Regional faith leaders in Oklahoma and Kansas have been working for more than three years to foster community conversations around white privilege, and how it plays into issues of racial justice in America. Now, that work is crossing international borders, with a United Church of Christ minister taking the training program to Germany.
The Rev. Eleanor McCormick, formerly associate pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church in Lawrence, Kan., in the United Church of Christ (UCC) Kansas-Oklahoma Conference, now is an ecumenical pastor in the Protestant Church of Baden, Germany, where her duties include sharing the UCC’s “White Privilege: Let’s Talk” curriculum with her German peers.
McCormick was introduced to the UCC’s white privilege curriculum shortly after it was unveiled in 2016, when she took a team of lay leaders to First Congregational United Church of Christ in Manhattan, Kan., for a racial justice weekend workshop.
“The team was engaged in very meaningful discussions,” McCormick said, and that initial training session led to the UCC Kansas-Oklahoma Conference making an initial three-year commitment to racial justice work.
Soon after that initial training, the Rev. Da Vita McCallister, one of the UCC curriculum’s authors, came from her home church in Somerville, Mass., to Lawrence to train local church members on how to teach the curriculum and further develop its resources.
From there, the training spread to lay members and clergy in Kansas and Oklahoma, including a train-the-trainer session Saturday put on by the Oklahoma Conference of Churches. McCormick said, from the start, the drive to implement the white privilege curriculum has been led by lay members of the church.
“I really had the honor to work with a passionate and dedicated group of lay people who were charged with and very much engaged in making this curriculum relevant to our community,” McCormick said, “and to encourage people to give up their free time to discuss something that makes most of us uncomfortable, and that we rarely talk about in a Christian church setting.”
McCormick said the members of her congregation were open to the idea of the training, but for most, it gets difficult once you’re in it.
“The congregation was very receptive to beginning this work,” she said, “but where it gets more difficult is when you’re asked to do the personal work — when you’re not just asked to attend a presentation, but to make meaning out of that presentation.”
Participants are asked to write a spiritual autobiography through the lens of race, examining how race has impacted their daily lives, their faith and key points of their lives.
“It asks you to look at your life and write about it to better understand what you’ve been taught about race and racism,” McCormick said, “to better understand how that has impacted your life and your faith.”
It’s natural, McCormick said, for people to become defensive through the course of the training, because of the misperception that “white privilege” means people have had it easy, or haven’t had their own struggles in life.
“No one is saying your life can’t be difficult if you are white. What we are saying is that your life isn’t made difficult because of you being white,” she said. “We’re not saying you didn’t suffer, you didn’t struggle. What we’re saying is you didn’t struggle because of being white. This is not about guilt or blame. This is about understanding that the color of your skin does matter in the United States of America.”
Overcoming those initial misperceptions, and gaining a deeper understanding of the role race plays in everyday life in America, had a profound impact on her congregation, McCormick said.
“It increased my congregation’s empathy, and that empathy then opened the congregation up to engaging issues around racial justice,” she said. “We say this curriculum is about white people talking to other white people, and this work is the first step in a long trajectory of steps, as a church, to move our churches and hopefully therefore to move our society toward equality.”
McCormick continued to work toward that goal in the region until March, when her pastoral duties took her to Germany, through a partnership between the UCC Kansas-Oklahoma Conference and the Protestant Church in Baden, Germany.
She said her role in Germany for the next 3-5 years is to support and build the partnership between the two churches and countries, and “build out God’s love for all people.”
In pursuit of that goal of spreading God’s love, McCormick said it was natural to continue her work with the white privilege curriculum in Germany.
Her German peers were immediately receptive to the curriculum, McCormick said, and she was invited to present it at the Deutsche Evangelische Kirchentag, the biennial conference of the German Protestant Church, June 19-23 in Dortmund, Germany.
From that initial presentation, McCormick said interest in the curriculum is spreading across Germany.
“The German audience, from across the country, now is very interested in rewriting this curriculum in the German context, to make it appropriate for German Protestant Churches,” she said. “It will be interesting to see how that development goes, but there was a resounding interest in seeing our curriculum inspire a similar curriculum in Germany.”
McCormick has since been invited to present the white privilege curriculum at another conference of German Protestant clergy in September.
She attributed the German interest in the white privilege curriculum to a rise in recent years in populism, Christian nationalism and white supremacist movements, on both sides of the Atlantic.
“In many ways there are similar forces at work in Germany and in Europe as there are in the United States,” McCormick said. “There is an increase in Germany as there is in the U.S. of racist tropes, of racism online and in the media.”
That resurgence of racism in mainstream society makes it that much more important to foster racial understanding, and spread God’s love, McCormick said.
“As those voices of hate get louder, I believe the church needs to double down and commit to having a louder voice of love,” McCormick said, “and the beginning of that love is understanding, and this curriculum promotes greater understanding and greater empathy.”
Clergy need to play a role in building those bridges of understanding and empathy, McCormick said, dealing in both theology and the realities of contemporary life.
“It’s our job to have the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other,” McCormick said, paraphrasing a quote from Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth.
“I need to not only react to the world, but also be engaged in what’s happening in my world,” McCormick said, “and what’s happening in my world, whether in Kansas or in Germany, is the rise of voices of hatred, and it is my job as one who follows Jesus Christ to speak of God’s love.”
As the white privilege curriculum continues to spread in both the United States and Germany, McCormick said she hopes it will help combat hate and injustice.
“Through a curriculum like this, I believe there’s hope to finding God’s love in the world,” McCormick said, “and having that love and justice prevail.”