, shared faith would help align the interests and motivations of the participants. The original goal was to identify a common concern and advocate for state budget structural changes in one of the represented four areas, all of which have a history of racial and economic discrimination.
The group that I participated in (one of several around the region) did meet most of my expectations. Meaningful dialogue occurred. The material presented about transportation practices, exclusionary zoning, job and employment considerations, and corrections reform was impactful, though not surprising, to many. Yet, after four sessions, the group was nowhere near ready to define an item for advocacy. Yet the story need not end there. With more watering, the seeds planted and acquaintances made have room to grow.
My intention is not to give a debriefing of this initiative, but rather situate myself within it as I reflect on the tension between authentic conversation and brave actions in dismantling structural racism. Oftentimes, the two seem to work against each other with conversation delaying action and action bypassing conversation.
“Do two walk together unless they have made an appointment?” (Amos 3:3) is one of several rhetorical questions of the prophet Amos as he expressed God’s anger against the people of Israel. They grew wealthy by rejecting God’s law—trampling on the poor, failing to pursue justice for the oppressed, and abusing the vulnerable. It’s a question that resonates with me as I experience the tension of the call to do justice in collaboration with others to a people who do not even know one another. We assume that because a group of people hold a common faith, worship the same God, call each other brothers and sisters, that they will pick up the cross of radical discipleship and take actions that benefit people they know little about on a personal level, including actions that may very well take away the privileges they have grown accustomed to.
Yes, I believe strangers can find themselves alongside one another doing good work—correcting wrongs, extending compassion, serving God. I also believe that through that work they can come to know one another and even find enjoyment in other’s company. Amos’ question leads me to wonder, however, if people can walk together for the long haul, the life-long transformational journey, without ever having the intentionality to meet—not just for the work—but to meet and be placed in front of one another with their full selves, for face-to-face conversation.
“Conversation” can take the shape of anything from inconsequential to full-on transformative verbal interaction. When I advocate for conversation, I am referring to the kind of exchanges that lead to transformation and an impacted manner of life. Verbal communication in cultures in which direct speaking is the norm typically has the purpose of exchanging information and ideas. Verbal communication in cultures in which indirect speaking is the norm typically is shaped by the implicit power dynamics or the intended goal for the relationship between the conversationalists. Truth or respect? Imagination or connection? My theology does not ask me to choose one over the other. There is need for both truth-telling and respectful rules of engagement. There is need for moral imagination grounded in personalized human connection. In fact, the biblical mandates to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly, and love God and neighbor with all our being leaves no room for dismissing the efforts for conversation as inconsequential or luxurious.
We do not happen into these kinds of conversations without intention. To be in a conversation takes a decision, and once at the conversation, there are factors that affect authentic participation. Hospitable conversationalists are mindful of both content and process and ensure each person has access to be fully engaged. Submitting to conversation is complex work. It can be exhausting. It can be infuriating. It can be messy. It is brave work.
Though the urban-suburban initiative did not reach its stated goal within the defined timeframe, I pray opportunities for brave conversations have been opened— real conversations that about motivations and obstacles, that are committed to creating space for honest, respectful, and prophetic exchange, that are continual and endured with patience, that reveal a humble walk with God, and conversations that will accentuate and root the hard work of lasting justice.
My answer to Amos is, for two to walk together in this work, yes, they must make a point to do so. Once that is done, there are many resources available to equip us for this commitment. So, let’s talk.
Rev. Dr. Marie Onwubuariri, is regional executive minister, American Baptist Churches of Wisconsin