"We All Have Something to Learn from Each Other"
I had the opportunity to speak with Bethaney Wilkinson, founder of G.Race Dialogues here in Atlanta. G.Race Dialogues is a recurring day-long workshop that offers a space for all who are willing and able to come and unpack the difficulties and divisions of racial brokenness in our communities. The tag line, which I love so much + succinctly describes the goal of G.Race Dialogues, is "Race needs a dialogue. Grace sets the stage." I could not agree more wholeheartedly, and I am so thrilled to be able to present to you the story that Bethany shared with me over coffee a couple of weeks ago. I am grateful to her for her bravery and willingness to share her experience pursuing reconciliation on the front lines, leading this "essential work", which is for all of us, with poise and hope.
Here is Bethany's story.
T H E N E E D
“I’ve been thinking about race my whole life. I have journals from when I was fourteen and fifteen years old trying to understand the racial landscape of my high school, reading books about it.
It probably originally started when I was six years old, in first and second grade I don’t remember all the details, but I had a crush on this boy -- this is how every good story starts -- a white boy in my class, and I remember feeling afraid that he wouldn’t like me back because I wasn’t white. I don’t know where that came from. But that was my impression. My best friend at the time was white with blonde hair and blue eyes, just the picture of what people wanted or the person that you would fall in love with, and knew that I didn’t look like her. I remember processing through it that way as a little kid. I grew up in a small town, which I now realize was a pretty poor town but I didn’t know it at the time because I was a kid. There was a lot of physical segregation -- black people over here, white people over there, which is true around the country, historically, but starting in middle school I began having more painful experiences because I was tracked into a gifted program and I was the only black student in that program. So in middle school and high school, the black kids thought I thought I was better than them -- which, I probably did at some point, just being a person -- so they kind of rejected me but then I also wasn’t white so just racism, period, made white places not feel totally at home either. And then there were the comments like, “you’re like an Oreo, black on the outside, white on the inside”, or “you’re really pretty for a black girl” things like that -- which, I get it, they were kids, but those types of comments toward me were always about my race and that was odd to me.
Then when I got to college I realized I could actually study all of this, and that made me feel empowered. I also joined a campus ministry that was really intentional about multi-ethnic diversity -- they didn’t do it perfectly, but they were intentional about it. And there was a big part of discipleship for the culture of that ministry, and so I was a part of a lot of different urban programs and mission trips where we learned that God made us different colors on purpose and we reflect the image of God and our cultures are created to glorify Him, which is why racism is so destructive and why living as though one cultural way is the best way is majorly unhealthy for the people of God because He doesn’t play favorites. And we’re missing something when we can’t celebrate and embody our faith tradition from different cultural perspectives.”
T H E A C T I O N
“I think it is one of my gifts in life, to see the big picture and kind of...poke holes in it. To ask questions that need to be asked. It’s something I’ve had to learn how to do that with maturity, but that natural tendency carried me a long way towards awakening to the continued need for racial reconciliation.
I went to Emory, where I studied community development, social justice, and social change. During my senior year, I got involved with a house church through Grace Midtown. So, I was already in a place in my life where I was thinking deeply about issues of justice and culture, and then my involvement in the church led me to think about its role in the city as a cross-cultural entity as well as a responder to issues of justice. I was taking a critical approach and asking questions like, “how can the church engage better in the work of advancing justice? Where is the church strong in this, and where are its weak spots?”. It happened that at the time, Grace Midtown was in the process of relocating to the edge of English Avenue, which is a mostly Black/African-American neighborhood in Atlanta -- an area defined by low income, as compared to other parts of the city -- and I thought, wow, what an interesting experiment: a predominantly white, upwardly mobile congregation moving to this predominantly black neighborhood. I couldn’t resist having up-close involvement in that, it was so close to my heart and followed all of natural interests.
So I joined the team as an apprentice at the church, as a consciousness of sorts. I began to have lots of internal conversations about race, asking, lots of questions, like “what does it mean for us as the church to be for the city?”, and “are we for the whole city or just for parts of the city?”, and “what are the barriers that keep us from being hospitable to people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds?”. Not because I think every community has to be multi-ethnic, but I do think that if we’re going be for the city -- and this goes not just for the church, but for anyone -- what you’re building should reflect and represent the city that you’re in.
That year as an apprentice enabled and encouraged me to dig deeper into my questions about racial justice and racial equity. It was through lots of conversation and through relationship that I began to get to the heart of these things. My relationship with Marge Reynolds was extremely impactful in that we were able to address some of the barriers we both came up against in being co-laborers, and she and I came to a place where we realized we needed to resource the church, our own community, to dig deeper into these ideas and real issues of division.
Then I was at Starbucks one day in March of 2015, and I saw that they had this newspaper...Race Together, or something like that. It was comprised of stories about race, and justice, and ways that people can engage the work. I thought, if Starbucks can figure this out, then surely the Spirit-filled people of God, who have been commissioned to be agents of reconciliation can be more intentional about this work!! That Starbucks was across the street from my job, and as soon as I was back at my desk, I began typing this email to Marge, I was like -- “I have this idea, we’ll call it Grace Dialogues, like, G.-Race Dialogues; we can bring people together to talk about race and justice, and we’ll have the opportunity to train people on how to engage that work…!” So, one day we sat down at Chick-fil-A together and we created a training, and that became the first of G.Race Dialogues. The heart behind it is to be a reconciling community across lines of difference, beginning with race...but I’ve got dreams for it. There are so many places I can imagine taking it to, so much good work and healing I think it has the capacity for.”
S T E A D Y P E R S E R V E R A N C E
“In the beginning of really engaging the work of reconciliation, there were both internal challenges for me, as well as external ones. The internal ones were mostly that I didn’t feel confident, or I didn’t feel safe to share my story, because not everyone has space to receive it. I think internally as a woman, and as a woman of color, in a majority white male dominated context it’s very easy to feel like your voice doesn't matter, and people treat you like your voice doesn't matter, not intentionally, just sometimes people aren’t socialized to treat everyone equally. So the way that would manifest itself is I might be sitting in a staff meeting on the verge of a breakdown, feeling all of these things and not knowing how to articulate them, thinking that if I don’t package it just right then they’re not going to hear me, but if I break down crying then they’re going to think I’m weak. So it’s like a constant negotiation, and that’s just painful, and probably a little traumatizing, honestly. So there’s that on the internal side, and I’ve had to learn over the past few years what self care looks like, and what it means to share my story with people who are trustworthy and will hold my story with honor.
External challenges were more like the fact that many white people they never have to think about race, so when you bring something to them that makes them feel bad about themselves, they can become very defensive, which I can understand, but that makes it hard to get anywhere. Especially when, you know, I’ve been thinking about race ever since the moment I realized my skin was darker than someone else's, and when someone says or implies that that isn’t real somehow...like, that’s frustrating. So dealing with that, is hard. I think just having to be really patient with people, is challenging sometimes. Not impossible! But, hard. In the midst of all that, thought, it’s essential work, so I can’t just quit!
I think true reconciliation is what God’s doing in the world. And to deny that would be me lying to myself. And I would say I can’t really read the gospels without seeing how much Jesus moved across cultures, across boundaries, into communities he wasn’t supposed to be in, into relationships he wasn’t supposed to be a part of -- the woman at the well, some of his disciples, the way he interacted with the religious leaders, to name a few. I can’t read the Bible faithfully and ignore who Jesus is, who he has called his followers to be. Part of it is my own story, but part of it is I’m a follower of Jesus and this is what it means to follow him, it’s both of those things.”
E N C O U R A G E M E N T
“We all have something learn from each other, and the only way we make progress is if we sit down in a room and talk about it together. G.Race Dialogues is great for that, but it’s not for everyone. It’s for people who are ready to take the next step in their journey -- if someone isn't there yet, that's fine. But if you want to move forward and you want more language and you want a group of people who can go with you, then G.Race Dialogues is perfect for that.
To someone who wants to take action in general: if you are a white person, I would say find a person of color who’s leading in the work of reconciliation and follow them. Do what they ask you to do do, offer up your gifts, and learn from them. Because almost everywhere, there is a person of color responding to the pain of their community.
If you are a person of color, you likely feel one of two things. One, like youre tired and to that I would say, that’s okay, take a break. The action step is totally different, there. On the other hand I would also say if you are apathetic and disengaged from a place of despair, then it might be wise to grapple with that because despair is a thing that makes you sick. I can’t prescribe the remedy, based on where you are personally, but I do know that when you numb pain you also numb joy.
Generally, if you’re looking to do something for someone or some cause, I would say just do it. There’s no shortage of helpers in the world...you just have to show up.”